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.

Blood Type Condoms?

With thanks to Cate Newton of phlebotomist.net for passing it on, here is her handy infographic on the practice of blood typing, which notes the wide variety of blood type-themed products in Japan despite there being no scientific validity to the practice whatsoever.

Known as hyeolaek-hyeong in Korean (혈액형), the practice is also popular here, and definitely a common theme in advertising (such as for kiwifruit and soft drinks). But there are far less actual products available though, and certainly not condoms.

Perhaps because people would be confused? After all, is the required condom type determined by the blood-type of the wearer, or of his partner?

Putting aside the fact that the question itself reveals how completely inane the product is, then I’m guessing the former. Otherwise, some pretty big wallets would be required when heading out for a night on the town…

Any Japan-based readers that can confirm that though, then do please fill me in!^^

Update: See here for a blood-type condom vending machine in Japan.

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Korean “Double In-Laws”… and Other Dramas!

(Wedding Day by summer park)

An interesting question from Curtis, a reader with a slightly unusual family in which 2 brothers from one family married 2 sisters from another. As you will see, he was concerned about how this would be received by Koreans:

Dear James,

Lately I’ve been seriously confused and irritated by a seeming issue with relation to Korean marriages.  I can’t figure out why it is even a problem to begin with. I’ve never heard the term until recently, but apparently Koreans (I’m not sure if this is general or only among certain classes) seem to be against marriages that create “double in-laws,” meaning that, for example, member A of the Kim family marries member A of the Lee family. Then Member B of the Kim family marries the sister/brother of member A of the Lee family. The first marriage made them in-laws, but this second marriage creates what I’ve heard Koreans term “double in-laws” which seems to have some stigma.  As far as I am concerned as a westerner, the second marriage has little to no bearing on anything since it isn’t incest or intermarriage, therefore I see no problem. In fact, my father married my mother, and soon after that, my father’s brother married my mother’s sister. I guess that creates double in-laws in my family, but since it’s neither incest nor intermarriage, I haven’t once heard any issues being brought up about it. Could you explain if this “double in-laws” thing is really an issue, and if so, why? All I can think of is that the families are not being spread out far enough for maximum social networking and both sides of the family may end up being in one household, but since Korean family dynamics are changing, this doesn’t have to be the case.

I’ve also heard the English term “co-in-laws” to describe this, but again, I find no reports of issues with this arrangement other than in a few Korean instances.

And an update in a second email:

[I’ve done some more thinking]…, and I thought about the collective culture that Korea is.  I thought that perhaps when a family marries another family, the WHOLE family in that household become in-laws as such, whereas in western societies, the distinctions between in-laws is limited more so to the ones who married into the family.  I, personally, would consider the sister of my brother-in-law just that, the sister of my brother-in-law, not an in-law herself since she did not marry into the family.

(The Bride by Tetsumo)

What do you think? Personally, while this is the first I’ve heard of any potential stigma, I suspected that there might be something to it when my wife instantly came up with the Korean term for people in such arrangements: gyeobsadon (겹사돈), or “a person doubly related by marriage.” Moreover, however illogical any stigma would be, there is certainly precedent too: until as late as 2005, Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code prohibited marriage between those of the same ancestral, regional clan (or local subgroup of Lees, Parks, or Kims and so on), of which the largest had over 4 million members. Or in short, somewhere between 8-15% of the Korean population were literally forbidden to marry each other, with even the children of any de-facto unions discriminated against also because their out-of-wedlock status prohibited them from receiving national health insurance, let alone complicating inheritance and property rights.

But as it turned out in this case at least, my wife knew the term not because of any stigma that she’s aware of…rather, because she remembered such arrangements from dramas!

Probably there is nothing to worry about then, but if anyone could confirm that then I’m sure Curtis will appreciate it, and I’d be interested in hearing any other unusual stories about marriage and Korean families also. If you’d rather read more yourself though, then consider this series on the uncertain role of Neo-Confucianism in the similarities between Japanese and Korean family forms, and especially how daughters-in-law are treated therein.

Update: Speaking of the importance of family names in Korea, today there was an interesting article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations a Korean man (and subsequently his family) had due to his Japanese ancestry.

From Asian to Caucasian: Update

(Businesswoman, by the_toe_stubber)

A recent comment on my post From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader from last year, and which I’m sure you’ll all agree is worth highlighting here rather than having it wasted unread in obscurity on an old post!

