Korean Sociological Image #71: “Specs” for the perfect Korean wife or husband

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When I lived abroad in Korea, I spent a lot of time doing work in cafes. Probably a 100 or more during my 2 years there. As such, I eavesdropped on thousands of conversations. And nearly every one of those conversations was about two topics: complaints re studying English and complaints re losing weight.

(Patricia Park, Korean Bodega, June 15)

Maybe I’m just nostalgic for my bachelor days, but it’s conversations about “specs” (스펙) that I’ve really noticed myself. A Korean term for the criteria used to evaluate a potential spouse on, it’s also my experience that it’s almost exclusively used by women, although that may just be because there’s usually more women than men at my local Starbucks.

Either way, in February Kim Da-ye at the Korea Times argued that looking at marriage this way is a relatively new phenomenon, and that it’s “matchmaking companies that rate spouse seekers by specs [that] have fueled [such] materialism”. And, as if to bolster that point, Donga-Reuters would report on exactly the same phenomenon emerging in China after I’d already begun writing this post.

But as discussed below, matchmakers have been encouraging such pragmatism for decades, so they can hardly be described as driving that change in outlook. Rather, it’s economic factors that are responsible, as Kim later acknowledges in her article:

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…today’s buzzword “Sampo” generation (삼포세대) …indicates a 30-something who has given up dating, marrying and giving birth because of the lack of financial means…

Contrast the “880,000 won generation”, which generally refers to 20-somethings. Continuing:

….What’s interesting about such preferences for the partner’s economic qualification is that they don’t come from conservative parents or rigid social structure but independent, young individuals….

….The near obsession with fine lifestyle is a contrast to the attitude of the baby boomer generation, many of whom used to say that they can start from a small rented room….

When asked why the younger generation isn’t willing make such a humble start, Lee, a single woman in her mid-30s working at a media firm, said, “Back then, amid fast economic growth, people had hoped that they would be able to climb up the social ladder and afford a bigger place in the future. Nowadays, people feel that if they start in a small room, they will be stuck there for the rest of their lives.”

The high cost of getting married naturally leads to some couples to be heavily indebted after the honeymoon ends. In addition to the Sampo generation, another phrase linked to both the economy and marriage has emerged — “honeymoon poor.”

And Kim — whose article is very informative overall — gives several examples of engaged couples’ fights over money, some of whom ultimately break up. Yet those would not be out of place in popular discourses of marriage in, for example, the 1980s, when women’s magazines were similarly promoting the virtues of arranged ones. Presumably, at the behest of their advertisers:

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Passage Rites Made Easy [A 1982 Korean book by Ko Chonggi] describes marriage through an arranged meeting as more “rational” behavior than simply falling in love because the candidates for romance and matrimony have already been carefully scrutinized by parents and matchmakers. Korean women’s magazines also emphasize the value of prior screening in choosing a mate, suggesting by the frequency with which they address this topic that their youthful readership is by no means convinced of the merits of matchmade matrimony:

Today, with the trend towards frankness in sexual matters, talk of “arranged meetings” or “matchmade marriage” might sound excessively stale. Even so, in marriage the conditions of both sides enter into things. Matchmade marriage, where you can dispassionately investigate these considerations beforehand, has some advantages that cannot be ignored (“The Secrets of a Successful Arranged Meeting,” Yong Reidi, 3 March 1985: 347).

From pages 89-90 of Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (1996), by Laurel Kendall, the next page sounds a little ironic 18 years later:

The evolution of Korean courtship practices provides one excellent example of how notions of progress, of an enlightened “now” versus a repressive “then”, mask the particular disadvantages for women in new forms of matrimonial negotiations, be they “matchmade” or “for love” — a mask which sometimes slips in angry conversation or social satire. Through courtship and through all of the talk about getting married, notions of ideal “man” and “woman”, “husband” and “wife”, “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law” are constructed, reinforced, and resisted….

….In Korean popular discourse, the evils of old-fashioned matrimony, in which near-children were forced by the will of their elders to marry total strangers, have been replaced by more enlightened practices. The “old days” are still on the horizon of living memory, but are recalled as from an utterly vanished time. In confessing that he never saw his wife’s face until his wedding night, the writer Cho P’ungyon states [in 1983] with a touch of hyperbole that “Today’s young people would consider this laughable and the faint-hearted might swoon away, but in my day these procedures were considered natural.”

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The difference being that in 2012, financially-strapped singles can no longer afford to be so dismissive (nor Japanese ones either). Moreover, while they’re not marrying complete strangers perhaps, many Koreans do marry people they’ve only known a few weeks, as discussed in an earlier post. Also, some mild social coercion can indeed be involved, as Gomushin Girl explained:

It’s important to differentiate between different kinds of matchmaking arrangements…lots of Koreans use services that are similar to eHarmony, It’s Just Dinner, and other similar paid and unpaid services. Just like in the US, there’s free and paid computer matching sites, and more expensive and comprehensive personalized dating services. These offer a great deal of flexibility, and allow you to reject partners at many stages of the process – the worst consequence being that the agent in charge of finding you matches will decide you’re too picky, and start sending you “lower quality” matches. You’re free to meet multiple people at once, and they’re basically meant to facilitate dating.

