Korean traditions challenged as mixed marriages soar
ATHENS, Ohio, March 21 (UPI) -- Every morning, after boarding Seoul’s bustling subway, Lara Tosh waited for a stranger to ask the question.
“Uh, excuse me miss, are you a Russian prostitute?”
Thirteen years later, Tosh, who is Canadian-born, laughs at the old routine.
“The question” isn’t asked much anymore -- Tosh is now in her 40s and thinks her age may have something to do with it. But she is quick to point out another, more prevalent reason in her opinion: South Korea’s homogeneous culture is quickly becoming more diverse.
The Korean National Statistics Office says foreigners living in South Korea totaled 390,000 in 1997 -- two years before Tosh’s arrival. In 2009, there were more than 1 million expatriates in the country, with 120,000 from the United States.
Year after year, the number climbs.
Jinseng Park recently opened the doors of his Seoul psychotherapy clinic to foreigners.
“Korean society has been the same for 5,000 years,” he said in a phone interview. “Many of us aren’t used to seeing any color. When I visited the U.S., I was confused because there were so many people of different ethnicities. But it’s certainly changing here.”
And with diversity, it seems, comes acceptance.
Over the last five years, Park has seen more multicultural couples in his clinic. Expatriates, whether from China, Vietnam, Canada, or the United States, are becoming part of Korean families and a once-strict adherence to "minjok" (pure blood lineage) is losing its grip.
There were 35,098 marriages between foreigners and Koreans in 2010. That's up from 12,300 reported 10 years prior.
Six years ago, Tosh married a Y.B. Ahn, a Korean man. He is from a conservative family, and initially, Tosh said, relations with his parents were shaky.
“When I met with my future husband’s (family), there was 20 minutes of non-stop screaming and crying,” Tosh said in a phone interview. “At first they didn’t want their son, especially their eldest, to marry me, a foreigner.”
Tosh’s relationship with her in-laws has improved over time. Now, she describes her connection with Ahn’s mother as “totally awesome." But Korean culture still shocks her occasionally, she said. Ahn’s age gives him priority due to his family’s traditional, hierarchical structure, and Tosh often finds herself baffled over resulting responsibilities.
“I actually had to name my newborn nephew,” she says. “It was very strange but it's stuff like this that makes it fun and interesting to be married to a man of another culture. I definitely see more couples like me now, too. It’s on the rise.”
Yvon Malenfant, an interfaith pastoral counselor, is another foreigner who found love in Korea. He has been married to his wife, Jae-Sook, for 13 years.
“My wife and I were both 36 when we decided to get engaged," he said in a phone interview. "Her parents thought she would grow into an old maid and were just happy she found somebody.”
When they first married, Jae-sook was called a “Yankee wife” by her neighbors. That doesn't happen much anymore.
“Foreigners are more tolerated now than ever before,” Park said. “Parents are accepting them into their family and culture. It’s all about awareness. Once the shock factor fades away, so does discrimination.”
Most expatriates are from China. Prejudice still exists, Park said, but it depends on the foreigner's background.
“Women or men that come here from other Asian countries are considered by many to be poor and stupid, based on the economical status of their country compared to Korea,” he said. “We consider Americans and Westerners to be intelligent based on the success of their countries but there is still a bit of uneasiness toward them, because they don’t look the same.”
“But this is changing," he said.
Men living in rural areas of South Korea often marry women, sometimes mail-order brides, from Vietnam, Cambodia or China, Park said. That's because Korean women tend to gravitate toward wealthier, urban areas. In bigger cities, such as Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, couples with one Western and one Korean partner are much more prominent.
But as multicultural couples have children in both urban and rural sectors, a new crisis is emerging.
“Bullying and racism in schools are already big problems,” Malenfant said. “And they are bound to increase drastically as more foreigner-Korean couples give birth to children of mixed ethnicity.”
Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor and intercultural specialist at Korea University, recently wrote an article predicting that bi-ethnic and biracial enrollment in Korea's elementary and secondary schools will rise to 16 percent in 2018 and to more than 870,000, 26 percent, in 2050. If this proves to be the case, Koreans’ willingness to accept mixed-race families will face a staggering challenge in years to come.
Park said he knows the social order is transforming and that other cultures are becoming accepted. But, he warned, Korean society may be changing too fast.
"Tradition is tough to break. It takes a while, he said. "Years, even decades."
While holding hands with her husband in public, Tosh’s eyes still meet the suspicious gaze of older Koreans. But, she said, she doesn't let it affect her. In fact, she implements her own family rules at home, many of which differ from the traditional Korean hierarchy.
“Even though my husband is 20 days older than me, I’m still the boss of the house," she said. "What I say goes.”