With permission, in a moment I’ll place you in the capable hands of Anna then, to whom I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort she put into this. But first, because I haven’t really made it clear previously, I should mention that I’m always open to guest posts (which this 2500+ word ‘comment’ has surely become), as for reasons of time, resources, and/or personal interest, I am simply never able to write as many posts on as many subjects as I like. If you’re ever interested, and please don’t be put off by thinking that there is a minimum word-limit(!), then please just drop me a line.

Now, without any further ado:

…Hey James,

Your work is fascinating and is quite hilarious at times. I am currently writing a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea and your blog really caught my interest. I wanted to just add to the comments here and to also add to your discussion. Beware, this might get a little long.

First of all, I know people can get quite defensive when people say Korean women are undergoing cosmetic surgery to become “white.” (evidence of the comments above). I mean honestly, nobody would like to hear that. Also, Korean women, as was mentioned in your blog and in other people’s comments, don’t go around piping that they did their eyes to look white. One of the driving factors in contemporary society as to why Korean women go under the knife is because 1) cosmetic surgery is a marker for upper class wealth 2) social mobility and 3) economic stability. Women get their faces done or whatever part they deem necessary to look prettier because beauty gets jobs and husbands in an extremely competitive market, and I mean both the market for jobs and husbands.

Furthermore, If you take the time to read Korean forums on cosmetic surgery, a majority of women undergo cosmetic surgery to gain self confidence. It is quite interesting and tragic as well that many of the Korean women who post on these forums talk about how cosmetic surgery will bring a new stage in their lives. Beauty is everything. And they talk about searching for self-esteem like they never had it in the first place and the only way to be “reborn”, “transformed” or to gain their lost self-esteem is through cosmetic surgery. Some of these Korean women are aware of the pressures on them from society to get cosmetic surgery as well and they complain about those reasons too. Korean society is not only very conscious about appearances but how those appearances conform with what the cultural norms are. Therefore, if one girl gets a job because of a pretty nose or eye job, then there will be tons of women who will go get that nose job in the hopes that their chances for getting the next job will be increased. Its a dog eat dog world.

Now set that all aside. I believe that everything has a historical context and cosmetic surgery in South Korea is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in South Korea didn’t just appear in the 1990s to attain a “universal beauty standard.” Nor is the pervasive popularity of specific procedures just because of modernization and the consumer culture it brings. First of all, I take issue with the claim of a “universal beauty standard”. Modernization and globalization has complicated a lot of things so what may seem true now may not ring true when societies were isolated from each other. Korea, for example, was known as the hermit kingdom due to their refusal to open up to foreign influences until they were basically pried open. BEAUTY STANDARDS THEN did not fall in line with “universal” beauty standards now, to say the least. An oval and round face as well as small features were considered beautiful. If you look at old portraits of Korean women, do you see women with overly sized dopey eyes and shaved V-line chins? Or whatever the damn letter is? It is quite the opposite.

Beauty standards may all seem the same way now but that is because we have been socialized to think a certain way due to overwhelming western influences. I know this is an argument that some people get tired of hearing but that is just the truth. Modern history was dominated by our Western/European counterparts and as globalization is rapidly changing the way information is disseminated, such beauty ideals are able to really influence the individual sitting in the living room in any part of the world privy to a TV or any other popular media outlet and those channels in their native language that send such messages. Korean media is no exception. As we all know the Korean media is largely responsible for the beauty standards that Korean women consume.

(Asian?, by josh.liba)

Now, lets talk about history some more. Since each country has a different history, such history should be used to help explain why certain practices become widespread. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a universal phenomenon in that people do it all over the world. But depending on the place, certain plastic surgery procedures are preferred over others. The question here that we need to ask, in which James has been eloquently trying to answer, is why do women go for such particular procedures?? To attain a universal beauty standard?? Well that answer would make everything too easy now wouldn’t it? And I already said that in Korea, beauty was quite different until they were confronted with different bodies such as the west.

Korean people are first and foremost going to do cosmetic surgery on their eyes, nose, and chin. The most popular being the Double eyelid surgery. Now James emphasizes why the double-eyelid??? Why is this procedure the most popular?? Just because the SUPPOSEDLY universal standard dictates this? Or because Asian women just want to be white?? We really need to probe a lot deeper. WHY, to Korean women, is the big dopey double eye lid considered beautiful when arguably before the infiltration of the west, it wasn’t?

