Thursday, August 25, 2011

Asian Women and Marriage

(엄마, 아빠, 오늘 드디어 우체국 갔어! 편지가 곧 도착하겠지?)

Twitter can be quite useful on occasion. I follow a few news organizations (BBC and CNN, for instance), which gives me the day's news in small bites, with the option to view the full article should I choose to. I like that I can skim Twitter and pretty much know what's going on (earthquake on the east coast of America, Steve Jobs quitting (!) as Apple's CEO, Amy Winehouse's toxicology report coming back clean, etc.).

The other day, I saw a tweet that caught my eye. It was from The Economist, about Asian marriage- and more specifically, about Asian women. Here's the full article. The tweet said, "Asians are marrying later, and less, than in the past. This has profound implications for women."

Now, Twitter always makes message come across as terse- 140 characters is not much space, and leaves no room for eloquence. But the words "profound implications" really gave me the willies and made me feel like it was going to be a damning article about how Asian women are ruining Asia, or something to that effect. (What? Lots of Asian men actually think that.)

The article isn't very long, but I did find it to be though-provoking. I agreed with it, mostly, and I understand where the concern (and hence the "profound implications") comes from. There is another article linked to the first one, about the flight from marriage, here.

Now, I'm of a certain age (29 in the States, 30 in Korea), the age where people give me sideways looks and wonder aloud when I'm going to get married, not bothering to whisper. I'm not morally opposed to marriage, and I think that a life partner would be fantastic. However, I'm morally opposed to a co-inhabitant that I happen to be married to. I think finding an actual partner, with whom one could actually share a life, a bank account, and children, is one of the hardest things in the world. I'm not husband hunting, I'm not renouncing marriage, I'm just letting things unfold as they will. 

TWENTY years ago a debate erupted about whether there were specific “Asian values”. Most attention focused on dubious claims by autocrats that democracy was not among them. But a more intriguing, if less noticed, argument was that traditional family values were stronger in Asia than in America and Europe, and that this partly accounted for Asia’s economic success. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore and a keen advocate of Asian values, the Chinese family encouraged “scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain”.

On the face of it his claim appears persuasive still. In most of Asia, marriage is widespread and illegitimacy almost unknown. In contrast, half of marriages in some Western countries end in divorce, and half of all children are born outside wedlock. The recent riots across Britain, whose origins many believe lie in an absence of either parental guidance or filial respect, seem to underline a profound difference between East and West.

Yet marriage is changing fast in East, South-East and South Asia, even though each region has different traditions. The changes are different from those that took place in the West in the second half of the 20th century. Divorce, though rising in some countries, remains comparatively rare. What’s happening in Asia is a flight from marriage.
I agree with the above. The values between East and West are distinct and different- what is merging between East and West are aesthetics, and those aesthetics are giving the impression that the world is getting smaller. It isn't really, because underneath the make-up, clothes, and dance moves are roots and values that differ hugely.
Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched. Marriage ages have risen all over the world, but the increase is particularly marked in Asia. People there now marry even later than they do in the West. The mean age of marriage in the richest places—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%. So far, the trend has not affected Asia’s two giants, China and India. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60m more men of marriageable age than women in China and India.

...

Can marriage be revived in Asia? Maybe, if expectations of those roles of both sexes change; but shifting traditional attitudes is hard. Governments cannot legislate away popular prejudices. They can, though, encourage change. Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old.

Asian governments have long taken the view that the superiority of their family life was one of their big advantages over the West. That confidence is no longer warranted. They need to wake up to the huge social changes happening in their countries and think about how to cope with the consequences.
Case in point. Because of the stigma that is still attached to divorce (it's a SCANDAL when any of the Koreans that my family knows decides to get a divorce), I feel like Asians would prefer not getting married at all rather than marrying for the sake of marriage and then regretting it ... so they just stay in the dysfunctional marriage because they don't want the humiliation of divorce. (Those statistics above are staggering, by the way. 60 million more men than women in 2050 in China and India?!)
Women are retreating from marriage as they go into the workplace. That’s partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Women there are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and, often, for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. This is true elsewhere in the world, but the burden that Asian women carry is particularly heavy. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours. And Asian women who give up work to look after children find it hard to return when the offspring are grown. Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. According to a survey carried out this year, many fewer Japanese women felt positive about their marriage than did Japanese men, or American women or men.

