Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea

Korean Births Out of WedlockAs in, how many Korean women are pregnant when they walk down the aisle? How many get married after giving birth? How many mothers don’t get married at all? And how have public attitudes to all those groups changed over time?

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find out. It’s been surprisingly difficult, apropos of a subject many couples would prefer to keep under wraps.

It all started with this Arirang news report, thanks to the interesting way it framed Korea’s low birthrate problem:

An aging population and low birthrate — two problems that Korea and Japan have in common and are trying to solve.

And since having children out of wedlock is considered socially unacceptable in either country, the focus is on encouraging people to get married.

So the countries share similar problems, but do the people of Korea and Japan share similar views on marriage?

A report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs says NO…

(Arirang, December 4, 2014; my emphasis)

My first thought was that a focus on marriage made a lot of sense. From that chart alone, you can guess that there is considerable prejudice against single mothers and their children in South Korea, to the extent that Korea was (and is) notorious for overseas adoption. In 2008, Seoul National University Professor Eun Ki-Soo saw a direct relationship between such attitudes and Korea’s low birthrate problem:

According to the International Social Survey Program (2002) and Korean General Social Survey (2006), Korea “had one of the highest number of respondents who believed ‘people who want children ought to get married.’ The only countries that scored higher than Korea were the Philippines and the United States, but the differences in the scores were not statistically significant….In the face of such strong social norms regarding marriage and reproduction, young people who are unable to marry also may not feel like they can have children. Such a phenomenon is manifested in contemporary Korean society in the form of a low fertility rate”

(Eun, pp 154 & 155; see bibliography)

Likewise, two weeks ago the Park Geun-hye Administration pinpointed the cause of Korea’s low birthrate “to be the social tendency to marry late”, and announced that it aimed “to buck that trend by rectifying the high-cost marriage culture in Korea, increasing the supply of rental housing for newlyweds and expanding medical insurance benefits for couples with fertility problems.” (Note that the number of marriages in 2014 was estimated to be a record low, with 50% of 30-somethings seeing marriage as “dispensable”.) Last week, Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs researcher Cho Sung-ho reaffirmed that “it is necessary to support young people so they can experience dating, marriage and childbirth without too many difficulties”, and that “In order to do that, creating quality jobs and support programs for job seekers must be introduced as part of measures to tackle the country’s low fertility rate” (source, below: The Hankyoreh).Please Have More Babies

Yet in saying young people need support, surely Cho is is just reiterating Korea’s — and other developed economies’ — biggest social problem of the 2010s (and likely 2020s)? And what use is there in making it easier for young Koreans to get married, when married couples aren’t having enough children in the first place?

Simply put, Park Geun-hye’s announcement feels disingenuous, distracting from the difficult reforms of Korea’s patriarchal work-culture needed.

But my second thought was on the Korean women that do get knocked up. Specifically, those that do so before or without ever getting married, the only two groups I’ve ever heard the term used for (quick question: does anyone use it for married women, except in a humorous sense?). First, because that 2.1% rate of out of wedlock births is actually the highest it’s been in decades, albeit by no means because attitudes have softened over time:

Available statistics [Korea Statistical Yearbook #55, 2008] indicate 6,141 illegitimate child births in 1990 and 8,411 in 2007, representing, respectively, 0.66% and 1.69% of the total child births; a percentage rise that seems mainly due to the general fall in child births from 1990 to 2007 (931,602 in 1990, and 497,188 in 2007).

(Payen p. 72, my emphasis; see bibliography)

(For comparison’s sake, there were 403,500 childbirths in the first 11 months of 2014, while a February 4 estimate put the yearly figure at 430,000. Update: a February 26 report put it at 435,300, the second lowest level ever.)

Second, because despite everything I’ve written above, I was surprised that the the rate wasn’t higher still. Why? Partially, because of personal experience, one of my wife’s cousins having a child before getting married, but no-one in her village treating that as unusual or something to be embarrassed about (she later married and had a second child). And mainly, because that lack of a reaction was already explained by the following comment left by @oranckay on my 2008 post, “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea.” While the post itself has long since been completely rewritten, and the comments deleted (sorry!) because that meant they no longer made sense, you’ll soon see why I decided to save his one:

(Note that it was written in reaction to my surprise and confusion at public outrage at Korean female celebrities kwon sang woo son tae-young pregnancy marriagerevealed to be having premarital sex — how times have changed!(?) — but the lack of any negative reaction to regular announcements of celebrity pregnancies before marriage, one example mentioned in the post being Kwon Sang-woo’s and Sohn Tae-young’s that September {Source, right: Dramabeans}.)

