American Wife, Korean Husband, Part 1

In 1960, when I was eighteen and my family was on its way to Germany, a well-meaning soul called me aside and told me that, while he expected I might be dating some Germans during the coming year, I should keep in mind the fact that in general they did not make very good husbands. About ten months later I briefly considered marriage to a German university student who wanted me to marry him, but I sensed that, just as his socialist activism had not prevented him from courting an American with Viennese waltzes and baskets of roses, it would not prevent him from displaying deep-seated patriarchal attitudes which corresponded in the United States more closely to my father’s generation than to mine. In 1972 I learned that my friend had found himself at the pinnacle of the Romantic quest—fighting for democracy in Greece—and in a prison of the military junta, where he had good company, I’m sure.     

Twenty years later on the other side of the world, I interviewed a woman who had been living in Korea for eleven years. “I would say visiting foreigners get the message right off,” she said. “This is a man’s world, they own it and run it, and it’s theirs.”  For a Western woman who is considering marrying a Korean man, this is a potential problem. Women exist to serve the men and the men’s parents. The offspring of mixed marriages encounter such prejudice and such strong feelings about racial purity that they have to attend very expensive private schools for international students.

Shortly after I arrived in Korea I heard about a support group for the very small percentage of Western women married to Korean men and about a group of women going out to dinner at a nice restaurant, complaining about their husbands and drawing angry responses from Korean men in adjoining tables. Eventually I met Valerie, an attractive woman in her forties with striking blond, peaches-and-cream coloring. Her gentle warm-heartedness, even disposition and fair-mindedness impressed me immediately. Valerie seemed to have a deep sense of empathy for Korean women as well as the Western women who qualified for her support group.

I should add that a significant factor in this story is age. I interviewed her in 1992, when Valerie’s husband was well past retirement age, more than twenty years older than his wife, and his behavior was out of date. When Valerie questioned her English students on their behavior with their wives, she found quite a difference between the reactions of men in their forties and men in their thirties. For example, one student over forty said he’d never apologized to his wife for anything, while the younger students had done so. 

Valerie’s story

After I met two other Western women who were married to Koreans, we decided we needed a support group, and we just developed it as we went along. The cultural differences between Korea and the West are so profound that people don’t even realize that’s what they are. If they find out that some of their problems are just cultural, they can deal with them differently. And they can share their solutions with the group.

For example, I like to cook. I would cook things, and my husband might refuse to eat them. Even though he might eat the same thing in a restaurant, if I made it for him, he would just push it away and say, “I don’t want that. I don’t eat that.”  I was enraged that anybody would react that way to my cooking. I always took it quite personally.

Since then I’ve learned a lot from my students, who are Korean men. One told me that when he got married his supervisor at work told him, “The first time she serves you food, you should kick the table away. That indicates your lack of pleasure.”  In other words, he was to keep her on her toes. That’s how I learned that a lot of what I found difficult was cultural, not a personal affront to me.

Shortly after that, I gave my husband some dumplings, some mandu and soup for breakfast, and he pushed it away and said, “We don’t eat that for breakfast.”

I said, “I’ve seen you eat that for breakfast,” and I pushed it right back. Unfortunately, by that time my anger was just too far gone. It was like a spring under pressure, ready to go. I couldn’t deal with it.

Even after years of marriage, situations come up which are just completely baffling. A couple of months ago, I told my husband at the beginning of April that at the end of the month our daughter’s teacher and her family were coming over for dinner. It was Greek Easter, and I wanted to cook a big Greek dinner. I mentioned this to him two or three times during the month. A few days before the dinner I mentioned it again, and he said, “I won’t be here.”

“What do you mean you won’t be here?”

“I’ve got a date to play golf.”

“What do you mean you’ve got a date to play golf?  I’ve been telling you all along we have the teacher coming to dinner.”

“Oh. Well, I thought you told me so I could make other arrangements.”

From a Western point of view that just doesn’t make any sense. The next day I went to work and mentioned this to one of the students, a young man around thirty-two years old. He said, “If my wife had done that, I would think she was telling me so I could make arrangements not to be home when the teacher came.”  So I guess this is a Korean thing. [It might have to do either with the wife’s being in charge of the children’s education or with women and men socializing separately.]

The group has been a big help. I’ve also learned about problems other people have which I don’t. For example, a marriage might have worked when the couple lived in the States or Canada or England. Maybe the guy was educated there and had adapted to certain customs. But after they came back to Korea he probably reverted to his old behavior. Under family pressure, his loyalties changed and he put his family first–before his wife. The in-law problem is one of the worst. My husband’s relatives are all either dead or not part of his life, so I haven’t had that problem, but I’ve heard about it over and over again–terrible, terrible problems with the in-laws.

One woman married into a wealthy family—they own a company or something—who forced her to live in the old family home out in the village. She had to wash clothes on rocks in a cold stream. They put her through everything they could. They never did acknowledge her as the son’s wife. She was a foreigner, and they were getting even with her for having married the son. Some years later, when she had to go to the in-laws’ house, she would just go and sit in the kitchen. That’s what they wanted her to do. They paid no attention to the child, a girl, who fortunately did not realize why she was being ignored, or wasn’t aware of it.

There have been other cases where the parents refused to acknowledge a marriage to a Westerner or refused to have anything to do with the couple afterwards—or where all the son’s resources went to the family. I know of one case where the husband, the Western wife, and two children were living in a tiny apartment about the size of this [medium-sized] room. Then he bought a new apartment and moved his mother into it. All the money went to his mother and sisters.

