I'd heard all the horror stories before even setting foot in Korea; and nothing of what I saw or heard during my first year there had persuaded me to the contrary. For Western men, dating a Korean woman was a journey fraught with danger, a giant iceberg against which all but the mightiest ships, after months of navigating the frigid waters of popular suspicion, animosity, and outright bigotry, invariably smashed, to sink as deeply and as silently as the Titanic.
I met more than my share of broken hulls in Taejon, a million-strong city with a village mentality that wore down one heart after another. Several male colleagues and acquaintances were involved in serious relationships with Korean women, and some even married happily, incredibly enough. Most, however, suffered humiliating defeats: if the woman had no ulterior motive (money and/or green card, usually), then outside factors were sure to take their toll on the couple, and especially the suitor.
One good friend, a man in his mid-forties, fell in love with a yogwan owner in her late thirties. She came from a large family who were actually very happy to see their sister find a husband at her advanced age; as many of you know, anyone into his or her fourth decade of life is generally considered unmarriageable. Yes, he was a foreigner, and yes, he would never be able to speak Korean fluently; but he was sweet, willing to spend the remainder of his life in Korea, and a university professor - a major bragging point in a society where status is next to godliness. A pretty good catch, all things considered.
And yet, even such an "old" couple as they were harassed by the locals; people still resented the fact that a foreigner was "stealing" one of "their" women. The indignities suffered ranged from the subtle to the crude: disapproving, even disgusted, glances; moving away from the couple in public places to avoid "contamination"; accidentally bumping into either one on the street; verbal warnings, challenges and abuse, sometimes delivered at high-decibel levels; and outright violence in the form of spitting, shoving and sometimes punching. This final ignominy is a rare occurrence, but the threat of it is always simmering just beneath the surface, ready to ignite and explode at any moment.
Another young man found himself in a much worse situation: he was dating a woman without her parents' consent. He often went to her house to tutor her younger brother, and the parents were grateful for the service; but they made it clear that Korea belonged to Koreans, and English was a tool to be used against the White Devils.
The couple dated secretly for two years. Because they were young and good-looking, they encountered hostility almost everywhere they went. In fact, the girl's ex-boyfriend, soon after learning that he had been supplanted by an American, lured her into a trap and raped her. She didn't confess to this until much, much later.
Undaunted, they took many trips together across Korea, South-East Asia and the United States. Each time, the girl had told her folks that she was going with female friends; and each time, they believed her, though she never brought back any pictures. The subterfuge was fast becoming untenable; with so many lies to keep track of, and the couple's desire to marry, something was bound to go wrong.
One day, the parents discovered the truth, threw the man out, and told their daughter that if she ever saw him again, they would disown her. With family being the strongest and most important unit in Korean society, she did as she was told. It didn't matter that the man was amassing a small fortune through shrewd investments back home, or that he was a great guy who wanted nothing more than to marry his sweetheart and live with her happily ever after; the parents, and the mother especially, would have none of it.
In the end, they began dating again, once more behind the family's back. The last I heard, they had eloped to a country on the Arabian peninsula, but I have no idea of the fallout this course of action caused. The girl, of course, still comes out of the whole thing a loser: her parents have most likely cut off all ties with her and her future children. And if she had chosen blood over love, she probably would have ended up an old maid, seeing as she was nearly thirty and had spent the last four years "soiling" herself with a Westerner - no Korean man would have wanted such a woman for a wife.
I was also getting a lot of negative information on Korean women at this time: that they were outrageously jealous and suspicious; that, under the stereotypical impression that all Westerners are rich, they usually bled their boyfriends dry of all money; that they refused to leave their beloved motherland to live elsewhere; that they became shrews after marriage; that they always preferred their mother's and girlfriends' company over their companion's; and that they had a million other habits that eventually drove Western men to distraction.
So you can see how the groundwork had been laid down for me to embrace bachelorhood until my ultimate departure from Korea; and such might my stay there have run its course if it hadn't been for one exceptional little woman...
Sun-duk and I actually met through "sogyeting" - Konglish for a blind date. It wasn't as simple as that, however; just meeting proved to be an arduous task in itself.
