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Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

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.

Gender Expectations

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.

Employment

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.

Life Stage

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.

Our Story

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 Conclusion

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.

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In my previous two posts on this subject (part 1 part 2), I looked at some of the larger issues affecting international relationships in Korea – specifically white Western female-Korean male relationships.  While it is difficult to categorize these factors because I believe they intersect and inform/perpetuate/exacerbate each other, this post is more geared toward ‘perceptions’ that have, at least in the past, affected the viability of these kinds of relationships, especially in the long term.

 Language

The very first time I met Mr. Lee’s colleagues is on my top 5 insane party nights of all times list…and as they would explain later, the reason was solely because of my presence.  The party went from a seemingly stoic end-of-the-year congratulatory party to a soju drenched free for all within about an hour of my arrival, and the reason I was given over and over again by the team members was because they were ‘afraid’ of my presence and thus needed to consume copious amounts of alcohol to ‘cope’ with the arrival of an English-speaking foreigner.  This was not a one-time event with one group of people.  In fact, with every circle of people I have met with Mr. Lee, with the exception of one group with a large amount of overseas experience and a white Western male-Korean female couple, the first and sometimes second time we have been out with a group includes at least one person who gets completely plastered because he (always he) cannot handle having an English-speaking foreign woman present.

Mr. Lee’s friends are not overly indulgent, at least from a Korean perspective.  They are also not entirely devoid of an English education background or some overseas experience.  In fact, there are only a few that cannot carry on a limited conversation in English or who cannot understand me when I try to have simple conversations in Korean.  With some translation intervention from Mr. Lee, we can have very good conversations, so language itself is less of a problem.  The big problem is the lack of confidence in both their English skills AND the ability to interact with a non-Korean – especially a white Western female. 

So how does this play into white Western female-Korean male relationships?  When expats come to Korea, they usually have very limited Korean skills unless they have some kind of academic or personal background in Korea.  Conversely, these days all Korean students who attend public schools have years and years of English training – regardless of how problematic this education is – and thus have quite a considerable background in English although they might not have much experience using it.  Thus the reality is that unless an expat has been here for at least six months – or a year even really – and has put considerable effort into studying Korean – most real relationships (friendship, love, or otherwise) are going to involve a great deal of English interaction.  It’s well documented that despite the great deal of time, effort, and money that goes into studying English here, that many Koreans have considerable self esteem issues when actually using English (especially in interactions with native speakers).  There are various hypotheses for this issue, but I think that the high degree of competition and the fact that English study is a highly personal and internal activity in Korean public schools as opposed to natural communicative interaction is a large contributing factor to this problem.  I’ve taught David Sedaris’ short story “Me Talk Pretty Some Day” to all levels and ages of students, and something I really identify with in that story is the idea that the emotional atmosphere in a language classroom is internalized during the language process, and positive/negative experiences in the classroom manifest in the real world in terms of people’s ability or inability to interact in said language.  The more the speaker in the story is harassed in class by his demoness teacher, the less he is not only willing but actually able to actually speak French in the real world.  And thus each and every malaise of the Korean English classroom and process of learning is projected onto the native English speaker and actually interferes with natural communication in Korea.

But if this is the case, then why does it affect Korean male-white Western female interaction more often than the other way around as I am asserting?  Well, the truth is that language does affect both relationships; however, in my personal experience, and the experiences of those around me, I think that the cultural notions that men should be more in control/more assertive come into play here.  I do not mean that this is always the case, and that the opposite does not often occur (or that some individuals prefer it that way), but just that this is one factor which sometimes manifests in a complex web of issues which affects white Western female-Korean male relationships.

For over two years I taught an advanced English reading/writing class to university students and business people.  For the most part, the people who were in these classes were often highly accomplished in their own fields – lawyers, business people, graduate students, engineers, human rights advocates, and government employees.  They had overcome great educational hurdles, spent long hours studying, gone to/were studying in highly prestigious educational institutions, and in many cases were working in culturally recognized ‘good’ jobs.  In short, they were considered ‘smart’ people by their Korean peers and by Korean standards, but what I heard over and over again in class – especially from male students – was that they felt like ‘babies’ when it came to communicating in English.  It’s true.  Learning another language reduces your language skills and in turn can reduce your self-pride and sense of accomplishment. For ages you are reduced to talking about colours, shapes, the alphabet…baby animals.  You make embarrassing mistakes…you have to listen to constant correction.  And even when you have reached a level to be considered ‘advanced,’ you read about complex and high level intellectual issues, but struggle to be able to comment in an intellectual way about those issues in that other language in what seems to be an intellectual way. I know. I’ve been there struggling, and I have even more experience seeing students going through this process. 

