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Posts Tagged ‘patriarchy’

A while ago I created a new tag called ‘adventures in feminist parenting.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded good. I’ve been wondering if anyone was going to ask me what it meant. Thankfully none of you have.

Last week, Australian feminist mommy blogger blue milk reminded readers of her 10 questions about feminist parenting. It seemed like a good time to finally put in words what my tag might mean.

Above all else, this blog is about becoming. It started off about becoming a wife. Later, it morphed into what it means to become a naturalized Korean (maybe someday?), or a part of Korea, or a Korean family member, or a Seoulite if I will never be accepted or desire to be accepted as “Korean”. Lately it’s about becoming a mother. Despite having the legal paperwork to prove my marriage, the visa allowing me residence here, the family register with my name added to a Korean family, and a three month old kid, I don’t think I fully grasp what it means to be a wife, Korean, or mother….let alone being a good wife, good Korean, or good mother…or a feminist wife, feminist Korean, or feminist mother. I’m in the process of learning and becoming. I will always be in the process of learning and becoming.

My definition of feminism is at its very core an action. It is the work of helping people to become the best people they can be with the gifts and talents they have been given so that they are not constrained by boxes or hierarchies or artificially constructed limitations. And I suppose that I also have a core belief that the way to achieve this goal is ever changing – ever shifting. The reason is that patriarchal privilege, burden, and oppression are all intricately and artfully woven into every aspect of society. And even if we manage to define or pin down or explore one aspect of what we think is this privilege, burden, and oppression, it is challenged in the next minute by a new perspective provided by a different culture, practice, or concept. In my opinion, feminism is the opposite of rigidity, hierarchy, set expectations, and limitations. Feminism should be about flexibility, movement, fluidity, and the ability to become the person you have the ability to become instead of being constrained by roles and categories which are constructed not innate. You may have a different definition, but this is mine.

In practice, feminism is not always like this. Sometimes feminism and those who identify with it seek to make rigid boxes and theories and try to fit people into them. In this way, I think feminism is in the process of becoming feminist. Sometimes my feminism needs to become feminist.

And so when it comes to ‘adventures in feminist parenting,’ I think these posts are also about the never ending process of becoming. We are learning to parent. We are learning how our cultural limitations and each other’s cultural limitations have been ingrained in us. We are learning how to use our talents and strengths to parent and how to support each other’s talents and strengths. We are learning how to fail and re-group. We are learning from our child. We are in constant flux in an attempt to be fulfilled as parents and partners, and we are learning how to build a fulfilling family. We have not arrived fully formed as parents. We are just beginning the journey. And therein lies the adventure.

Update: See here for a portion of this post on blue milk

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I love this. Really love this.

A report from a state-run think tank said yesterday that an open attitude toward extramarital pregnancies and unmarried couples living together might be necessary to overcome Korea’s chronically low birthrate.

Yes, really it is that easy. Just accept single mothers. The government just has to accept single mothers and all will be grand. Society will follow without a peep. Companies will magically no longer fire women for being single mothers. Schools and companies will no longer discriminate against children without a father in the picture. All playground teasing will stop. There will be lots of social services and programs available to women supporting their children on one income. And the Ministry of Family Affairs and Women will atone for proclaiming single mothers have ‘low education levels [and] impulsive sexual drives.’ (or here) Yes. Puppy dogs and rainbows my friends.

There’s so much to be annoyed at with this ‘new’ idea.

1. There are no social systems set up to help women in this situation. Well…there are….and they are called adoption agencies. And then we export children because social taboos prevent many Koreans from accepting the idea of adoption (which in turn makes more money for adoption agencies because international adoptions cost more than local ones). [Edit: Please see my response to ‘sky’ below. I do not mean international adoption is wrong but rather that the government needs to provide real options for women instead of exporting children as the only solution to this issue]

2. There are no concrete plans for how to make single motherhood more socially acceptable OR and this is a big one – how to hold men accountable for their role in bringing a child into the world and providing for them in every way.

