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 I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.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.

Korean Women’s Sexual Histories: Still a slippery subject

Durex Korea Condom Ad December 2013(Source)

Remember last summer, when Korea’s first condom commercials came out?

Showing a woman bringing condoms to a date, I hailed Durex Korea for challenging popular, slut-shaming attitudes that women must feign sexual inexperience and naivety with new partners, with contraception widely considered only men’s responsibility.

But those would be the last condoms to grace Korean TV screens, by any company. Add Durex Korea’s recent, asinine marketing attempts, and that its Facebook page looks like it belongs to a lads’ mag, then the cynic in me lamented that last year’s efforts weren’t so much the start of a progressive, feminist campaign as simple, one-off copies of the original.

Then I discovered that there had been a similar, OMG-girls-like-sex-too commercial back in December, which played on various cable channels after 10pm:

Durex Korea Condom Ad December 2013 screenshotSounds awesome, right? Even if it was just a copy again.

My hopes raised, I began looking for more information, but was soon frustrated by the lack of mention on Durex Korea’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and blog. What’s more, there proved to be only one low-res, IE-only version of it that is publicly available. (Another requires a paid subscription to this site.)

I began to suspect that some unspecified controversy spilling over from last year’s June commercials may have been responsible, as those videos are also no longer available on its FB page (although the posts are). But probably that’s just simple neglect; with a Facebook page, Twitter, and blog myself, I can confirm that it’s difficult finding the time or inclination to fix broken links in old, rarely-read posts. Better to create new content, and accordingly Korean companies rarely keep old ads on their websites, preferring that consumers focus on their recent most ones instead. Sure enough, Durex Korea’s reply to my tweet made me realize that it was actually private Youtube users that were originally responsible for (re)uploading and sharing their June commercials, without whom they too wouldn’t be publicly available today.

I guess the December commercial just wasn’t all that popular really—there was never any great patriarchal conspiracy to have it removed. But, popular or not, it shouldn’t have been such a struggle to find more information—any information—about a (relatively) groundbreaking campaign, let alone from the company responsible. So, again, I have to conclude that Durex Korea was never making any real effort to engage with female consumers and challenge double-standards. Sigh.

This summer then, it’s probably T-ara member Eun-jung’s recentconfession” to—shock! horror!—past sexual relationships that is most likely to have an impact on how the public views or discusses theirs. Or, alternatively, the news that matchmaking companies no longer assume that their female clients will pretend to be virgins before marriage…

Korean Couple Under the Co vers(Source)

That’s the takeaway message from this survey by two matchmaking companies, currently making the rounds of the Korean portals. Ostensibly, its message is actually that Korean women let men take the initiative when it comes to sexual relationships, and that previous experience with one partner makes a significant number of women—not men—much “more cautious” with their subsequent ones. Which does appear to confirm previous, more rigorous surveys, and hence the context about double-standards provided in the first half of this post.

But with no mention of the methodology, what exactly “more cautious” (etc.) means, and likely a self-selecting sample population? Then really, it confirms nothing at all. Please make of it what you will:

미혼女 34%, 애인과의 첫 성관계는 ‘술김에…’ 34% of unmarried woman need alcohol for their first time with a lover

이낙규 기자 (nak17@ajunews.com) 26.06.14

성(性)에 대한 의식이 개방적으로 바뀌고 있지만 미혼여성들은 아직도 10명 중 6명 이상이 애인과 첫 관계를 가질 때 술의 힘을 빌린다던가 억지로 끌려가는 듯한 수동적 자세인 반면, 남성은 10명 중 7명 정도가 성관계를 주도하거나 적극적인 자세로 임하는 것으로 나타났다.

Awareness of and attitudes towards sex are changing these days, [but still traditional gender roles remain]. With a new lover, six out of ten women admit that they take advantage of alcohol to overcome their shyness or reluctance when having sex for the first time, and/or passively accept it when their partner is insistent, whereas seven out of ten men believe they have to take the initiative and assume an active role.

결혼정보회사 비에나래가 결혼정보업체 온리-유와 공동으로 미혼남녀 544명을 대상으로 ‘애인과 첫 성관계를 가질 때 본인의 자세’에 대한 설문조사를 실시했다.

Marriage matchmaking companies Bien Aller and Only You surveyed 544 male and female customers, asking them about their thoughts and feelings the first time they had sex with previous partners.

그결과 남성과 여성의 반응이 판이하게 달랐는데, 남성은 37.1%가 ‘주도적’, 33.5%는 ‘적극적’으로 답해 나란히 1, 2위를 차지했다. 즉 70.6%가 능동적이라는 것을 알 수 있다.

Men and women differed quite widely in their replies. Out of the men, 37.1% said they took the lead, and 33.5% that they were active in initiating sex, the top two replies. Altogether, 70.6% said they took an active role.

Wait, I'm beginning to feel something(Source)

반면 여성은 34.2%가 ‘술의 힘을 빌린다’, 28.3%는 ‘억지로 끌려가듯 (응한다)’이라고 답해 상위 1, 2위에 올랐다. 성관계를 거부하지는 않지만 수동적인 자세가 62.5%이다.

