( “The Newbies”. Source )
Originally I wasn’t going to write this post until next week, but inspired by this post over at KoreaBeat I’ve decided to go ahead with it now. In hindsight it’s probably best to so while the previous semi-related post keeps the topic fresh in readers’ minds.
One feature of Korean society not so obvious to casual observers is the number of family members living in different cities from each other, sometimes for many years at a time. I’ve already mentioned how the lack of childcare facilities nationwide and sexist workplace practices force many parents to send their children to relatives to be looked after during the week, for instance, but in this post I want to concentrate more on the parents themselves: both those arrangements where one partner, usually the father, spends weekdays working in another city and sees the family in the weekends, and those where the father will send his whole family overseas for the sake of his children’s education. Exact figures are understandably difficult to obtain (although feel free to throw any in my direction if you have them), but I’d wager that the combination of both mean that at least one in fifteen to one in ten Korean teenagers live in different cities to their fathers most of the time, and this certainly does have knock-on effects on Koreans’ perceptions of “normal” family life and marriage as I’ll explain. But just like Koreans living at home until marriage is largely due to financial factors rather than being due to some sense of Korean tradition or filial duty, so too does this cultural difference ultimately derive from a combination of workplace culture, the education system, and economic factors that can and are slowly changing.
Probably the best online source on both groups (known as “weekend couples” and “lonely geese fathers” respectively) is the journal article by Kim Song-chul, entitled “Weekend Couples among Korean Professionals: An Ethnography of Living Apart on Weekdays” in the Winter 2001 edition of the Korea Journal. It’s a little dated, and has a glaring omission as I’ll explain, but it remains a good introduction overall. Rather than simply rehashing its contents, I’ll assume that if readers are sufficiently interested then they’ll click on the link, and so instead I’ll focus here only on those aspects that I see as crucial to understanding them (see here and here for more recent information on lonely geese fathers).
Why does Korea have so many Weekender Couples?
Korea was an overwhelmingly agricultural society until relatively recently (always something very useful to remember when trying to understand Koreans), so of course during slow seasons poor Korean farmers especially have been finding work outside of their home villages for millennia. More recently, Koreans worked as construction workers in the Middle East and as miners and nurses in Germany in the 1970s, and this is probably the source of the Korean word “a-ruh-bite” (아르바이트) for part-time work, as “arbeit” means “work” in German. But etymology aside, their numbers were negligible compared to those today. Since then, vast improvements in transport infrastructure have certainly made living apart certainly more possible and bearable, but then neither group studied here really does so for financial gain anymore. What then, what compels so many presumably loving Koreans to live apart in the first place? (source: aarontong)
Song-chul mentions that Korea is a very centralized society, and this can’t be emphasized enough. Don’t be misled by any coffee-house statistics on Seoul’s population: the Seoul Metropolitan Area is the second largest in the world, has almost 23 out of Korea’s total population of 49 million, and is a “primate city” in geographical terms, dominating the rest of the country much like Bangkok does Thailand. With so much concentration of economic wealth there, and especially of best schools and universities too (as I discuss at length here), then when the father is, say, transferred to a different city or even overseas, it is wise for the family to try to maintain a residence in Seoul if at all possible. Given the new costs of commuting and maintaining a second, studio-style accommodation for the father involved, this in turn means that weekend couples tend to be much more affluent than Koreans as a whole.
Song-chul seems to leave it at that, but in my opinion this is an insufficient push factor in itself. Now, long-term readers of the blog will be well aware of how simply, well, fucked up I view most parents’ views of education here (not to put too fine a point on it), but would those alone account for couples being prepared to live in such artificial arrangements for several years, even decades? I’ve known couples in those circumstances, and over drinks one day a female colleague in one confessed to me that seeing her boyfriend only on Sundays makes that “Sex Day”™ whether she feels like it or not. And Song-chul also mentions a female interviewee who points out that:
…on the surface weekenders’ relationships to their spouses might seem better than before. This is likely because they pretend that there are no problems and refuse to talk about them. Thus, [she] maintains, if a couple lives apart during the week, there is no way to resolve problems in their relationship, even small ones, and that may have a snowball effect.
And then there is the stress, loneliness, excessive drinking, living off junk-food and thus bouts of ill-health that single weekender men often face too. Is being in the right school zone really worth it? It’s not like only Seoul residents go to the best universities here. While spending the ages of 13-18 preparing for the largely multi-choice university-entrance exam may well be not much of an education, for all its flaws it does have the one strength of being completely meritocratic.
No, fathers do transfer when ordered and don’t quit their jobs for the sake of their married life and relationships with their children because of the length of employment and/or age-based seniority system of most Korean companies. Quit your job at the age of 40? You’ll be lucky to get a job in another company for the same wages and conditions as you had when you were 30. And given that Japan, with similar systems, also has many weekender couples, even though it is less centralized and but decidedly more expensive and difficult to travel around than Korea (and not just because of its size), then I place most of the blame squarely on this aspect of Korean work culture. But that isn’t the entire story.
Sex and Work
Somewhat impersonal and artificial notions of married life and family life are shared by Koreans to a much larger extent than the actual numbers of weekender couples and lonely goose fathers would suggest. Like I’ve mentioned, it is almost financially impossible and there are huge social stigmas against unmarried couples living together, and hence seeing each other only during weekends can be the only practical option for a couple if they live at opposite ends of a city. I’ve even known a Korean couple that lived in two cities but met in a third on weekends to avoid bumping into any relatives or family friends. But in my experience these arrangements seem to be entered into quite willingly by Koreans, whereas most Westerners, knowing that distance relationships have a reputation of failing, would only enter into them as a last resort and only if they were expected to be temporary, not lasting for years or even decades as they do here. And just like my teenage students are rather incredulous when I point out that their forced study and lack of sleep would be considered child abuse in New Zealand (5 hours sleep for a 13 year-old? You’re sure I’m exaggerating?) most Koreans seem bemused with Westerners’ opinions of this, to them, quite normal arrangement.