3. This idea reeks of that one side of the pro-life movement which is only pro-life in getting the child out of the womb. After that these individuals, religious groups, lobbyists, and government officials not only abandon women and children, but scapegoat them as the cause of all social problems and decline in public morality. The think tank in this article seems only to care about single mothers in that they can cosmetically change the birth rate statistics without caring about single mothers as women who face an incredible amount of obstacles once a child is born.

4. This solution doesn’t address any of the underlying reasons why we have such a low birth rate.

Why are women not getting married?

Why do career women not want to have children?

How can the government get companies to actually respect the laws guaranteeing maternity and paternity leave?

How, in a country that prides itself in ‘caring for family’ so much, can we get companies to be family friendly?

Maybe those issues are the real reasons why our birth rate is so low.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for single mothers getting respect and for their children to be accepted in Korean society. But making them the saviours of our birth rate is not the way to do it. Single mothers are neither the cause of societal woes nor the grand solution.

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Someone on another forum linked this post from Ask a Korean. We’ve just finished celebrating Chuseok, when many people still perform an ancestral memorial ritual which includes preparing, organizing, and offering traditional food and dishes in a prescribed way to the ancestors, and this picture is making the rounds and causing some controversy.

source

Is it acceptable for the food prescribed by tradition, which is painstakingly prepared by women, sometimes for days, to be altered due to time constraints, life constraints, contemporary culture, or just based on the ancestors’ preferences?

I’ve said before that my husband’s family does not participate in this ritual, and all things considered, they are not a strict Confucian family. I’m also not Korean. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut on this issue. But I do have two degrees in religious studies – one relating to death rituals, have travelled to countless religious sites throughout Asia, joined a ritual-loving church after realizing I heart ritual, and have had personal experiences with death rituals in my family…so based on those credentials, I’m going to offer my opinion.

One phrase I truly hate is ‘preserving tradition.’ We preserve dead things. When a cucumber is plucked from the ground, we stuff it in a jar, add all sorts of preserving agents, seal up the jar and put it on the shelf until we are ready to consume it. My grandmother was a great canner when she lived on the farm, and I have very vivid memories of shelves and shelves of canned fruits and vegetables in her vast cellar. They are yummy memories, but they are memories of dead fruits and vegetables which need additives because they have been plucked from their life sources.

Tradition lives. Tradition changes. It does. There is no point going into all the various examples now, but those things you truly love – your religious ceremonies, your family Christmas traditions, your traditional forms of clothes, your ‘family values’…all of those things that we label as ‘traditional’ have changed over time. They incorporate many traditions, and times, and personalities, and realities. When we have to preserve tradition, tradition is in trouble. When we live our traditions, and those traditions meet our needs and speak to where we are in our world and our lives, then we are honouring our ancestors, our faith groups, our cultures, and ourselves.

Before getting back to the specific Confucian ritual, I want to share some stories and pictures of my experiences with evolving offerings.

When I was in university, I did some field research at a dharma centre where they had regular rituals, and we were often there for those rituals. Usually, there was some mention of hungry ghosts or preta, probably the saddest beings in the Buddhist worldview. Hungry ghosts are insatiable beings with miniscule mouths, long thin necks, and massive bellies. They epitomize our cravings – the same cravings which prevent us from leaving samsara. One time when it was close to Valentine’s Day, the centre put out cinnamon hearts and gummie bears. These we offered to the hungry ghosts. Of course we did. Of course Canadian hungry ghosts around Valentine’s Day would be desiring our cinnamon hearts. Are hungry ghosts only to be found in Tibet?

But that’s a ‘Western’ example. We Westerners are always trying to mess up tradition right? What are Asians doing?

This picture is from a famous temple in Hong Kong. It is an offering made under a tablet remembering all the ‘unloved and uncared for’ souls in Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure Tiger Beer, being from Singapore and all, was not the usual beverage of the Hong Kong ancestors, but blessings to whomever put out the food and remembered those who have no one to remember them.

This picture is from a temple in Korea…and yes…those are Chupa Chups. Specifically, a bouquet of Chupa Chups!

From Inwangsan, a Shaman hill in central Seoul. These offerings are made for the mountain spirits.