However, 선 (Seon) matches are pretty different. Most of the time the people proposing the arrangement are close family or friends (of your parents), and parties are expected to make up their minds pretty quickly. Delaying too long or changing your mind after the first few dates is strongly frowned upon, and may even cause major social riftts. This means that women especially are pressured to marry people before they’re comfortable with them, and even if they’re not really what they’re looking for. Seon is serious, and you’re expected to commit yourself pretty quickly.

It’s also expected to override existing social relationships. My Korean host mother once called me up to ask if I’d go down to Busan to meet a friend’s son, who was interested in a seon meeting with me. I told her I’d just started dating someone, and her response was essentially, “That’s wonderful! When can you come to Busan?”

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And on that note, let me leave you with a translation of the image that prompted this post, a poster for last week’s Slutwalk in Seoul. The slogan reads, roughly, “Let’s stop these fantasy gender roles now. Let’s play at being ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, 2012 Slutwalk Korea”; while the specs it mentions, though mostly universal, also have some quintessentially Korean ones:

For the “man” (literally, it says “manliness”):

  • 키180이상 Over 180cm in height
  • 전문직 A professional
  • 대기업정규직 Regular worker at a big company
  • 인서울4년제 Went to a 4-year university in Seoul
  • 자차소유 Owns a car
  • 장남아닐것 Not a first-born son
  • 데이트비용 Pays for everything on a date
  • 신혼집구입 Buys a home after marriage
  • 사회생활잘함 Good social skills
  • 성격좋음 Good personality
  • 술잘마심 A good drinker
  • 정력왕 Good sexual stamina

For the woman (“womanliness”):

  • 키170미만 Under 170cm tall
  • 몸무게50미만 Under 50 kg
  • 가슴C컵이상 A C-cup or over
  • 30살이하 30 or under
  • 날신한몸매 Thin body
  • 작고하얀얼굴 Small and white face
  • 화장은기본 Always wears make-up
  • 제모는상식 Shaves legs and underarms
  • 명품백하나쯤 Have at least one brand-name handbag
  • 애교있는성격 Have aegyo
  • 시댁을부모처럼 Treats parents-in-law like her own parents
  • 섹스경험없음 Be a virgin

Are there any others readers would add? Especially Korean ones?

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

29 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #71: “Specs” for the perfect Korean wife or husband

  1. All I can say is Good Luck, everyone! I mean, “good drinker” and “good sexual stamina” are probably mutually exclusive…just as “under 50kg” and “C-cup or over” probably are.

    • Well, for the latter, there’s always silicone or saline…which fits well with the plastic surgery obsession!

        • Let me take that back. Technically the poster is about Korean gender roles, and indeed that was the original title of my post, which was just going to be a translation. But then I realized that just about everything the poster mentioned were specs really, and one thing led to another…

          So, “good drinker” it is. That and “Hav[ing] at least one brand-name handbag” on the woman’s side would be the only things that aren’t common specs.

    • You’ve made 2 typos yourself sorry(!): you meant what’s the difference between 세대 and 시대 …*triple checks he doesn’t himself make a typo while saying that*…anyway, I was confused myself, as that’s the first time I’ve come across 세대 also. Judging by the dictionary entries, the difference is that 세대 ONLY means “generation”, whereas “시대” can also mean period, epoch, age etc.

  2. I can explain the difference between 시대 and 세대 for you. It’s actually very specific. In 시대, the 시 means time and the 대 means a period (of time). So 시대 means a time period, which in certain contexts can be translated into English as generation. But it clearly means that in the sense of a period of time (literally), so it’s also similar to era, epoch, period and so on.

    In 세대, on the other hand, the 세 means age, which the 대 is the same character. So it means something like age period when translated literally. This, therefore, is the sort of specific generation we think of as in different generations of a family.

    • Well, I hope that’s in response to Korean women talking about guys’ specs so much, and not my own commentary(!). If so, then to play Devil’s Advocate, to a greater or lesser extent all men and women consider such things when evaluating a potential spouse, no matter how much they feel they are marrying for love. So really, just like with a lot of things, Koreans are simply being more open about it, a trait which can often be very refreshing!

        • I meant that everyone surely gives at least some consideration to a partner’s education, job prospects, wealth, and so on when evaluating them as a potential wife or husband, yes? But having said that, of course there’s a wide variation between different cultures and people within single cultures over how much weight they give those “rational” considerations relative to love.