At the same time as employment makes marriage tougher for women, it offers them an alternative. More women are financially independent, so more of them can pursue a single life that may appeal more than the drudgery of a traditional marriage. More education has also contributed to the decline of marriage, because Asian women with the most education have always been the most reluctant to wed—and there are now many more highly educated women.
TRUTH. Though I do not agree with the usage of "retreat." Women aren't retreating from marriage; retreat is for the losers of wars and back-alley fights. Women are embracing their careers, they are running towards something rather than running away from something. I was told by one of my co-workers (in the U.S., not in Korea) that I should marry a sweet guy who wanted to be a house-husband. I was, truthfully, a little insulted. I've always had the expectation that I would work until I was married and pregnant, then stay home and raise my kids. Nobody ever forced this thought on me- it's just an assumption that I always had.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I was short-sighted. What if I really do end up with a guy that's a great cook and housekeeper? Better than me? I love working; I love my career. Would it be easy for me to give up my career? I always joke that I'm dating my career, but it's not really a joke. I've been dating my career for eight years, and I'm in love. If (or when) the time comes, could I forgo my first love for a screaming baby and a husband?

That kind of thinking always gets me into trouble, because then I get preemptively tired, thinking about staying up all night with a newborn and cleaning the house daily, only to have to clean it again the next day ... for all eternity. Then I just think that it would be easiest to live by myself, with no one to take care of or worry about but me. I would imagine that these are similar thoughts to those of all these single Asian women.
The flight from marriage in Asia is thus the result of the greater freedom that women enjoy these days, which is to be celebrated. But it is also creating social problems. Compared with the West, Asian countries have invested less in pensions and other forms of social protection, on the assumption that the family will look after ageing or ill relatives. That can no longer be taken for granted. The decline of marriage is also contributing to the collapse in the birth rate. Fertility in East Asia has fallen from 5.3 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 now. In countries with the lowest marriage rates, the fertility rate is nearer 1.0. That is beginning to cause huge demographic problems, as populations age with startling speed. And there are other, less obvious issues. Marriage socialises men: it is associated with lower levels of testosterone and less criminal behaviour. Less marriage might mean more crime.
I'm conflicted about the paragraph above. On one hand, women are sources of life. On the other hand, because we're sources of life, we're to be blamed for decreasing fertility and, obliquely, increasing crime. What the eff. What a burden to put on my entire gender. And how unfair. Men are no longer expected to be the sole breadwinner or sole protector of the household, but women are still expected to do everything they always did and then some. I know, logically, that OF COURSE women's roles cannot change THAT much- men cannot have babies, after all. Still, that doesn't mean that I don't find it a little unjust.
Conservatives in the West are fond of saying that the traditional family is the bedrock of society. That view is held even more widely in Asia. The family is the focus of Confucian ethics, which holds that a basic moral principle, xiushen (self-improvement), can be pursued only within the confines of the family.

...

In a book written in 1995 with a Japanese politician, Shintaro Ishihara, Dr Mahathir [Mohamad] contrasted Asians’ respect for marriage with “the breakdown of established institutions and diminished respect for marriage, family values, elders, and important customs” in the West. “Western societies”, Dr Mahathir claimed, “are riddled with single-parent families… with homosexuality, with cohabitation.” He might well have concluded that the absence of traditional family virtues from the streets of London recently showed the continued superiority of Asia.
What a pompous ass. Superiority is all relative, isn't it? Being a "superior" culture depends upon what you value. I didn't quote this bit to call out these men for being short-sighted (though they are), I wanted to talk about the homosexuality portion.

It's true that being gay in Asia is a stigma, almost akin to the racism in the U.S. just a generation ago. I know there are gay people in Korea, but nobody that I meet is going to tell me that they're gay during our first conversation. In LA, a gay person wouldn't think twice to tell me that they're gay (unless they're still in the closet, of course). Gay culture in the States (hello, WeHo) is prominent, proud, and distinct. Not so much here in Korea, and that makes me a little woeful.

I know that if I (or my sister) were gay, my parents would have a hard time with that. I firmly believe, though, that my parents would come to terms with it and still love their children. They know that I have gay friends, and they have no issues with my gays. I absolutely know for a fact, though, that there would be no coming out to grandparents or, possibly, even aunts, uncles, and cousins. The stigma is deep-rooted and difficult to overcome, so much so that I would think that a lot of Asian gays would have self-loathing issues.

Just the differences between the American and Korean gay culture show how vastly different the two countries still are, in terms of society and mindset.
In South Asia and China marriage remains near-universal, with 98% of men and women tying the knot. In contrast, in some Western countries, a quarter of people in their 30s are cohabiting or have never been married, while half of new marriages end in divorce. Marriage continues to be the almost universal setting for child-bearing in Asia: only about 2% of births took place outside wedlock in Japan in 2007. Contrast that with Europe: in Sweden in 2008 55% of births were to unmarried women, while in Iceland the share was 66%.

