Canadian women and Korean men, married AND living in Korea, make quite a rare type of family even today. You can read a lot on this site about my experience as a European woman dating a Korean man, so it is going to be enlightening to read about relationships with a Korean man from a different point of view. Msleetobe, a woman behind On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife was kind enough to answer my prying questions:
- You are Canadian and your husband is South Korean. How and when did you two meet?
I worked at an adult hagwon (English institute) for my first job in Korea. I taught essay writing and conversational English to university students, business people, and people changing careers. I met my husband in December 2005 while he was a businessman taking a weekend conversation class. I was very ill due to the worst strep throat infection of my life, and I was 15 minutes late to the first class because my manager had given me the wrong room number. Also, that class was cancelled after the first day due to low enrollment, but my husband still followed me to a class I was teaching at a different time, so I guess I must have made a good impression on him!
Anyway, yes, I was his teacher, but he is 7 years older than me, so we think the teacher/ ‘cradle robber’ dynamic balances out the inappropriateness. :)
- Did you have trouble reading your husband’s feelings when you met him? Was it obvious to you that he was interested in you?
YES! Part of it was cultural and part of it was his particular situation. Back in 2005, white female/Korean male (long term) couples were very uncommon here. My friends dated some men for one or two dates or had a one night stand, but it was hard to find others who had negotiated long term relationships. I think things have really changed in Korea with younger men, but back then most 30-something guys I was meeting were not very forward (especially with Western women). In addition, ‘dating’ was considered a pretty serious step (especially if you were in your 30s and supposed to be looking for a marriage partner).
Specifically, my husband had decided not to get married based on the married relationships he saw around him, so he had set his mind to avoid serious relationships. We saw each other all of the time, and we even went on day trips outside of Seoul, but the nature of our relationship was unclear to me for several months. We spent so much time together, and seemed to have a connection, but he wouldn’t take it further than that. Finally, it all blew up in this one spectacular night where we confessed our feelings to each other, and in a very conflicted outburst he proclaimed, ‘But I didn’t think I wanted to get married!’ And I said, ‘MARRIAGE? I just want to KISS you!’ The sentiment that dating should lead to marriage was a very 30-something Korean male concern back then, but I failed to really understand that cultural difference, and I didn’t quite comprehend at the time how adding a Western woman (a potential Western wife) into that mix made the decision to date me much more complicated.
I’ve long since left the dating scene, but it seems to me that Western female-Korean male dating is probably a little different these days. 20-somethings have a less serious view of dating, and more Korean men have experience meeting Western women either abroad or in Korea meaning that there is a stronger belief on both sides that such a relationship is possible in a way it wasn’t in our heads in 2005.
- You’ve gotten married on April 2010. Was your wedding following Korean traditions or Canadian traditions?
We actually had FOUR weddings! The first was the legal paperwork marriage. It was very surreal. The Canadian embassy stamped our papers without a word, and then threw them back at us. We had to ask them, ‘Um…are we married now?’ And then we went for a McMorning set at McDonalds as it right by the Canadian embassy in Seoul. I’ve since heard from many other Canadian-Korean couples that their first married meal together was also at McDonalds!
Our first actual wedding was in early June, and it was a traditional Korean ceremony conducted by a 500 year ginko tree. Then, we had an Orthodox Christian church wedding in mid-June, and a Canadian wedding in August. It seems complicated, and it was. However, we had family and friends in both of our countries who could not travel, and my faith is important to me, but it is not shared with any of my or his family members, so we had to have a separate church ceremony.
In Canada, fusion weddings are very common, but since the Korean wedding was going to be very very traditional, we went with a standard Canadian wedding back home. The church wedding was a very intimate ceremony with everyone in our tiny English-speaking Orthodox community taking a role (singer, photographer, sponsor, etc), and the children sitting in a circle around us.
I never ever want to have another wedding ceremony after planning all those separate events, but they all spoke to important parts of who we are and the people we love, and I’m glad we were able to share that life event with as many people as we did.
- A common worry for our readers is that Korean parents don’t accept foreign wives for their sons. How was your experience with your in-laws?
There was some resistance to our relationship when they found out about me (about 3 years after we had met! If you are going to date here, you need to be okay with being a secret partner for a while!). However, my Korean family has been very supportive since meeting me. We have very few problems in part because we both try to have a harmonious relationship but also because my husband is a good liaison between us. I would say that most women I know who are married to Korean men have this experience. There is a bit of trouble at first, but eventually love and understanding for each other makes it all work out.
I know this question doesn’t ask for advice, but here is my advice anyway. :) If the person you love is truly committed to your relationship, then it will all work out. I do know some people whose relationship failed because of family intervention, and in those cases, the Korean partner wasn’t really willing to fight for the relationship. Honestly, if your partner is not committed to your relationship before marriage, he or she will not be on your side after the papers are signed. If you have a partner who remains steadfast during any pre-wedding turmoil, then I think you have a good chance at making a marriage work.
- What are some of the cultural differences that you find the most difficult to deal with?
It may seem like a weird response, but work culture is a struggle for me. I am ever grateful to Korea for giving me a job I love and showing me that I am supposed to be a teacher. However, most Korean companies are not very family friendly. Beyond the issues of maternity/paternity leave, there is generally a lack of sick leave for you/your kids, the work hours are long, drinking takes precedence over family time, and schedules and postings change erratically and at the last minute with no consideration for the effects on families. My husband tries harder than most to negotiate between the demands of work and family, but there is sometimes a strain on our relationship and our family because of work.
There’s also this underlying cultural assumption that men’s careers take precedence over women’s, and if there is a problem with childcare or a sick child or whatever, it is automatically assumed to be the mother’s responsibility. Therefore, as a working mum, I feel a lot of stress when our son is sick or when something unexpected comes up. Again, my husband is an involved parent, and he personally sees these issues as his issues, especially because I am a foreigner. However, the culture in general and work culture specifically do not support fathers who want or need to be more involved in their kids’ lives.
- On January 2012 you’ve gotten a beautiful baby boy. You’ve arrived to Korea as a fully formed person but he will undoubtedly be shaped by Korean culture. Has that changed the way you see Korean culture?
Once you have a child, your protective instincts become very intense. Like any mum, I’m more worried than before about negative aspects of the culture I’m living in, and I have a constant overwhelming urge to protect my child from those real or perceived dangers. I’ve always been interested in xenophobia, problems in the Korean education system, and the negative effects of Korean work culture on the family, but having a child has intensified these concerns and made me feel like I have an even greater stake in these parts of Korean society. At the same time, I’m more aware of my thoughts, actions, words, and prejudices when discussing these elements of Korea. I need to be careful that my worries, concerns, and activism do not appear as Korea-hating to my son because this is his culture, and I want him to have a positive relationship to his Korean self. I think most people reevaluate themselves and their failings when they become parents, but when you are living in another culture, there’s a slight cultural twist on this introspection.
- Are you planning to stay in Korea permanently?
No. We are here long term because we both have careers and supportive social circles here. However, I don’t want to stay here forever. We don’t have any particular time to leave. That decision will be made based on a combination of work and family concerns as well as opportunities that arise.
Sincere thanks to msleetobe for this interview and for giving me permission to use photographs of her traditional Korean wedding and her untraditional beautiful Canadian-Korean family.
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