Years ago, when I was still in my early twenties, my relatives asked with typical Korean cajolements when I expected to get married. Never! (I was quite headstrong—in fact, I still am.) Today, living in Korea as a single woman aged 30, this irreverent snub has come back to haunt me.
My Korean friends tell me that there is a very bad stereotype for a man who dates and then leaves a woman in the twilight of her twenties, letting her waste away into what my Chinese friends call a Leftover Woman.
My age certainly comes with benefits in this society. As a graduate student, I am surrounded by many younger people on my university campus. I can speak banmal to most. I seldom pour my own drinks (although I do have to pay for them). And I take a little enjoyment out of the fact that I intimidate the students around me. It feels wonderful to be removed from the terrible uncertainty that we all experience in our twenties and to enter, finally, into a period of self-awareness and self-confidence. I embrace it.
Then someone pops my bubble. Are you married? I used to receive a certain follow-up question throughout my twenties: I know someone, are you interested? I was flattered by the complimentary attention. Now the attention turns to something else: Isn’t it getting late? I am pretty sure that in a year or two the question will become a bit sharper: What’s wrong with you? Oh, you have to love Korea!
Much like writer Kate Bolic, I also left a long-term relationship at the age of 28. It is never an easy explanation as to why a relationship doesn’t work out, but more disconcerting than my ambiguous story are the perplexed looks on the faces of my more conservative friends, especially those who believe that certain things must happen at certain times in one’s life. My younger sister was also asked the same question by my relatives about when she expects to get married. Her answer? When I’m 27, to whoever I’m with when I’m 27. (She’s now 26 and still strong in her conviction.)
My Korean friends tell me that there is a very bad stereotype for a man who dates and then leaves a woman in the twilight of her twenties, letting her waste away into what my Chinese friends call a Leftover Woman. This was hardly my case. My ex-boyfriend was, and still is, a wonderful man. Smart. Caring. Supportive. The easiest answer I can give as to why the relationship fell apart is that things did not “feel right,” and that I was not ready for the next level of commitment, the marriage-minded track. It’s a scary feeling we all experience: everyday you feel one step closer to fulfilling a perfectly planned life, and it’s damn comfortable, but deep in your gut something tells you that that’s not what you truly want. I simply had the courage to act on that feeling. Though I don’t regret my decision, the stereotypes I face every day remind me that I took a non-traditional path.
But these stereotypes beg a much larger question. What is it about Korean (and to a larger extent, Asian) society that makes it acceptable for these blunt questions towards single women to even be asked? Laurel Kendall, a cultural anthropologist at Columbia University, elucidates some of the tensions and difficulties that Korean women have traditionally faced in her fascinating book Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity. Through the structure and symbolism of the marriage, Kendall reveals how Korean women themselves participate in both the construction and expectations of courtship and matrimony. Korean women have not demanded liberation from existing social norms; they have quietly succumbed to the idea that their gender, class, and family background all coalesce in their twenties into, inevitably, marriage.
Much has changed since Kendall published her book fifteen years ago. True, a Korean man with a high education level from a wealthy family has always had his pick of women—and today he is ever pickier, from her pedigree down to her waist size. But the choice to “compete” (i.e., diet and undergo plastic surgery) with other women on the romantic market for a small number of playboy men, or put up with a growing number of man-boys coddled by their mothers, has left many Korean women to reconsider marriage entirely.
The 2011 August 20th cover of The Economist depicts an Asian woman nonchalantly walking away from a sad-looking Asian man, captioning the photo with the title “Asia’s Lonely Hearts”. The accompanying article reports that while divorce is still comparatively rare throughout Asia, many young women are opting out of marriage altogether at unprecedented rates. Koreans call such a woman a Gold Miss, a career-minded woman in her thirties who opts out of the marriage game. I suppose I fall into this category.