Back in July 1998, I was living and working in Taejon, a city of about one million 150 km south of Seoul, while Sun-duk had recently moved to the capital from Pusan. We were both a little lonely at the time - I weary of the all-male staff's antics at Taejon University, she finishing her first semester at Ewha Women's University's Graduate School of International Studies -, but had nothing but simple friendship in mind when a common friend suggested we get together in Seoul and discover that historic city's many beautiful sites and museums.
The idea was deemed acceptable (!) by us both. We exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers through the third party, and made contact. I sent a scanned picture of himself to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Sun-duk was doing a summer internship. She looked at it, and beard aside, found me somewhat good-looking; I called her the next day, and apart from the husky voice, considered her pleasantly outgoing. A day and time were agreed upon: six-thirty Friday evening, downtown, at the enrance to the Kyobo Bookstore.
I took the express train from Taejon and arrived early to take advantage of a rare opportunity to go on a spree at a real bookstore. I spent a couple of hours with the friend who had "set" them up, then, at roughly 6:10, took my position outside the door facing the Burger King restaurant, and patiently waited... for the next fifty minutes. Now, Sun-duk had told me that she might be a little late, but I certainly didn't expect to be twiddling my thumbs until seven o'clock.
1998 being the year 1 B.C. (Before Cellphone mania) in Korean terms, I dug into my pockets, pulled out Sun-duk's beeper number and left her a message from a phone booth, telling her that whatever she was up to, I would be at the McDonald's restaurant a block away until nine before retiring to the neighbourhood YMCA. With a shrug and a quickstep that would have made Chaplin proud, I set off for Fast Food Central.
Meanwhile, Sun-duk had also been waiting at the Kyobo entrance... the one just around the corner! She had tried to page me, but my beeper, I later found out, only worked in Taejon. She called up our friend, and was mystified to learn that she had left me at Kyobo. Miffed at being stood up, she went to the nearest subway station to go home. She was just about to walk through the turnstile when her beeper went off. She listened to the message and rushed to meet me.
Well, we spent almost every waking hour together that weekend, going from one place to another - royal palaces and folk museums in Chongno, traditional tea houses in Insadong, shops and restaurants in the Shinchon, Kangnam and Itaewon areas - and it was with heavy hearts that we at last parted late Sunday night at the Seoul train station. From the outset, it was as though we had always known each other. There was none of that awkwardness which mars the beginning of a relationship as it lurches ever so haltingly toward friendship. Intimacy, intellectual and spiritual, was instant. That all sounds very trite, especially if you've never met the "love of your life"; but there it was, and we refuse to apologise for it. And the rest, as they say, is history...
Adjusting to life with another person is hard enough without adding cultural differences into the mix. Yet looked at from the proper perspective, our significant other's "disgusting habits" soon become his or her "lovable quirks"!
Here are some of the things that Sun-duk does which may seem strange to English- and French-Canadians:
Pet Names. There are only three, really, and they're gender-neutral: Yuhbo for married people; Jagi for an engaged couple; and, if you're just dating, the girl calls her beau Ohpa, 'Big Brother', while he simply calls her by her name. They basically all mean the same thing: 'Dear' or 'Darling'.
A few feminists will no doubt bristle at Ohpa - and, in fact, Korean-American women, i.e. Korean women raised in America, are not particularly fond of it, either. The other two are okay, though. I still call Sun-duk Jagi - some young couples use it well into their marriage out of habit -, while she has switched to calling me Yuhbo. In moments of levity, we call each other Yuhbo-shi or Jagi-shi, which loosely translates as 'Mr. or Mrs. Darling'. I like doing this, because neither one of us cares much for the class distinctions made in the Korean language; what we're actually doing is poking fun at Confucianism, which says that the wife must submit to her husband.
The older Koreans, both in SK and abroad, are always shocked to hear Sun-duk address me informally! They think her rude for not using the polite verb form(s) - though I, of course, am allowed, according to the age-old precepts of patriarchy, to speak to my wife as I would my children.
