(Source: Hojusaram; CC BY-SA 2.0)
Let me take that break this weekend by posing a couple of questions to readers for a change: if you have a Korean partner, but aren’t married, do you live with him or her? And if so, do his or her parents know about the arrangement? Or is it a secret, which is what I expect most of you to say?
I say that because it’s been nine years now since my then girlfriend moved in with me back in Jinju, and I remember how for the next four years until our marriage she was determined to keep it a secret from her parents, who still think she lived in a “one-room” (원룸) with her younger sister all that time. Fortunately, they and most of her relatives were farmers who lived an hour’s bus-ride out of town, so it was only on the very rare occasion when we were out together that her spotting one in the distance had me hurriedly climbing over walls and up trees to get out of sight. Literally and figuratively then, Koreans’ conservative attitudes to cohabitation was the first cultural difference I really grappled with, and truthfully it was what ultimately inspired to me to start this blog too, my bristling years ago at most Koreans’ blanket assertions that conveniently ill-defined—yet somehow also timeless and unchanging—”Korean culture” was responsible for them, and my wanting to dig deeper.
In reality though, it doesn’t take half an hour up a tree dwelling on the subject to demonstrate that extremely high security deposits demanded of tenants, combined with absurdly low wages provided by part-time jobs, would make living away from home next to impossible for most young people. Change either economic disincentive though, then despite cultural prohibitions, in my experience many young Koreans can, will, and do leave the stifling confines of their homes the instant they’re given the opportunity.
Those young Koreans that can’t live away from home though, must reconcile themselves to the fact, and so by their mid to late-20s — when they do have the means to leave — I find that (as a psychological coping mechanism?) they can ironically often end up being among the stoutest of defenders of living with their parents instead. Hearing it from men specifically though, I don’t need to invoke that notion, for there is plenty of truth to the stereotype that they have all the comforts of having their housework done for them and with none of the restrictions applied to their sisters; hell, in their case I’d probably stay at home too. But a defense of the arrangement from the latter? Of the curfews often applied on them, and parents’ expectations that after working hard studying and/or pursuing their careers during the day, that they still should have to do a load of housework once they arrive home at 11pm? That will never cease to amaze me, and if I know that a Korean woman has the means to leave home but still tolerates such living arrangements, then in all seriousness we could never be friends: I’ve just had too many experiences of feeling like I’m talking to a 27 year-old teenager, and/or of wanting to grab her and shake some sense into her, demanding that she stop moaning to me about her mother and take some control of her life.
(Update: I should probably add that I find it just as difficult to be friends with men living at home too though, my respect also not extending to anyone who expects to go through their entire life with their mothers and then their wives doing all their housework for them!)
To be fair though, the “That’s Korean culture” mantra is a useful device with which to silence know-it-all foreigners, often happy to provide Koreans with their profound insights into Korean society after *cough* less than two weeks in the country, and as an immigrant to both countries I’m familiar with similar responses in Australia and New Zealand too (I’m sure it’s a universal tendency really). And while most Koreans outside of sociology departments naturally haven’t spent all that much time thinking — up a tree or otherwise — about why adult Koreans tend to live with their parents, it has to be said that when the subject came up in conversation (as it had a tendency to do so with me), that actually they did usually agree with my arguments that economics had quite a bit to do with it.
People thinking I’m right because I’ve paid more attention to the subject than them isn’t quite as satisfying as having the evidence to prove I’m right however(!), so although I put that specific topic on the backburner long ago, my ears still always prick up at any mention of related statistical data, although as I discovered recently, there’s much less of that than you might think. Hence I got quite excited when I came across this in today’s Korea Herald:
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org)
One-person households accounted for a fifth of all households in Seoul, according to a report released yesterday by a city-funded research institute (source, right: Jude Lee; CC BY 2.0).
Some 675,000, or 20.4 percent of the total households in the capital, were people living alone, according to the Seoul Development Institute.
The SDI categorized those who live alone into four groups of professional singles, jobless youth, people who got divorced or had separated families, and senior citizens aged 65 or more.
“The percentage of one-person households is expected to reach 25 percent by 2030,” said Byun Mi-ree, an SDI research fellow who wrote the report.
She noted that the city needs to come up with matching policies such as supplying a wide variety of small homes, creating more jobs for unemployed youth, helping unstable singles rebuild families and assisting senior citizens in poverty.
The number of white-collar, professional singles has constantly increased since the mid-1990s along with the changing views of marriage, social accomplishment and individualism, according to the report.
Others increased as well with the tight job market, the aging society and the rising number of children leaving home with their mothers to study abroad.
Forty-five percent of the one-person households earned less than a million won per month. Seventy-six percent made less than 2 million won per month.
More than half of the people who live alone had blue-collar jobs such as sales service (26 percent) or manual labor (10 percent).
Fifty-one percent said they mostly used the mass transportation systems and lived along the subway line No. 2.
Yes, I expected a breakdown of the numbers of those “four groups of professional singles, jobless youth, people who got divorced or had separated families, and senior citizens aged 65 or more” too, and have to wonder what the point of one-person households as a unit of analysis is, given how disparate the make-up and needs of each of those groups mentioned above are. At first I was very curious that there was no mention of middle-aged “lonely goose fathers” (외기러기) too, who live and work in different cities during the week and then return home to their families on the weekend, but then I realized that the concentration of wealth and educational opportunities in Seoul would mean that when those fathers that were already living there were, say, transferred to a branch office, it was logical for the family to remain behind. I couldn’t imagine a family not following a father’s new job in or transfer to Seoul though, so although many Seoulites will indeed be lonely geese fathers, while they’re actually there they wouldn’t count as one-person households (but see here for some information on their numbers that I did find).
So, I checked out the Korean report from the Seoul Development Institute itself , and although it’s quite comprehensive, unfortunately that doesn’t have any figures either! I’ll keep an eye out for them any new reports from the SDI though, which I’m glad that the Korea Herald made me aware of, but in the meantime…then I guess I should provide an apology for not providing an actual answer to the question I pose in the post title. But if you did want to know then I’d genuinely be surprised if you weren’t also interested in the above report too, so *ahem* please forgive the slight subterfuge on my part? And regardless, please do pass on your own experiences of cohabiting in Korea, for my own opinions on the issue, first forged up a tree over nine years now, may well be in some serious need of updating!