And from a different place on Inwangsan – note the package. Nobody made this specifically for the spirits, but they were bought and offered for those spirits.

From our recent trip to Bali: this is a traditional offering which literally litters the sidewalks, and can be found in front of every tiny roadside shrine. But I don’t want you to notice the packaged candy. I want you to notice the bits of rice and meat being offered. When we made and offered ours after preparing our food at our Balinese cooking school, we offered bits of what we had made and were about to consume. In other words, while this is a ‘traditional’ offering, it is made based on what the family is about eat for the rest of the day. The offering is tightly related to the everyday lives of those making it.

And then the dogs, birds, ants, and creepy crawlers of all kinds come and consume the offerings.

Veering off from food for a moment, these are the mizuko dressed and sitting at the feet of Jizo, the bodhisattva for children in Japan. Yes, children, but more specifically for aborted, stillborn, or miscarried fetuses. There are several rituals for these potential beings in Japan, and part of the rituals is offering small toys like pinwheels. I’ve seen much more contemporary and trendy toys too, but I didn’t take any pictures of those.

And in Singapore’s Chinatown, you can buy all the paper convertibles, iphone, Rolexes, and apple computers to burn for your dead loved ones. In fact, in New York, a storekeeper got in trouble for the paper luxury brand purses he was selling for funeral rites. The authorities were worried about copyright infringement you see.

And not offering but image related, there’s a beautiful church called Saenamteo in Seoul that everyone should visit if they like to pilgrimage. Not only is the altar space decorated in a stone Koreanized rendering of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but also, when I was there in 2007, they had a biracial rendering of the Holy Family. Alas, when I went back in 2008, the Holy Family was decidedly white, but maybe it has changed now. Anyway, Jesus doesn’t need to be white, and Jesus doesn’t need to be 1st century Middle Eastern looking either.

Finally, when it came to my own father’s funeral, cremation, and internment, we had a very lovely funeral director. He gave us the urn options, and then turned to us and said, ‘But really…most people choose to forgo the cost of an urn unless they plan to display the ashes in their home. We had one family who chose to bury the ashes in…his coffee thermos.” It seems the man was a coffee addict and would have liked nothing more than to be close to his coffee in death. It was then that it became very clear to us that we would bury dad’s ashes in his tool box. He was a welder at work and a woodworker in his spare time. He did handy work for the church, the farm where we rode, the grandparents. He also had a thing about people not replacing his tools after using them. His coworkers joked at the funeral that after his death they went around and made sure all of his tools were accounted for and in their right place. They didn’t want to be haunted. The neighbourhood knew him as the man who was always outside doing yard work and fixing things. Everyone understood exactly why he went into the ground in his toolbox. And when I carried what remained of him in the box and placed him in the ground, it was an honour, and it was the best way to honour him.

Now you might say, but Msleetobe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada are different countries with different cultures. Don’t conflate them. But I’m trying to show the ways in which different cultures and traditions are responding to contemporary life and circumstances. But Msleetobe, Confucianism is a very different – and much more rigid – tradition than Balinese Hinduism, Daoism, mainstream Western Protestantism, or recent Jizo rituals. Yes, it is a unique tradition as all traditions are unique, but it is a tradition, and there are similar patterns between religions, similar impulses, similar meanings, similar yearnings to do similar things. Or, you might argue, maybe the uncared for souls of Hong Kong, or the foreign tourists who died on the beaches of Thailand because of the tsunami, are outside of the regular religious traditions and social systems, but if your dad really loved pizza, would you deny him that when you remember him because it goes against the tradition we currently observe?

Of course there are other issues – did the ancestor in question like pizza? Or is it a quick and easy way to fill the table when you didn’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to make the traditional dishes? Is the pizza placement done out of care or out of carelessness? Only that individual family can know the answer to that question. But in a time when many families are buying the necessary food, are not growing their own fruit because they live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, or prepare and perform the ritual with a great deal of han in their hearts because of the sexist aspects of the preparation, family turmoil, or unresolved issues with the family member being honoured, I’m not sure we should be judging. Sure it’s easier to judge the family who chose to buy FOREIGN! food and place it on the table because it is a highly visible sign of evolving tradition, but that doesn’t mean that there are not more subtle and less visible ways tradition is changing, evolving, and in some families, fading away. It will be interesting to see as younger people die who have traveled more, acquired different tastes, married people from other cultures, and grown up in a Korea bursting with food from around the world, how the traditional table continues to evolve and change. But no, in this bloggers’ view, a tradition that speaks to and responds to the needs of the people who are practicing is not a bad tradition. It is in fact, the way of tradition.