Gender Equality. The UNDP ranked South Korea 31st in 1999 for quality of life among the world's countries; but for South Korean women, that ranking plummets all the way down to 76th. That gives you a pretty accurate idea of the grip male chauvinism has on society, in spite of all the Westernisation.
Sun-duk is of an entirely different mindset. She is a raging feminist by current Korean standards, though many Western women would qualify her as too 'demure'. She didn't like her Korean boyfriends at all, but saw no alternative to them... Until she spent a year in Chicago.
In North America, she saw how in many modern households, the couple shared chores equally; that the men were much more considerate of their mate's feelings, problems and ambitions; that both cooked, washed and raised children with equal ardour and love. She returned to Korea with the firm intention of landing herself a Western man!
Although she now only considered dating a Westerner, she didn't date one until she met me. For almost two years, there was always something wrong with them: too short, too fat (most Westerners are fat to Korean eyes), too ugly (oh, that nose!), and just too plain conservative.
(Yes, quite a few Western men had come to Korea to date less assertive, more traditional women than what could be found back home. The pliant 'Geisha Girl' fantasy is alive and well in their minds, and many find exactly what they were looking for.)
I grew up in a household where my parents split their tasks fairly evenly. In fact, it was my father who made our lunches and cooked our dinners during my high-school years, when my mother was working eight-to-five at Bell Canada. Neither did they have any reservations about holding hands or kissing in front of the kids or in public - in stark contrast to Korean spouses who just hope to get through life without getting at each other's throats. This caring, loving, gender-neutral atmosphere became the norm in my mind; I just never thought that I would find a Korean woman 'strong' enough to express herself, chase her goals, stand up to me with her own views and opinions... and let me do the dishes!
I guess you could say we both lucked out. She was saved from a life of servitude, and I, from eternal bachelorhood. Vive le destin!
Engagement. Introduction to the family is a declaration of engagement, if not marriage - outside Seoul, at least. When I told some students in Taejon that I was visiting Sun-duk's family for the first time during Chusok, they all ooh ed and aah ed, and asked whether a wedding date had been set!
This was news to me, and Sun-duk downplayed the fact when I called her later in the evening (she was living in Seoul at the time). Almost from the moment I set foot in first her mother's home, then the ancestral home ('k'un jip'), however, it was quite evident that everyone was 'checking me out'. They asked me what my intentions were, what I did for a living, had I ever been in any sort of trouble... Sun-duk's oldest uncle on her late father's side, whom I've always simply called K'un Hyung ('Eldest Big Brother'), was much blunter: he asked me whether I would love Sun-duk 'til I died!
Living in Sin. Co-habitation (also pithily known as 'shacking up') is a great, big no-no in Korea. It casts a large shadow of shame on the girl's family, almost making pariahs of everyone.
I was quite lucky in this sense. I wanted to live with Sun-duk before marriage, because as a Westerner, we know that this is the true test of love, best taken before jumping into matrimonial waters. Sun-duk's family acquiesced, for three reasons; one, the father - the effective head of the family, and the person most bound to appearances - had passed away fifteen years ago, leaving the mother and two older sisters in charge of the four smaller children; two, the family is rather poor, since working women are paid so much less than men are; and three, I seemed quite serious about my intentions toward Sun-duk.
(The financial factor should not be underestimated in a family of practical females. Sun-duk's mother and sisters have suffered many privations paying for her tuition fees, food and board in Pusan and Seoul; having a university professor making US$ 2000 a month was no doubt a welcome relief.)
And so Sun-duk and I moved in together on March 1, 1999, in an area of Seoul called Chong-nyang-ni, with the blessing of mother and sisters alike - although our arrangement was kept secret from the rest of the family until wedding plans had been made a year later!