But then you put it in the Korean context, when even the most open minded Koreans – and especially the say 30-something Korean male set (my dating cohort) have a sense of the Confucian hierarchy, even when they do not fully ascribe to it themselves.  And thus when a younger woman is marking Xs in your sentences and telling you that your way of pronouncing ‘F’ is incorrect, there is a self esteem issue that comes into play…and of course there is a connection to the power that language mastery has in international relationships and interactions.  The grad student, the lawyer, the manager at a conglomerate…men who usually command a certain degree of respect and power in their daily lives are suddenly faced with a completely different power structure where say, a younger native English speaking woman has more linguistic power and mastery, and is thus able to dominate the relationship in a very important way.

Now, is this always the case? No.  And is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.  All personal relationships have their own internal dynamics with various forms of power and power negotiation.  What I am saying though is that this is a factor in terms of how relationships function and how people interact with each other, and gender expectations can clash with language.  I’ve also seen the problems this causes – with Korean men being unable to communicate effectively with white Western women in ways they do not have problems with white Western males because of unconscious or conscious language shyness and/or feelings of inadequacy which translates into real life problems with social interaction.  I’ve also experienced these language dominance issues in my own relationship, where, because English is our primary language of interaction, I am at a distinct advantage, especially when we fight in terms of being able to direct and control the conversation.  In our situation Mr. Lee has a great deal of confidence in his English-speaking self, and has a lot of experience interacting in English (I’ll discuss this point in my next point), but we are both acutely aware that language does equal control/dominance in many forms of interaction, and many Korean men (and perhaps Western women who prefer a man to be more dominant) may have a problem with this issue in a way that a white Western male-Korean female couple may have less problems with this issue because of the same gendered expectations.

The Fantasy

A great deal has been written about the portrayal of the white Western female (who is actually quite often a white Russian model) in the Korean media.  Perhaps James’ post is a good place to start reading about this if you are not already familiar with this issue. With regards to the stereotype of white Western women as sexual fiends of promiscuity, which is exacerbated by the use of white women to sell lingerie and do more of the risqué ads in Korea, I think in many people’s eyes, white Western women might be fun to experiments with or fantasize over, but when it really comes down to it, if the stereotypes are to be believed she’s not ‘the kind of woman you bring home.’  The fact that the expat women who do come here are living alone, traveling all over the place by themselves, making their own money, and thus appearing to control their own destiny must also have something to do with this idea as in many times and places a woman who has ‘too much control’ over her own life (ie. not under a man) is dangerous because she then her sexuality might be left unchecked. 

But actually, I don’t want to dwell too much on the aspect of fantasy as sexuality as it has been detailed in much more complex ways than I am able to discuss it here.  Instead, I want to talk about how, until quite recently really, the closest your average Korean man came to interacting with a white Western female was probably through a television set, advertising campaign or Hollywood movie.  Yes, nowadays we’re an ever-growing presence as travellers, students, foreign wives, and most notably teachers in public schools and hogwons, but when I was dating in Korea starting in 2005, those late 20-something, early 30-something men had not had those kinds of interactions like today’s kids have.  For instance, between 2005-2007 when I was teaching business people and university students in a hagwon setting, I routinely met men who had never even seen a real life white Western woman up close let alone interacted with her for an extended period of time. I’m currently teaching a staff conversation class at my university for 30/40 something men, and with the exception of one or two, most of them have no interactions with foreign female staff or students despite the growing number of us on campus.  And when I look to Mr. Lee’s friends and colleagues – oh, especially these men who are working in male-dominated fields and offices – they rarely work with many women let alone white English-speaking women.