In contrast, 34.2% of women said they need alcohol [to get over their shyness or reluctance], and 28.3% that their partner insisted, the top two replies. Altogether, 62.5% said they weren’t against a sexual relationship, but they assumed a passive role.

그 다음 세 번째로는 남녀 공히 4명 중 한 명꼴이 ‘자연스럽게 임한다'(남 26.1%, 여 24.6%)고 답했다.

With both men (26.1%) and women (24.6%), the third most common reply was that they “just behaved naturally.”

‘성 경험이 있는 상황에서 다른 애인과 성관계를 가질 때의 마음 상태’에 대해서도 남녀 간에 시각차를 보였다.

With the question of how previous their sexual experience impacted their feelings about sex with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a big difference was visible in the replies from men and women.

남성은 ‘(마음이) 더 편해진다’가 54.7%로서 과반수를 차지했고, ‘변함없다'(33.5%)에 이어 ‘더 신중해 진다'(12.8%)가 뒤따랐으나, 여성은 ‘마음이 더 편해진다'(42.7%)는 대답이 가장 많기는 하나, 그 다음의 ‘더 신중해진다'(39.7%)와 큰 차이가 없었고(3.0%포인트), ‘변함없다’는 대답은 17.6%였다.

With men, more than half (54.7%) replied it would make them feel more comfortable; 33.5%, no change; and 12.6% that it would make them more cautious. While “more comfortable” was also 고준희 정진운the most popular reply with women (42.7%), 39.7% replied that it would make them more cautious, a gap of only 3%; 17.6% replied that it wouldn’t make any difference.

자세한 응답분포를 보면 남성은 ‘다소 편해진다'(37.5%) – ‘변함없다'(33.5%) – ‘훨씬 더 편해진다'(16.2%) – ‘다소 신중해진다'(12.8%) 등의 순이고, 여성은 ‘다소 편해진다'(31.3%) – ‘다소 신중해진다'(29.4%) – ‘변함없다'(17.6%) – ‘(훨씬 더 편해진다'(11.4%) – ‘훨씬 더 신중해 진다'(10.3%)의 순서이다 (source, right).

In detail, 37.5% of men replied that it would make them a little more comfortable; 33.5% no change; 16.2% a lot more comfortable; and 12.8% that it would make them a little more cautious. With women, 31.3% replied that it would make them a little more comfortable; 29.4% a little more cautious; 17.6%, no change; 11.4% a lot more comfortable; and 10.3% a lot more cautious. (END)

Thoughts?

Korean Sociological Image #84: What is the REAL reason for the backlash against Korean women?

Misandry Large 1Misandry Large 2Misandry Large 3(Source: Unknown)

Whenever one group suddenly starts competing with another for jobs, there’s going to be a backlash. That’s just human nature.

Especially if one group has any real or perceived advantages in that competition.

In Korea, the targets are young women, who are exempt from doing two years of military service. They are often made scapegoats for young men’s inability to get work, rather than blaming the government which just reaffirmed that it’s only men that must spend so much time out of the workforce, and/or lose opportunities for further education and gaining extra qualifications. Previously, former conscripts were compensated with extra points when applying for jobs with the government or public organizations, but that policy was ruled unconstitutional in 1999, on the grounds that it was discriminatory. Repeated attempts to reintroduce it have failed.

(To clarify, I’d prefer an end to conscription and the creation of professional armed forces instead, despite the difficulties Taiwan is currently having with that.)

Ironically though, the backlash in much of the 2000s was not due to women taking over “men’s jobs”. In fact, it was the other way round, with a significant number of men losing better paid, advancing, more secure, regular work and being forced to compete for the irregular jobs that were—and still are—primarily done by women. You can see this in following slides I used in my last presentation (see here for the source and a more detailed explanation).

First, here are graphs showing the percentage rates and numbers of all workers (both men and women) doing regular and irregular work over time:

Korea Regular vs. Irregular JobsTo be clear, the above graphs give no indication that it was primarily men that lost those regular jobs, and were forced to take up irregular ones instead. However, unstated is the fact that women with regular work were already targeted for layoffs in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, with the result that they took up irregular work in droves before 2002. So it’s a safe assumption.

What’s more, there’s the next graph, which shows the the percentage rates and numbers of men and women doing irregular work. As women’s rates barely changed, the implication is that the regular jobs men lost weren’t taken over by women:

Korea Irregular Jobs Men vs. WomenWith rates settling in 2004 though, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the ongoing backlash in 2014 on the shift (although it certainly echoes in popular culture, with today’s freshmen—of both sexes—espousing the negative stereotypes). Today’s generation of young, job-seeking men are much more used to the difficulties of finding regular work, and certainly have no objective reason to fear or resent working women.

