When I lived abroad in Korea, I spent a lot of time doing work in cafes. Probably a 100 or more during my 2 years there. As such, I eavesdropped on thousands of conversations. And nearly every one of those conversations was about two topics: complaints re studying English and complaints re losing weight.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic for my bachelor days, but it’s conversations about “specs” (스펙) that I’ve really noticed myself. A Korean term for the criteria used to evaluate a potential spouse on, it’s also my experience that it’s almost exclusively used by women, although that may just be because there’s usually more women than men at my local Starbucks.
Either way, in February Kim Da-ye at the Korea Times argued that looking at marriage this way is a relatively new phenomenon, and that it’s “matchmaking companies that rate spouse seekers by specs [that] have fueled [such] materialism.” And, as if to bolster that point, Donga-Reuters would report on exactly the same phenomenon emerging in China after I’d already begun writing this post.
But as discussed below, matchmakers have been encouraging such pragmatism for decades, so they can hardly be described as driving that change in outlook. Rather, it’s economic factors that are responsible, as Kim later acknowledges in her article:
…today’s buzzword “Sampo” generation (삼포세대) …indicates a 30-something who has given up dating, marrying and giving birth because of the lack of financial means…
Contrast the “880,000 won generation”, which generally refers to 20-somethings. Continuing:
….What’s interesting about such preferences for the partner’s economic qualification is that they don’t come from conservative parents or rigid social structure but independent, young individuals….
….The near obsession with fine lifestyle is a contrast to the attitude of the baby boomer generation, many of whom used to say that they can start from a small rented room….
When asked why the younger generation isn’t willing make such a humble start, Lee, a single woman in her mid-30s working at a media firm, said, “Back then, amid fast economic growth, people had hoped that they would be able to climb up the social ladder and afford a bigger place in the future. Nowadays, people feel that if they start in a small room, they will be stuck there for the rest of their lives.”
The high cost of getting married naturally leads to some couples to be heavily indebted after the honeymoon ends. In addition to the Sampo generation, another phrase linked to both the economy and marriage has emerged — “honeymoon poor.”
And Kim — whose article is still very informative overall — gives several examples of engaged couples’ fights over money, some of whom ultimately break up. Yet those would not be out of place in popular discourses of marriage in, for example, the 1980s, when women’s magazines were similarly promoting the virtues of arranged ones. Presumably, at the behest of their advertisers:
Passage Rites Made Easy [A 1982 Korean book by Ko Chonggi] describes marriage through an arranged meeting as more “rational” behavior than simply falling in love because the candidates for romance and matrimony have already been carefully scrutinized by parents and matchmakers. Korean women’s magazines also emphasize the value of prior screening in choosing a mate, suggesting by the frequency with which they address this topic that their youthful readership is by no means convinced of the merits of matchmade matrimony:
Today, with the trend towards frankness in sexual matters, talk of “arranged meetings” or “matchmade marriage” might sound excessively stale. Even so, in marriage the conditions of both sides enter into things. Matchmade marriage, where you can dispassionately investigate these considerations beforehand, has some advantages that cannot be ignored (“The Secrets of a Successful Arranged Meeting,” Yong Reidi, 3 March 1985: 347).
From pages 89-90 of Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (1996), by Laurel Kendall, the next page sounds a little ironic 18 years later:
The evolution of Korean courtship practices provides one excellent example of how notions of progress, of an enlightened “now” versus a repressive “then”, mask the particular disadvantages for women in new forms of matrimonial negotiations, be they “matchmade” or “for love” — a mask which sometimes slips in angry conversation or social satire. Through courtship and through all of the talk about getting married, notions of ideal “man” and “woman”, “husband” and “wife”, “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law” are constructed, reinforced, and resisted….
….In Korean popular discourse, the evils of old-fashioned matrimony, in which near-children were forced by the will of their elders to marry total strangers, have been replaced by more enlightened practices. The “old days” are still on the horizon of living memory, but are recalled as from an utterly vanished time. In confessing that he never saw his wife’s face until his wedding night, the writer Cho P’ungyon states [in 1983] with a touch of hyperbole that “Today’s young people would consider this laughable and the faint-hearted might swoon away, but in my day these procedures were considered natural.”
The difference being that in 2012, financially-strapped singles can no longer afford to be so dismissive (nor Japanese ones either). Moreover, while they’re not marrying complete strangers perhaps, many Koreans do marry people they’ve only known a few weeks, as discussed in an earlier post. Also, some mild social coercion can indeed be involved, as Gomushin Girl explained:
It’s important to differentiate between different kinds of matchmaking arrangements…lots of Koreans use services that are similar to eHarmony, It’s Just Dinner, and other similar paid and unpaid services. Just like in the US, there’s free and paid computer matching sites, and more expensive and comprehensive personalized dating services. These offer a great deal of flexibility, and allow you to reject partners at many stages of the process – the worst consequence being that the agent in charge of finding you matches will decide you’re too picky, and start sending you “lower quality” matches. You’re free to meet multiple people at once, and they’re basically meant to facilitate dating.
However, 선 (Seon) matches are pretty different. Most of the time the people proposing the arrangement are close family or friends (of your parents), and parties are expected to make up their minds pretty quickly. Delaying too long or changing your mind after the first few dates is strongly frowned upon, and may even cause major social riftts. This means that women especially are pressured to marry people before they’re comfortable with them, and even if they’re not really what they’re looking for. Seon is serious, and you’re expected to commit yourself pretty quickly.
It’s also expected to override existing social relationships. My Korean host mother once called me up to ask if I’d go down to Busan to meet a friend’s son, who was interested in a seon meeting with me. I told her I’d just started dating someone, and her response was essentially, “That’s wonderful! When can you come to Busan?”
And on that note, let me leave you with a translation of the image that prompted this post, a poster for last week’s Slutwalk in Seoul. The slogan reads, roughly, “Let’s stop these fantasy gender roles now. Let’s play at being ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, 2012 Slutwalk Korea.” Many of the specs it mentions would be shared by people the world over, but there are also some quintessentially Korean ones:
For the “man” (literally, it says “manliness”):
- 키180이상 Over 180cm in height
- 전문직 A professional
- 대기업정규직 Regular worker at a big company
- 인서울4년제 Went to a 4-year university in Seoul
- 자차소유 Owns a car
- 장남아닐것 Not a first-born son
- 데이트비용 Pays for everything on a date
- 신혼집구입 Buys a home after marriage
- 사회생활잘함 Good social skills
- 성격좋음 Good personality
- 술잘마심 A good drinker
- 정력왕 Good sexual stamina
For the woman (“womanliness”):
- 키170미만 Under 170cm tall
- 몸무게50미만 Under 50 kg
- 가슴C컵이상 A C-cup or over
- 30살이하 30 or under
- 날신한몸매 Thin body
- 작고하얀얼굴 Small and white face
- 화장은기본 Always wears make-up
- 제모는상식 Shaves legs and underarms
- 명품백하나쯤 Have at least one brand-name handbag
- 애교있는성격 Have aegyo
- 시댁을부모처럼 Treats parents-in-law like her own parents
- 섹스경험없음 Be a virgin
Are there any others readers would add? Especially Korean ones?
(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)