Koreans' Views on Marriage. Husband-wife relationships are much more traditional outside Seoul. Sun-duk's relatives were shocked to see me get up and fetch her a kleenex when her nose started running due to a cold. She had asked me very politely, just as I always do when I need something. The uncles immediately reminded me of an old Korean proverb: "Man is the sky, woman the earth!" They didn't really like her addressing me in the informal manner, either - another blow to their manhood, I suppose. In Seoul, though, you'll see a lot of young men carrying their babies around, feeding them, changing their diapers
Koreans' Views on Separation and Divorce. Without trust, there can be no love. A truism, a cliché, a load of bunk... Call it what you will, Sun-duk and I both believe in it. There can be no greater joy than knowing you can always rely on your spouse. It allows you to concentrate on other matters of importance, to draw the energy you need in times of trouble, to raise your children in a loving environment
Koreans take matrimony very seriously. Divorce is a very recent phenomenon brought to the country from America, and there is a stigma attached to divorcees in particular.
Korean women are considered old-fashioned by their Western counterparts for their 'through-thick-and-thin' attitude, even when their husbands are abusive, violent, no-good cheats. Naturally, I, too, believe that separation and/or divorce is a legitimate escape route in these situations.
However, I don't agree with the attitude of most Westerners today, who give up on a relationship because it's suddenly become boring or difficult. That's the fast-food, instant-gratification mentality coming into play once again; it creates immature and indecisive semi-adults, and all of society pays the price.
Korean women - but not men - at least have the fortitude to stick it out awhile. Now they're also gaining the wisdom to leave when a situation becomes absolutely untenable. They're achieving a balance which has eluded Western women so far.
I do not make these statements lightly. It's something I've discussed many, many times with other North American men in their thirties - men with experience, and who have explored their 'sensitive, feminine side', to use a much-maligned phrase. It just seems that Western men today are looking for a lot more stability in their lives than Western women are - a complete switch from the olden days.
So am I happy with Sun-duk's 'old-fashionedness'? You bet! We're two squares who've never been happier in our entire lives!
In-Laws. Ah, there's no way around it - marry the son/daughter, and you marry his/her family. Relatives stick together, and support young and old alike, through university, marriage, infirmity and senility.
Parents are expected to defray the entire cost of a child's education - not only at university, but in high school, too, when tutors are practically a required expenditure if the kids are to have even a chance of passing the college entrance exams.
Sun-duk comes from a large, poor family. Her older sisters scrimped and saved to put her through university and send her to America; parents of other children do the same. In return, the children - especially the oldest son - are expected to take in their parents when they have retired. It's a mutual support system which serves Asians well.
Coming from tight-knit families where the father's or grandfather's word is law, Koreans have considerable trouble understanding the concepts of rest homes, not doing business with a relative, part-time jobs, and male participation in house chores. What it all boils down to, I suppose, is our love of independence.
We all grow up wanting to leave the nest as soon as possible. To live with our parents beyond a certain age is embarrassing, a reflection of our inadequacy to function as adults. Similarly, elderly parents have no desire to move in with any one of their children, and will stay in their own house as long as possible, until failing health forces them into a retirement home.
If money exchanges hands at all in the West (and is not holiday-related), it's usually in the form of loans. Again, financial aid from our parents or children is demeaning, wounds our pride - signifies an inability to live on our own. I've often survived for months at a time on just two meals a day rather than ask money from my parents. Even today, when I want something sent to me from Canada, I have them pay for the purchase and postage with my money, which they can withdraw using the bank card I left them. My generation's parents may be better off than my peers or I will ever be, but now that they're retiring, they have a much lower cash flow - most of their money is tied up in investments of one kind or another. So I naturally don't want to rob my folks of their spare change.
In Korea, the circle is never broken; when one family member is down on his/her luck, someone else - a sibling, parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, nephew, niece - will find the wherewithal to help out.
Koreans are amazed at how long we can go without seeing our relatives. One big reason for that is, obviously, distance. North Americans are usually separated by hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres within the same country; finding the time and money to visit is an exploit in many cases. Tiny Korea does not suffer from this problem; the country is never more than 250 kilometres across at any point, and the north-south railway system allows you to travel from Inchon to Pusan in under six hours.