Or do they? See my next slide, a screenshot from this Arirang news video:

Korean 20s Economic Participation Rate 2013 ArirangWhat’s more, Yonhap just reported that the gap has continued to widen—in fact, that the crossover occurred as early as 2010. As translated by koreaBANG (my emphases):

The trend in the employment rate of female to male workers in their twenties over the last 4 years has made a historic reversal. Due to so-called ‘female power’, the gap is getting larger.

According to the National Statistics Office’s statements on the 19th, the employment rate of 20-something female workers last year was 57.8%. This is 2.1 percentage points higher than their male counterparts(56.8%)…

…Since 2010, the employment rate of female workers in their twenties has been higher than their male counterparts.

In 2010, the employment rate of female 20-something workers, at 58.3%, surpassed the rate of males by 0.1%. In 2011, the lead increased to 0.4%, and in 2012, as women lead by 1.5%, the gap continues to widen.

The rate of economic participation of female 20-somethings was 62.5% in 2011, then rose to 62.9% in 2012. Conversely, the men went from 64% down to 62.6%, being surpassed by the women for the first time by 0.3%.

The labor market is changing little by little as women obtain higher levels of education and more positions in the workplace.

In every part of society, the female tornado is blowing strong even in specialized careers, and women are making considerable advances.

A gap of 2.1% hardly sounds like a “tornado” of “female power” to me, and much more like natural variation. But I can understand how news of women’s “considerable advances” might rankle, especially in the context of Korea’s lowest twenty-something employment rates since 2000, and the numbers of students deferring graduation nearly doubling in the last two years. It’s not at all difficult to empathize with a male graduate stuck working at (say) a convenience store, frustrated at how some women he went to university have regular jobs because they gained skills and qualifications during the two years he was stuck in the military.

Still, likely that’s not the only reason he’s angry:

Korean Gender Ratio 1981-2012(Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission)

Put simply, most of Korea’s extra boys are now men, and many of them can’t find girlfriends and wives. Most likely, precisely those who lack the steady jobs and money to be considered good partners.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, so let’s not mince words. I mean they can’t get laid.

That may sound facetious, and/or that I’m laughing at them. I’m not. Because fourteen years ago, frankly I was in a very similar situation myself. After graduating, I too couldn’t find a good job, and had to work three part-time ones just to scrape by (when my Doc Martins got holes in them, I had to put cardboard in them every day until I could afford new ones; yes, really). Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for dating, and wouldn’t have been very successful if I did.

I felt trapped.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of being able to take up a well-paying job (for a 24 year-old) in Korea, and, desperate in more ways than one, I took advantage of that just six months after graduating. So, while I can definitely empathize with how my students must feel today, on the other hand I can only imagine what it must feel like to never have the option to escape that I had, with no prospect of a partner or steady job for your entire twenties or beyond.

Still, I wasn’t spewing hatred about New Zealand women back in 2000, and likewise most of Korea’s angry young men (or indeed, China and India’s) aren’t destined to be misogynists in 2014 either. Most do direct their anger at the government and chaebol that deserve it.

Unfortunately though, all too many seem to firmly believe in such charming stereotypes as ‘kimchi bitches‘ instead. Moreover, China and India’s own “angry young males” are already considered huge sources of instability, crime, and sexual violence in those countries. Why would Korea’s be any different?

Also, the data raises a simple but important question: do the statistics about twenty-something men and women’s economic participation rates take into account the fact that there’s actually far more twenty-something men than women out there? That while a greater proportion of women than men are working now, that more men than women may still be working overall?

If not, then that “tornado” of “female power” may prove to be nothing more than hot air. Which makes you wonder why the media seems so full of it…

angry-chinese-man(Source: GR × HERMARK)

Either way, of course I’m grossly overgeneralizing in this post, so please feel free to call me out on that, and add any important information I’ve overlooked (I acknowledge I’m no great statistician too, and would appreciate any additional sources of data). But I think these demographic realities do significantly add to the many, often quite legitimate reasons for many young Korean men’s sense of anxiety in post-crisis Korea (which is not to say that things are any rosier for young Korean women), and it’s also fair to say that anxiety seems to be manifesting itself in excessive, distorted, and/or caricatured critiques and stereotypes of women. So at the very least, I hope knowing about all the extra men out there provides some much-needed context to current employment statistics and women-blaming. In hindsight, it’s extraordinary that any discussions of either wouldn’t take them into account.

What have I missed?

Update: Meanwhile, note that Korean women’s overall employment rate remains one of the lowest in the OECD, and that this is one of the main reasons for its equally dismal birthrate. However, as reported by Asian Correspondent yesterday, the Korean government is not about to upset gender norms by making life any easier for working parents. Lest that sound like an exaggeration, recall that the previous Lee Myung-bak Administration also (re)criminalized abortion in order to raise the birthrate, a policy continued by Park Geun-hye (my emphases):

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in 2010, marriage was the leading cause for South Korean women to quit their jobs – not childrearing. According to the poll, females in general have a 37.8 percent higher chance to give up work after getting married than if they were single – a percentage that shoots up to 58.2 for those in their 20s. The likelihood, however, of married mothers to leave their jobs was only 2.9 percent higher than married women without children. The federation explains these statistics by saying it is due to the foundational social belief that females should be full-time homemakers…

…Despite these numbers, measures to change cultural expectations – that it is not only the woman’s responsibility to care for children – are being opposed. In January, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rejected one of President Park’s campaign promises: mandatory paid paternity leave, or “Father’s Month.” Ministry officials quoted potential financial problems such as the depletion of employment reserve funding for the opposition against the bill. They added that they will work towards a resolution but are unsure how they will initiate it.