Most East and South-East Asian countries report little or no cohabitation. The exception is Japan where, among women born in the 1970s, about 20% say they have cohabited with a sexual partner. For Japan, that is a big change. In surveys between 1987 and 2002, just 1-7% of single women said they had lived with a partner. But it is not much compared with America where, according to a 2002 Gallup poll, over half of married Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 lived together before their wedding day. In many Western societies, more cohabitation has offset a trend towards later marriage or higher rates of divorce. That has not happened in Asia.

Traditional attitudes live on in other ways. Compared with Westerners, Asians are more likely to agree that “women’s happiness lies in marriage”. They are more likely to say women should give up work when they get married or have children, and more likely to disapprove of pre-marital sex. Surveys by Pew Global Research, a social-research outfit in Washington, DC, show that Muslims in South and South-East Asia are more likely than Muslims elsewhere to say that families should choose a woman’s husband for her.
Dude. Being Muslim in South and South-East Asia must be rough. Being Korean-American's hard enough, I can't imagine having the social pressures and also having the religious rules to follow. Yikes.

This is the part where I show my Korean side: I would never live with a boyfriend. I don't know why, but I've always felt like living with someone should be saved for marriage. I know that there will probably be habits that are discovered after the honeymoon, but I still would rather have those surprises after marrying the guy. I even surprise myself with my random un-Americanness.
Asia is changing. Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce. The changes in the West may be more dramatic. But both East and West are seeing big changes in the role of women and traditional family life.

[One] change is that people are getting married later, often much later. In the richest parts—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—the mean age of wedlock is now 29-30 for women, 31-33 for men. That is past the point at which women were traditionally required to marry in many Asian societies. It is also older than in the West. In America, women marry at about 26, men at 28. If you take account of the cohabitation that routinely precedes Western marriage (but not Asian), the gap between East and West is even larger. The mean age of marriage has risen by five years in some East Asian countries in three decades, which is a lot.

The Asian avoidance of marriage is new, and striking. Only 30 years ago, just 2% of women were single in most Asian countries. The share of unmarried women in their 30s in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong has risen 20 points or more (see chart below), “a very sharp change in a relatively short period”, says Gavin Jones of the National University of Singapore. In Thailand, the number of women entering their 40s without being married increased from 7% in 1980 to 12% in 2000. In some cities, rates of non-marriage are higher: 20% among women aged 40-44 in Bangkok; 27% among 30-34-year-olds in Hong Kong. In South Korea, young men complain that women are on “marriage strike”.
Maybe, South Korean men, you should make it worthwhile for your female counterparts to give up their careers and marry you. I'll save my rant about Korean men for another post, this one's already way too long, but men aren't exactly making women eagerly anticipate marriage (not all men, obviously). It disturbs me when I meet Korean men in their early 20s- they seem like they should be at least 15 years younger than me, they tend to be so immature and ... thoughtless.
What is remarkable about the Asian experience is not that women are unmarried in their 30s—that happens in the West, too—but that they have never been married and have rarely cohabited. In Sweden, the proportion of women in their late 30s who are single is higher than in Asia, at 41%. But that is because marriage is disappearing as a norm. Swedish women are still setting up homes and having children, just outside wedlock. Not in Asia. Avoiding both illegitimacy and cohabitation, Asian women appear to be living a more celibate life than their Western sisters (admittedly, they could also be under-reporting rates of cohabitation and pre-marital sex). The conclusion is that East Asia’s growing cohorts of unmarried women reflect less the breakdown of marriage than the fact that they are avoiding it.

But marriages are breaking down, too. In Hong Kong and Japan, the general divorce rate—the number of divorces per 1,000 people aged 15 or more—was about 2.5 in the mid-2000s, according to Mr Jones’s calculations. In Asia as a whole, the rate is about 2 per 1,000. That compares with 3.7 in America, 3.4 in Britain, 3.1 in France and 2.8 in Germany. Only in one or two Asian countries is divorce as widespread as in the West. The South Korean rate, for example, is 3.5. Because divorce has been common in the West for decades, more couples there have split up. The rise in Asia has been recent: China’s divorce rate took off in the early 2000s. In the 1980s the Asian rate was 1 per 1,000 people; now it is 2. If that rise continues, Asian divorce could one day be as common as in Europe.
This seems to be true. Of all the Korean people I know (here and back home), it's the younger generation (in their 20s and 30s) that seems to divorce more readily. People that are a generation (or even half a generation) older than me are still old school and believe in staying in bad marriages over getting divorced. I know plenty of people in their 40s and 50s that are in unhappy marriages, but wouldn't dream of splitting up.
The main function of marriage in most traditional societies is to bring up children (romantic love rarely has much to do with it). Not surprisingly, changes in child-bearing have gone along with changes in marriage. The number of children the average East Asian woman can expect to have during her lifetime—the fertility rate—has fallen from 5.3 in the late 1960s to below 1.6 now, an enormous drop. But old-fashioned attitudes persist, and these require couples to start having children soon after marriage. In these circumstances, women choose to reduce child-bearing by delaying it—and that means delaying marriage, too.