…I think one needs to take into account that not all pre-marital sex is the same. There is a difference between just having sex and having sex with someone you are going to, or intend to, marry, and traditional/Joseon and even 20th Korea saw this as a big difference. Having sex on the premise of, and as consummation of, commitment, was the normal, socially acceptable way to have pre-marital sex. So valued was a woman’s virginity that a decent man could only sleep with her if he was ready to “take responsibility for her,” as the saying would go, and so on, because that’s what sleeping with her was supposed to imply. Fiction and non-fiction narratives (many known to me personally) are full of this kind of thinking. I know couples that decided not to have sex because they weren’t sure they were getting married, that didn’t have sex because he was going to the military and he wanted to be sure he’d come back alive before permanently “making her his,” as that would be too traumatic for her, and of couples that lived together (and obviously were having sex) before being married and it was acceptable because they were going to marry, had family approval, but couldn’t marry because maybe the girl’s elder sister wasn’t married off yet or they were both still in college but both sets of parents wanted to get them married after graduation, or one of those odd reasons. Maybe no money; whatever.

Anyway, the best example I can think of all this is classical Korean prose fiction (since that’s all I ever think about). There is plenty of premarital sex in traditional Korean prose fiction (“novels”), graphic in only a few exceptions I’m afraid, but we are at least told that it is happening. The reason this fiction wasn’t thrown into the flames at Confucian book burning parties (and there were Joseon poets who did indeed call for novels to be burned for their bad influence) was because whenever there is pre-marital sex the parties always end up married. In fact you know they’re going to marry before you get to the end because they slept together. The most readily available example would be “the most classic, all time” story Chunhyang Jeon. The most “대표적” Korean story of all time and it involves “happily ever after” pre-marital sex. So it’s one thing for a celebrity to have a bulging waistline at her wedding and another for a video to surface of her having a romp with one of her producers, for example, or even to shoot a fully nude bed scene in a feature film.

Update: Via KLawGuru, comes news that there used to be a law that was very much in the same vein, and which was only very recently repealed:

In 2009, a crime called “Sexual Intercourse under Pretense of Marriage” was ruled “unconstitutional.” It used to be a crime for a man to have sex with a woman by deliberately deceiving her into believing that he would later marry her. To learn more, click here.

But to reiterate, just how common are those bulging waistlines at weddings? And (how) have people’s attitudes changed over time? After seven years, it was high time to do a proper follow-up on oranckay’s comment. I hit the books.

Chung-hyan Versions(Sources: left, 나는 수풀 우거진 산에 갔더니; right, Opeloverz)

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much at all about premarital pregnancy and childbirth specifically. Instead, I spent much of the next two weeks collecting and typing up a lot of fascinating, related information about attitudes towards virginity, premarital sex, sexual experience, cohabitation, and contraceptive use, forced as I was to deconstruct and think about all aspects of the phenomenon (read: desperately search for any related topics whatsoever in indexes). Then I realized that I was going about things entirely the wrong way, and should: a) devote a separate post to those next month; and b) rely on someone who’s already done all the hard work for me instead. Sure enough, just a couple of pages of the right book would literally speak volumes:

…In the mid-1980s, cohabitation was not rare. [Yoon Hyungsook, pp. 18-24] writes that three out of ten marriages concerned cohabitating couples, and that all these couples even had children at the time of their wedding. Although these couples were not officially married, it was “only” legally, not in the eyes of the villagers. The important point to mention is the fact that all these cohabitations were approved by both spouses’ in-laws, with the wife fulfilling her role of daughter-in-law as if she was legally married. When the wedding ceremony comes later, delayed because of financial difficulties, it confirms a relationship, ascertains the position of the woman in her husband’s family, and makes the couple fully adults in the eyes of society.