          • I guess if I take in consideration the number of marriages that end in a divorce, you may be right. But to me it’s the most surpeficial thing I’ve ever heard. What about those who marry before they get their college diploma? What if your partner get in an accident and their diploma gets useless? What about the fact that anyone can get fired or sacked anytime? I think it’s so petty, I’m at lost for words!

  3. I was talking with a Koean friend of mine and actually showed her this article. We’ve talked about certain things on this list before….weight for women, height for guys, etc… but we started talking about aegyo and my dislike for it. I just expressed I found it to be a little childish and sometimes manipulative in the forms I have seen (it should be noted I dated a Korean girl for around two years and she never really was into the aegyo thing too much). I may be misunderstanding some of it’s uses of course, so forgive me if I am seeing it wrongly. My question though is what role do you think aegyo plays on the average females place in society? The idea that things like aegyo do not help raise women’s status in Korea has passed my mind. I just wanted to gauge how everyone else felt about this kind of idea?

    • The now defunct blog The Joshing Gnome has some good thoughts on it here, although I think he’s ultimately misguided by framing it in terms of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In particular, because empirical analysis of ads (my specialty) demonstrates that:

      a) like practitioners of aegyo, it’s mostly women in late-teens to early-30s – but also a significant minority of men in their late-teens to early-20s – that do cutesy, effeminate, “weak” behaviors and poses in them
      b) Caucasians are usually presented as strong, confident, and assertive etc. instead, to the extent that Caucasian women are, overall, presented as more aggressive and “masculine” than Korean men are.

      Those are gross generalizations of course, and figures are skewed by the huge glut of young girl-groups at the moment, with knock-on effects on who you tend to see in advertising, but the respective points are that:

      a) When Korea has the biggest gender wage gap in the OECD, primarily due to women quitting – or being pressured to quit – upon marriage and children, then it’s to be expected that popular culture is going to be both a driver and reflection of that. Accordingly, a disproportionate number of the women under 30 you see on Korean TV behave like kids, as if to emphasize their youth, and hence their lack of responsibility and suitability for real jobs and positions of authority. Those over 30 however, mostly seem to be asexual housewives.

      b) When Caucasians are presented so differently to Koreans, then Korean culture is clearly more than flexible enough to accommodate the demands of (a).

      Sorry: again gross generalization, and I cover a lot, but hopefully you get the gist. So personally, I think aegyo definitely has it’s time and place, mostly in the bedroom, but whenever I see 25 year-old women behaving like 15 year-olds I just think of what sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about all the childish behavior he saw from women in ads, which was basically that “If you behave like a child, people will tend to treat you like a child”.

      Whenever I see anyone defending aegyo, I wonder whatever happened to that common-sense!

      • Thanks for the reply. I understand what you are saying, and that was kind of the conclusion I came to. My friend and I also talked about the “manliness” of western women. I told her I didn’t so much agree with it, but I did make some similar comparisons you made above by using advertisements. I do think there is some truth to it, but my sample size has been younger people for the most part….all college aged, with the younger ones reflecting those characteristics, none of them being the slightest bit intimidating in anyway what so ever.

        I agree that common sense factor would come into play…or you hope it would, but I’m not sure it does. I find my friends to be a lot more open in 1-on-1 conversations regarding these types of issues. If they keep talking long enough there even seems to be resentment, but that doesn’t stop them from buying into the system. I assume it’s just one of those things, the more you are exposed to, the more you understand it. I mean that on both sides of the opinion.

  4. I hope South Korea is like Japan and that a C cup is actually like our B cups!

    Seriously, all of those criteria I can warp my mind around but “Have at least one brand-name handbag”?? Someone explain please!

      • Thanks! If it can be useful to someone, here is a bra size converter: http://www.etoolsage.com/Calculator/BraSize.asp

        But I still don’t understand, what do you mean it’s not a common specs? What I’m really curious is how is that desirable? Is it linked with wealth or just fashion sense or “she won’t make me feel ashame to show her off”? I’m totally lost.

        • I mean the lists in the opening images weren’t actually intended to be specs, more about what constitutes “manliness” and “womanliness” in Korea. But I thought considering them as specs was a better way to think of them, with the exceptions of “owns a brand-name handbag” for women and “good drinker” for men.

  5. If one squints, he can apply the list (or rather criteria ) to every generic 1′st World culture these days where marriage is not a mandatory survival thing.

  6. God I’m happy to be gay… the guy should have good sexual stamina but the girl should be a virgin? There first night together is going to suck.
    I thought the list for what a girl wants in a guy was pretty shallow, but the specs for the perfect girl were so superficial.

  7. Pingback: [The Grand Narrative 12-07-31]“Specs” for the perfect Korean wife or husband « SlutWalk Korea

  8. And both of them need to be realistic, not idealistic dreamers. The world is too harsh for idealistic dreamers, isn’t it? (Unless you’re dreaming about new kitchen appliances.)

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