Changing marriage patterns are also the result of improvements in women’s education and income, and the failure of women’s status to keep pace. The salient characteristic of many traditional marriage systems is that women—especially young women—have little independence. In South Asia, brides are taken into the groom’s family almost as soon as they move into puberty. They are tied to their husband’s family. Sometimes women may not inherit property or perform funeral rites (this is especially important in China). In parts of South Asia, wives may not even take their children to hospital without getting their husband’s permission.
In English, the phrase is "to get married". In Korean, there are two phrases (one per gender):

For women: 시집 간다: 시집 is "husband's home" and 간다 is the verb "to go"
For men: 장가 간다: 장가 is "marry" and 간다 is the same verb, "to go"

Koreans think of marriage as a departure from their families. From the parents' perspective:

For daughters: 시집 보낸다: 보내 is the verb "to send"
For sons: 장가 보낸다

Parents send their children. Away from their childhood home, into a new married life. I think that's a distinctive difference. Americans think of marriage as a merging of families, whereas Koreans, especially the families with daughters, think of marriage as a loss of one of their family members.

Parents "lose" their daughters because, generally, on holidays and important days, their married daughters go to their in-laws. 시집 is such an interesting word to me. While 장가, the male version, has no roots in Chinese, 시집 does. Literally, 시 means 'husband' and 집 means 'home'. Women, from the point of marriage, are considered part of their husband's family, no longer part of their blood family.

Now, the one thing in Korea that completely boggles my mind is the fact that married women do not change their family names. They keep their own family names for all eternity. Doesn't that seem so progressive? And yet the old traditions still (co-)exist? Such a strange dichotomy.
Two forces are giving women more autonomy: education and jobs. Women’s education in East Asia has improved dramatically over the past 30 years, and has almost erased the literacy gap with men. Girls stay at school for as many years as boys, and illiteracy rates for 15-24-year-olds are the same for the two sexes (this is not true of South Asia). In South Korea now, women earn half of all master’s degrees.

Education changes women’s expectations. Among Thai women who left school at 18, one-eighth were still single in their 40s; but among university graduates, the share was a fifth. A survey in Beijing in 2003 found that half of women with a monthly income of 5,000-15,000 yuan (roughly $600-1,800, an indicator of university education) were not married. Half said they did not need to be, because they were financially independent. South Koreans call such people “golden misses”. “Why should I have to settle down to a life of preparing tofu soup, like my mother?” asks one.
I think that marriage, like any other occupation, should be regarded as a choice. (Yes, I see marriage as an occupation- it occupies your time and life.) Some people are suited for marriage. I see girls and women here that are obviously just working for the sake of working- they don't have real careers and they don't care to try and achieve anything in their workplace. They're just working until their "real lives" begin, once they're married and have kids. Granted, most of these women don't regard marriage as a choice, but the really obstinate women are working hard, getting their careers in motion, damning their critics.

It's not to say that the career-less women are necessarily going to be great wives or mothers. They may not be. But because of their circumstances (maybe their parents raised them that way, maybe they don't have a high level of education, whatever the case), they don't try to get ahead in the workplace. With that sort of stagnancy, it must not be much of a sacrifice to quit their jobs and raise their kids. For the driven, career-oriented women, giving up their careers really is a sacrifice and one that cannot be made easily. The golden misses should do as they do, only stopping to prepare tofu soup if and when they have a hankering.
Rates of non-marriage rise at every stage of education. Women with less than secondary education are the most likely to marry, followed by those with secondary education, with university graduates least likely. This pattern is the opposite of the one in America and Europe, where marriage is more common among college graduates than among those with just a secondary education.

There are two reasons why education’s spread reduces women’s propensity to marry. First, non-marriage has always been more prevalent among women with more education. Now that there are more women in these higher-education groups, there are fewer marriages. Marriage rates are also lower in cities. Since education is likely to go on improving, and urbanisation to go on rising, more women will join the ranks of graduates or city folk who are least likely to marry.

Second, more education leaves the best-educated women with fewer potential partners. In most Asian countries, women have always been permitted—even encouraged—to “marry up”, ie, marry a man of higher income or education. Marrying up was necessary in the past when women could not get an education and female literacy was low. But now that many women are doing as well or better than men at school, those at the top—like the “golden misses”—find the marriage market unwelcoming. Either there are fewer men of higher education for them to marry, or lower-income men feel intimidated by their earning power (as well as their brain power). As Singapore’s Mr Lee once said: “The Asian man…preferred to have a wife with less education than himself.” In Singapore, non-marriage rates among female university graduates are stratospheric: a third of 30-34-year-old university graduates are single.