I know a woman who came to this country in 1964. She came with three children, three babies, and her husband’s family met her at the airport. They all went somewhere to eat and then went over to the apartment the husband had rented. The relatives sat around the side of the room talking for a very long time, and then they began looking at her. She got her husband aside and said, “Why are they all looking at me?”

“Well, they’re hungry.”

“Of course they’re hungry. We ate lunch a long time ago. Why don’t they go home?”

“They’re expecting you to feed them.”

The woman had just had a long flight across the Pacific, didn’t speak the language or know anything about the city or how to shop for food here. Meanwhile someone had brought in a big bundle tied up in cloth and put it down on the floor. Inside were some pots and dishes and soup bowls and eating equipment. They had brought this because they knew she wouldn’t have these things, but they did expect her to cook them a meal. Well, somehow they rustled up some vegetables and some beef and rice, and she made a soup. But as they were eating, every once in a while someone would turn around and look at her very strangely. In California you didn’t have to wash the rice, and she hadn’t realized that in Korea you do. They were biting down on the stones and grit. She said they didn’t come back to dinner for a long time. It was the best move she ever made.

When I hear these family problems, my husband says, “Aren’t you glad now?”

“Yeah.”  When I married I had felt bad about the fact that my children wouldn’t have paternal grandparents, but now I consider it a blessing. I know women—Western and Korean—waiting for the mother-in-law to die.

It’s much easier for Western men who marry Korean women. The Asian man is used to being catered to completely, while the Western woman is hoping for more of an egalitarian relationship. Western men are much more independent, much stronger, much more masculine. I think they are. Even somebody like my father, who’s definitely a male chauvinist pig, is capable of taking care of himself. Now, if someone else is around he’ll hope they’ll do the work for him, but he can take care of himself. Most men in the West can cook something if they have to or find some way to eat. They’re not dependent on women to give them two socks that match. Anyway, I once listened to this guy tell me about his problems with his Korean wife. After the marriage when she was rushing around drawing his bath for him and his water for shaving—nobody really knows the temperature you want your bath but you—he kept thinking, “Soon the honeymoon will be over, and things will get back to normal, and in the morning, when I kiss her good-bye in the morning before going off to the army, she’ll still be in bed.”  But she was still rushing around doing these things for him, and he would have preferred to be allowed to do them for himself.

Korean women are much stronger than the men in some ways. I’ve asked them about how to put up with Korean men. “Ignore them,” both educated and uneducated women say that. “Ignore them.”  Because of the culture, Korean women have had to manipulate much more than we do. Once when I was discussing something with a friend of mine, I said, “You know I never told my husband about this matter, but he figured out what I was talking about.”

My friend said, “It’s your fault. A Korean woman would never have let him figure out what she was thinking. It would not have happened.”

When these basically very strong Korean women go to the United States with their American husbands, at first it’s a terrible situation for them because they can’t function as they’re used to, handling the finances, taking care of the bills. All of a sudden checks and bills are coming in from all over, and they don’t know what to do with them. [Korea is a cash-based society. You pay bills by making deposits at the bank. Only the very rich have checking accounts.]  But they’re fast learners. Once they get on their feet, they have much more freedom than they did in Korea. This is the opposite of what happens to a Western woman who comes here, but in both cases the relationship may not be flexible enough to adjust. I’ve heard that the divorce rate in marriages of Korean women and American men is over eighty percent, but I don’t know whether it’s really that high.

The ajumma comes out in Korean women no matter who they marry. It comes out immediately. The word ajumma means “aunt,” “matron,” “ma’am.”  It’s a term of address for someone you don’t know, like a shopkeeper. But in the sense I’m using it to describe this transformation, the sweet little flower of the East, so full of gentleness and love and idealism, is walking down the street. You blink, and you see someone that you really wouldn’t want to do battle with. “Thank you very much, I’ll just stay out of your way.” Often after marriage the hairstyle changes, the whole manner changes. She becomes this tough little woman pulling a great big Westerner along behind her. [Leila Philip, in The Road through Miyama (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 65, gives a wonderful description of the same process in Japan, as the childlike bride becomes first the woman who rules the home with an iron fist and then the tough, independent, outspoken and self-sufficient fifty-year-old woman. The author, a young American potter, single and independent, felt the most affinity with the oldest group.]

Combo kids [Eurasians or Amerasians] tend to identify with the nationality of the more dominant partner, which is usually the father. I knew an American who came here in the Peace Corps, learned Korean, liked Korea so much that when he went back to the States he sought out Korean women, married one and returned with her. Clearly there was no rejection of Korea on his part, but the child rarely touched any Korean food and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a hanbok [traditional costume].

We have a Korean-style marriage. Here the husbands and the wives socialize separately. My husband doesn’t have the kind of business dinners which include kisaeng [geisha], bar hostesses or prostitutes, but we don’t socialize as a couple. I was invited over to the house of one of his business associates once. I think my husband went back many times, but the wives weren’t included. [Even when the wives are included, they may spend the evening in a separate room from the men.]

That’s another function the support group serves. It provides a social outlet. It’s one I don’t have when we’re in the States, and I miss it. There it’s assumed that we would associate with others as a couple, which we don’t do. My single friends plan things which don’t take family responsibilities into consideration—the kids’ or husbands’ dinner or whatever. So it’s very hard. Our group here does that automatically.

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13 years ago

That sounds very frustrating. I have a non-Korean friend who is set on marrying a Korean, however she is very independent, and doesn’t even like to cook. She IS Asian (and has only lived in the US for the past six years or so), so I wonder if she would have an easier time adjusting than Valerie and Shirley. Did Valerie mention any “non-Korean Asian women” in her support group?