So, cohabitation did exist, was not rare, and was often a living arrangement used by people of poorer classes for whom marrying meant heavy expenses. Kendall (p. 123) writes that “by the 1970s cohabitation before marriage was common among village children who worked off the land and among rural migrants to the cities. It remains a common practice among urban workers.”

Spencer and Kim Eun-shil also delve on cohabitation in their studies about female migrant factory workers. But, while for women of Spencer’s research, this living arrangement was not the norm, it was most common in Kim’s research; a difference possibly related to the 20 years that have passed between the two studies and changes of attitudes and practices in relation to marriage and cohabitation (1970-1990).

(Payen, pp. 87-88. Kendall and Spencer books mentioned are below; see bibliography for Kim.)
Getting Married in Korea Cover Yogong Factory Girl Cover(Source, left: Google Books; right, Amazon)

Of course, I can’t possibly do justice to Payen’s thesis on cohabitation in Korea here, nor even on how and why it’s actually become less common since the 1990s, and I acknowledge that the above is just a indirect confirmation of oranckay’s comment really (although that is still valuable). Also, we shouldn’t be left with an overly sanguine, no nonsense image of attitudes to premarital pregnancy in the past either, as the opening to a Korea Herald article about adoption linked earlier attests:

In 1976, a 17-year-old Korean girl gave birth to her first child. A few months before the delivery, she had been forced to marry the man who raped and impregnated her.

“That was the norm at the time,” Noh Geum-ju told The Korea Herald.

“When you get pregnant as an unmarried woman, you have to marry the father of your baby. Other options were unthinkable.”

(The Korea Herald, 28 January, 2014)

I also read that, traditionally, if a suitor was spurned by his intended bride, he could consider raping her to secure her family’s consent. Mostly, due to the shame involved, but of course the imperative was all the greater if she became pregnant. I can’t remember the exact reference sorry (I will add it if I do), but I did find the following:

…The “proper” women must remain chaste, and the requirements of being chaste are utterly crazy. As a rule, a traditional Korean woman carried a small silver knife. The knife is for self-defense, but not the kind of self-defense that you are thinking. The knife is there to kill yourself with if you are about to be “disgraced”. Realistically, “disgraced” means “raped”. However, technically “disgraced” meant any man other than your husband touching you.

One story during the Joseon Dynasty speaks of a virtuous woman who, because a boatman held her hand while helping her into the boat, either jumped out of the boat and drowned herself or cut off her own hand, depending on the version. It is unlikely that this story is true, but this was the moral code to which traditional Korean women were supposed to aspire. In a similar horrifying vein, rape-marriages – forced marriage to a man who raped you – happened regularly until late 1970s, since living with the rapist as a proper woman is better than living as a fallen woman.

(Ask a Korean!, December 3, 2008)

But we were talking about attitudes towards and rates of premarital pregnancy in the 2010s. Which, to conclude this post, naturally I would end up learning more about from the following Korea Times article than from my entire 20-year collection of Korean books(!). Some excerpts (my emphasis):

…premarital pregnancy is now humdrum, even among people who are not stars.

In a survey that consultancy Duo Wed conducted between June 1 and June 14, one-third of 374 newlyweds questioned said the bride was pregnant when they married.

Of these couples, 92.1 percent said their babies were unexpected…

Beautiful D-line…Changing perceptions on premarital pregnancy are also affecting other related industries: wedding dress rentals and tourism businesses.

A wedding dress shop director says she has recently noticed more pregnant brides-to-be.

“They look for dresses depending on the number of months they are pregnant,” says Seo Jung-wook, director of Pertelei, in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.

“Women who are three to five months pregnant fit well into a bell-line dress, while those further into their pregnancy often look good in an empire-lined dress.”

Other dress shops have their own selections of “D-line dresses” in stock because of increased demand [which no longer have to be custom made and bought].

Sigh. I’d always assumed that D-lines were just a joke sideline (no pun intended) to Korea’s body-labeling and shaming craze. I should have known better.

Continuing:

…The tourism industry is also catching up with the trend. Instead of honeymoons, travel operators promote “babymoon” programs for pregnant newlyweds.

These programs avoid placing any burden or stress on the baby or the mother.