But reason number one, I think, is the West's traditional definition of the family unit: father, mother, and child. Once a child has gone to raise his or her own family, the link is broken - parent and child have achieved equal footing. We leave a young, new family alone to make its own mistakes, and do not proffer help unless it is asked for. Maybe we've patterned ourselves after nature; maybe Asians have evolved their family system by doing the exact opposite of what animals do. Who knows? Both cultures have their strengths and weaknesses; it's up to bicultural couples such as us to try and reconcile the two.
How these different traditions will play out in the households of Korean-Canadian families remains to be seen, but I do know one thing: I will not spoil my kids the way some parents do. My folks always made me earn my allowance (I had to make my bed every day, wash dishes, take out the garbage, mow the lawn, run errands, etc.), and were only willing to help pay part of my university tuition fee if I had a summer job. It's a good way to learn the value of hard work and money - something Korean men don't learn until they re drafted, and something Korean women don't learn until they're married.
Communicating with the In-Laws. Here's our problem: they can understand me, I can't make out a singled darned thing they're saying!
My in-laws are all from the south: Cholla and Kyongsang. They have a particular twang to their dialect that escapes my Seoul-bred ear, and they speak at a hundred kilometres an hour! I keep asking them to slow down, use easy words, and standardise their speech, but they're not teachers, they're old, and I'm the only foreigner they've ever personally met; so they usually end up going even faster than before!
The Three Deadly Sins. Most Korean women have a heightened aversion to alcohol, nicotine and flings; a good combination, especially for a gal who is able to get her hands on such a rare commodity as a faithful and abstinent husband. In all three respects respects, Sun-duk is lucky... And so am I! (Kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray - bleah!)
The Body. Here's a list of differences:
Koreans hate their yellow skin and do everything they can to give themselves the pallor of death - I mean, of prosperity. We Westerners envy them their 'tan'!
Korean women all want to have round eyes, like Western women. Westerners simply adore their almond-shaped eyes!
Korean women hate their high cheekbones. Westerners love the definition!
Koreans hate their dark hair. Westerners go ga-ga over the contrast between their silky-fine black hair set against the lovely tallow tinge of a high-cheeckboned face!
Koreans are naturally thin; it's partly biological, partly nutritional. And yet, they're always trying to lose weight, perhaps under the influence of toothpick-shaped anorexics who parade from catwalk to catwalk in the West.
Korean women have no real cellulite. Why this should be remains a mystery, but it's probably related to a combination of race and diet.
Tall, short; big, small. No comment!
Fashion. The differences in fashion are not so clear-cut between Koreans and Anglo-Saxons; but by French, French-Canadian and Italian standards, both groups dress horribly!
Colours, materials and styles are mismatched... Nearly always. There's not much more I can add to that; Koreans and Anglo-Saxons just don't have much flair!
I dress Sun-duk whenever I can. We go to a store together, I pick out her clothes. When I buy myself clothes, they're always in good taste. It's a talent that most Latin people have, and even the English-Canadians will admit to being sartorially challenged in comparison with the Quebecois.
As the husband of a Korean woman, it is my duty to teach Sun-duk how to dress and shop well; and I think I'm doing a good job at it so far! She's come home with satisfactory pieces of clothing. But her education must continue..!
Make-Up. Do you remember seeing your Korean girlfriend for the first time without make-up? Did you do a double-take like I did? ;-)
This recent trend towards snow-white skin and picture-perfect features has forced almost all women in Korea, Japan, China and even Mongolia to spend small fortunes on cosmetics. They cover up freckles, moles, and blemishes; they pluck their eyebrows 'til there's nothing left, then use a pencil to draw them back in; they lengthen their eyelashes, wear mascara, and dab on neon-red lipstick. Then, at night, they spend an hour washing everything off, exfoliating, moisturising and cleansing their skin before slapping on night cream, and, on occasion, several cucumber slices. It's enough to make a man mitchuhtta!
And of course, it's we men who get stuck going out and buying the stuff just when the beauty shop is about to close because our lady has just realised that she's run out of her favourite Facial Mud Bath No. 5!