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I found out about the big COEX baby fair a couple of weeks ago, and since the next fair was slated for around the time Dragon is due, I thought it best to go to this one. Mommy Cha warned me that it was overwhelming for new parents, but I’m a mom-to-be who knows everything right?, so we went anyway. Well yeah. It was overwhelming. Who knew there were so many strollers and car seats in this world???

In addition, whether it was the lack of protruding belly or my foreignness, nobody talked to me which is just as well because I’m not sure we would have been able to pull ourselves together in time to refuse a sale. And I know this because the only place someone did talk to me was the place we also spent 450,000 won.

The British saleswoman at Stork Sak, a company specializing in designer diaper bags, immediately spotted me and honed in. Of course, after two hours of looking at the overwhelming selection of products for babies, I was immediately taken in by the pretty yet functional bags for MUM. I was sure that Mr. Lee would never.ever.go for a 190,000 won bag, but I think he was possibly even more pro bag than me (I chalk this up to the fact that his friends and coworkers regularly complain about the multi million won designer handbags their wives and girlfriends demand from them. I think from Mr. Lee’s perspective, I have very frugal tastes).

But then…the saleswoman introduced the ‘Jamie’ bag – a daddy diaper bag. And I was intrigued. Most diaper bags I’ve seen have been very feminine. They are pastel; they have flowers; they have butterflies. They are just…girly. And here was a man bag that didn’t look at all like a diaper bag from the outside but was a fully functional, multipocketed, bottle insulated pocketed daddy bag. It also comes with a changing pad. (Did I mention the fact that Brad Pitt carries this bag?)

Of course, I need to be very clear. I do not think people need designer diaper bags, and I certainly do not believe that there need to be gender specific diaper bags in this world. But I’m starting to see that there is a hell of a lot of gendering and traditional role reinforcement in all areas of the baby market and pregnancy industry (remember those pink parking spaces?). In such circumstances, it’s easy to unconsciously suggest to parents that it is the mothers’ job to carry and care for the children, and it is also easy for fathers to rationalize a less active role in their children’s lives. So yes, on one level having a mommy and a daddy bag is ridiculous capitalism and materialism, but on the other hand, it does show the right step in a change of thinking.

I personally thought Mr. Lee would never go for the bag. We bought nice bags for each other last year for our birthdays, and it took him from early February (his birthday) to late October (my birthday) to decide on the bag he wanted (but only because I finally demanded a deadline!!!). In the end, he still wasn’t really happy with the bag he decided on. But when he saw this bag, his eyes sort of lit up. It was exactly what he wanted for the office with the look, pockets, and size, but it was also a fully functional diaper bag for later when Dragon is born. I couldn’t deny him this bag that he had decided on in 10 minutes instead of 9 months. And I certainly supported the idea that he would have the bag to cart all the baby supplies around in. You can’t be a ‘babysitter’ as so many men I know have expressed their forced-on-them-child-care-duties when you have the official daddy goods. I was also happy to hear from the saleswoman that they had been shocked by the amount of Korean men who were buying the daddy diaper bag. Way to go Korean 아빠s!

So yeah, we went to a baby fair and bought stuff for ourselves (shame), but in our defence, we are first time buyers in the overwhelming baby goods market, and the bags really are pretty (and practical!).

In other news, we did learn that Motherhood Maternity/A Pea in the Pod STORES not just online shopping, are coming to Korea Sept 1st! (More on the way Oct 1st) There’s nothing we need more in the practical motherhood goods world in Korea than nice maternity clothes. We also learned after seeking out a salesperson that they will carry large clothes in store. Since I wear a M-L in Motherhood clothes, and I’m 180 cm and big boned, I think the selection will be very helpful for a wide selection of women’s body types (for once!) Here’s the store details.

