How Many Unmarried Koreans Live Away From Their Parents?

Korean couple(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:

Seoul TiltshiftOne-person homes rise to 20%

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldm.com)

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!

28 thoughts on “How Many Unmarried Koreans Live Away From Their Parents?

  1. This part really struck me, and I completely fail to understand:
    “…and the rising number of children leaving home with their mothers to study abroad.”

    At first glance, I assumed this was creating single person households because it was at one time a three person household: mom, dad and kid. Mom and kid leave to go study abroad, leaving dad at home alone. Is this correct? Surely not…surely not.

    I’ve only been here for 18 months. I’ve run into this conversation about living at home countless times, as we all have, but this is definitely the first time I’ve heard that line about children leaving to study abroad WITH their mothers.

    • Ah. I missed that part in the report when I wrote about lonely geese fathers, but that is indeed what it’s referring to, and in fact it’s the fathers remaining behind in Korea while the mother and children go overseas that the term mostly comes from, not so much the weekend families that I discuss in the post. I remember a spate of articles about the phenomenon last year, which you can find linked to on this short Wikipedia entry, which estimates their numbers at 200,000, although I’m not sure if that includes fathers with families still in Korea (here’s one more article too).

      I share your sense of bafflement at a “family” that is prepared to split up like that, often without fathers seeing their wives and children for years at a time. Like I explain in those earlier posts of mine, weekend families I can understand, as Korea’s system of promotion based on seniority within the company, and an inability to transfer that seniority to other companies (and many other things), means that in similar circumstances Western fathers too would have no choice but to go where their company sends them. But no matter how bad Korean education is though, of course keeping the family together is much more important than receiving an education overseas, and – with the proviso that I’ve never known any gyopos (교포) personally, and can understand any offense they have at this – I can certainly understand the basis to the resulting stereotypes of children growing up in the US undisciplined and with “daddy issues,” which would be only natural.

  2. How long did you date for before moving in together?

    In my case, I moved in to my wife’s place two months after first meeting her and about two weeks after starting a proper relationship…thereafter, I had to absent my self to my friends sofa on the odd occaisions that her parents would visit Seoul. We didn’t go to great lengths to hide my presence and just stuffed my clothes to the back of the wardrobe and put my toiletries in a draw. It’s my understanding that my M-i-L came across something of mine once and asked my wife and chose to accept whatever limp excuse was proffered by my wife.

    We were officially allowed to move in together about 3 months before our wedding on the proviso that we woould “be careful” until the wedding. We finessed this by claming that the lease on my place had come to an end. They didn’t ask us (and it didn’t even occur to me) to register our marriage at that time. Of course, within a month i had knocked up my wife but there were no repurcussions (what would be the point) except that the honeymoon kind of sucked…

    • My wife and I were somewhat of a special case, for Korea or anywhere, for when met she lived in a one-room with her younger sister literally 10 meters away from the house my employer provided for I and my foreign colleagues. They hadn’t been living there for a while, but had lived in various other one-rooms in Jinju as high-school students, there being no high school close to the village one hour away in which they grew up and her parents still live(d). It was really a hovel, with an outside toilet and a hose from the “kitchen” sink serving as a shower, so later I joked that we only got together for the sake of living in relative luxury with me, albeit the house also being a hovel by my own standards.

      We first met in my free-talking class on November the 1st 2000 (she was 21 then, me 24), I asked for a coffee maybe a week after that, but rather than going out for that I found her waiting for me on my doorstep after work one night a few days later instead (which was sweet, but when I’m with the guys I embellish events a little to include her in various states of undress and/or wearing little more than a big red bow for me to unwrap; I’m sure you understand). She stayed a few hours that night, a little longer the next and so on, until by Christmas she was staying all night almost every night (we never did “date” in the usual definition of the word). All that time, her younger sister was somewhat unconcerned and/or naive (probably the latter), never asking where she was.