Thus, the fantasy is not always a sexual fantasy, but just the unknown of what one of those women is really like.  One of Mr. Lee’s friends, upon meeting me for the third time, told me, ‘I used to think you were like a different species, but now I realize that we are all humans.’  Now, I don’t want you to get hung up on semantics here – with his limited English skills and experience communicating in English, he was trying to tell me that he had always imagined that there was some fundamental difference between races, ethnicities, and most likely Korea and the rest of the world.  I think this is also perpetuated by the dominance of American tv shows and movies – where the glamour of New York in Sex and the City or The Devil Wears Prada – two things which are played ad nauseum on On Style, stand for the ‘regular’ life a Western woman lives.  But, upon real interaction with someone outside of his background, Mr. Lee’s friend realized that white women, Westerners, foreigners even…are not all that different in a fundamental way from Koreans.  With such ‘normalcy,’ the fantasy of the other disappears, and there can be more ‘real’ interaction between people.

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On the basis of that article on the increase in white women dating and blogging about Korean men, I’d like to discuss for a bit the issue of why there are so many more white male-Korean female than white female-Korean male couples.  I want to start by saying that I do not want to discuss it in terms of statistics and figures.  There are blogs and academic materials out there with solid scientific analysis on this issue.  I also want to stay away from Western media portrayals of Asian men, in part because I do not think that these portrayals were especially influential in terms of my understanding of Korean men pre-Korea, and in part because when I talk to white Western women about Korean men, they point to a bunch of other factors as far more important than media portrayals for the issues they have in beginning and/or maintaining relationships.  Rather, I want to talk about my experiences and the anecdotes of the many interracial relationships I have seen to glean an understanding of this phenomenon.  That is after all the purpose and focus of this blog.

I want to start by noting that relationships are rarely formed on the basis of ‘love’ alone.  There are various forces – cultural, religious, economic, ethnic, linguistic, class influences, etc. which encourage or discourage relationships or make them possible or impossible.  That mystery which we call ‘love’ can rise above the discouragement or seeming impossibility, and individual circumstances can be such that a particular person or couple does not fit into the mainstream narrative, but as a whole these forces do influence our choices in life and especially our choice of a marriage partner. Therefore, in the first three installments I want to talk about the general forces in Korea which affect white female-Korean male couples in different ways from white male-Korean female partnerships, and in the fourth I will discuss how our own story converges and diverges with these factors.  Finally, I will only talk about how this phenomenon affects white Western women because Western women of different races and white women from countries like Russia and the former Soviet states have other issues and hurdles they have to overcome which I have no direct personal experience with. 

Life Stage

Imagine if you will Ms. Jones, a 22 year old Canadian woman from Anytown, Canada.  She, like many in her generation, left her mid-sized town or city to attend a university in another city both because the commute had she lived at home would have been insane – especially in the winter months – and because of a cultural expectation that post-high school Canadian adults should gain some independence by living away from their parents.  By the time she arrives in Korea, Ms. Jones has a 4 year degree, at least 4 years of experience living away from home (cooking, cleaning, budgeting, making decisions for herself), and many summers making her own money working in offices, lifeguarding, and/or waitressing.  When she arrives in Seoul, she wants to meet other people – including Koreans around her own age – and perhaps she is even interested in dating one or a few.  So what does your average 22 year old Korean male look like? 

Well…he’s probably in military service, or fresh out, living with his parents, and years away from both graduating from university and being gainfully employed.  I read somewhere that Koreans take on average 7 years to complete university. I wish I had the source of that information, but generally, Koreans take much longer to finish a four year degree than Canadians.  Yes, there are the Canadian victory lapers, but in Korea, men have an additional 2 years of compulsorily military service which is usually taken somewhere in the middle of their university career.  After that, they often take an additional year off to travel, readjust to civilian life, and/or prepare to reenter university after two years being completely separate from their previous studies.  When I worked at an adult hagwon, it was not uncommon to have several 20-something male students in my day time classes who had just finished their military service and were looking both for ways to socialize again and ways to quickly improve their English so they could return to university.  Thus, it is not only common but necessary for most Korean males to take much longer than four years to complete their degree.  After that of course, they are still not usually prepared to enter the working world.  Even low level desk jobs at Korean companies only selling products to Koreans often require TOEIC or TOFEL scores to secure a job, so graduates will often take another several months or even a year or two to prepare for these tests or the very difficult civil service exam.  Some even take additional classes to get computer ability certification etc.  Therefore, being work-ready at the age of 22 is impossible for the vast majority of Korean men.