Now, I know there is a percentage of Korean people who already have the double eyelid, so whats the big deal? Well the big deal is that those who didn’t have the double eyelid were considered just as good looking until this ideal changed. The fact that the single lid was problematized after a certain point in Korean history is telling of the fact that perceptions in Korean society began to change. Beauty standards is not in fact universal. Something was influencing Koreans to change their mind. Now what was it??

I look at Korean history in the past century as a whole bunch of successive traumatic events which modernization has just served to confuse and exacerbate Korean society. You have Japanese colonization, then independence which was short-lived with the U.S. occupation, then the split of the peninsula, the fratricidal Korean War, and the ensuing U.S. dominance that followed afterwards. Then without much time in between Koreans were caught in a nationalistic frenzy to economically develop, then democratization happened, and then market forces opened up and voila! in a matter of 30 years Korea is not only a democracy, it is one of the biggest economies in the world, and is still experiencing the onslaught of modernization. What does this equal?? A very confused and unstable society. I honestly think the Korean people have not been able to properly digest their traumatic past. Now what does this have to do with cosmetic surgery? Read on if you haven’t been bored out of your mind yet.

(Scream, by The Dream Seeker)

Now starting from Japanese colonization, Koreans were taught to believe they were inferior. Since the Japanese didn’t look too different from Koreans, they couldn’t really harp on the whole racially different argument to establish their superiority. However, it was a traumatic experience nonetheless, in which the Korean people were subjected to mental and psychological degradation where they were made to believe, they were not “good enough.”

Now with the entrance of the Americans during and after the Korean War, this is where I believe Koreans began to see their bodies, their PHYSICAL FEATURES as defected and flawed. Other scholars such as Tae Yon Kim and David Palumbo-liu discuss this affect on the Korean people as they were confronted with an overwhelming presence of American bodies. The Americans, upon coming to Korea to “help” the “poor people”, were confronted with a curious looking bunch. One of those Americans, by the name of Dr. Millard, set out to fix such faces in order to “read” the Koreans better. Dr. Millard was a military surgeon who was sent to Korea on a good will mission to reconstruct war-damaged bodies. Dr. Millard, in addition, to reconstructing such “war damaged bodies” became obsessed with making the Korean or “oriental” legible for the American people. He thought the single lid made Koreans look lazy, sneaky, untrustworthy and basically dumb. He became the first white person to create a double-eyelid surgery for the Asian face. This is monumental. Although double-eyelid surgery was present in Japan before the introduction of cosmetic surgery in Korea, what David Palumbo-liu states and other authors also cite him, is that cosmetic surgery actually reached its popular high point in Korea during this time frame. Dr. Millard began to “treat” Korean patients and he has photos of his first Korean patients in his original work, Oriental Peregrinations. It’s fascinating and extremely disturbing at the same time. Basically the Korean people were mentally brainwashed to view their eyes, their facial shape as inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed. The introduction of Dr. Millard’s double eyelid surgery during the Korean War really shows how cosmetic surgery is tied up with trauma, war, and foreign domination. The words he used to describe Korean eyes in his articles, are used in Korean websites, in present day Korean websites to describe natural single lidded Korean eyes. Why is it that the words used to describe Korean eyes by a an American military surgeon during the Korean War, used to describe Korean eyes in modern day society?? Korean websites are carrying on the tradition of passing on this idea that Korean eyes are naturally defected, if you have the single-lid that is. And the only difference is that now, double eyelid surgery is cloaked under the label for women to look more beautiful.

There are more linguistic connections in descriptions of the Asian eye that harks back to Korea’s traumatic history but I won’t go into it (right: Elod-Eye by darkpatator).

So Korean women undergo cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful and yes we can just stop it at there. They just want to look beautiful. But why I ask again, those CERTAIN aspects? Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.

I think, saying Korean people are fixing their eyes to become more Caucasian is not the right way to put it. In my opinion, Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed, a legacy that was left by Korea’s historical trauma. I see cosmetic surgery in Korean society as a way Korean people are trying to reconcile their “flawed bodies” and “fix” themselves. I look at cosmetic surgery a bit differently and it might seem a bit far fetched but when you keep digging, sometimes you can’t help but think this way.