Personal Hygiene. Koreans are the cleanest people I know after Muslims: they brush their teeth all the time, wash on a daily basis, use soap for everything... I could go on and on. This probably doesn't bother Americans, Canadians or even many French-Canadians, but my lifestyle is slightly more European, and it bugs me. I don't wash every day; neither do I wash my hands after I go to the bathroom, and my hair gets Vidal Sassooned only twice a week. I change my socks and underwear every three or four days - even when I have a washing machine, which we don't at the moment (just elbow grease and a tub).
What about body odour, you ask? Well, I think Anglo-Saxons and Koreans are prissy. First, body odour is natural; why bother trying to rid yourself of it unless flies start hovering above your head and fleas invade your armpits? Secondly, Koreans don't even have body odour, so why they wash more than once a week is a mystery to me. Come on, guys, you know what I'm talking about! How many of you shower just so women won't object? Left to our own devices, Western men would only perform their ablutions a couple times a year!
Sun-duk calls me a dirty man, but that's only because I freely admit when I haven't washed; if I didn't tell her anything, she'd think I was a paragon of cleanliness! She usually thinks I'm at my most handsome when I haven't washed my hair for four or five days! So if weren't for my complete and total honesty, she would never suspect a thing!
Of course, I will probably change my ways once the baby is born. With Sun-duk, I just have to make sure I don't repulse her; with infants, it's a matter of health, something quite different from hygiene.
One thing I should not overlook, because it exists within every household, and is a great source of joy, both physical and conversational, among French-Canadians: gas! Sun-duk has many nicknames for me, but the one I hear most often is Pan-goo Jeng-ee-ya!, which roughly translates as "Oh, you big farter, you!" (Although I personally prefer the more lyrical 'Fartmeister'.)
My wife is not without her own fatal flaw: she can belch up a storm like you wouldn't believe! She's chagun oori turum jeng-ee, "my little burper girl!"
Hair. The sameness of hair and eye colour in the Orient upsets the younger generation, which, under the influence of the West and globalisation, has begun to search not for a common voice, but millions of voices all singing to different tunes. The first rumblings of individualism are being heard, and many are looking to stand out in more tangible ways, too.
The late nineties saw Japanese and Korean youth, male and female, pierce their ears, wear torn jeans, shed their uniforms and, most visibly, dye their hair. Red and brown are the most popular tints, but blond, green, blue and pink have their proponents. By the time I left South Korea in the summer of 2000, I'd say that close to 90% of all young women had hidden the natural colour of their locks beneath a very expensive chemical coating that will eventually harm them. Maybe as much as 50% of young men had gone the same route. It's a phenomenon which, paradoxically enough, is fuelled by individualism's antithesis, conformity. 'To be different like my friends' seems to be the strange credo of a generation caught in the middle of immense cultural and economic change.
Sun-duk's had a reddish sheen to her mane since Fall '98. Now that she's pregnant, and there is a slim chance that hair dye may seep into the mother's, and eventually the foetus', bloodstream, I'm looking forward to the day when my wife is 'back in black'!
Height. Koreans are short people, and they're keenly aware, and often ashamed, of their small physical stature. To this end, and without any self-consciousness at all, nearly everyone wears some kind of elevated shoe.
Korean women, in particular, will buy sneakers and keds, the soles of which can vary between five and twenty centimetres. It looks awfully ridiculous to Westerners, but it's a fashion that has spread throughout Asia.
Sun-duk's shoes are all platform or high-heel. She's only about 155 cm, so she really feels short next to me. I don't mind her putting on pumps, but I'll never be able to look upon her elevator sneakers with anything but derision!
Shoes. How many times has your Korean spouse expressed horror and indignation at your setting even a millimetre of sole leather onto the floor of your home?
Even here in Mongolia, where the entire apartment is carpeted, I am chided for not taking off my shoes as soon as I walk through the door. It doesn't matter that it's acceptable here, since no one sits on the floor and we have a perfectly good vacuum cleaner - Koreans equate footwear worn within the confines of a home to barbarism, just as we shudder at the thought of a Hangoog-in munching on leg of dog.
This is one of those things that either becomes a quirk or a thorn. I sometimes walk around the house with my shoes on just before leaving - especially if I've forgotten something and I'm in a hurry -, while she likes to wave strips of fried squid in front of my face, chasing me out of the room and into a less odoriferous corner of the house. It's a healthy way at poking fun at our slight differences.