Better education also makes possible the other main trend changing marriage: female employment. Asia’s economic miracle has caused—and been caused by—a surge of women into the formal workforce. In East Asia two-thirds of women have jobs, an unusually high rate. In South-East Asia the figure is 59%. In South Korea the employment rate of women in their 20s (59.2%) recently overtook that of twenty-something men (58.5%). This surge has been accompanied by the collapse of the lifetime-employment systems in Japanese and South Korean firms, which used to ensure that a single (male) worker’s income could support a middle-class family. Now the wife’s earnings are needed, too.
This makes me rather sad. Not the part about lifetime-employment, I think that's stupid (and it does still exist in Korea, just to a lesser extent than in the past). The part about both partners needing to work in order to support a middle-class family.

One of my co-workers here has a really adorable three-year-old son. I asked him if they were going to have a second child before their son gets too much older, and he said that they couldn't afford it. Both he and his wife work. He barely sees his son, as he works long hours, and yet they are just getting by with the two salaries in their household. Living seems to be hard, even residing in one of the Four Asian Tigers.
All things being equal, having a job increases a woman’s autonomy. She has more options, and these options include not having a husband. But it is clear from Western societies that women will not necessarily choose a job over marriage. Rather, they will struggle to balance the conflicting demands of work and family.

What is unusual about Asia is that women seem to bear an unusually large share of the burden of marriage, reducing the attractiveness of family life compared with work. Certainly, this is what Asian women themselves think. Surveys about attitudes to marriage are patchy and subject to a lot of reservations. But for what it is worth, in a survey from 2011 of Japan’s three largest cities, only two-thirds of wives said they felt positive about their marriage, much less than their husbands; in America, both husbands and wives usually report higher and similar levels of satisfaction. In a survey from 2000, satisfaction levels in Japan were only half those in America. This may be because the readier availability of divorce in America has left fewer people trapped in loveless marriages. Or there may be something in the Japanese caricature of the salaryman husband working long hours and socialising all night and at weekends, while his neglected, fretful wife struggles to bring up the children at home.
The burden that Asian women feel towards marriage is, yes, perpetuated by their societies. However, they also have very high expectations of themselves, possibly higher than could be reasonably achieved. Koreans are xenophobic, to a degree, and can be very conformist, but within that conformity is a lot of competition, more so than in American society. Competing to get the biggest house, the best car, to get their kids into the best schools, the most coveted universities- it's cutthroat and stressful.
Whatever the problem, it is not confined to Japan. Illyqueen, a popular Taiwanese blogger, recently ranted about “Mama’s boys” in their 30s who have had “no hardships, no housework, [and who] …have lost the ability to keep promises (like marriage).” If some Asian women do indeed have an unusually negative view of marriage, it might make them more likely to choose a job over a husband, or to put off marriage while they pursue a career.

Moreover, public attitudes and expectations are lagging far behind changes in women’s lives in Asia, making it even harder to strike a balance between life and work. Despite higher incomes and education, “women have lower socioeconomic status than men,” argues Heeran Chun, a South Korean sociologist. “Their lives are markedly restricted by the cultural values associated with Confucianism.” They are expected to give up work—sometimes on marriage, often after childbirth—and many do not return to the job market until their children are grown. This forces upon women an unwelcome choice between career and family. It may also help to explain the unusually low marriage rates among the best-educated and best-paid women, for whom the opportunity cost of giving up a career to have children is greatest.
This is a huge problem. Even in my workplace, I can see it. There is a lot of change in Korea, constant change, but perhaps it's so speedy that people can't keep up. Korea really is remarkable in its transformation from a war torn, occupied countryside to a thriving nation with bustling metropolises. It happened so quickly, though, within a generation. My grandparents were born before World War II and lived in Korea while it was occupied by the Japanese. My mother was born just a couple months after the armistice was signed to end the Korean War. My father was born a year before her, during the war. They now live with high speed internet, a landline, a cell phone, an internet phone, a fax machine, and cable TV.

Perhaps part of the problem, at least in Korea, is that change is not meant to be quite this fast. Evolution should take longer than a single generation.
On top of this, many Asian couples face enormous pressure to ensure their children succeed in schools with cut-throat competition for places—pressure that falls mostly on the mother. Private child care is exorbitantly expensive. There are few state-subsidised crèches (324,000 children are on waiting lists in Seoul alone). And setting up a home is expensive because of high house prices. All this means it is harder to strike a satisfying balance between job and family in Asia than in the West.