This is where trauma comes into the picture. My argument, basically sees unresolved trauma as a major factor in the pervasive practice of cosmetic surgery, especially the double eyelid. I won’t go in depth there because that would require me to talk about trauma and how trauma can last for generations. But anyways I hope that my comments show cosmetic surgery in Korea is wrapped up in a lot of complex issues.

IT IS NOT just about attaining a beauty standard or to look white. There are historical consequences that explain as well as add to the modern picture of why Korean women flock to clinics to get their eyes done.

This message probably won’t be read but this was a really great exercise for me to keep my mind active and up to date with all the stuff I have to read for my research. I know it was quite selfish of me to post such a long entry so my apologies.

But hopefully somebody learns something and gains or at least thinks again when discussing this subject.

(Truth, by The Dream Seeker)

Addendum (in a follow-up comment):

Also, I read my post again and I didn’t specify what kind of Korean websites, I meant Korean cosmetic surgery websites.

Also another piece of interesting information is that cosmetic surgery originally had a bad reputation due to its associations with prostitution during and after the Korean War. Basically cosmetic surgery was seen as disreputable because Korean war brides were the ones who mostly underwent cosmetic surgery in order to better assimilate into their new American husband’s life. These Korean War Brides were seen as prostitutes and some of them really were. So another little interesting piece to the whole picture –> forwarding now 50 years later cosmetic surgery is such a pervasive practice that it is now quite the cultural norm.

I have provided some readings that briefly talk about this, because cosmetic surgery in Korea is such a little explored subject in Academia, and the majority of the articles just skim the surface, the literature below I believe has done some justice on the topic as well as how U.S. domination has affected Korean society.

• Dissertation called the “The Moving Eye: From Cold War Racial Subject to Middle Class Cosmopolitan, Korean cosmetic Eyelid Surgery, 1955-2001″ by Taeyon Kim

James: I haven’t been able to find a copy of that online unfortunately, but in case the name sounds familiar, I discuss her 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” at great length in my series entitled journal article “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society”, starting here.

• Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (2008)

• David Palumbo-liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999)

(ELP_NIKE_KOREA, by gkristo)

Thoughts?

And here’s an update from Anna…

Hey James!

I was just doing some more reading and I realized that I had written incorrect information about the Japanese not being able to use racist ideologies during Korea’s colonization. In fact they did, in terms of Japan being the superior blood race–>a focus on ethnonationality. Japan differentiated itself from Korea by focusing mainly on the centrality of blood. Although Japan outwardly promoted a Pan-Asian ideology where the Japanese would protect their Asian neighbors from Western imperialism, the brutality of the Japanese towards the Koreans obviously showed that this was all bullshit. The oppression of Japan towards Korea also helped Korean individuals foment Korea as a “nation” around blood as well. Nadia Kim says this is connected to why Koreans are so obsessed with blood types…pretty funny. So “race” for Koreans originally focused on ethnonationality and purity of blood and blood ties. Then the West came in and complicated the picture with their own racial ideologies of black and white which also the Koreans were pretty primed to accept due to their already hierarchical associations to the lighter skin/darker skin complex.

Also, I won’t go into detail too much because I have probably lost you already, but it seems like the concept of lighter skin and the color white as pure and good was a pretty salient concept in Korea before the West. Koreans and the Japanese have seemed to have an obsession with white for a while.

Kim writes, “The country has valorized white as representatives of its people’s purity and desire for peace since the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 B.C. to A.D. 668. One manifestation was Koreans’ primarily white clothing, earning them the moniker the “white-clad nation.” Because the Koreans continued to wear solely white clothing through the middle twentieth century, Western visitors would be captivated by the “enormous white waves sweeping the streets” (27).

(Korean War Museum and Memorial – Seoul 090501, by anja_johnson)

She then goes on and talks about how lighter skin/dark skin also corresponded to where you stood in the rigid neo-confucian hierarchies of Korean society. But basically, this shows how Koreans were pretty well “primed” to accept the White/Black dichotomy that was brought by its relations with the US/West.

So to wrap up and reiterate again, the Japanese did use racial ideologies but focused mainly on blood purity, the superior “blood race”, although I’m sure they also used other things to establish their superiority.

I really really recommend reading her book its pretty awesome.

Open Thread #5: So What?