Down Time. In a word: Koreans, growing up in a tiny country with tens of millions of people, are surrounded by crowds everywhere they go, and consequently can not stand being alone - ever.
Thirty million Canadians, living in the second-largest country in the world (giving us the second-lowest population density among all nations after Mongolia), love, need, require, cannot live without space - the more open, the better. We need lots and lots of room, both physically and spiritually.
Dilemma: Sun-duk gets bored at home easily and likes to go out and meet people - especially new people. I need to be alone for many hours during the week, and enjoy reading and writing at home after work and on weekends. I also like hiking, camping, canoeing - outdoor activities, but Sun-duk prefers coffee shops and movies, where there are always a lot of people.
Solution: take turns doing what the other wants.
Music. Koreans like bubble-gum pop, techno-blandness, mind-candy... Call it what you will, it's generic, it's lip-synched, and it all sounds the same.
This kind of music also dominates Western charts, but they just reflect the teenagers' need to fit in. By the time you graduate college, you've opened your mind to a whole range or music, and learned to appreciate lyrics of a poetic or intellectual bent. Not so with most Koreans - not at present, anyway.Sun-duk is different. Though she often hankers for Bette Midler, Anne Murray, Celine Dion and the like, she also loves to listen to the music I enjoy most: Brazilian, African, Talking Heads, Tragically Hip, The Beatles, XTC, Sinead O'Connor, early U2, French and French-Canadian (Beau Dommage, Harmonium, Les Rita Mitsouko)... And I'll praise the odd Korean group or singer that goes beyond the easy, formulaic pop that saturates the radio and television airwaves (Jaorim, for example).
Movies. This is a problem outside Korea. Today's English-language movies are full of slang, cussing, and techno-babble, leaving Sun-duk in the dark sometimes, despite her good English. And of course, watching French movies without Korean-language subtitles is a little difficult for both of us; consecutive interpretation does not hold many charms.
There's no way around this without having both spouses learn the other's language to near-perfection. The best thing to do is translate, or have translated, those parts in the Korean or English (or French, or whatever) movie which prove linguistically problematic. A slow process, to be sure, but on par with learning how to communicate with your in-laws!
Seafood. I'm a landlubber through and through; the only seafood I'll eat is the occasional breaded perch or what I consider 'normal' seafood - crab, lobster and shrimp, usually drenched in garlic butter.
Koreans, on the other hand, are never very far from the coast, and every kind of seafood is delectable to the Hangoog-in's palate: squid, octopus, shrimp, fish, mussels, oysters, seaweed, sea cucumbers, eels, lobster, crab, snails. Dried, raw, boiled, steamed or fried, these dishes are considered delicacies by everyone, above meat, fruit or vegetables.
Sun-duk is a dyed-in-the-mollusk seafood gourmet. Moving to Mongolia has been an ordeal for her; only recently did we find a market that sold a couple of kinds of fish. Otherwise, she has to rely on canned sardines and care packages from Pusan.
I remind her that as a French-Canadian, I had to make do for four years without any cheese at all (much less European), or decent wine, goose-liver pate, and, worst of all, real bread - not that sugary stuff that tastes like a cross between an overly starched muffin and wormy corn-on-the-cob.
Here in Ulaanbaatar, however, I can cook up some real Western-style food: beef, steak mutton and pork, potatoes, Edam and Gouda, link sausages, and the list goes on. It's like heaven after so many years of enforced vegetarianism and American fast-food.
So you see how coming from different gastronomical backgrounds can be difficult when you're both living abroad! Often, the only solution is separately prepared meals. The most important thing, though, is to try and eat together, no matter what you're having!
Chewing and Swallowing. Two observations to be made here: one, Koreans usually eat with their mouth open; two, Koreans eat quickly.