      5 months later, she moved with me into the one-room I was given as part of my next job, and after I quit that job after a few months she came with me into the house I lived in with one other foreign teacher as part of the next job, which I had for two years (and actually she worked at that hagwon too). She told her parents that she lived with (non-existent) foreign female teachers that worked there, and they either lacked the knowledge and/or concern to inquire as to why she’d received such unusual treatment for a young Korean teacher (I’ve just asked her why her parents never wanted to see her place on their rare trips to town, and she replied that they simply trusted her). Then we moved to Busan (September 2003 by then) and got our own place, and when we got engaged and I met the parents she told them we’d been together a couple of months. As far as they know, we moved into our Busan apartment when we got married in May 2004, not 9 months earlier.

      I was exaggerating about the hiding up trees (obviously), but I did get out of sight on a couple of occasions when she saw a relative in the distance, and explaining me might have invited attention we didn’t really need right then. That was the only inconvenience of our living arrangements really, and just between you and me I rather preferred it when she went home for holidays and I had to do my own thing; there’s not much to do in her home village!

      P.S. One thing I forgot to mention in the post, which your comment reminded me of, was that historically Koreans have been relatively forgiving of sexual relations among those due to be married, as Oranckay pointed out to me here. Given globalization the Korean media…yada…yada…yada…then I’d be very surprised if the numbers of engaged Koreans living together at least hasn’t shot up over the last decade or so.

      P.P.S. Come to think of it, perhaps you weren’t actually asking me for all that detail with that first sentence, or even at all! Oh well…

  3. Thanks for sharing your story with us, James. Luckily everything turned out well for you guys. Didn’t you worry at that time (before being introduced to parents) what would happen and how your girlfriend would decide if they had rejected you as a son-in-law?

  4. hello, I agree with almost each word in this article. With one more notice -not only the fact that your then girlfrien dlived with a boyfreind was a thing to be hidden, but – and probably more important – the fact, that her boyfriend was Non-Korean!
    All the best!

  5. Oh…thanks! But because of her particular circumstances then I don’t really have any interesting anecdotes to pass on really (I’m sure Daeguowl has more), our living together being practically no different to what it would have been like had I lived with a partner back in NZ. It did grind a little though, that we had to keep something that was nothing to be ashamed of a secret for so long. Not just from her parents but from her friends and colleagues and so on too, and still even now she was a little reluctant for me to pass all this on here.

    I admit, I did worry ever so slightly that her parents would have rejected me, like most Koreans her being much closer to them than most Westerners are to theirs, but in the event they saw that we were in love and realized that it was a hopeless cause to split us up even if they’d wanted to. Some of her relatives did have issues with me though, but more due to my earning power than my being a foreigner, which I was quite bemused about at the time considering they were all peasants strawberry farmers, and which was also somewhat ironic considering that the discussions about me were taking place in my parents-in-law’s home, who were so poor that until a couple of years ago my mother-in-law did all her laundry in the closest stream (no, really).

  6. Did you see Hyundai’s Super Bowl ad, making fun of hypothetical German and Japanese car companies’ hysteria over being beaten by Hyundai for some award? Call me an overanalytical poli sci major but I think it’s a WWII Axis reference; at least, something the Korean higher-ups can’t have been blind to, showing this for a Super Bowl ad. OTOH, it is objectively true that Hyundai is competing in the luxury market which is partly dominated by car companies from Japan and Germany. And it can’t exactly show Americans having a fit, given the state of American car manufacturers, if it wants to sell to Americans. “Rhymes with Sunday.” What do you think of Hyundai? What do Koreans think of Hyundai’s overseas expansion efforts? Certainly doesn’t seem to be as successful as Samsung’s, for example.

  7. Wow, I almost perfectly fit the description of the “average” single dweller ~ hurrah for me (everything from salary to location to transit . . . my collar is the wrong color though)?