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You may have heard the recent twitter in cyberspace about the ‘foreign girls in bikinis’ along Cheongyecheon, a stream that runs through the middle of Seoul. Some citizens, netizens, and media outlets were up in arms because of the ‘inappropriate’ clothing of the women, specifically the one woman in a bikini top. According to some, bikinis are ‘not yet acceptable’ in Korean society while others have stated that wearing a bikini top might go against the ordinance that states Cheongye Stream is supposed to be a ‘wholesome’ place.

I was in a discussion last week about this topic with a group of foreign women on an online forum I am part of, and a few people mentioned that non citizens should stick to the norms of the society they are living in. True (mostly). If I were to live in a burqa clad nation, I would probably be sporting mine with the rest of the women or at least modifying my appearance to cover a great deal of my body. But is it true that the bikini is a foreign piece of clothing in Korea? A short scroll down to the bottom of the article I linked shows Korean women in a bikini and a Korean woman in a sports bra. A trip to EMart this past weekend to pick out Mr. Lee’s bathing trunks for our upcoming trip to Bali (yes!!!!) revealed a whole aisle of bikinis for purchase (or is that one of those ‘Love Motels are only for foreigners’ kind of argument….aka ‘the bikini aisle at the EMart Msleetobe is the only foreigner to shop at has all those bikinis just for Msleetobe’ sort of argument?) A quick perusal of my Korean friends’ Facebook photos shows a whole lotta Korean women in bikinis frolicking about in Korea. A scan of my classroom this past semester saw a whole lot of strapless, see through, and bra strap revealing tops. And on Tuesday at iPark mall’s water area in the centre of Seoul, my friend R reported that she saw 3 Korean bikini clad woman, one in a string bikini with a daughter in a bikini.

Then what about the ‘wholesome’ nature argument? That might have some legs to stand on. It’s true that women don’t regularly go walking around central Seoul in bikinis. But these women don’t seem to be doing that either. Is Cheongyecheon a beach? No, but it is a rest area which people often use like a stream in a natural setting (I live nearby. I’ve seen it). If bikinis are popping up at Everland, the beach, ads on the subway (saw those on Saturday), or daytime non cable tv, is it a stretch to say that Cheongyecheon is really so different?

I’m also reminded about something Mr. Lee and I observed about 2 years ago. Until very recently, Mr. Lee, a man of a slightly older generation, would not let me kiss him in public. Not a peck. Not a cheek kiss. Nothing. He said PDAs were ‘unacceptable’ in Korean culture. It infuriated me as only a complete ban on something can. So we were walking along Cheongyecheon one day killing time before a movie, when I noticed a couple completely making out in front of us. I poked Mr. Lee and said ‘look what they are doing??!!! Why can’t I kiss you on the cheek if there is tongue action going on right in front of us?’ At that moment, the guy stopped kissing the girl and bent down in front of her in a proposal type stance, but instead of asking for her hand in marriage, he took off her shoe, stuck his nose deep inside of it, and took a nice long whiff. Mr. Lee, knowing how I’m the anti anti anti foot fetish girl (touch my feet and I’ll break your nose with one swift kick), said, ‘Do you want me to do that too?’  Yes, sometimes things like that happen down at the Stream.

These issues come up periodically. Foreigners drunk on the subway! Foreigners go to night clubs! Foreign teachers drink! I myself got caught up in the big visa change of 2007-8 when the AIDS/drug tests + first round of police checks were first haphazardly introduced. Because I was one of the first people having to go through the new process (having given up my one job and trying to get a visa for my next over the Christmas break), I went through a lot of nonsense that a lot of other people thankfully did not have to do through. When trying to figure out what kind of health check I should get before coming to Korea/if I should get a health check before Korea (I was assured by immigration that I had to get it before, and the when I got to Korea was told only a Korean one would do), I was initially told that I would be checked for ‘alcohol consumption’ and on a questionnaire I later filled out, I believe I had to state whether or not I was an alcoholic. This ‘check’ amused me to no end. I do not believe anyone should be drinking and teaching. I do not believe foreigners should be making asses of themselves in Korea. But but but. Goodness this is a drinking culture, and it is a culture that has not fully come to terms with the concept of ‘alcoholism.’ Of course the alcohol test – whatever that was going to be …a breathalyser? – that was supposed to show if you were an ‘alcoholic’ never went through, but I just imagined some newbie being forced to go out drinking soju shots with the boss the night before, tested for alcohol consumption and being sent home for ‘being a corrupting influence in Korea.’