In addition to this difference in life stages, Koreans usually live at home until marriage.  James Turnbull has written a few good posts looking at the reasons behind this which you might want to read before going any further on this post.  But anyway, the point I want to make is that there are merits and demerits to living away from your parents before marriage, and I’m not going to make any judgments on either of those options here.  However, there is a big difference in life stages between a person living away from home – especially in a foreign country, and a person who is living with their parents and having all of their domestic needs met.  And I don’t even think I have to mention the domestic ramifications of Korean men with little or no background in household chores moving in with white Western women with some notions of domestic equality who have lived by themselves for years.

Having your own place and those kinds of responsibility change you, as does having a resume full of experience and a full time post-university job.  A woman who has been making her own money for a long time is going to be at a different life stage than a man who is culturally limited from holding such employment and thus receives a regular allowance from his parents.  This does not of course mean that early 20-something white Western women and early 20-something Korean men don’t date, but perhaps any plans at a long term relationship…or especially marriage, are often derailed because of these life stages, especially when in both cultures there is still somewhat of an expectation that men should be (at the very very very least) equal economic providers for their families. And in Korea where it takes quite some time (unless your parents are wealthy and wish to give you a large gift), to build up enough money for chonse (the key money deposit), marriage requires a great deal of planning and saving.  Thus, there is a very practical reason why it’s harder for a white Western woman to find a Korean man who is 22, 23, 24, 25…sometimes even 26 or 27 who is at a life stage comparable to the place where she is.  Meanwhile, a Korean woman who does not have military service – even if she takes a year or two off to study/travel etc. (which is common), will still usually spend less time in the ‘student’ stage than her male counterparts.  Coupled with the fact that women are given less responsibility and expectations for providing for the family than men in Korea, in terms of this dating/marriage factor, it is easier for white Western men to find a Korean female partner than the other way around.

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Gendered Expectations in Korea

I’ve already talked a bit about the gender expectations with regards to economic provisions (and I will discuss those later), but now I want to turn to a few other expectations which make it much harder for white Western women to form long term relationships with Korean men.  Korea is a neo-Confucius society which means a lot of things, but for our purposes here, it means that the eldest son – and sons in general have much more long-term responsibility to their parents than daughters.  When I first announced my engagement to a few older Korean women, one of the first questions they asked (with a look of anguish on their faces) was, ‘Is he the eldest son?’  No, thankfully he is the youngest of three with one older brother, but eldest sons, even in less traditional families, have way more responsibility…and this duty is transferable to the eldest son’s wife. 

One of my Korean friends who married a Canadian man told me that one of the greatest perks of having a Canadian husband was that she did not have a demanding mother-in-law.  They are legendary in Korea.  Whether or not all mother-in-laws are as evil as they are sometimes portrayed, in general it is safe to say that they are somewhat more demanding, and the cultural expectations of a daughter-in-law are greater than in the mainstream Canadian context.  My friend loves that during family gatherings she is a guest in her mother-in-law’s house instead of a worker serving men who do nothing but socialize and drink. She loves that she is not responsible for cleaning her mother-in-law’s house and does not have to prepare the enormous amount of food necessary for ancestral memorial rituals (and then be excluded from the ceremony because she is a woman). For her, marriage to her husband is about her relationship with her husband and not duty toward her mother-in-law.  Again, whether or not these duties are always required by Korean in-laws, and whether or not white Western women are part of this system are issues for another forthcoming post, but the point is that many Korean women that I know at the very least appreciate the fact that they have avoided these duties when they married Western men while white Western women know that at the very least there is a greater possibility that this is what they are setting themselves up for when they marry into a Korean family.