Kim Jin-hak, representative director of Honey Island, a tourism agency specializing in services for newlyweds, says the agency’s “babymoon” program is popular with brides…

(The Korea Times, July 23, 2013. Source, above: WStar News)
Babymoon(Source: Lotte Tour)

As always, this is just a start. For many follow-up posts, I plan to look at journal articles (which will probably be more fruitful), Korean-language sources, plus blogs about or often covering marriage and pregnancy in Korea, such as the sadly now defunct On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife. Plus, of course, any readers’ suggestions (for books also!), which will be much appreciated.

Please pass them on, and/or tell me in the comments about any of your own experiences and observations about premarital pregnancy (and so on) in Korea. Do you personally know any women who were pregnant at their weddings? (Or were you or your partner yourself/herself? By all means, please feel free to comment or email me anonymously!) What were their family’s and friends’ feelings and reactions? Was the couple effectively forced to get married, in a case of “사고 쳐서 결혼” (lit., “marriage by accident,” or a shotgun wedding)? How about those of you with Korean partners? Did your foreignness make a difference? Thanks!

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

Bibliography

— Ki-soo, Eun “Family values changing—but still conservative”. In Social Change in Korea, edited by Kim Kyong-dong and The Korea Herald, 146-156. Korea: Jimoondang, 2008.

— Kim, Eun-shil “The Making of the Modern Female Gender: the Politics of Gender in Reproductive Practices in Korea”, (PhD dissertation, University of California, 1993) [Referenced by Payen]

— Payen, Bruno “Cohabitation and Social Pressure in Urban Korea: Examining Korean Cohabitants’ Behavior from a Comparative Perspective with France” (MA thesis, The Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, 2009).

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61
Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

Sunday Fun: Bottoms!

Hidamari Sketch EscherGirlMy 8 year-old daughter Alice is really into comics these days, often hiding our home phone under her pillow to keep reading when she’s supposed to be asleep. To my chagrin, she couldn’t care less if the female characters have huge eyes though, and/or no noses. But yesterday, I noticed the above while she was watching the opening to the anime adaptation of Hidamari Sketch. It was a great opportunity to start teaching her about female characters’ typical poses too.

Cue 20 minutes of giggling at the bottoms in the Escher Girls blog, which ultimately had the whole family trying—and failing—to imitate some of the pictures (although I was pretty good myself actually). Naturally, we quickly skipped past some of the more inappropriate ones, and Alice still has no idea why female characters are so often drawn in a “boobs and butt” style. But at least she’s aware of the phenomenon now, and, with gentle prodding from me, will hopefully think more about it herself as she gets older.

For now though, she’s still very much a 8 year-old girl, and I can hardly fault her for that. Much of those 20 minutes were also spent by her and her 6 year-old sister Elizabeth saying “와! 예쁘다…” (Wow! They’re so pretty…), and today this post took a long time to write because she kept on stopping me to tell me all about the characters in Hidamari Sketch. Including Yoshinoya above, who’s supposedly a high school teacher (sigh)…

I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

Finding a place to call your own – My Place

My Place Eng Poster

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

[Press statement]

Finding a place to call your own – My Place

Foreigners in Korea often find themselves caught between cultures. Whether you are adjusting to your new English teaching job, working with Korean colleagues, in a relationship with a Korean partner, or even just travelling as a tourist, you are sometimes baffled, at times intrigued, and certainly trying to navigate through the differences you encounter. For people who find themselves in a transnational context, the documentary <My Place> will speak volumes.

The heart-felt film, <My Place>, depicts an intimate portrait of the director’s own family struggling to overcome past wounds of reverse migration from Canada to Korea. Family members, each in a different way, had to deal with the hurdles of societal norms, a repressive education system, and gender inequality dealt to them by the Korean society. This illuminating film explores clashes between Western and Eastern cultures, traditional values versus the contemporary, and broader themes of societal normalcy, identity, and belonging.

The film begins when the director’s little sister decides to become an unwed single mom. The little sister decides to raise the child in Canada as she never felt welcome in her parent’s homeland, South Korea. As the film progresses, the lives of parents, intertwined with Korea’s modern history is discovered, while family members try to come together to face the challenges of raising a new baby outside of the traditional family form. While following the trajectories of family members, constantly on the move in search of their own place, the film seemingly concludes that ‘My place’ isn’t so much a spot on the map, but a place that lies in the relationships that one holds close to their heart.