( Source: RaySoda )

To get you started, a provocative comment I just received on an old post, which would be wasted in obscurity there. With apologies to the author if this sounds impolite, but I ultimately find much of his argument superficial, although it’s always good to have one’s views tested:

…Hi, just stumbled on to your blog last night in between reviewing flashcards for my Chinese class, and I have to say I’m thrilled to find someone as interested (at least in this and recent posts) in the topic of standards of beauty, particularly in Korea. I do however have to argue a point. And this isn’t necessarily aimed at you personally or the views you hold, but you seem to be a willing enough participant in the discussions that occur because of your blog posts that I though I’d give it a shot.

Looking back over said “beauty” posts, I continually find myself asking, “so what”? So what if Koreans openly put an exceptionally high standard on external appearance? So what if women in Korea try to become most easily divisible by which letter they most look like? So what if even kids are targeted by the media in what amounts to little more than marketers seeking the widest possible audience?

Is all this something that doesn’t happen in western countries? You yourself have said that it is not.

Granted, I come from something of a biased perspective in a number of ways. First of all, I don’t think of women in ad campaigns, subconsciously or otherwise, as sex objects because I’m gay. Secondly, from my “objective” perspective on feminine beauty, I tend to lean more towards the thinner, petite side of women that are shown so ubiquitously in magazines from Vogue downwards. Thirdly, as someone who has been very tall (6′5″, so ~195cm)and called thin all his life almost in place of standard introductions, I can see where all of the body-consciousness in our society comes from; it’s only natural to judge someone first and foremost on appearance.

( Source: unknown )

Anyway, back to the gist, I have to say, is it a bad thing that Korean ad firms target womens’ physical appearance so blatantly? After all, at least it seems as though a Korean woman knows what’s expected of her in terms of appearance. In the West, on the contrary, we constantly say that size doesn’t matter, which we know perfectly well to be false. Heterosexual males may not be as turned on by a 100lb, 170cm woman as they are by one maybe 20lbs heavier, but the upper limit to what most males find attractive, by my subjective observations, is significantly lower than what the average woman in the U.S. (my country of residence) now weighs. Because we’ve told women (and men) that size doesn’t matter, things have, to be polite, gotten out of hand. According to the U.S. gov’t, which calculates these things based on body-mass index (admittedly a very poor way of doing so, basically just weight divided by height), more than two-thirds of women in America are overweight.

Although of course there are exceptions, in most East Asian countries overweight and obese people, particularly women, are fairly rare. I think in part it’s because the culture in that part of the world (yay generalizations!) says outright that size does matter, whereas we say it doesn’t, but really it still does.

In short, long-winded post aside, I’d rather be in a country where people say to my face that I’m fat instead of whispering it to each other as I walk by. At least that way, the social pressure to be thin is so much greater and clearer that it can’t be overlooked or downplayed to save face for those applying that pressure. And in terms of health, I think more would rather be underweight than overweight. After all, eating disorders affect, what, about 10% of women in the U.S., while obesity-related diseases kill millions each year. Just from the perspective of someone living in the U.S., I think maybe being a bit more upfront about the natural inclination towards “thinner” (when compared to the national average) women may not be such a bad thing after all.

Then again, having never been to Korea, you’re more able to say whether this is quite so helpful there as it would be here. Of course, culture aside, that brings us to the question of whether certain ethnic groups are naturally thinner or not, which is another issue entirely of questionable validity and fairness…(end).

( Source: Cocofun )

Actually I don’t disagree with all of that, and by coincidence its “so what?” tone struck a chord with me because of some similar advice about writing I’ve been putting into practice in recent months. Unfortunately, I feel too guilty about my daughters being glued to the television for hours to provide a proper critique this weekend sorry, and will have to rely on my choice of accompanying images to speak for themselves. Besides which, I’m much more interested in what you think!

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Sex, Marriage, and Prostitution in South Korea

Korean Wedding Sidelong Glance
(Source: Matt Scott)

With my considerable gratitude to its author for passing it on, I’ll let the following email speak for itself:

…As a foreign woman married to a Korean man, myself and my husband face a unique set of cultural obstacles in our marriage. It can be trying at times, but we are usually able to work out our differences through a serious commitment to communication. However, there is one aspect of being married to a Korean man that I continually struggle with. From what I have observed throughout my time in Korea (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that frequenting prostitutes is an accepted part of life for Korean married men. In fact, it is often required of businessmen if they want to be successful and accepted among their coworkers. For example, I have a friend who was offered a highly coveted position with a certain large corporation. While working there, he was required to regularly go out drinking and visiting prostitutes with his team. Given the strong hierarchical nature of Korean society, he felt unable to say no to his superiors, yet his religious beliefs compelled him to reject this lifestyle. As a result, he had no other choice but to quit and try to find another line of work.

