I’ve written three very long posts about factors affecting the development and maintenance of long-term relationships between white Western women and Korean men. (1 2 3). Again, let me stress that these are but factors in relationships. There are individual situations which mean people do not always fit into such categories, and individuals and couples do find ways to overcome social, cultural, and psychological obstacles in order to form healthy long term relationships. I also understand that many of the factors I have identified as obstacles can also be applied to white Western male-Korean female couples, but I think that the issues I have outlined do play a significantly larger or different role in the lives of white Western female-Korean male couples, and thus are major contributing factors for why such long-term couples occur much less frequently (at least in the past). In this post, I plan to talk about how I believe recent changes in these factors are making it easier for such partnerships to form, as well as explain how our relationship came about vis-à-vis these factors.
Language and Fantasy
Yes, these are my final two categories, but I want to deal with them first in this post because I think that overcoming these two obstacles is necessary to establish a long term dating relationship before we ever get to marriage. In my previous post, I talked at length about how lack of confidence in English, and lack of experience speaking in English despite years of English study contribute to a power gap which especially impacts white English speaking female-Korean speaking male couples because of gender expectations. However, every year I am finding more and more university students who a) have experience studying or living overseas b) have attended high schools with a native English speaker teacher c) have attended hogwans for many years, some of them being English immersion programs taught by native speakers.
In certain areas, Korean society is changing at a lightening fast rate, and until you have spent some time here, it’s hard to notice just how fast major social changes are happening. When talking about ‘generations’ in Korea, we don’t need to talk about people born 20 to 25 years apart from each other. I think there are some rather enormous differences between people just 5 years apart from each other, in part because education and trends related to education in Korea are so homogenous that a government policy change such as staffing public schools with native English speakers can make a major impact on the country in a much shorter amount of time than the patchwork policies of different provinces or states in North America. So while in 2005 I was meeting men in their late 20s and early 30s with absolutely 0 experience speaking English despite years of studying grammar and for tests like TOEIC and TOFEL, in 2010 I am teaching freshmen who are part of a growing group of young people who have actually spoken English to native speakers, sometimes for a few years. I’m not saying this is a uniform change that affects all people equally. Certainly there is a class component that makes certain people able to access overseas living/programs and elite programs here. But just a few days ago I was evaluating presentations by students wishing to be exempt from a mandatory speaking class and continually encountered students who have never gone abroad or studied in elite schools with near-native accents and enormous confidence in their English speaking skills. In fact Mr. Lee’s cousin has near-perfect English without ever studying abroad. And when I encounter some of these young men in my classes, I see an emerging … I want to say ‘brashness’ but not in the negative sense. It just seems ‘brash’ when compared to the shy angst-ridden English interactions with slightly older males just a few years ago. Again – it is not a uniform change, but it is a noticeable change, and I can imagine that if I were a youngish 20-something woman fresh off the plane meeting some of these men, that my experiences and interactions with men would be very different now than just 5 years ago. And with increasing overseas trips, and a growing numbers of English-only classes and native-speaker classes, I can only imagine how these trends will affect relationships in the future (not to mention the increasing amount of new expats who are really throwing themselves into intensive Korean study).
With language ability comes the ability to move past those simplistic conversations to a greater understanding of who another person is, and/or the ability to do something more than one great night in bed. Communication actually means that a long term relationship is more viable…or even…gasp….dating is possible. Back in 2005, I knew few women who were ‘dating’ Korean men. They were going on one or two dates until the men disappeared, they were having sex one or two times before the men disappeared, or they were hoping that a man would actually ask them out, but while people were going on dates, few were ‘dating’ as in seeing each other without the immediate possibility of marriage. However, with more language ability, longer term relationship opportunities open up, and as I noted in my past post…the more you interact with ‘the other,’ the more they start to become just another human being. Fantasy only exists while the object of the fantasy is unknown. Long term relationships cannot exist on fantasy, but when the fantasy is gone, real relationships can begin.
I noted in my post on this factor that for white Western woman, fear of the Mother-in-Law, and expectations related to the ‘good’ Confucian daughter-in-law are major concerns when you get to that ‘are we ready for marriage?’ stage. I plan on doing a post about my specific experiences with my in-laws, but in this section, I want to relate these concerns to the issue of dating. In the very recent past, people did not usually meet the in-laws until they were ready to marry. The idea is that ‘Family is important in Korea, so we wait until we are sure to introduce the partner’ (to which I respond ‘family is important in Canada, so we introduce the partner early on to incorporate them into the family). And perhaps because of this, many Koreans take dating very seriously. In fact, my students often talk about ‘proposing’ to their girlfriend to date not to be engaged, and while I want to discuss our story in more detail later, one huge thing that kept us from formally dating for the first 7 months we knew each other was the fact that Mr. Lee had long ago made the decision never to marry…and thus didn’t want to ‘date.’ Many other women will tell you that the seeming seriousness many Korean men have about the early stages of dating is off putting at first because they seem to be thinking and planning with the long term in mind…when all you want to do is just be able to kiss and hold hands…let’s start there!