This is because I am wary of the Korean expectations for marriage. Over several conversations with Cho Haejoang, a cultural anthropologist at Yonsei University and feminist activist in Korean society, she has shared with me her thoughts on the Korean family system. The contemporary Korean family is one of maternal authority, meaning that the Korean mother has secured her position as the powerhouse in the private domain, and raises her children in a managerial style alongside an aloof father. The onus of the family is not on the spousal relationship but rather on the success of the children, who become the main reason why the marriage stays together, and creates a mother-child relationship that becomes the nucleus of the Korean family. In turn, this mother-child relationship creates an entire generation of mama’s boys who listlessly submit to their female authorities. Is this what Korean women want in a husband?
Every morning by 6 a.m., my friend is expected to wake up to clean their Gangnam apartment and prepare breakfast before the patriarch arises. Sometimes she shines his shoes while he’s wearing them.
We have all heard stories of the evil Korean mother-in-law. I have an American friend who married a Korean man and moved in with her husband’s parents, a fairly common practice for newly married couples in Korea. Typical of in-laws from Daegu, his parents uphold very strict gender norms that would appall even the mildest of feminist-minded Korean contemporaries. Every morning by 6 a.m., my friend is expected to wake up to clean their Gangnam apartment and prepare breakfast before the patriarch arises. Sometimes she shines his shoes while he’s wearing them, waiting for her to finish before departing for work. She must also bear constant verbal abuses from her mother-in-law about her disappointment that her son did not marry a Korean girl. Like a dutiful son, her husband does not object to his mother’s demands in defense of his wife. Never mind the fact that my friend is also writing her doctoral dissertation and juggling a full-time job as a lecturer at Seoul National University. The expectation is that she humble herself as a married woman living under the roof of her mother-in-law.
But the Western marriage ideal is not necessarily superior. It is just different, and perhaps more difficult. Where the Korean ideal focuses on duties and roles, the Western ideal expects that you turn to your partner for emotional fulfillment. This puts a much stronger pressure on sustaining a certain level of romance over the span of the marriage. Perhaps this is why Western societies have a much higher divorce rate—so much so that in major metropolitan areas in the United States, divorce and remarriage have become normative while the traditional nuclear family has not.
The Western concept of the “romantic” marriage has been filtering into Korean culture for some time now. There is a delicate tension among young couples today who try to balance romantic love with familial duties, and this plays out as a generational friction. I have a Korean friend who recently got married. It was a classic love story: a girl from a well-to-do family wants to marry a man from an underprivileged background. It was only because of his admirable talent to overcome his adversity—resulting in his graduating from Seoul National University—did her parents allow the marriage to happen. Still, during the engagement period, there were many fights between each set of parents over wedding politics, and each time the intended marriage seemed likely to fall apart. Her mother even suggested to my friend that she actually not be in love when “negotiating” the marriage details so that she could make decisions with a clear mind.
Indeed, marriage is an institution that is in flux more than ever today. As economic conditions have changed that allow for women to hold their own careers and migrate freely, and as marriage conditions have not caught up quickly enough, Korean women are recognizing that perhaps marriage is not necessarily what is best for them. Past the courtship and romance phase, the vast majority of marriages today still employ traditional gender roles. There is also a strong social expectation that Korean women should quit their jobs once they are married and have children. For an ambitious young woman who would rather avoid the drudgery of the traditional marriage, the ability to now lead a financially independent lifestyle has pushed a growing number of women to forgo marriage altogether. On the flip side, Korean men are complaining that Korean women are on marriage strike. This is starkly evident in the fact that now the highest rate of international marriages are between Korean men in rural areas with “imported” brides primarily from Southeast Asia. Korean women have left for the cities for better lives, leaving Korean men to take over family farming and fishing businesses but in desperate search for female companions. This doesn’t surprise me one bit.
In spite of my brash statement of a decade earlier, being a Gold Miss is not to say that I will never get married. I have faith that when I meet the right person at the right time that everything will work out for the best, marriage or otherwise. I am an idealist. There are many women of my generation who feel the same way, in Korea and elsewhere. The peculiarity of the Gold Miss perhaps speaks to a broader shift in our ideals, that there is a certain level of quality we expect in a man balanced by a healthy dose of liberation from archaic social structures. We are not burning our bras; we are reinventing the bra altogether. By calling for a redefinition of what an ideal marriage should look like, we are finally giving voice to the other half of the marriage: women.