Additionally, while white Western men report more problems in society accepting their relationships to Korean women, I do think there is a certain factor within Confucianism which makes this partnership easier.  When women marry, they are taken off their family’s registry and added to their husband’s family registry.  And traditionally, when women married, they were no longer the responsibility of their family – or even part of it – which is the whole premise for the paebek ceremony when the new daughter-in-law bows to her husband’s family and shows her obedience and loyalty to them.  In the past women did not even visit their family members on holidays because they were expected to be helping out at their husband’s family’s house. 

On the other hand, a son is always part of the family and thus has responsibility to his family.  While this situation has changed dramatically in recent years, so that couples often visit both sides of the family, and bow to both families at the paebek ceremony, there is still a feeling that when a woman marries she leaves her family while when a man marries he stays. After greeting my mother for the first time, the very next thing my father-in-law said to my mother was to thank her for ‘sending her daughter to his family’ – the expression referring back to the time when women left their families and joined a new one – but in my case having the double meaning of actually flying to another country to be with Mr. Lee. 

What does this mean for international marriages?  Well, a contemporary role for Korean women is to be in charge of the children’s education.  So if a Western man wants to return to his home country, and he is married to a Korean woman, while the family might be very upset at her leaving, the fact that there is a tradition of the woman leaving means that there is some precedent.  But even more importantly, as there is a contemporary practice of sending children overseas to learn English, or for mothers and children to move abroad for ‘better’ education means that it is often easier for women to go to their husband’s home country in order to ensure the best possible education for their children.  I know many Korean women who are pushing/did push their Western spouse to move abroad for this very reason, and in most cases, it was not only accepted but actively encouraged by their Korean family members.   

Employment

At this point you may be asking, “Well why can’t Korean men move abroad if it means a ‘better education’ for their children?”  That’s a good question and it has to do with life stages, gender roles, and employment which makes my separation of each topic problematic, but I do think it is necessary to have some kind of organization for this lengthy topic.  We’ve already established the fact that there is an age and life stage gap between white Western women and Korean males.  If you are interested in dating a younger guy, you run into the problem of being at different life stages.  However, if you are interested in dating an older guy you run into a whole other set of issues.  The salaryman factor.

Getting into a top company and/or a stable job is no easy matter in Korea, and if you have made it that far, you are going to be either a younger guy from a well-connected and wealthy family or a later-20s guy because it took so long with your military service + studying for tests + taking tests to actually get to that job.  And by that time, if you have actually achieved that position, you are not going to easily give up that position to move abroad where you may or may not find a position and where you are probably not ‘qualified’ because in Western countries ‘qualified’ means more long-term employment than taking a lot of tests which is what it means in Korea.  Since there is an even stronger cultural expectation in Korea than in Canada that a man will provide for his family and wife in an economic sense, it’s very difficult for a Korean man in this situation to even be open to the possibility of giving up his life here and going abroad. 

My dear friend met her then boyfriend when she was already planning on leaving Korea, but the fact that he was mid-20s without gainful employment – or even a clear vision of what he wanted in life was a further problem in their relationship.  She encouraged him to do a program abroad which would have given him a practical skill and 100% chance at a job upon completion of the program, but his parents vetoed him going abroad.  There were other reasons for them breaking up, but his life stage and inability to go abroad to become employed were definitely factors which discouraged them from being able to continue with their relationship. 

On the other hand, I met Mr. Lee when he was 33.  He had a degree, had finished military service, had traveled and done all of his tests…but he had also been working in a safe and secure job for five years.  And this means that at both that time and now, he is not in a position to go abroad at least for many years.  I’ll deal with this issue and how we have negotiated around it in a subsequent post, but for now let me say that the fact that our future for the next decade or more is in Korea with no flexibility to move was a huge issue for me to overcome for many years. 

So why this push to go abroad in the first place?  Why is this even an issue? Isn’t Korea a good enough place to live?  Well…yes and no.

I’m not even going to into the stats and the facts right now, but a short search will show you the numbers for Korean women in the workplace and the rather low place Korea occupies on international gender indexes.  Often Canadians will ask me ‘Are Korean women allowed to get an education?’ which is a hilarious question if you live here.  As I’ve mentioned so many times here, the regular things feminists worry about like domestic control of money and education are not proper ways to evaluate the real social gains for women in Korea.  Girls are educated to the same extent as boys, and they are excelling far beyond boys in many subjects and areas.  Women can get jobs, and they sometimes become managers and CEOs.  However, the extent to how good of jobs women can get … and how stable their jobs are is another issue. 