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

Korean Sociological Image #83: Vintage Contraceptive Pill Commercials

Spending the weekend looking for 8 year-old contraceptive pill commercials, as one does, I ended up finding some adorable 38 year-old ones instead:

Take the title dates with a grain of salt: this brief post says that they actually come from 1982, 1976, and 1976 respectively, and the second at least is corroborated by very similar print advertisements appearing in 1976 newspapers. The writer gains further credibility by noting the names of the actors in the first (An So-yeong/안소영) and third ones (Yeon Gyu-jin/연규진 and Yeom Bok-soon/염복순), and by pointing out that the 1970s ones would have appeared in cinemas rather than on television—although as TV bans on contraceptive commercials weren’t actually lifted until 2006, then presumably the same goes for the 1982 one too.

Here’s what Yeon Gyu-jin (love his expression!) and Yeom Bok-soon ‘say’ in the last one, although I confess I’m a little confused by the end caption that says it’s a “contraceptive pill that you don’t take” (먹지않는 피임야):

M: 이봐, 이봐, 첫 아기는 아들이야. / The first one has to be a son.

W: 어휴, 어휴 아들 좋아하네. 누구맘대로. 딸이 좋단 말이예요. / Tsk. You like boys, but it won’t happen. I like girls.

M: 글쎄 아들이라니까. / Well, I said I like boys.

W: 어휴, 어휴 딸이란 말이예요. / Well, I said I like girls.

M: 당신같은 딸 낳아 누굴 또 속 썩일려구. 어휴…. / If we get a girl like you, she’ll be a handful…

W: 그럼 자기 나 닮은 아들, 딸 어때요? Then, how about a boy and a girl that look like me?

M: 에이,,에이.. 그게 당신맘대로 할 수 있어? Is that something you can happen just because you want it to?

W: 그건 저한테 맡겨 주세요. 제가 자신있으니까요.  You leave that up to me. I’m confident!

Korea Contraceptive PillCelebrating 50 years of the pill in — where else? — a nightclub :) Source.

However charming the commercials may appear now though, any nostalgia for simpler times would be misplaced, as in reality Korea’s population polices were every bit as systematic and draconian as China’s back then. What’s more, the state tended to view the pill as a temporary or supplemental contraceptive at best, much preferring one-shot and permanent methods. In the 1960s, that would be the “patriotic” and “ideal” IUD; by the 1980s, sterilization.

In light of that, these pill commercials become all the more exceptional(?) and intriguing. I’d appreciate any additional information readers can provide about them.

Likewise, it’ll be interesting to see what contraceptive commercials appear — or rather don’t appear — on Korean screens in the future as the Park Geun-hye administration grapples with Korea’s ironic world-low birthrate. Because on the one hand, it is regrettable that the former Lee Myung-bak administration saw no need to defend women’s access to the pill, and it is preposterous that his (re)criminalization of abortion — which simply puts women’s lives at risk — is likewise viewed by his successor as a viable method of baby-making. But on the other, because of course Korea is now a democracy, and finally aired its first condom commercials on television in July last year, and with a firm sex-is-fun message at that (in contrast to the PSAs that were briefly allowed in October 2004). Here’s hoping there’ll be a lot more coming this year too! ;D

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

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.

Miss A (Still) Don’t Need a Man…And Neither Did Destiny’s Child

Fei Doesn't Need a Man(Source)

Has it been a year already?

Sorry for the slow posting everyone—I’ve had a bad cold for over two weeks. But, serendipitously, it’s a great time to be thinking about Miss A again, their second album Hush being released just a few hours ago.

Sure enough, I’ve just learned about the connections between their 2012 song I Don’t Need a Man and Independent Women by Destiny’s Child, through translating the following music column. I completely overlooked them when I compared Miss A’s song to Bloom by Ga-in, and it’s made me keen to learn more about the genealogy of the seven new songs coming up too, especially as JYP is no longer composing them.

Unfortunately though, letting us know about those connections proves to be just about the only thing of interest in the column, and in hindsight they were also pointed out by many other commentators last year, who discussed them in much greater depth. So, after I post my translation, I’ll do my best to sum-up that earlier commentary, for the sake of readers like me who are also only just now learning of the ties to Destiny’s Child.