After touring the film festival circuit, while winning numerous awards on its way (among others, Jeonju International Film Festival – Audience Critics’ Prize, Seoul Independent Film Festival – Jury Prize) the film is now preparing for its theatrical release on January 30th. The film has also won the Audience Award, at last year’s Chewsock Film Festival – as the name implies, a film festival for expats bored during the Chuseok holiday in Korea – proving that the honesty of this deeply personal documentary and universal theme of yearning for a place in this world, transcends language barriers and cultural differences, while its subtle commentary on the differences between Eastern and Western cultures seem to speak to the experiences of expats in Korea.

To cater to the needs of foreigners, English subtitles will be provided for all screenings at the KT&G Sangsang Madang Theater in Hongdae district, and Indieplus near Sinsa Station. One other theater in Seoul ― IndieSpace near Gwanghwamun Station ― will also provide English subs for screenings from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, during the Lunar New Year Holiday(Sulnal).

*KT&G SangsangMadang Cinema (Hongdae) : 02-330-6200 http://www.sangsangmadang.com/cinema/

*INDIEPLUS (Sinsa) : 02-3447-0650 http://www.indieplus.or.kr/jsp2/index.jsp

*INDIESPACE (Gwangwhamoon) : 02-738-0366 http://indiespace.tistory.com/1715

*For more info on Screenings with English subtitles : https://www.facebook.com/AllInKoreanWithEnglishSubsPlease

*More info on film:

https://www.facebook.com/DocumentaryMyPlace (Korean with some English)

https://www.facebook.com/ssmadangcinema (Korean)

https://twitter.com/sangsangfilm (Korean)

Reader Request: Looking for people to share stories about relationships in Korea

Couple ShoesI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

Looking for people to share stories about relationships in Korea

*********Have you fallen in love in South Korea? Battled cultural differences and other pressures to be with someone you never would have met anywhere else? Found the freedom to do things, meet people, or be someone you wouldn’t have dared to at home? Kept things going long-term and long-distance? Decided that dating in Korea is just too daunting and put that side of your life on hold while you’re here? Worn a couple shirt?

If you have a great story you’d like to share about dating, relationships and sex in Korea, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m making a documentary about how living in Korea can affect relationships, and I’d like to interview people with experiences that been delightful and difficult, wonderful and weird, sour and sweet.

It would be great to speak to partnered and single, cis- and trans-gender people, from a variety of backgrounds, and with a range of preferences and interests, including:

  • Korean people with experiences with other Korean people and people from other countries;
  • Non-Korean people with experiences with people from Korea and other countries;
  • People in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships with one or more partners;
  • People happy or unhappy not to be in a relationship;
  • People who have made their homes in Korea;
  • People who are in Korea on a temporary basis.

The film will be inclusive, non-judgemental and sex-positive, allowing the stories to act as an honest look at the unique experience of looking for, holding onto and losing companionship in Korea. To this end, and because I intend it for gallery screenings, the film probably won’t be a traditional talking-heads documentary. Instead, I’ll try to respond creatively to the themes of the stories people tell me, especially when the storytellers wish to remain anonymous. If you’re happy to appear on camera, that’s great, but if you’d like to share your story and would rather not have your face, voice or name be part of the film, I’ll find ways to accommodate those wishes.

I hope to collect stories in December and January, and am happy to travel anywhere in Korea to conduct interviews.

If you’d like to know more, or if you’re interested in taking part, please get in touch at relationshipsinkorea@gmail.com

Ben

Reader Request: Korean-Western Relationships and Gaining Acceptance from the Korean Parents

Korean-Western Relationships(Sources, edited: left, middle, right)

The following was originally posted as a short comment to Korean Sociological Image #78: Multicultural Families in Korean Textbooks; for the sake of giving it more exposure, and thereby hopefully more chances of finding a solution, I encouraged the author to expand it into this separate post. If anyone can give her advice, especially those who’ve been in similar situations (please post anonymously if you prefer), and/or can direct her to helpful websites, she would be very grateful:

*********My name is Jess.  My backstory is a depressing picture of humanity, so we’ll skip it.  I complete my schooling and earn my certification in 8 months.  My grandmother owns a massage therapy and alternative health shop, and I am set to join her in her practice.  I hope to expand the business and hopefully retire her (if I can convince her to) before continuing my formal education.  I have two beautiful, bright little girls.