Mr. Lee was joking as we walked to a first birthday party last weekend that Koreans were very sober people. For my part, I pointed out the tables of Korean men drinking makgeolli before noon at two separate convenience stores along the way. Then beside us at the birthday party, there was a group of 60-something guys who had a pile of bottles under the table. One of the men started drunkenly shouting during the MC portion of the event that the baby in question looked like her grandfather not her father. Yes. Very very sober. And then today as I was walking home at 4 pm, I saw the incident that spurred me to write this post. There was an older Korean man who had pissed himself sitting on the side of the road propped up by a police officer. He was then loaded into a police car. I was actually surprised that they were doing something about him. Perhaps he was scaring the pregnant and TTC women going into the fertility clinic where he was sitting? My very first Buddha’s Birthday parade, there was an older drunken man literally trying to throw himself onto the floats. He was ‘baby sat’ by a very awkward and uncomfortable looking 18 year old doing his military service, but he was not arrested or taken away. In fact, older women were egging him on and parents were holding up their kids in order to see the spectacle. Ah sobriety!

This is not to say that public drunkenness, inappropriate clothing in inappropriate places (if that is what really happened…I would argue they were being appropriate), or any other ‘bad behaviour’ should be acceptable when foreigners do it. But if when in Korea do as the Koreans do is the mode foreigners are supposed to live under, it’s not surprising that sometimes foreigners follow the crowd. I would hope that visitors and non citizens behave a bit better than their hosts in all contexts simply because that is the most prudent and perhaps the wisest course of action. But but but……I see nothing unusual in a lot of actions deemed ‘corrupting’ in light of the larger Korean society.

Anyway, what I am really interested in is the foundational reason for this periodic outrage. Is it just because it is foreigners who are doing something? Do we just see the anti-foreigner voices come out now and then to denounce anything with a foreign face on it? Or, is it because sometimes a foreign face doing something a Korean does highlights an uncomfortable truth about an aspect of Korean culture. When grandpa is drunk and saying inappropriate things or passed out in the corner of the room, we can just laugh it off and say ‘oh grandpa’, or we can close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening because under Confucianism elders are always right. But then when a foreigner does the same thing, the problems with that action are much more glaring. Or maybe, a foreign body allows a space for discussion to happen where it would not happen if all the actors were Koreans. Suddenly something many people feel uncomfortable with can be talked about but only if it becomes a ‘foreign’ issue not a Korean issue. (Obviously I’m talking Korea here because I live in Korea, but I think this happens in every culture – visible Muslims seem to be a big one in the West these days.)

As for the bikini issue, one of the women on the forum I was on brought up a fantastically amazing point when we were talking about the prevalence of scantily clad doumi girls outside newly opened businesses, K-pop stars, and breast implant ads. To paraphrase she said, it only seems to be okay for women to dress in less when they are being paid. To choose to do it yourself seems to be the problem.  Back to me again, does Confucianism, capitalism, sexism, and/or the patriarchy extend that far? Oh, I bet it does.

In closing, I’m not saying non Koreans should do whatever they see Koreans doing good or bad. God gave you a brain and common sense. Use it. Hopefully in all contexts we can rise above the lowest expressions of culture. And certainly non Koreans should be mindful of the dress standards that they see around them and note how there might be different perceptions of appropriateness or even contradictory ones from their own culture. But ohhhh I wish we would stop with the ‘look at the bad foreigner corrupting our culture’ line no matter what culture we are talking about. A foreign face just highlights what is already there. Girls are wearing bikinis and dressing for themselves. That’s far more a product of the Korean media, consumer culture, and a rebellion against traditional norms than it is the evil corrupting influences of one girl lying beside a stream. And people drink. A lot. In the daytime quite often. That’s a product of stress, Confucianism, and a myriad of issues that have everything to do with contemporary Korea and almost nothing to do with what an English teacher does on his night off. The conversation needs to focus on those root issues (not who is doing it), and people need to be honest about the changes and/or the failings of their own cultures.