    As for cohabitation, I only know of a few cohabiting couples, none of which though are heterosexual Korean-Korean pairings (essentially all are homosexual unions or Korean-foreign partnerships) but I’m probably associating with the wrong social classes. Laurel Kendell’s book Getting Married in Korea documents some of the same patterns of cohabitation among her mostly lower-middle class and blue collar subjects, particularly regarding the liberal attitude towards couples who are engaged but not married (including things like marriage ceremonies without legal registration, registration without ceremonies, etc.) even if her data is mostly from the 80’s and early 90’s.

    Hizzla ~ there’s a big discussion over at the Marmot’s Hole if you’re looking for more stuff on the Hyundai ad.

    • Ah, thanks for reminding me about Laurel Kendell’s book…I completely forgot about it, even though it’s sitting not 50cm behind my head!

      One I’d add to that is the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch’s Yogong: Factory Girl by Robert F. Spencer, and heartily recommending visiting their “store” in Jongno to pick up a copy. It’s a little old (1988), and very shoddily produced, a couple of pages being missing at the beginning, but otherwise it’s a fascinating look at the lives of working women in the 1970s, with a lot of information on the rather fluid living and sexual arrangements that were afforded blue collar workers, engaged or otherwise.

  8. if you have a Korean partner, 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?
    ::

    Yes, we live together, no, it’s not a secret because his mother TOLD us we should live together. His father told us to be careful to not make babies until after Good Man graduates from grad school.

    Of course, we’re engaged and living in America, so that makes a difference. (We didn’t become engaged until a few months after he moved here, but I had met the parents, so…) I secretly think his mother wanted us to live together so I would take care of him and he wouldn’t live on ramyeon.

    • Sorry I took so long to reply Amanda. Yeah, living in America would make a big difference(!), although I’m sure his mother’s (secret) sentiments are shared by many many mothers here, particularly those with sons studying in different cities and who subsist on nothing but kimchi-stew, noodles and soju.

  9. I am getting married at the end of the year and I can’t wait because sending my fiancee home before 12.00 makes me feel like I am back in high school sometimes. She occasionally comes over when she manages to come up with a good excuse.

    Although you mentioned the ‘It’s Korean culture’ mantra, I do believe younger Koreans are slowly moving away and want some of that independence early on but it is really hard for them to confront their parents.

    One thing to look at maybe is that the sexual revolution that took place in 1960s and 1970s in the West is only taking place now in many parts of Asia, including Korea, so it will still be a decade or two until we see similar patterns happening here. I am not a sociologist by any means but I think it could be a big factor.

    I wanted to point out that there seems to be some kind of ‘boomerang’ phenomenon happening overseas (at least in Europe – that’s where I am from) where many young adults return to live with their parents at least temporarily citing financial reasons and I suspect this will be magnified under the current economic crisis.

    What disturbs me more though is married couples who live with parents. Again, it’s a ‘Koran culture’ thing and I can understand it for short periods of time where it helps the bride or groom getting accustomed to their in-laws but when it stretches over a couple of years, that blows my mind.

    One of my cousins got married and had a baby but he didn’t move out of his mother’s house until his daughter was 5!

    Anyways, just some random thoughts on your really good post!

    • Sorry that I can’t really think of anything to add to your comment Jerome, but I’m nodding at everything you mentioned, and thank you for the compliments! There’s definitely been a boomerang effect going on in NZ and Australia in the last 10-15 years as well, and if it hadn’t been better for our relationships then I may well have stayed at home with my father and sister rather than having the huge debt that I do now. But of course, at 18 that was just abstract, and my freedom and independence were very very important to me.

      By the way, as I type this I have an article which gives more information about Korean student loans in front of me, so I might quickly write a post about that this weekend. I’ll give you a link here if I do.

  10. Hey James… I would be very interested in reading this article, especially as there is a lot of talk going on this 88 generation. Looking forward to it.

  11. Will do Jerome, sometime this week, although there’s not too much I can add to that article really sorry (again). But what’s this “88 generation” you’re talking about?

