Story by: Megan Harper, Photos by: Jungeun Jang
This year, I married a Korean man. He isn’t “Korean-Korean,” which is our code to mean he is comfortable with the ways of life outside of the peninsula. Upon marriage, he did not expect me or my family to provide appliances for the home. (Some of his friends still comply with the traditional practice where the husband’s family provides the home and the wife’s family provides the appliances.) Nor would he be happy for me to quit my job to care for the children, as the majority of his friends’ wives have done. He understands the limits that Confucianism places on women and tries his hardest to understand my expectations of equality. At times, this has proven very difficult for him. (Just as it is for me to fully understand his views on gender roles.)
Here is an example: One of my husband’s friends imports personal baby food preparation machines. The friend explained that in his marketing of this product he planned to appeal to the Korean housewife’s desire to buy anything that may give her child an advantage over other children. Outraged, I immediately objected to this outdated marketing campaign in which the woman, alone, prepares the family’s food. In the abstract, my husband understood my opinion, but just hours later he asked how I would make our child’s food. He simply could not imagine a home in which the husband and wife share equal household duties. Humorously, even after I explained my expectation again, he said, “Okay, then you make my food and I will make your food and the food for our kids.”
I began trying to understand why it is so difficult for my husband, an intelligent and caring person, to understand that the home is not simply the woman’s domain. He agrees with all of my concerns that this outdated mindset creates: absent fathers, financially dependent wives, perpetuation of stereotypes, etc. But the concept of a marriage that shares household duties remains largely beyond his comprehension.
So, in an attempt to understand him, I have taken a regrettable course, and here is where the unexpected challenge comes in: I have begun to analyze his mother.
It is obvious that our parents greatly influence the people we become. I knew that my husband’s very traditional Korean childhood would at times conflict with my upbringing by a very independent, divorced mother. What I was not prepared for, though, was the depth of his parents’ gender roles, my feelings toward their way of life and the effect these things would have on my ability to relate to his parents. It is hard to hide my discomfort when I see my mother-in-law prepare a beautiful dinner that her husband has half eaten before she even has a chance to sit down. I cannot understand why she tolerates this lack of family assistance. Although I am embarrassed by my own narrow-mindedness, this type of event, and my perception of her, makes it very difficult for me to relate to her; my own refusal to take on the “housewife” role has made it hard for me to embrace this woman.
I know that traditional gender roles continue to exist in my own culture, but they feel much more limiting in Korea. Perhaps it is because, as an outsider, they are easier to see. Or maybe because they often accompany large career sacrifices; I have met many women with advanced degrees in subjects such as Russian literature, Chinese and graphic design who abandon all career goals once they marry. Or maybe it is because many of the young women I work with consider university to be simply a way to meet a wealthy man and become his housewife.
Making the conscious choice to become a stay-at-home mom or dad is a perfectly respectable decision. However, I fear that for too many women, this decision is not one made from thorough evaluation of all choices but instead as the result of social expectations.
I do not intend this to be a social criticism. Rather, I hope to share with others my unexpected limit in understanding that arises from my own gender role expectations. Regardless of my mother-in-law’s reasoning, it is futile for me to judge her. I will strive to respect her for the sacrifices she has made while using my own life to demonstrate equalized gender roles.
ABOUT THE COLUMN
The Marriage Column is a space dedicated for people to tell their story on marriage in Korea. There is no agenda. There is no restriction on nationality. To submit your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. — Ed.