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I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about Korean ‘Father School.’

“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”

In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.

The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.

The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.

While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.

And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.

In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.

Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’

Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness.  It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.

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There’s an article in The Korea Times today that actually has a few meaningful things to say about paternity leave in this country.

 I didn’t even dare to ask for a three-day unpaid vacation following my daughter’s birth.

That’s right, many fathers don’t feel secure enough in their jobs to take off three days for the birth of their own child.  I’m not sure if this is the same everywhere, but the way it works at Mr. Lee’s company is that you technically get three days off – but weekends are included in these three days.  So, say your wife goes into labour on Friday afternoon (and you choose to be with her during labour), you are expected to be back at work on Monday bright and early because hey – you got Saturday and Sunday ‘off’ right?  During my time in Korea, six of my Western coworkers (all male) have had children born here.  I can’t exactly remember each individual situation, but I don’t think most of them took three full working days off either.  In fact, one coworker elected to come to work while his wife was in labour because he was worried about raising the ire of our managers.  Conversely, another coworker’s wife scheduled her C-section to coincide with a 5 day public holiday so that her husband could take more time off without upsetting management.  I know there are many factors which make the C-section rate incredibly high here, but I have often wondered if there are any stats available for how many women schedule their surgeries for Fridays or the day before public holidays for just this purpose. 

“Korea has established a range of effective policies aimed at boosting its birthrate, including the provision of paternity leave. Its policies are on par with those of advanced countries. But the problem is that we do not put them into practice,” said Lee Sam-sik, director of the Low Fertility and Population Aging Division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

This is such an important point.  So often I read about how laws need to be changed, but in the case of parental leave, Korea already has laws in place.  The problem with paternity leave and women being fired/pushed out/having their lives made a living hell at work for taking leave or even being pregnant, is that employers do not follow the law.  The company is first, and more importantly, the boss’ feelings come first.  If the boss is ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ (and because the boss is always older, he – usually he – often is), the idea that a woman would even come back to work, or that a man might want to spend time as a primary caregiver is often a ridiculous notion.  In this society, the law is not as important as the individual boss’s feelings on the matter.

I plan to bring the NYT article on Swedish SAHDs to my seminar class for our parenthood module in a couple of months. The most important thing I got from that article is that if gender equality and families are important to society, the government does not only need to offer companies and workers incentives to take parental leave, the government also has to make disincentives for men not taking time off or companies making work environments which discourage taking leave.  I can’t imagine how that would happen in Korea, but it would be interesting to see how businesses might change if they or their workers were penalized for not encouraging both parents to take some time off following the birth of a child or in the first few years of a child’s life.

Which leads to the last important point brought up in the article.

“CEOs should change their perception toward childbirth and childcare. It is their duty as Korean citizens to help increase birthrates and nurture future human resources…”

Korea’s ‘Miracle of the Han’ – or rise from one of the most destitute countries in the world after the Korean War, to one of the major players in the 21st century – came about by 1) damn hard work on the backs of Korean workers and 2) creating a mindset where working for and loyalty to a Korean company was linked to raising the fortunes of the nation.  I personally do not want to see an enormous increase in the birth rate because I think we are overpopulated.  However, the birth rate does need to rise to a certain degree, and more importantly, more emphasis needs to be placed on the well-being of family.  Work is important and Korean companies are important for the good of the Korean nation.  However, too much has been sacrificed in family life for the good of the company (because the good of the company was supposed to improve the wellbeing of the nation).  The mindset has to change.  Children are the future of the country, and there needs to be a better balance between work and family life.  If the discourse can change from the good of the company = the good of the nation, to the company which fosters a family friendly environment = the good of the nation, I think we could go a long way in solving many pressing issues in our country.

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