What I mean by throwing all these things together is that until recently ‘dating’ in Korea was akin to the older concept of ‘going steady,’ and being introduced to the family was a major event, meaning that dating can sometimes take on a more serious undertone here without actually you ever knowing what kind of family you are getting yourself into. Perhaps the in-laws are great, perhaps the family is very accepting of non-Koreans, perhaps you are all kindered spirits? But it’s difficult to tell when you are sequestered from them, and even worse when middle age Korean women have those looks of anguish on their faces as they ask you, ‘Do his parents know? ‘Are they very conservative?’ ‘Do you understand what a Korean man is really like.’ I know that these inquiries are women trying to be helpful – women trying to give advice and women showing that they care about your wellbeing. But when you can’t actually meet the parents until it is too late to get out without breaking your heart, there is a great deal of anxiety to dating in Korea.
But I said ‘until recently,’ and while there are still many cases where one’s dating partner is kept secret from the family until engagement, or where the partner is not introduced before talk of marriage, many of my friends who are my age and dating or married to Koreans of the same age (not 7 years older like Mr. Lee and his friends), met the in-laws long before engagement and were integrated into the family from earlier on. So when it came time to talk engagement, there was no anxiety over whether or not the family would accept them. And in many cases where the couple lived together (it does happen!) or at least pseudo lived together, both partners were able to ascertain the division of labour and liberal/conservativeness of each other prior to marriage. I can only imagine that being able to openly date and be integrate into the family prior to even discussing marriage will continue to alleviate many of the concerns white Western women have about marrying a Korean man. Marriage is not just about marrying a person – in any culture. It is about integrating yourself into each other’s lives and if you can in fact try out those other parts of each other’s lives, and if you can do so as a girlfriend not a fiancée or wife, that opens up far more doors and decreases anxiety.
My section on employment covered two main areas – the first was the lack of options outside of certain fields for expats and the increased pressures on Western women in the workplace – especially related to pregnancy, and the work lifestyle of the salaryman. On the second point, if your husband is a salaryman, there is not a lot to be done. The long hours will continue whether you like it or not, the heavy drinking will continue whether you like it or not, and the lack of paternity leave…well that will take at least another generation to rectify. However, I have noticed a slight increase in how many men actively want to be involved in their children’s lives. I see how Mr. Lee’s friends who are fathers interact with their children, how they lament about the lack of time they can spend with them, and how they try to integrate their family life into other aspects of their everyday lives. But for the most part, sentiment cannot be translated into reality, so I think the white Western woman who marries a salaryman has to have come to some sort of peace with this arrangement. What seems to be the more common situation (I know only of these situations through networks of friends who know such couples…I myself do not know them), is Korean husbands who have rejected the salaryman role. I know of a couple where the husband quit his office job after the birth of his daughter, other people who co-own small businesses or schools with the husband, or men who work in international positions at international companies who are able to bypass some of the common malaises of Korean positions.
As to women in the workforce, I reiterate that if you are a person with a long term interest in teaching, and/or opening your own business, there is a strong possibility that you can do well for yourself. If you also have aspirations of being a full time SAHM you will also find Korea a good place to live. The interesting thing for me though is that quite suddenly several friends and friends of friends who are married to Koreans or white Western women married to white Western men are starting to have babies here. One of those women actually has a nearly 2-year old child in an all-Korean daycare, and she is studying to become a doula in order to practice in Korea. Just a few years ago, most white Western women were terrified about giving birth here because a) they would not be able to work after the fact b) the lack of services for English-speaking expats c) the lack of sensitivity around different birth concerns between Korea and Western countries (and these cultural differences are ENORMOUS). Now, not all of these concerns have gone away. One of those friends had a bad birthing experience because of massive cultural differences, and people can still easily be fired or not be re-signed because of maternity leave. However, for those with stable university jobs, and especially those with husbands at the same job, maternity leave is now sometimes and option for contract expats, and because of the massive push toward medical tourism and more expats in general, there are now a number of services which either cater to or work with white Western women who want to give birth here to overcome linguistic and cultural gulfs. This is a HUGE development because it means that white Western women are not worrying as often about returning to their home countries prior to getting pregnant, which then means that they can imagine longer futures for themselves in this country. I still only know of one couple who expects to stay here forever. The rest plan to leaving by the time their children reach elementary school or at the very latest middle school (the terror of the Korean education system runs deep). But the fact that more women are having babies here and taking their kids to Korean daycares and enrolling them in community centre programs and activities means that increasingly there is a greater integration of these families into Korean society and these people are starting to open up new avenues for younger couples thinking about starting to raise families here. Certainly this means more opportunities for intercultural couples in general, but as it is women who are giving birth, and women who are still primarily responsible for the formative years, I think these changes are affecting women’s perspectives more than men’s.
