One of my first observations upon coming to Korea was that no one was married. Or at least, no one wore wedding rings. Combine this with the fact that in class, my middle aged men rarely mentioned their wives or kids, AND the fact that they were clamoring to take late night elective English classes at academies far from where they lived, and you can see why I might have been confused at first from a Western perspective. It took me several months to find out one of my students was married, and another couple of months to learn that he had kids, despite the fact that he was in a conversation class where we often talked about families – at least the general concept of the family. It was really disquieting to learn this information about the student because he presented himself as a ‘good Christian man,’ but his lack of wedding ring and desire to talk about his family seemed, from my just-left-Canada viewpoint, to be a way to deny, obscure, or lie about his marriage.
Times have changed – even in the last 5 years – and now there are middle aged men who wear their wedding rings – and some of them do love to talk about their wives and kids (although some still consider anything more than the fact that they exist to be ‘too private’) – but it still remains true that wearing one’s wedding ring is much less common here than in my home country, and the emotional response to rings is much different.
Yes, a great many younger dating couples wear matching ‘couple rings’ to show that they have at least reached the 100 day milestone in their relationship, and some women have requested to ‘see my ring’ – but they’re not asking to see my engagement ring because Korean women rarely get an engagement ring in the same way as Western women. Women might get a set of jewelry (or 2, or 3, or…) before their wedding which may include a diamond ring. And certainly women and men know about the ‘grand proposal’ that is supposed to begin an engagement – but the idea of a man getting down on one knee, pulling a ring box out of his pocket, and sliding a huge diamond onto his fiancée’s left ring finger is more Hollywood fantasy than modern day reality for the majority of women. In fact, my wedding ring is a Tiffany knock off engagement ring, which almost everyone in Korea acknowledges as a wedding ring (everyone in Canada considers it my engagement ring). So, if a Korean woman asks me about my jewelry, she usually says, ‘is this your ring?’ while a Canadian woman would say ‘show me your rings!’ The implication in the Canadian question is not only that to be ‘properly married’ you should have an engagement ring and a wedding ring, but also that you should be wearing both of them, wearing both of them on the left hand, and wearing both of them for the purpose of showing others that you are married. The Korean implication is that there may or may not be a ring because people may or may not wear the ring.
None of these differences about ring vs. rings really matter to me. It’s just an interesting observation. What matters is the fact that my husband is one of the group of slightly older men who does not like wearing his wedding ring. Before we got married, I knew all this above information about men in Korea and rings in the Korean consciousness, and still…it never occurred to me that he would be one of the don’t-want-to-wear-my-ring group. So I mentioned that we needed a ring for both the church and Canadian weddings, and he went along and ordered a nice gold ring for himself after about an hour of trying on rings. And then we picked up our rings, took them home, and he put his in his jewelry box and refused to wear it again.
It was actually a very upsetting moment for me. Yes, I knew that this was okay in Korea, and I must have known deep in my heart that this was a possibility from experiences with all my other students, and yes, I know that it’s just a symbol of marriage…but, But, BUT…I had a very strong response to his refusal to wear his ring because deep down there was a strong emotional and cultural attachment to the symbol. And honestly, it was difficult being in Canada together with people looking strangely at his hand and asking why he wasn’t wearing his ring…and there’s still a great unease when other expats in Korea ask me where his wedding ring is.
It’s actually been very interesting to see my own irrational reaction and to try to critically analyze my feelings to see what is cultural, what is emotional, and what is me just being childish and wanting my own way. Pretty quickly I did realize that there are battles you pick, and fighting for my husband to ‘show’ me that he was married by wearing a ring was not something I should pursue. We did finally come to an agreement though that he would wear it for certain occasions. I wanted him to wear it for all of our anniversaries, but we later agreed that April 23rd (the day of our legal wedding) and August 15 (the day of our Canadian wedding, and the day we will be celebrating our anniversary every year) should be the days. And…I also lobbied for my birthday.
So, today I turned 30, and Mr. Lee kissed me goodbye at 6:15 am to go off to work, and put his hand in mine so in my groggy state I could feel that he was wearing his ring. It is not a perfect arrangement – it doesn’t satisfy my childish impulses to get my own way – but it is a reasonable accommodation of my cultural expectations in a culture where it is not expected. And that is the kind of reasonable compromise that we need to keep working on as we do this cross cultural marriage thing.