  12. It’s something I have heard from people at work and refers to the generation of graduating students who, because of the few employment prospects, are ‘forced’ to take internships that usually pay around 88만원. It also refers to their birth year 1988 (
    It is similar to the 600 euro generation in Europe, I suppose)…

    What is worrying, however, is that there have been talks that MB is proposing laws extending the duration of those internships to 4 years in order to encourage employers to hire more youth and therefore giving them more opportunities to gain experience… ludacrous in my opinion…

    That’s all I know for now but if you want, I can try and get some more details…

    • Ah, I get it now, now that I think about it I recall reading it in the Korea Times somewhere recently. Thanks for the offer, but don’t worry about finding more details.

      I agree that 880,000 won a month is ridiculous on the face of it, but on the other hand it is much better than nothing, and more than it sounds considering that graduates tend to live at home. Still, I can see the potential for exploitation, and naturally it hardly encourages young people to leave the family nest either. And, given that people are postponing marriage too, ultimately means that they may stay in the family nest for a looong time!

    • Ah, I get it now, now that I think about it I recall reading it in the Korea Times somewhere recently. Thanks for the offer, but don’t worry about finding more details.

      I agree that 880,000 won a month is ridiculous on the face of it, but on the other hand it is much better than nothing, and more than it sounds considering that graduates tend to live at home. Still, I can see the potential for exploitation, and naturally it hardly encourages young people to leave the family nest either. And, given that people are postponing marriage too, ultimately means that they may stay in the family nest for a looong time!

  13. oh, the ‘salary’ is not such an issue (although 880,000 won does seem very little) and as you said, it is practically spending money because people do tend to stay at home but it’s that 4 year proposal that i found worrying…

    btw, i am listening to your interview – hehe – pretty cool!

    • Indeed, that’s what I meant by “potential for exploitation.” It’s a little like indentured servitude.

      And I’m glad someone likes the interview, thanks. Personally I can’t go over my incredibly nasal accent, which sounds as clear and fresh as an alpine breeze to me personally. I can never quite get over the contrast between what I hear and everyone else does…

    • Ah, but then having lived in England, Australia and Korea in addition to New Zealand, then I sound nothing like the average Kiwi! Speaking of which, when I used to work at the checkouts in *cough* The Warehouse in NZ (similar in reputation to, say, K-mart) I would get so many queries and guesses as to my accent that I started keeping tabs (hey, not much else to do while standing on the same spot for 8 hours), and for some reason about 5 out of 10 thought I was French or German, 4 Canadian, and 1 something completely off the charts, like Israeli or Bolivian. Bizarre really, considering that despite all the above I still strongly sound like I’m from Northern England, and which is obvious to anyone with even just a passing familiarity with a British accent!

  14. My bad… I guess I was fooled by the ‘nasal’ accent – hehe. I still can’t pick the fine differences between accents but I really see what you mean. Mine is a mix of French, Canadian (Toronto) and American (from my high school days), which confuses the hell out people sometimes.

  15. i have a sad story about the father of my 2 children. im not korean so her mother doesnt

    like me at all.. he went here to study english and we lived together for almost 2 years.

    so suddenly he have to leave us

    to pursue his military service and that’s what his mother told us. when he left i was so

    shocked that within 3 months he was dating with a korean girl which his mother

    introduce to him. i was so depressed now and so confused. does koreans really do like

    this? just make a family then leave with nice promises… so hurt..

    take note we’re not married.

  16. I really cannot believe that I was so lucky. After few awesome weeks we just started living together (even before we have been spending most of the time together, like 20 hours of 24 on average during first 2 weeks :) ).

    Parents weren’t very happy and brother opposed but my GF just stated she will do it and she did. :D

    Only one awkward thing happened, she lost best friend over it. My first thought was that this girl was just one of those brainwashed Christians (I’m European if that explains my thinking ;) ), but not, she was not religious at all. Anyway, we are married now and her friend visits us very often and looks like she will never stop feeling sorry for what she did 4 years ago…

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