Not every Asian country is affected by these trends equally. South Korea, for example, has lower rates of non-marriage, and a lower age of marriage, than its neighbours. But the big exceptions are Asia’s giants. At the moment, marriage is still the norm in China and arranged marriage the norm in India. As long as that continues to be true, a majority of Asians will live in traditional families. But how long will it continue? Signs of change are everywhere.
Crèches are day-care centers (sometimes colloquially called "after school" by Korean-Americans). Korea may have lower rates of non-marriage, but there is a lot of competition for the schooling and education of their offspring. I cannot believe how much it costs to have a child here, and to educate that child so he or she can compete with their peers.

Korean children have intense education from infanthood right up through college, with their parents (usually their mothers) driving them to be the best. Yes, the children suffer and are stressed out, but I would think that being a mother to these Korean children is no cakewalk, either.
The big question remains: how much is this a problem? And if it is, why? Arguably, the most important thing is that women who do not want to marry are no longer being forced to. And that must be a benefit: to them, to men spared an unhappy marriage; perhaps to society as a whole.

Against that, there are several reasons for worry, some of them extremely disturbing. Social attitudes in Asia change slowly, and many people think it wrong to remain unmarried. “Parasite singles” is the unflattering term in Japan. The reluctance to marry seems to have unleashed spiteful hostility, an attitude that makes the decision not to wed a tough one.

Contraception is a particular problem. Several Asian countries restrict state-provided family planning to married couples. A few even demand to see the wedding certificate before dispensing condoms (that has happened in Europe, too). This is not a sensible policy when so many men and women will remain unmarried throughout their 20s and 30s.

Then there are the educational and social aspects of changing marriage patterns. Because women tend to marry up—that is, marry men in an income or educational group above them—any problems of non-marriage are not dispersed throughout society but concentrated in two groups with dim wedding prospects: men with no education and women with a lot.
Marrying up is a dying concept in Korea, I think. There are still matchmakers here, true, but less than there were twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. Women are moving on up in the world, and that means some men are now marrying up. The trend of younger men marrying older women has gotten more widespread lately, and that used to be taboo (though I can't imagine why).
Almost every East Asian country is worried about the decline of marriage among its best-educated daughters. In Singapore the government even set up an online-dating service, lovebyte.org.sg, to boost marriage rates among graduates. The problem is no less acute among poor or ill-educated men. South Korean women seem to be no longer interested in marrying peasant farmers, for instance.

China has coined new terms to describe the two groups: sheng-nu (left-over women) and guang gun (bare branches, or men who will not add to the family tree). “Bare branches” is most commonly used in China to refer to men who will be unable to marry because of sex-selective abortion. And that encapsulates the biggest worry about Asia’s flight from marriage. If (when?) it spreads to China and India, it will combine with the surplus of bachelors to cause unheard-of strains. Prostitution could rise; brides could be traded like commodities, or women forced to “marry” several men; wives could be kept in purdah by jealous, fearful husbands.

This may sound alarmist. But the reluctance of women to marry, together with men’s continuing desire for a wife, is already producing a surge of cross-border brides. According to “Asian Cross Border Marriage Migration”, a book edited by Melody Lu and Wen-Shan Yang (Amsterdam University Press), 27% of Taiwanese marriages in 2002 involved foreign women; one in eight births that year was to a “mixed” family. Many girls are illiterate teenagers sold (in practice) by their families to older, richer foreigners. Back in their home villages, therefore, young men’s marriage chances are lower. Arranged marriages with foreigners fell in Taiwan after the government cracked down on them, but they continue to rise elsewhere. In South Korea, one-seventh of marriages in 2005 were to “Kosians” (Korean-Asians). In rural areas, the share is higher: 44% of farmers in South Jeolla province who married in 2009 took a foreign bride. If China or India were ever to import brides on this scale, it would spread sexual catastrophe throughout Asia. As it is, that catastrophe may be hard to avoid.
There is an historical precedent for falling and low marriage rates. It happened in Ireland in the late 19th century and in America and much of Europe in the 1930s. American and European marriage rates bounced back between 1945 and 1970. But Europe and America were different: marriage rates fell during an economic crisis and recovered as the economy did. The Asian peculiarity is that marriage rates have been eroding during a long boom. And as Asia gets richer, traditional marriage patterns are only likely to unravel further.
There are tons of mixed marriages in Korea now. Not as common as in the U.S., of course, but for Koreans, it's a big step. Because Korean women are less likely now to marry those farmers out there in the country, the farmers are marrying women from lower-income Asian countries (Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, etc.) in order to extend their families.

I see a couple problems with this:

First, the women that are agreeing to even talk to marriage brokers are probably not that desirable in their home countries. They're probably not very well educated. While Koreans think farmers are "country", I think there's a big difference between the Korean "country" and the South-East Asian "country". Literacy in Korea is almost 100%, and not going to college is considered "uneducated". Because of those types of differences, along with the obvious cultural differences, I would think that a marriage between a Korean farmer and a South-East Asian bride would be difficult at best, impossible at worst.

