Women in Korea (I)
By Mathias Specht
Although I usually prefer the subway, I often took the bus while a student at Yonsei University because the bus stop was much closer. Out of these numerous occasions, one has remained perfectly vivid in my memory.
It was a sunny, late summer afternoon and I was on the way downtown to meet some friends. There were maybe 15 people waiting at the bus stop, the majority of them obviously Yonsei students but also a few mothers with children.
Right next to me were two fashionably dressed girls in their early 20s. Just as they took a short break from their lively chatter to smoke a cigarette and stare off in the distance, an old Korean man passed us by.
After a few steps he stopped and turned, giving them a curious look. He then walked back and positioned himself in front of the slightly taller of the two, slowly raised his right arm and slapped her across the face so hard with the back of his hand that her cigarette went flying.
The whole nasty scene happened so suddenly and seemed so unreal on such an otherwise brilliant afternoon that I just stood there frozen, merely two steps away. He then hurled some rather vulgar insults at the girls and walked away as stoic and self-assured as he had come.
One child started to get upset as the girl began to sob but his mother quickly silenced it. The two girls had no clue what just happened to them. They were both Japanese exchange students and did not speak enough Korean to understand that they had just been disciplined for smoking in public.
I guess they couldn't have been expected to know that not everyone in Korean society believes women should be granted the choice to decide for themselves whether or not to smoke. A few friends of mine even suggested that some time ago there was a law prohibiting public smoking for women, but even inquiries at the Supreme Court could neither support nor denounce this claim.
And while the situation seems to have relaxed and there is certainly no such law being enforced anymore, current regulations on sexual harassment, divorce, rape, just as their lax enforcement, hardly favor women. As serious as such legal inequalities are, they are merely one facet of a society that at its heart is utterly patriarchic and where to this day discrimination against women can be felt in almost every aspect of life.
Not unlike China, Korea has a certain history of valuing boys higher than girls, which dates back to its rather recent past as an agricultural society. And although boys are not any longer necessary to work on the family farm and provide a living for the aging parents, even today most women wish to have a first born son.
To curtail the abortion rate of girls that this mentality entailed, it has to this day remained illegal for doctors to prenatally reveal the gender of a child. Once born, many young Korean girls face a world of, in Western eyes, rather antiquated and rigidly defined gender roles.
They are expected to perform household chores, make copious amounts of kimchi for the winter, prepare food for family holidays and serve men around the house, while their brothers kick back and do nothing in particular.
Once they grow up, their brothers go drinking all night with friends, while they are expected to be back by sun down. When their 30th birthday approaches, their parents decide that it is the right time for them to get married and start to nag them constantly and if a young woman does not do so herself, her mother will start looking for suitable men and arrange forced meetings.
Upon getting married, a traditional view in Korea is that a woman leaves her own family and is thereafter not an integral part of it anymore. Instead, she becomes a ``chulgawaein," an outside person. This means she has to take care of her husband's family and is under the control of her mother in law.
Surprisingly, even today the families of a married couple in Korea hardly mix or have much contact at all after the wedding ceremony. Also, unlike newlyweds in Europe that like to enjoy their freedom together for the first few years, there is not much time for romance in Korea, since women are still widely expected to produce offspring within the first year ― preferably a son of course, but if it is a girl, the whole cycle starts over.
This is the first installment of a two-part article. The writer is an MBA graduate from Yonsei University and founder of the Korean company Stelence International. He is currently writing a book about Korea and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.