But first, to refresh your memory (with just the Korean, Romanized, and English lyrics):

The music video itself:

Here’s Destiny’s Child Independent Women:

Here are the lyrics alone:

Technically, those last two were Part 1, and here’s Part 2 below, which is why (duh) Miss A’s mini-album was called Independent Women Part 3. But beyond this sole video, I’ve been unable to find any more information about Part 2 specifically, so would appreciate it if any readers can help out.

Finally, here’s a video of Destiny’s Child reuniting to perform the song at the last Superbowl. Also, see Sociological Images for a response to misguided complaints of Beyoncé’s (alleged) sexual objectification in her performance, which I applied to K-pop here:

Which brings us to the (curiously-titled) column:

고민없는 이야기는 고민없이 들어야 할까 / Do We Have to Listen to a Story Without Worry…Without Worry?

Ilda Women’s Journal, 6 October 2013

– 음악칼럼 ‘블럭의 한 곡 들여다보기’가 연재됩니다. 필자 ‘블럭(bluc)’님은 음악웹진 스캐터브레인의 편집자이자 흑인음악 매거진 힙합엘이의 운영진입니다. [편집자 주]

– This is the music column “Let’s Check out a Song with Bluc.” Bluc is a writer for webzine Scatterbrain and the manager of black music magazine Hiphop LE.

데스티니스 차일드의 오마주 / A Homage to Destiny’s Child

“남자 없이 잘 살아”는 2012년 10월에 미스에이(Miss A)가 EP(Extended Play, 미니앨범) [Independent Women Part III]를 발표하면서, 첫 싱글로 선택하여 활동했던 곡이다. 곡은 나쁘지 않은 흥행 성적을 거두었고, 생각보다 크지는 않았지만 가사 내용으로도 나름의 주목을 받았다.

In October last year, “I Don’t Need a Man” was released as the lead track of Miss A’s extended play mini-album, “Independent Women Part III.” It was moderately popular, and the lyrics also received some attention, although not as much as I expected.

음반 보도자료에서는 이 곡을 “당당하고 독립적인 여성상을 그린 서던힙합 곡”이라고 소개했다. 근데 정말 이 곡은 홍보 내용 그대로일까?

The music media portrayed introduced the song as “Southern [US] hip-hop style with bold and independent women.” But do the contents live up to the PR hype?

Miss A I Don't Need a Man Suzy Hair Salon(Source)

우선 앨범 제목(Independent Women Part III)이 다소 뜬금없이 파트 3으로 건너뛰는 이유에 대해서 찾아보니, 이전에 미국 3인조 알앤비 걸그룹 데스티니스 차일드(Destiny’s Child)가 “Independent Women” 이라는 이름의 곡을 Part 1과 2라는 이름으로 발표한 바 있다. 말하자면 이번 앨범의 컨셉을 데스티니스 차일드의 오마주 격으로 쓴 것이다. 전후 이야기를 알고 보니 원곡들의 가사와 의도를 따라 “남자 없이 잘 살아”라는 곡을 만든 이유, 동시에 타이틀 곡으로 밀게 된 이유를 어느 정도 짐작할 수 있다.

Frist, the album title — Independent Women Part III — comes a little out of the blue. Researching the reason for it, I learned it came from the “Independent Women” Part 1 and Part 2 songs of Destiny’s Child, a former US girl’s R&B group — this album concept was written as a homage to them. From this, I was able to make a guess as to why Miss A followed the lyrics of the original Destiny’s Child song(s) and why they made “I Don’t Need a Man” the title track.

그러나 미안한 이야기지만 데스티니스 차일드의 원곡은 그렇게 감수성을 지닌 곡이 아니다. 2000년에 발표된 영화 <미녀 삼총사>의 OST인데, 영화는 세 명의 천사라고 불리는 사립탐정들이 사건을 해결해 나가는 내용이다. 극중 세 여성은 당당하고 진취적인 캐릭터이다. 그런 맥락을 따라 OST 중 하나로 “Independent Women”이라는 곡을 쓴 것이다.

However, although I hate to say this, the original Destiny’s Child song is not very inspiring or moving. It was made in 2000 for the movie Charlie’s Angels, about three private detectives who solve crimes. Their characters are all bold and take the initiative, and the song “Independent Women” followed accordingly.

Destiny's Child - Independent Women Part I(Source)

영화 자체가 할리우드 특유의 가부장적 남성성이나 여성의 시각적 상품화를 벗어난 것이 아니기 때문에, OST 수록곡 역시 영화가 지닌 감수성에서 크게 벗어나지 않는다. 그나마 강인한 캐릭터에 어느 정도 틀을 맞춰가다 보니 “남자 없이 잘 살아”와 비슷한 내용의 가사가 나오게 된 것이다.

Because the movie just has the typical Hollywood patriarchal male sexuality and visual objectification of women, likewise the songs in the soundtrack don’t stray very far from that vibe. Nevertheless the lyrics of “Independent Women” do match the actresses’ strong characters and the later lyrics of “I Don’t Need a Man” to a certain extent.

Cameron Diaz in Charlie's Angels(Source)

당당하고 독립적인 여성상이란 무엇일까 What is the form of a bold, independent woman?