Second, Koreans are racist. Everyone's racist, let's please admit it right off the bat, but Koreans have their own brand of racism. Americans, Canadians, and anyone from the UK? Friends! South-East Asians, other dark-complected people who don't speak English? Not so much. Koreans tend to look down on South-East Asians, believing them to be inferior because of their lack of education and their perceived unsophistication. A nervous (or frightened) bride from South-East Asia won't be greeted by a smiling welcome party when she meets the villagers. She'll likely be harassed, her children teased.


Marriage is such a complicated, personal decision. I have nothing against mixed race marriages (Diana and Amanda, for example, seem to be in great marriages), but it does complicate life to some extent. Language barriers, cultural differences, and Korean in-laws do not an easy life make. Again, it's a personal choice that cannot (and should not) be made by anyone other than the bride and groom.

I didn't expect this post to become this bloated. I didn't think I would end up quoting almost all of the two articles I read; I don't know what happened. I guess when I have opinions, I just really feel the urge to write and rant and vent.

Exactly why I would be a terrible wife for a Korean man.

I KID. I would be a fantastic Korean wife, I'm great with Korean parents (no, really, I am).

I can't help but wonder how I'll feel about this post in a few years. Maybe I'll turn into one of those husband hunting women once I'm in my thirties. Maybe I'll become a golden miss and turn up my nose at the idea of matrimony. Who can tell? I'll report back in a few years. I read this post, which I wrote two and a half years ago, and I feel like I'm largely the same person. Maybe I've grown into my brain now and won't change much. Maybe I'll have a sudden growth spurt. I don't know yet, and the not knowing is what makes life fun.

Frivolity and giggles to follow. This post has exhausted my grey matter!

9 comments:

william,  August 25, 2011 at 3:22 AM  

i'm not sure if you elaborated further on this in your post (i merely skimmed through---cuz it was a novel)...i think the not-changing of the last names for korean women (and chinese women, too) is not progressive at all.

if you've been 'sent' to a household full of kims, and you're the wife and your last name is lee, you will never be part of the kim household. yes, you bore the kims a son, but you and your son don't even have the same last name. you're the outsider here, merely a baby-making factory.

my parents hold conservative views somewhat. i am certain that i've heard my mother say directly to my sisters that they've been raised for 'other' families. 'in the future, you'll be someone else's daughter. you are part of your future husband's family.' that is effed up.

i also think that toying with one's name (the generally three syllables koreans and the chinese have)is bad. those names have been thought about and thought about. your name is supposed to be harmonious. to change your last name would completely destroy that harmony.

my opinions.

Amanda August 25, 2011 at 5:08 AM  

William beat me to the punch about how not changing your name isn't progressive.

Actually, Mother and I got into an interesting discussion about that issue. She wanted to know why I didn't change my name since that's what Americans do. She said since I'm in the family, I should have the name. I pointed out she isn't the same last name, and she said she had no choice. Good point.

The whole part about baby making annoys me, as a childfree woman, but this part REALLY annoys me:

Marriage socialises men: it is associated with lower levels of testosterone and less criminal behaviour. Less marriage might mean more crime.
::

So now it's not only women's responsibility to prevent social problems by making babies, but we also have to tame men. Bullshit.

Diana E.Sung August 25, 2011 at 6:51 AM  

Really great post, Jeanny.

I loved living in Korea. But every single day, I was confronted with the fact that Korea would be the worst place in the world to live as a Korean woman. (Korean-Americans live in a kind of in-between place, but I imagine in relationships it could be MUCH harder to negotiate a different idea of marriage. After I married a Korean man, expectations on my behavior changed dramatically--I was no longer granted the mysteriously special position of "foreigner" by people who knew me. I imagine the more Korean you look and act, the more intense that pressure would be).

By the end of my three years, I came to empathize with and understand all the smart, beautiful women who nearly threw themselves at loser white guys just because the white guys weren't Korean. (At the beginning, I was just so confused because these GREAT women were in crap relationships with assholes and I kept wondering, "Why?" And certainly not all Korean woman/foreign man relationships are like that, but I did encounter quite a few.) It's not about Korean men sucking. It's about the gender expectations placed on both women and men in Korea sucking (to flip it around--I cannot imagine my husband being satisfied with the life of a "provider" exclusively--he's such a nester and is going to be such a hands-on dad... he would have been just as miserable in a traditional Korean marriage with stifling gender roles as I would be).

A note on the name thing: My husband thought it was "really cool" that I had the option to change my name. A LOT of Western feminists comepletely misunderstand the patriarchal traditions of naming. The feminist movement allowed for choice. And choice is what I used (as did Amanda).

