August 9, 2016
When I woke up this morning, I thought about my grandmother who passed away 12 years ago, at age 88. Maybe it’s because I wrote about the rural life before going to bed last night and dreamt about my grandparents’ house where I was born.
And later today I saw an article about stupid commentary on female medallists based on their looks not their achievement in the Olympic Games and followed debating replies on feminism and sexual discrimination.
Well, that made me think of my grandma even more and the life of women in South Korea.
Actually, all these debate that come up on every small and big incident related to sexual equality in usually “western world” sound to me like a debate on whether we should organise a trip to the Moon first or to the Mars, to the ears of a modern educated woman who was grown up in a reasonably developed country. So I wonder how it would sound to the women in undeveloped and/or religiously very strict countries where women are treated only as a material for childbirth and housekeeping.
I really feel embarrassed to say this, but the people in this amazingly developed South Korea where you have the fastest internet in the world, they are the most serious discriminators. They’ve got all the regulations and laws that confirm equality between men and women, but in reality? It looks like women are not protected by any law whatsoever, men think of women only as sexual objects and the sexual harassment happens in most workplaces every single day. Ah, on the streets and in public transports a lot too (I am not saying every single man in Korea are perverts, so don’t be offended if you are not one of them).
The modern Korea hasn’t been around for that long actually. Korea was quite closed country under dynasty until early 1900, opened to the world by Japanese force during the colony era and the modern Korea started only after the independence in 1945. Even then, the mindset and culture of people are still based on Confucianism and it is still at the centre of the culture. After the ‘cease-fire’ of the Korean War between the North and the South, the country was literally destroyed and they had to build everything from the scratch. That was in 1953. So the government in the South (I don’t know much about how they did in the North) did campaigns and encouraged people to work hard to build the country, sent skilled workers overseas to make foreign currency, men worked day and night and women gave birth to children and raised them. They succeeded in building wealthy Korea with hard work in record time, by sending a lot of people to the US to learn everything in modern world, but they didn’t have time to think about how to treat others with manner, nor had time to think about values in life. Because they needed to make money fast. They wanted to get out of poverty as soon as possible. Money could do everything. Everyone wanted to make more money, only talked about money. And only in 70s, they started talking about other values and became interested in other cultures, and that’s when women started studying in uni and working at a same position as men (not that they got paid as much as men). And when these working women got married, didn’t quit the job and had children, the problems at home and with their mothers-in-law came up. For those mothers-in-law, women are supposed to stay home, take care of children and cook nice meals for their husbands (who are their precious sons). And also, the married couple should live with the guy’s parents to take care of the old and weak parents and the young wife has to do everything at home for her husband’s family and her own children without her husband’s help. What if she worked out there all day like her husband? She still had to do everything at home. That’s when the Korean Super Women concept was created. That’s exactly what my mom was.
Now, here is the story of my grandma. She was married to the only son of a poor farmer’s family at age 16. She left her own family and lived with her husband’s family – a very scary mother-in-law, a macho husband and a sister-in-law. I didn’t get to see any of her side of family while I lived with my grandparents. She didn’t even talk about them. She gave birth to 12 children until the menopause, and she rarely had her period in between two children. The kitchen was separated from the main room where everyone ate together at three mealtimes, she prepared a small table for three with the best dishes – the chef of the house, aka her mother-in-law (her father-in-law passed away), her mighty husband and her first son (which happened to be my dad). And then she prepared a bit bigger table for her sons, and another table for her daughters (This was the rule of the house – sons are better than daughters, the father is the king of the family and the first son is the heir, so they have to be treated accordingly). After everyone finished their meal, she cleaned the room and ate the leftovers in the kitchen. That was her meals – leftovers. This is only mealtime story. She lived like a slave until my great-grandmother passed away in 1989 which was after 57 years of slavery. Then my grandparents sold the house and joined my family in a city (my dad is the first son and he is supposed to take care of his parents, but my parents worked in a city and they couldn’t get a big place to live with 3 elders, so my grandparents waited to join us until my great-grandma passed away). After my grandma started living with us, I realised how one’s habit could be so stubborn. When we were all on a floor sitting table for a meal, my grandma held her bowl of rice in hand, turned her body away from her husband and ate on the floor. We repeatedly told her that she could leave her bowl on the table while eating like everyone else, but she just couldn’t do it. Because she was not used to eating on the same table as her mighty husband! That was so heartbreaking to witness with my own eyes.
And here is another story about women in Korea, less heartbreaking but equally annoying. There are two big national holidays in Korea, the Chinese New Year and Chusok (celebrating the harvest of the year), and the family members are supposed to celebrate them together at the father’s house. So after all the sons and daughters left home after marriage except the first son, every family members of the sons incl grandchildren come to the house where the parents and the first son’s family live and stay together for 3 days. In my family, there were my grandparents, my parents, 4 uncles, 4 aunts (wives of uncles) and 11 cousins for 3 days in a house, and sometimes some of the aunts’ family visited on the last day. So, now for the food. It’s big feast times such as Christmas in western culture, so there are a lot of typical but delicious food for the occasion. And who cooks? The women, aka the wives of sons, aka the daughters-in-law. And a few grownup granddaughters have to help for setting the table and washing up. Everything that happens in the kitchen should be done by women. My grandma even said that her grandson would lose his balls when he went into the kitchen. So when a guy needs some water or whatever, they should ask women and one of the women has to bring it out for the guy. Women prepared 3 meals a day, cleaned the table and did washing up 3 times a day, and in between when fathers asked for drinks and snacks while playing cards, women had to stop in the middle of cooking and fulfilled men’s needs. WTF. After a few family holidays like that when I was big enough to think, I decided not to get married to a Korean man (I was in high school then), and I never did. I live in England now and there is no chance I would get married to a Korean in my life. Among many of my Korean girl friends who are happily married with Korean husbands, not a single one is happy to go to see her parents-in-law (fortunately they don’t live with the parents these days). People say the man-centred Korean culture is changing slowly, but I doubt I would see the change to the western standard in my lifetime.
Sexual equality-wise, I guess women who were born in western culture are the luckiest ones in the world. They are debating about the stupid commentary on female athletes on social media, whereas some women are risking their lives to have the right to vote for the leader of their own country at this moment. I don’t know where this cultural difference started (I should do some serious research on it), but it’s amazing when you realise the difference and how rarely those cultures mix and change to the best in this global world.