사실 원곡의 가사와 비교해보면 “남자 없이 잘 살아”의 절반 정도는 번안에 가깝다. 원곡과 이 곡 모두 들었을 때 뚜렷한 상이 떠오르지 않는 일차적이고 추상적인 문구들로 채워져 있다. 그래서 가사는 다소 유치하게 느껴진다. 그리고 “나는 함부로 날 안 팔아”, 혹은 “잘나진 않았지만 자신감은 넘쳐”, “남자 믿고 놀다 남자 떠나면 어떡할 거야” 등 한 발짝 빼는 듯한 뉘앙스로 수세적인 표현들이 이어진다.

About half of the lyrics of “I Don’t Need a Man” closely follow those of “Independent Women.” When you listen to both songs, no clear images emerge, as they are full of vague, abstract lines. So, to a large extent the lyrics sound childish. Also, lines like “I won’t sell myself short,” “I’m not the best but I’m full of confidence,” and “If you just mindlessly attach yourself to a man, what will you do if he leaves?” and so on stand out for their defensiveness.

그 결과, 곡은 독립적인 여성을 표방하려는 시도는 좋았으나 일종의 편견을 드러내고 있다. 남녀간의 관계만이 ‘관계’인가? 하는 질문부터 해볼 수도 있겠으나 생략하고, ‘독립적인 여성상’이라고 했을 때 단순히 경제력만 이야기하고 있다는 점, 동시에 그 경제력이 남성에 비해 낮다는 전제만을 깔고 있다는 점에서 그러하다. 남자가 작사해서 그렇다고는 말하지 않겠다. 혼자 작사했는지 혹은 멤버들의 의견이 반영되었는지도 모르는 일이고, 그렇게 생각하는 것도 일종의 선입견이 될 수 있으니까.

As a result, although it’s a good attempt at propounding the notion of independent women, it shows certain biases. First, are relationships between men and women the only ones to be concerned about? I could start with that question, but will pass. Instead, also note that when the song talks about independent women, it’s simply in terms of their economic power, and moreover this economic power is always compared to that of men’s and implied to be lower. I’m not saying that this is because the lyrics were written by a man, as we don’t know if he wrote the song alone, or if he incorporated the group members’ opinions. But either way, it does show this bias.

Min Ponders her Money(Source)

아쉬운 것은, 별 고민이 느껴지지 않는 가사이다. 우리 사회 전반적인 인식의 수준에 비춰보았을 때 이 곡은 큰 문제는 없지만, 나름의 반향을 일으킬 수도 있을 것이다. 그러나 그것은 정확한 위치가 없는 반쪽짜리 반향일 뿐이다. 독립적인 여성상을 메인 테마로 세운 것은 좋았다. 흔히 가부장제 사회에서 이야기하는 ‘수동적, 피지배적, 감정적, 도구적’인 여성에서 벗어난 것도 좋다. 하지만 자신감 넘친다고 말하면서도 어딘가 부족해 보이는 자존감이 아쉬운 것이다. 어쩌면 ‘남자 없이 잘 사는 여자’ 역시 성공과 물질, 외적 조건을 중시하는 기존 사회가 요구하는 여성상의 변형 판이 아닐까.

Unfortunately, the lyrics prove to be shallow. If you consider our society’s general knowledge [of feminism, the position of women etc.], this is not a big problem, but it does mean that the song, which was intended to rock the boat, only caused a few ripples.

[Still],it is good that it ran with the theme of independent women, and challenged common images of passive, controlled, sensitive, and objectified women in our patriarchal society. Also, it puts a spin on societal norms that require women to emphasize success and consumption. However, while it is good that the lyrics were overflowing with confidence, at the same time the protagonist(s) don’t have enough self-respect.

마지막으로, 이 곡은 서던 힙합(미국 남부에서 발생하여 유행하는 곡 스타일) 곡이라고 하기에는 다소 무리가 있다. 물론 서던 힙합이라고 할 수 있는 BPM(음악속도)과 분위기를 지니고 있기는 하나, 풀어내는 방식은 팝 곡이라고 할 수 있다. 안무 속에 잠시 남부에서 유행했던 춤 스타일들을 차용하였기에 서던 힙합이라고 했을 가능성도 크다. 그러나 이 춤도 사실 2000년대 후반에 유행했던, 시기가 좀 지난 춤이다. 개인적으로는 이래 저래 아쉬움이 많은 곡이다.