I'm sending this over to The Grand Narrative. I hope you don't mind.

jeanny August 25, 2011 at 7:45 AM  

William and Amanda- I've never thought of the name change (or lack thereof) in that way. I never understood why women had to (or had the option of) changing their names, whereas men don't. My mother had to change her name when she immigrated to this country, so I was blind to the other side of the argument, which is totally valid. I, for one, don't plan on changing my last name if I get married.

William- I wish someone would pay me to write a novel. That would be awesome.

Amanda- seriously, we cannot be expected to "tame" men. Particularly some of the Korean men that I've seen and met in the short time I've been here- they are untrainable.

Diana- thanks! You so right about the pressure of looking and sounding Korean. Koreans here have immediate expectations of me, and make snap judgments. All that changes when I'm boxed into a corner or when I need to speak in English, but before that? When I'm standing there and speaking in Korean, without a noticeable American accent? Koreans assume and demand that I be totally Korean.

Just in reading your blog (never having met MinGi), I always sensed that he is not the "typical" Korean man (nor is Good Man). As atypical Korean men, they would probably have had a hard time getting married and staying married to the "typical" Korean woman. But many of those characteristics that Koreans scoff at? Those are things that we Americans prize in our partners, and make your husbands good spouses-- at least in the American sense.

There are so many things that I love about the cultural differences between Korea and America, but the personal relationships portion leaves me irritated and baffled.

God help me if I, as a Korean-American woman, fall for a Korean man. At least it would make for interesting blog posts, I suppose. I can only imagine the rants if I met his mother and she ended up being one of those crazy Korean women obsessed with brand names and plastic surgery!

Amanda August 25, 2011 at 4:01 PM  

Diana, funny that Min Gi was so excited about you changing your last name. Although I really had no intention of changing it I thought we should at least discuss it. When I asked Good Man about it, he twisted up his face and said, "You're not my sister!" Ha ha.

We also considered hyphenating but either name first sounded terrible and making up a new last name out of both of our last names made up words that sounded like diseases.

Jeanny, before I left Korea three years ago, Mother really wanted to buy me a Coach bag. I told her I would never use a Coach bag and that I was not a Coach bag sort of girl. She said she really wanted to buy me something, so she ended up buying me a LensBaby lens for my camera.

Well, two years later when she came to America for Good Man's graduation, we went to the outlet mall together. And she forced a Coach bag upon me. She won in the end--she bought me the brand she wanted me to carry, and I use that bag nearly daily.

In retrospect, she was just teaching me one of her ajumma tricks: just buy it.

jeanny August 25, 2011 at 7:36 PM  

Sometimes, there is no winning against an ajumma.

That may or may not be the reason that I've (subconsciously?) never dated a Korean guy- preemptive dread of his mother.

I totally want a LensBaby! Going to Namdaemun tomorrow to buy a lens I've been eying for a while- hopefully I find the one I want.

Anonymous,  May 1, 2014 at 5:25 PM  

I am a 45 year old vietnamese-american woman and would NEVER marry anybody. Why would I finish college and work only to make myself a cook, laundress, housekeeper, sex slave to some man. or to be controlled by his inlaws.
Most men, whether they are asian or non-asian seem to expect asian women to be subservient housekeepers, good cooks, etc.
I have observed this expectation everywhere even on asian tv stations such as KBS World or the vietnamese station, in which the husband just sits on his a** while the wife works like a dog. I go to vietnamese restaurants and always observe the wife spoon feeding her children who sometimes are more than old enough to feed themselves, while her husband just sits there stuffing his face.
White men are just as bad. It seems like they devalue white women for going to school and having careers. So they go to these asian bride websites in order to get free housekeepers, sex slaves, etc.
What I want to know is that just because I have an asian face and a vagina, who determined that I should be a subservient little housewife after marriage. It's not expected of women of other races.
For me, as a vietnamese-american woman, marriage is a form of domestic slavery that I would NEVER enter into.
Committed to Being Single.

Jeanny August 24, 2015 at 10:56 PM  

I'm so sorry, Anonymous, I just saw your comment now! I wasn't ignoring you, I promise.
I agree with you about the in-laws, they aren't all that fun! But ... I feel like getting married is still so very expected in our society, and even more so in Korea (which is where I currently live).
I feel like Asian cultures are a bit worse than Americans, but I may be biased because I'm currently living in Asia!
I hope you're still happy and single and doing your thing~

Jeanny August 24, 2015 at 10:57 PM  

Oh, my gosh, William, I just saw your comment again ... and I'm totally married to a Kim. Wah-wah-wah... Hahaha! Hope you're doing well in Daegu!