H grew up in Southern California.  I don’t understand the “generation” terms very well, but his parents moved here from Korea.  He is a nurse (or a murse, he jokes), and works in the ICU of a hospital in the city he lives in.  For the sake of anonymity, I’ll skip a lot of his backstory as well.  I live midstate, he lives in the Northern part of the state.

We met in a bar.  It’s a very funny story, but I can’t seem to tell even a bit of it without writing six pages.  Basically, boy meets girl, boy hits on girl, girl tries to scare off boy with picture of her offspring and fails.  Miserably.  I spent the first half of our friendship trying to put him off.

The first time he ever called me, we talked for three hours.  And this set the precedent. We had regular, lengthy conversations about immediately relevant things:  who we are, what we do, how our minds work, etc.  I’ve never felt so picked over in my life.  I don’t think he expected to find a person like me in the stereotype I inhabited… just as I didn’t expect to find someone like him.  Neither of us expected it, and I think that’s why it happened.  We fell in love by accident and were fighting it all along for various reasons.  He seemed terribly conflicted all the time.  He would ask me repeatedly to date him—which I would decline—then turn around and insist that I not get attached to him.  It never made sense.

Long story short, 6 or 7 months ago, we started seeing each other more regularly.  The more I saw him, the more I found that I was falling for him.  I was careful.  I wanted to be sure that what I was feeling was real and not a byproduct of a past failure or the fact that he was a challenge.  When I was certain of what I was feeling, I began to try to understand what was going on in his head.  Eventually, I realized that his mixed signals weren’t purely because of him.  It wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough in his mind.  I realized that he wasn’t ALLOWED to have me.  That didn’t make sense.   The end result was the same, though, I wasn’t an option for him.  Shortly after this, he admitted that he didn’t like me seeing anyone else.  In short order, we were exclusive.  Not only was I seeing him more, but now we were only seeing each other.

Over the year that we had known each other, our relationship shot through so many levels unimpeded, I’ve never felt anything like it.  It was honest, right from the beginning because neither of us expected ANYTHING to evolve from it, let alone an exhilarating friendship or compatible romance.  I knew all along H couldn’t have a relationship with me, but it wasn’t until after I was good and head over heels that he hinted at the real reasons why we couldn’t be together.  When he did, our relationship started shifting.  We began mourning.  It got to be too much.  It wasn’t fair.  I tried breaking it off multiple times.  The first time, he didn’t call me for three weeks.  After nearly a year of talking to him regularly, it was a stark adjustment.  I resolved myself to letting it go and getting on with my life.  Then, I think it was the end of June.. he called me in the middle of the day.  He had a long drive ahead of him.  He was alarmed by how much he missed me.  I was alarmed how high my heart soared hearing his voice.  I didn’t even realize how badly I needed that.  He “accidentally” told me he loved me.  I gritted my teeth and brushed it off, just immensely soothed that he had no intentions of disappearing, still.  That was all it took, though.  One phone call and we were right back to seeing each other.

Over the next few months, we just had to admit to ourselves that we did love each other.  There wasn’t anything we could do to change it.  He finally told me in detail the reasons why his family wouldn’t approve of me.  I began making every attempt to understand it.  I never stopped.  We never stopped seeing each other, but we were always worried about the anvil of his family hanging over our heads.  Even if we found everything we needed in each other, when that anvil dropped the bond was doomed.