Finally, it is difficult to claim that this is Southern US Hip-hop. Certainly, it has the atmosphere and BPM of the genre, but it comes across as pop — there’s a strong possibility that it’s called hip-hop only because of the style of dance (and, being popular in the late-2000s, that would make the dance style in the video quite old). [Either way], personally I have a lot of regrets about this song. (End)

Suzy tells us off(Source)

And now on to (hopefully) more incisive commentary. But first, a reminder of what made Destiny’s Child—and still makes Beyoncé—so distinctive:

This hardworking act of [Destiny's Child] could be guaranteed a fair share of [their huge sales] because Beyoncé took a major role in songwriting and production. On The Writing’s On The Wall, for instance, she wrote and co-produced 17 tracks with beat architects Shek’spere and Timbaland, helping to create the Destiny’s Child trademark sound of bass rhythms, baroque samples, and daring vocal harmonies, a cross between TLC and Kraftwerk. By the time of 2001’s Survivor, Beyoncé had graduated to sole producer on most tracks. Despite disruptive line-up changes, the group remained consistently at the top of the charts. Much of this was due to Beyoncé’s leadership and innate sense of what was appropriate for them….

the supremes destiny's child….Within a few years Beyoncé had ‘done a Diana Ross’ and embarked upon a widely successful solo career…I wasn’t surprised—the young woman I met [in 2000] was determined and focused, her single-minded approach tempered by a Southern-style grace….

…Second singer Kelly Rowland didn’t fare too badly either…Destiny’s Child had learned from the experience of their idols The Supremes, retaining control and living out the message of independence that they preached in their songs.

(Lucy O’Brien, She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (2012), pp. 249-250; my emphases. Source, above)

As such icons, I’d really like to like their music. Alas, I don’t, and glossed over references to them a year ago because I much preferred to read about Miss A and Ga-in instead. Also, because what girl-group with a bit of spunk isn’t glibly compared to one from the ‘girl-power era‘ these days?

Indeed, I found one—seriously—in the very next tab I opened as I typed that:

The front woman of 2NE1, the undisputed queens of the wildly popular Korean subgenre known as K-Pop, CL (aka Chaelin Lee) launched her solo career this summer with the single “The Baddest Female.” The lithe and spunky ballerina–meets–Fly Girl careers in and out of English and Korean, rapping and singing about gold chains, B-boys, and private planes. The accompanying video racked up around 1 million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours, but despite that success, CL vows not to Beyoncé her bandmates to the curb, citing personal exploration as the impetus for stepping out on her own. Where have we heard that one before?

Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, TLC(Source. In fairness, I too just compared Ailee to Beyoncé in my latest K-pop review for Busan Haps. But I can — and will — justify that in a later post!)

That aside, I’m certainly paying attention now. While I can’t pretend that the following is an exhaustive look at the debates about both songs, from what I have read I’ve found that people who compare them generally make one of two arguments.

The first, is that any sense of feminist empowerment gained from Miss A’s song is a form of false consciousness. After all, you cant help but note it was written by a man, namely JYP himself; that it seems to be about nothing but men; and, some claim, that it even seems to be directed towards men too. Whereas men are only notable for their absence in Independent Women.

In particular, one anonymous commenter lays the blame for this squarely on the male-dominated idol-system as a whole:

The main obstacle to real female empowerment messages in Kpop is that these “feminist messages” are coming from idols whose every statement, performance and lyric comes from the minds of men. All the directors of note are men, all but a slight few of the songwriters are men, the entertainment companies are all run by men. See the trend? I wonder right now, honestly, if a strong-willed Korean girl who wants to write songs and speak out on gender inequality in her country would even be heard—that is just wrong.

2NE1 is a group I respect very much because a lot of their music comes from a place of female empowerment, not specifically male bashing or placing too much emphasis on others instead of self. I like that, and think it is the right way to go — but if that message stopped selling records, would they tell YG to shove it and keep screaming female empowerment because they believe strongly in what they are doing and their message? More importantly, would they be ABLE to keep going without Teddy Park writing those messages into their songs?

October 2013 Girl-Group RankingThe start isn’t going to happen until someone starts caring more about the message than being a world famous idol. Somebody has to lay the groundwork in Kpop for real empowering feminist theory — not just sing a half-feminist message without knowing a God damn thing about the subject in order to sell records. Otherwise, all we’ll ever see from Kpop is a girl group come out with a song like this one every now and again…

And, expanding on that last in a later comment: (source, right)

Less hollow girl power anthems targeted at consumers, and more sincere female empowerment statements are needed for Korea. Especially if an artist is going to scream female empowerment on one single, and then go right back to dropping a feminist message to go to whichever new message their writers deign to have them cover on the next. Consistency is needed so much more than a girl power message that is just going to get lost as soon as a group moves onto the next promotional cycle.

I make many of the same points about the need for a consistent feminist message in my Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls series, and couldn’t help but note with sadness that 2NE1 are the only girl-group that come close to having one among the 14 most popular girl-groups at the moment.

That said, the second argument often made is that Miss A’s effort is actually very apt for, and even radical in its Korean context, where unmarried women tend to have much more restricted, much more dependent lives than their Western counterparts. Rebecca at Kpop for Noobcakes has written a lot about this, and is especially good—see under the screenshot—at linking it to specific scenes in the music video:

…family approval is…extremely important in finding a suitable life partner, and surely contributes to the aspirations to date a wealthier or more influential man.