I am told by Korean friends that going out drinking and womanizing with coworkers is an integral part of business in Korea (and, I imagine, another way that female employees are excluded and held back in business). Although this was shocking to me at first, it wasn’t hard to believe once I became more familiar with the language and more observant of my surroundings. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without being faced with a constant barrage of prostitution venues. Of course, they often masquerade as something else- massage parlors, karaoke rooms, barber shops, tea shops, PC rooms, bars, rest houses, etc., but they all offer at least the possibility of sex. It’s not exactly comforting to walk around in the middle of the day and see middle-aged men in business suits going into cheap motels on their lunch breaks or after work before returning home to their families. Although I know my husband is a good man and he has assured me that he’ll never engage in that type of behavior, I find it hard to trust him completely when every man in his life, including his father, his friends, and his mentors, sets this kind of example.

When I ask my female friends how Korean women put up with this from their husbands, they tell me that it’s what the men must do if they are to be successful. One said that even though the husbands stay out all night with prostitutes, drink with them, touch their bodies, etc., it is their choice whether or not they go all Korean Tomato Couplethe way. I simply can’t wrap my head around this rationalization. Where I come from, if a spouse cheats, it is expected that the couple will either get divorced or go into some serious marriage counseling. It is not simply tolerated, or at least not by those who have any self-respect. As I love my husband deeply, my greatest fear is that he will give in to his peers and join them some time, resulting in the end of our marriage. I can’t conceive of how Korean men can not only hurt and disrespect their wives like this, but also spend all their time fraternizing with coworkers and women rather than spending it with their children. This aspect of Korean culture is toxic to families, and is one of the reasons I don’t believe I could raise a family in Korea. I am truly interested to hear how other married women – both Korean and foreigners – deal with this problem. Have they experienced the same fears that I have, or have their experiences been different? Do they tolerate their husbands going out with coworkers and meeting women, and if so, why? Finally, for those like me who are greatly disturbed by this aspect of the culture, how do they overcome these anxieties and learn to trust their husbands? (end)

Korean Businessman Playing Guitar(Source: Simon Helle Nielsen. Source above: Shawn Perez)

As I too would soon quit any job that required regularly drinking with colleagues, let alone visiting prostitutes, then I don’t have anything to add to the email I’m afraid. But I can point you towards my discussion of the effects on married couples’ sex lives, based around my review of Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami (2007); as I explain there, the experiences and attitudes described there are very relevant to Korean couples, largely because both countries share the same salaryman working culture, with husbands (and indeed wives) working late most evenings.

Also, by coincidence Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician has just written a post on Korean society’s denial of the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and above all systematic nature of prostitution that is highly relevant to the discussion here. A snippet:

…I posit that the resistance to what every outsider observes as KOREAN SOCIAL REALITY in terms of the commodification and subjugation of women in this society, especially as embodied in the rampant institutionalized prostitution that is as observable in terms of the sheer numbers and types of such places of business (room salons, business clubs, barber shops, massage parlors, handjob rooms, juicy bars, miin-chon, 단란주점, 도우미 노래방, which goes without even mentioning the vast numbers of red-light districts in every part of Seoul and every city in Korea) NARY REQUIRES statistics, either.

What I see as the frequent resistance of people to believe something that is OBVIOUS in observed reality if one simply COUNTS the number of houses of prostitution on a single city block in any part of this city — Kangnam Station to Shinchon to City Hall to Apkujeong to Chungdam to nearly any neighborhood after midnight, when the plastic balloons, mini-trucks, and neon signs come on that aren’t on during the day — is partially a denial of obvious reality, coupled with the urge to throw out the many statistics that bolster easy observation because they make one very uncomfortable.

(Source: !Jinju)

But I’m a human being. I understand emotions. But what makes it so easy for me to recognize that the US brutally kidnapped, displaced, and murdered MILLIONS of human beings for the sake of material gain, which has resulted in creating some negative aspects to my culture, i.e. discrimination and institutionalized racism? But when I mention institutionalized prostitution as a legacy of compressed and authoritarian development in the Korean context, people instantly start equivocating and dismissing my argument, while holding it to such an abnormally high bar of scrutiny, one would be hard-pressed to assert ANYTHING particular about Korean society….(end)

Read the rest there.

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