Except for a few fields, the glass ceiling is still rather low in many many companies, women are still routinely fired/pushed out/encouraged to quit when they give birth or sometimes when they even become pregnant, and the childcare options are such that it is sometimes impossible for women to continue working because there is simply nobody to take care of the children.  I do know of women who have left Korea because of these kinds of issues and lack of opportunities in the workplace, and it is one reason why again, I think it is easier for many Korean women to marry an expat and move abroad.  For the white Western woman who is staying here, she has to worry about gender discrimination in the workplace plus the added issue that she does not have her own family here to support and help her during pregnancy, childbirth, and child care issues.  People often move to a country to ‘start a better life’ – and for some people, especially those from South East Asian countries and China, Korea is a better life in terms of standard of living.  That is a contributing factor to the number of immigrant brides from these countries.  Whether or not they find happiness and opportunity in Korea, there is a strong perception amoung these women that they will have a better life here. 

Conversely, when I talk to my friends who have an 18 month mostly-paid maternity leave in Canada, who can go back to their jobs with no questions asked/no promotions derailed, when their husbands come home at supper time every night and have an opportunity to take paternal leave (and take it!), I have to wonder if my options are such that I have a ‘better life here.’  I don’t know the answer to this yet. It is a constant and sincere struggle that I am working through. It’s also a factor of how involved a Korean husband can be in his family life.  So many Korean female friends have told me that they love it that the Western boyfriend/fiancé/husband comes home at a reasonable hour every night, doesn’t have to drink with his boss, and has enough time to be a child care partner.  I’ve discussed the salaryman ‘work’ culture at length here, and I do believe that when white Western women look ahead to their futures, and they think about the husband who regularly comes home at 2am drunk…or maybe not at all, that it is a serious issue in determining future happiness and marital stability simply because this kind of husband is not the ideal or even reality for most Western middle class women.  Really, when you look at the reality of the salaryman in Korea, you have to ask yourself – ‘Is my life really better here?’

In addition, as a foreigner there are fewer employment opportunities unless you are in particular fields.  Yes, if you are a white somewhat normal English-speaker, finding a teaching job is the easiest thing in the world here with a spousal (F2) visa.  In some cases entrepreneurs can be very successful with the right niche market or contacts, and some professionals like lawyers or consultants can find good work.  However, the breadth of opportunities is severely severely limited outside of these spheres to foreign women, in part because of language, Confucian culture, gender discrimination, and the fact that many companies are industries are not prepared to have a foreigner – and especially a foreign woman – in their workplace.  Yes, it can be hard for a white Western male trying to break into a ‘real’ job in journalism, advertising, etc. but this situation is magnified as a woman unless you come here with a multinational corporation.  Some of these issues (language for example), are ‘our fault,’ but others will take a great social shift to rectify.  One Korean friend for example, works in Canada at a clothing retailer.  While it is not the best job in the world, and certainly not a high level position, the fact that Canadian companies routinely hire people from different ethnic backgrounds without batting an eye means that she has a wide range of options while she studies/works toward higher level work (while in a field she actually likes).  In Korea, a white Western woman can secure a well-paying teaching job, but if she has an interest in a different field (outside of entertainment but only if she is a petite blonde), her opportunities will probably be much more limited. 

So what I want to say here is that there are innumerous reasons why people meet, date, and decide to marry.  However, there are many external factors which make it harder or easier for these relationships to develop and progress, and I think that some of these larger ‘life’ factors are stacked against the white Western female/Korean male couples.  Yes, society is generally against the idea of a white Western male/Korean female couple, but the other social factors are much more difficult for the opposite paired couple to overcome.  It’s not the ‘fault’ of any particular culture or practice, but it’s a combination which tends to discourage or limit white Western women and Korean men en masse from entering into long-term relationships leading to marriage.

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A blogger on a wedding site I frequent just posted this Marie Claire article. It’s appalling. The author wants to address the issue of ‘Asian trophy wives’ who marry older white rich men…but she also deals with Asian women in general who enter into relationships with white men.