This is still, one of the hardest factors to overcome simply because military service is almost impossible to (ethically) avoid, and despite the number of single-person households on the rise, most of those are the newly divorced, wild goose fathers, or seniors, not young never-married men. There are of course ‘windows of opportunity’ – when the man has graduated and not yet found a job (very possible in this economic climate) – and thus more able and willing to move abroad to ‘study English’ or get a temporary work visa. I do know of a couple in this situation. However, I think that as the work situation is improving for women, the birthing options are expanding for Western women, and the concept of dating without immediate thoughts of marriage is expanding, that couples and women specifically are more willing to stick it out, negotiate, and imagine a future which includes much more time in Korea. The truth is that age and life stage issues can be overcome, but there have to be other conditions which make women want to stay or allow men to leave in the first place.
When it comes to Mr. Lee and me, we wish that we had met each other several years before we did. However, every time we say that, we have to admit that had we met even 5 years before, we never would have married because Mr. Lee did not have enough English skills at that time. But, when we met, he had been studying with native speaking teachers every weekend for 5 years. He had had a variety of teachers, from all of the E2 visa countries. He had encountered a number of personalities, learned the mannerisms, and become accustomed to the many cultural differences. He had had so many teachers that by the time I got to that hogwan, he knew far more people than me, and we will still be somewhere and there will be some expat teacher there. They’ll look strangely at each other and then say…didn’t we have class together sometime back in 2003?……Language dominance is a factor in our relationship, and it is something that he is constantly reminding me of when we get into an argument and I can form biting remarks and complicated defences much faster and with much more strength than him. However, because of long-term exposure to other native-speakers, and because the classes he was in often dealt with ‘hot button issues,’ he has a great deal of self confidence despite his lack of fluency. Most importantly, he does not feel threatened by my linguistic dominance. In fact, I think our differing language abilities have been a strength in our relationship because as we live 1/2 in the expat world and 1/2 in the Korean world, we each take control of our respective areas. And because we both have a measure of control, and because we both depend on each other to a degree in order to negotiate both worlds, I think it creates a balance in our lives.
When it comes to family issues, as I’ve noted earlier in the post, I intend to do a longer post on my in-laws, but I am helped by the fact that Mr. Lee is not the eldest son and his brother’s wife is like this mythical Confucian creature which doesn’t even exist anymore. I don’t say this to make fun of her – she is a saint – an honest to goodness saint – and I have a great deal to learn from her selflessness. But she takes some of the stress off of me by acting as the ‘proper’ daughter-in-law while I am the strange exotic creature daughter-in-law. It seems strange, but so far it is working for our family, and I imagine that as families impose fewer demands on their daughter-in-laws that white Western women will continue to feel more welcome and free to be themselves in Korean families.
As to employment, when I first came to Korea, I said that I would never stay long term unless I found a good man and a good job. I didn’t want a career in ESL if it meant not being able to have a family life (a problem so many of my older friends were experiencing at the time), and I didn’t want a husband and kids if it meant giving up a career as I am in fact a woman who loves the working world. It’s taken me a long time to get to a position that I love, and a job which I can conceive of staying in for the long term. During the pre-now job period, I went through a time of great distress in the hogwan world, including gaining 20 pounds in one year out of utter misery. But when it became clear that I could have both – that I could achieve my goals, it did start to look like I had it pretty good. I do have many problems with teaching in Korea because of the issues and restrictions of the education system, but overall I feel like I am making positive contributions to individual students and society as a whole here, and I’ve found a person that I love and respect and who makes my life infinitely better. So yes, I do worry about getting pregnant and maternity leave, but for the time being I am in the midst of both my goals and that makes my particular situation a good place to be. Having friends who are having babies here before me has made a HUGE difference in my ability to foresee a long-term future here.
Strangely, the seven year age gap was the part which probably made our relationship possible. Because he was so ‘old’ by Korean standards, and unmarried, his coworkers and family members were very worried about him. There’s an idea that if a person is not married by a certain point, they must have some kind of physical (read sexual) problem or psychological issue, or…they must be (hush we shouldn’t even mention it), gay. So imagine Mr. Lee’s family’s surprise when the ‘problem’ was a secret white Western girlfriend. Age is likely a major factor in why I was accepted by the family. They realized that by that point a) he was ‘unmarriagable’ in the Korean perspective and b) he was so ‘old’ and so set in his ways after dating me for several years, that he wasn’t going to be swayed to abandon the relationship. The other point about age is that we met when he had finished military service, job searching, and his first short-term job on the way to becoming a salaryman. Without my prior teaching interest, love for ESL specifically, and availability of jobs in this field in Korea, I would not have been able to live here with a salaryman husband. However, having my own career options, I can, at least for the time being, deal with the other problems of living in Korea I’ve outlined.
The point of this series has been to answer a question I get asked all the time. It’s a question I myself have mulled over at length and it is something I’ve lamented with other female friends over glasses of wine as they tried to find a relationship not just an interaction with a Korean man but felt factors outside of their control were preventing a viable relationship. What I’ve presented here is a complex answer to this issue, and it is an answer that does not apply to everyone. I think our own story shows how couples can and do overcome some of the large factors, and how individual situations mean that this narrative is not a perfect fit for everyone. However, I do want to assert that social and perception factors do play enormous roles in the viability of any kind of relationship, and these are few of the factors which have a large impact on white Western female-Korean male couples.