Again, I think Korean work culture is responsible. Koreans have a reputation overseas for working hard, but long hours should not be confused with high productivity, and in practice much of Korean employees’ time spent at work is actually spent nappiing, going off to lunch, and chatting or playing computer games. Why Koreans feel compelled to arrive at work very early and not leave until late at night after the boss does is a topic for many other posts, but the result is that many fathers virtually never see their wives and children during the week. Throw after-school institutes, six-day school and working weeks that still haven’t been fully abolished into the mix too, and probably more than 50% of Koreans have grown up in what were effectively weekender couple households. Hell, no wonder they enter into such arrangements so willingly as adults. They’re the norm.
Not unsurprisingly then, married Korean (and Japanese) couples seem to rarely have sex (if at all), and there is the strong stereotype (think “ajummas”) of them having gender but not sex; their divorce rate is one of the highest in the world; the Korean prostitution industry is one of the largest in the world; there are STD clinics masquerading as urology clinics simply everywhere; parents would rather send their kids to after-school institutes all night rather than spending time with them; adults seem to have an excessive, almost Freudian attachment to their mothers…I could go on, but would probably be extrapolating from the original subject just a bit too much. But although someone in this thread at Dave’s ESL Cafe thought that Korea’s recent history of arranged, originally loveless marriages was more to blame for much of the above, if popular culture is anything to go by than Koreans certainly do seem to have modern, “Western” ideals of romantic love. Surely that their married lives don’t measure up to those in practice is related to where one or both or them (or their parents) spend 12+ hours a day?
When I began this post I intended to demonstrate that these views of family life was not some inherent, unchanging part of traditional Neo-Confucianism and/or Korean culture but more because of educational and financial imperatives, and I think I have achieved that, but as I’ve written it I’ve become less and less convinced that Koreans enter into such arrangements as reluctantly as I thought. Certainly, Korean society is very rapidly changing, Koreans ultimately prove not to be as different to my largely Western readers as it’s easy to think (and a language gap exaggerates), and I’ve repeatedly emphasized on the blog that aspects of Korean society that Westerners criticize are usually just as readily criticized by Koreans too. What I really need at this stage then, is to hear from the couples themselves.
(Articles about lonely geese fathers are usually accompanied by sad-looking, somewhat depressing cartoons, so I thought that that video would make a welcome change. Found via boingboing )
Meanwhile, I’ve concentrated on weekender couples rather than lonely geese fathers here primarily because I think that their existence says a great deal about Korean society as a whole, rather than just on the failings of the Korean education system. The latter being more unique too, there’s much more information available on them. But something I was reading about immigration to New Zealand recently made me realize that family members are often virtually encouraged by other countries’ bureaucracy and immigration rules to live in separate countries to one another just as much as by any proclivity to do so by Koreans themselves.
Consider this from the book Astronauts from Taiwan: Taiwanese Immigration to Australia and New Zealand, by Tim Beal and Farib Sos, 1999 (Scroll down to September 2000 here for a review):
Many immigrants were misled by the points systems and did not understand the autonomy of the professional bodies which regulated entry into various occupations. The points awarded by the immigration officials based on educational qualifications did not necessarily mean that they would be accepted by professional bodies. The points system placed strong emphasis on those holding qualifications in science, technology and engineering, and it was reasonably assumed by many immigrants that, because the New Zealand government assigned such a high value to professional qualifications, they would be automatically recognized in New Zealand.
Consequently, many immigrants were denied access to employment opportunities commensurate with their qualifications. This was particularly the case for doctors and dentists. This issue was not specific to Taiwanese of course, and many immigrants from other places complained that the government had given them a false impression of the New Zealand job market. The lack of recognition of their skills in New Zealand by professional bodies, combined with a lack of English skills and unfamiliarity with the New Zealand culture and business practices, resulted in unemployment and underemployment of many professional immigrants. (pp. 55-56)
( “Les Templiers”. Source )
I’ve deliberately not mentioned the various immigration policies and point systems and so forth in place then, as they’re largely irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make, and they’re rather out of date too. But my family also suffered from the above problem, albeit in Australia rather than New Zealand, and after personal and repeated assurances by the Australian Immigration Department that my father’s decades of social work qualifications and experience in the UK would be recognized too. They weren’t, and this forced my family to return to the UK after a year or so. Similarly, while Taiwanese (and Korean) “Astronaut Families” were a hot political issue in the mid-1990s in New Zealand, especially in the suburb of Auckland I lived in which had the highest numbers of them in the country, most Taiwanese originally came to New Zealand simply to make a better live for themselves and their children, and were fully prepared for the drop of income that this entailed (nobody chooses to live in NZ to make money). Not for having to say, go to medical school for seven years again. After learning of things like that, it was perfectly rational for their children to remain at school here while the parents returned to Taiwan to work and/or concentrated on their businesses there. Thereby, despite their original intentions, becoming the very astronauts so scorned by New Zealanders.
Certainly only a minority of lonely geese father arrangements would have been created through similar problems with settling in other countries, but it’s something to bear in mind. After all, it was after reading that book above that I so suddenly identified with Taiwanese (and Korean) immigrants to New Zealand and began writing this post, and having become so cynical in the writing of it it’s a good note to end on, for I fear that I may have dehumanized Korean weekend couples a little by looking at them at such an abstract level like I have. Naturally I’d like to hear from those in weekend couples or lonely geese families themselves after writing all that, but failing that I’ll see if I can find any interviews of them, preferably online.