It assumes white men are fetish predators and Asian women are passive (and materialistic). It fails to acknowledge the multitude of same-race May-December romances in society, and the article mistakenly attempts to show these relationships as a new ‘trend’ although many of the partners (Woody Allen-Soon Yi Previn, Rupert Murdoch-Wendi Deng) are hardly new news.

Of course on a personal level it also disturbs me that the multitude of WM-AF couples I count as close friends are so carelessly disregarded as white male fetishes of passive unthinking females.

I guess I’m especially disappointed to see this coming from a North American context. It’s common in Korea to hear such rubbish as Korean women are still disparaged for dating foreign men. Some female friends have been called whores or traitors for dating outside the perceived cultural and racial boundaries (justified by citing cases of women who became pregnant by departing American soldiers). There is also a group of Koreans…not to be named here…who stalk white men they suspect of doing drugs, teaching children outside of regular classroom hours, and gasp…..dating Korean women. The implication here is that Korean women are being blindly conned by white men into having sex to feed the fetishes of outsiders.

Are there white men with an Asian fetish? Hell yes. Are there Korean women with a white fetish? Hell yes. I’ve seen the sexually explicit notes female university students write their white male professors (who everyone knows are married). I know of men pursued by older female students despite explicitly stating time and time again that they have a wife and child at home. I know of Korean girls who sign up for English academy classes because they want their own trophy boyfriend or at least a ‘unique’ experience to brag about. But there are many more white-white, black-black, Asian-Asian one night stands, affairs, and trophy marriages. Furthermore ‘white’ and ‘Asian’ are ridiculously enormous categories. Are Vietnamese women really the same as Japanese women? Can we categorize Russian, British, South African, Serbian men into one large mammoth group?

Seriously, the only reason people obsess over biracial hook-ups and relationships is that a) they have racial hang-ups of their own b) with globalization our ranks are growing.

And then there’s the fact that the couples the author mentions are MARRIED couples. They are not fetish-flings. Some are strange…..Woody and Sook-Yi come to mind, but there’s a whole lot of other weirdness going on in that relationship apart from the bi-racial-ness! Perhaps these couples found an initial attraction based on a racial feature, but it takes a lot more than that to stay together, raise a child, and ride through the ups and downs of a long term relationship together (For the record, Mr. Lee and I initially became attracted to each other based on our mutual love for Arcade Fire and Stars).

And then there’s that other ‘fetish.’ When Mr. Lee announced to his parents that he was going to marry a white girl, there was definitely opposition. But in the wider world of Korean society we have never experienced discrimination as a bi-racial couple….we encounter wonder. This wonder is never from Korean women – it is always from Korean men – especially older men – who have a white woman fantasy. The relative absence of white women dating or marrying Korean men (or at least the public display of such couples) makes us all that more fantastic.

While bringing the cats home from the vet last week, a talkative taxi driver asked if we were married. When Mr. Lee explained we were getting married next year, the driver did something I’ve encountered many times – starred at me sitting in the back seat through the rear view mirror, gasped with his mouth open, and then clapped repeatedly while proclaiming congratulations!!!! (All this in the middle of the infamous Seoul traffic!) I have never experienced this reaction by myself. When students/taxi drivers/inquisitive shop owners find out I have a Korean fiance they look at me confused…but when I’m with fiance and it is ‘confirmed’ that we are indeed a real couple, there is joyful celebration by older Korean men for my fiance. This show of congratulation is most certainly reserved for my fiance. He has ‘somehow’ managed to ‘catch’ the elusive white girl (who may also have a magical pass to a resident visa in Canada…although FI is less excited about our intended return to Canada in 10-15 years than those around him).

The difference between how our relationship is perceived and accepted by Korean society is striking. I haven’t spent enough time in Canada with my fiance to evaluate how Canadian society understands us although a few have hinted that Mr. Lee must have an underlying motive to move to Canada (usually from the same people who can’t distinguish the South Korean economy from the North Korean economy). It’s fascinating that white women entering into relationships with Asian men are never perceived as oppressed/conned/exploited. There’s a cultural reason/perception for that..but I think that there’s also a gendered reason for that.

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