It unraveled when he went to his cousin’s wedding.  He noticed that his uncle was so proud and happy looking at his son and new daughter-in-law.  He remembered the way his father looked, at his brother’s wedding.  H realized that he wouldn’t have that if he stayed with me.  None of this was fair.  He was torn.  He felt he was wasting my time.  He broke it off with me.   I was shocked.  He had changed gears again.  He had gone from needing reassured that it wasn’t changing for me, to disappearing.  It lasted a day.  I was a mess; he called me hoping to help me out of it, and ended up worse himself.   In my attempts to cope, I had started writing a letter.  I knew my letter wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind, but I just wanted to know WHY it had to be this way… I didn’t tell him about the letter.  But his mind (as always) was in the same place mine was.  He asked me if I wanted to send one.  I’ll state for the record, that this was a stupid idea born of two distressed minds, but I did.  The letter was just as positively received as he imagined it would be.  His mother cried.  His father jumped to conclusions that were so far from possible that it let me know just how shocked and appalled they were.  This was extremely upsetting for them.  But… they did tell him that they couldn’t control him.  He decided to stick to his guns and call it over.  I was left coping.  I had a simple birthday gift I’d had waiting for the next time I would see him.  I almost didn’t go, but I took it to him, deciding that I was going to leave quickly.

I’m not sure which of us asked to talk, but we ended up curling up to talk about it.  In my attempts to not be emotionally manipulative or force my needs on him, I had not told him how much time I’d spent researching the issue.  I hadn’t told him that I’d looked up language lessons in the area, how far ahead I had thought and how prepared I was to sustain this effort for as long as it took, if he wanted me.  I’m not sure if I was right or wrong, but it meant that he was unaware.  He asked me to stay.  I took him to the place that I grew up.  I showed him key places from my childhood and teen years. He took me to a Korean restaurant.  His fortune cookie read, “Discover your companion’s world.  Two worlds are better than one.” Which is exactly what he had spent all day doing.  Mine said, “Time is precious, but truth is more precious than time.” Which is exactly what I had been trying to explain to him all weekend.  We had an uncomfortable laugh.   By the end of the weekend, his thoughts and emotions were scattered again.  He wanted to call his brother.  I didn’t know what that would solve.  I just wanted him to stop and think about what he was doing for once, because the whole time he had just been making it worse by getting ahead of himself and freaking out.  If he wanted it to work, he needed to be calm and sure.  If he didn’t want it to work, there was no need to alarm his family more.  I would just leave.  I made him stop and think about what he wanted to accomplish.  We pulled out our schedules to figure out when we both had a good chunk of time.  We made tentative plans for me to meet his brother (who lives out of state).  He told me not to get my hopes up.  To just calm down and be chill for a while.  I couldn’t agree more.  This has been taking up entirely too much energy.  It’s time to get back to bantering, laughing deviously, outwitting each other, and discussing things of no import until we have to worry again.

I’ve spent a long time pondering, reading, and learning, trying to find a way around the problem.  It’s not really about who I am as a person.  I feel no pain from the absoluteness of how they look at me.  It’s what I am.  I’m not Korean.  I have children.  I am not at all what they would want for their son, their family.  I can’t change what I am, but I know we are not the only people in this situation.   I haven’t found many articles about the problems in my particular situation.  Usually, racism is full of hatred and cold-hearted callousness.  I have found MANY instances of couples overcoming and succeeding despite situations like that… but I haven’t been able to find many stories about families like H’s–just enough to have hope; not enough for a thorough understanding.  Their disapproval isn’t like that.  They aren’t hateful.  They aren’t callous.  This causes them pain.  I have a lot to offer, but to say that I’m not what they expected… that’s an understatement of epic proportions.  The advice that I seek is how to bridge that kind of a gap.  I’m looking for anything that might help.  I’m looking for people who’ve been in a situation like this and found success, I want to know what they’ve DONE or avoided doing.  Even if not exactly (his parents are individuals, too, there’s no tried and true approach), each success story I can find could offer a pearl of wisdom to guide me through this. (END)

***

Again, any specific advice readers can provide would be appreciated, and/or links. For the latter, off the top of my head I would recommend Speaking of China, AMWF Love, and possibly Texan in Tokyo, the last found while searching for images to accompany this post (and failing — unfortunately, I don’t like to use “ordinary” couple’s pictures without their permission!). Also, there are of course a great many blogs by Western women with Korean or Asian partners out there, some of whom may have written about meeting his parents at some point — if anyone knows of any specific posts, again Jess would be very grateful. Thanks!

Update: Speaking of China has provided a round-up of links with dating advice for Chinese-Western couples here.