Taking this in mind, this music video really goes against what Korean culture has to say about dating, while still maintaining the values of Korean society as a whole. Koreans are very work focused, and believe that the only way to be successful is to work hard. This music video’s goal is to tell women that as long as they work hard they should feel good about themselves. The first few lines of the first verse are about how proud she is about living paycheck to paycheck providing for herself, and paying her own rent.

I don't need a man -- kangaroo cardShe goes on to talk about how most Korean women (and men) live with their parents until marriage. That’s certainly true, although also note that Korea has one of the highest rates of growth of single households in the world (with more of them now than in both the US and Australia), albeit most of them being middle-aged men and elderly women rather than Sex and the City-esque singles (my emphases):

Since it’s so hard to rent a space by oneself, many young men and women live with their parents. This is acceptable in Korean society, because like other Asian societies, Korea has just recently transitioned from a “clan” or “family” first mentality. As a result, young women have a tendency to rely on their parents for the purchase of items, as shown in Jia’s first verse. The girl with the Kangaroo card [above] keeps sucking up to her father to get items that she wants…

…As media themselves, Miss A go in a Lipstick Feminism direction, and don’t give up traditionally feminine items throughout most of the music video as they are allowed to wear dresses and makeup. They even have giant beauty products dispersed throughout the video. It’s their lack of reliance on a man to purchase items for themselves and their disinterest in the dating scene that goes directly against the theme of most K-pop music videos and Korean dramas.

Every Korean Drama(Source)

So, is I Don’t Need a Man by, about, and for men, or is it Independent Women’s kid-Korean cousin? Both arguments have merits really, and they’re not mutually exclusive either. But I’m tending towards the latter view, as it centers on Korean women’s increasing financial power and reflection of that in their consumption choices, for which they’ve been victims of a popular social and media backlash ever since the 1990s, and especially from the late-2000s (see my Revealing the Korean Body Politic series—Part One, Two, Three, Four, Five; also here and here—for more information).

Gomushin Girl’s comment to my post on Bloom illustrates this well:

I think that there’s an effort to portray Miss A’s members as criticizing feminine consumption in Korea (note that they’re lecturing the ladies getting their hair done, etc., and are always positioned well ahead of background couples and women who are actually engaging in consumption) in “I Don’t Need a Man.” I don’t know that it’s visually as clear and effective as it could be, but it *is* there.

Which is also, as noted above, a problem—it positions Miss A as “good” through their disengagement in feminine habits, while “bad” women allow men to support them and fund their consumption of material goods. It also doesn’t acknowledge that many women (and men) *enjoy* getting their hair and nails done, dressing stylishly, or shopping, in a way that is independent of how Suzy tells us to deal with itit equips them for the male gaze…It also gets a little confused in its capitalist critique, constantly mentioning that it’s better to have a small salary from satisfying work than lots of money through other means, but also mentions things like owning ones own car, which for most young Koreans would be a bit of a luxury purchase. Even a decent used car will probably cost you more than many luxury handbags (which you can also get used).

To be clear, I don’t think that Miss A’s song is a fantastic manifesto, but I don’t think it’s nearly as problematic as [another commenter was] making it out to be. Particularly in a place like Korea, where marital/dating status really does define women, singing clearly and distinctly about financial emancipation from (male) lovers and parents is . . . well, kind of awesome. And I don’t think in Korea that a song that did not relate that emancipation to gender would be either convincing or very meaningful. That particular kind of *not* needing is significant (source, above).

I would just add that my impression is that people are more critical of I Don’t Need a Man than Independent Women because it seemed have a greater emphasis on consumption. So, it was with a certain surprise and irony that I read the following at Snippets of Stories, albeit written by someone who is also a complete beginner on Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child:

I am extremely ignorant when it comes to Beyoncé, especially compared to most of y’all reading this, but the thing I find most fascinating about her work is the materialism of it. Pretty much every song I can think of off the top of my head — again, we’re talking the most frequently played songs, my knowledge is pretty shallow — relies on very specific, recognizable details of ownership and consumption to get the message across. Such as the car keys and suitcases in “Irreplaceable,” the “come pick up your clothes” line* of “Me, Myself and I,” the discussions of what can and can’t be bought in “Independent Women (Part I)” and “Bills, Bills, Bills,” the Dereon jeans in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and “Tennis shoes, don’t even need to buy a new dress” in “Crazy in Love.”

Destiny's Child by Hayden Williams(Source)

And on that note, let me again defer to readers—probably most of you!—more knowledgeable than myself. Also, my apologies to any of you that expected a post on Hush—I too would have preferred to complete this one two weeks ago (sniff!), and I’ll try to give their new album a proper look soon. But first, my promised post on A’s Doll House!

Update: Aaaaand…as I searched for that final illustration above, I discovered I’d completely missed the excellent “Is this feminism? A critical look at miss A’s I don’t need a man” at J-Popping, which references and considerably expands upon “[Op-Ed] Questioning miss A’s ‘I Don’t Need a Man': Are They Truly Independent?” at allkpop. Enjoy!