Eating and drinking with your mouth open, and making loud chewing and swallowing noises, is considered polite in most Asian societies. Some Koreans will tell you that they eat this way because the food is hot and/or spicy. Whatever the reason, this habit tends to get on Westerners' nerves. As children, we were invariably reproached by our parents for failing to keep our mouth closed during mealtime; so our first reaction to this Far-Eastern custom is almost always revulsion. When Sun-duk gets too loud, I'll sometimes ask her to be more quiet, reminding her that it's good etiquette practice for when we eventually live in the West. To make such requests makes me feel condescending and paternalistic, but our future guests and employers will not look so benignly on this 'rude' behaviour.
As for the speed at which Koreans eat... Mind-boggling for a Frenchman. Americans find no problem here, as they share the same palli, palli ('fast, fast') mentality. Both Koreans and Americans are in a constant hurry; it's part of their culture. Whether its a sign of dynamism or philistinism is an ongoing debate in Latin circles!
Myself, I see eating as a pleasure to indulge in; cooking is an art form, and a good meal to be savoured and appreciated. Since I've left home - in other words, for my entire adult life -, most of my friends have been Quebecois or European, so dinner parties ordinarily meant eight- or ten-hour affairs, punctuated by one dish after another. No one is ever full, since we all eat slowly and take part in that other art form, conversation. Eating, for me, is an experience, not a chore.
Koreans care about taste, but it's not as intrinsically important as simply satisfying one's hunger. Conversation is to be done after dinner, at a bar - since only alcohol will unbind a Hangoog-in's tongue, as they readily admit.
Sun-duk eats fast, but not as fast as her relatives down south. The first time they saw me eat, they thought I hated Korean food; eating slowly is a sign that you don't like your host's cooking. I had to explain to them that it was not only my habit to eat slowly, but better for my constitution, as well: 'scarfing down' food always gives me indigestion, sometimes even nausea. They think this strange and illogical, but have grown used to it.
The Weather. If you've read my story, Winter Blues, then you know how much I hate hot weather (anything over 23 C) and enjoy cooler climes, for health reasons. Unfortunately, South Koreans, whose peninsular climate has made them much less hardy and robust than Canadians, have totally a different concept of what is hot and cold, warm and cool.
For Koreans, fifteen-degree weather is shiwonhada, cool; anything below is deemed cold. Freezing weather is 'extremely cold', and if snow falls (never more than a centimetre a day), traffic fatalities skyrocket. (One of the funniest sights for a Canadian is watching Koreans clear sidewalks and streets with straw brooms! Gee, don't break your backs, there, fellas! ;-)
As a result of growing up in the southern part of South Korea, Sun-duk needs to put on a lot of extra layers of clothing just to keep warm at five degrees. Right now, it's late October in Ulaanbaatar, and she feels like it's absolute zero out there. She's wearing long underwear, two pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a coat, as well as a toque, mitts and boots. I go out in my suit (short-sleeved shirt) and unlined overcoat, with loafers covering up a pair of holey socks... And I'm fine! We both hope the baby gets that gene of mine marked 'antifreeze'!
Names. The informality of English and French cultures in Canada, and the highly stratified nature of Confucianist Korea, has meant some adjustments for both sides.
On our first and only trip to Canada two years ago, Sun-duk was stymied by what she should call my parents, sister, aunts, uncles, etc. I told her to call everyone by their first name. She managed to do this with most everyone, but she felt very uncomfortable and impolite calling my father 'Jean-Claude' and my mother 'Madeleine'. On the plane back to Korea, she asked me if I could think up of any alternatives, and I immediately suggested 'Maman' and 'Papa', which is what I call my parents. She thought that was sufficiently respectful, so the issue was resolved then and there, to be applied the next time the four of us meet.
Of course, my case was not nearly as clear-cut with Sun-duk's family. Every family member has a title which varies according to the position the speaker occupies. Sun-duk hasn't even bothered teaching me her relatives' names, except her siblings'; she just tells me to call this aunt Ajumma, and that uncle Ajoshi. Her mother is my Changmonim, mother-in-law, and this is how I must address her (my mother is Sun-duk's Shi-omoni). And even though I know her sisters' names, I can't use them; I have to call them 'Sister-in-law' (there are four kinds: the husband's older and younger sisters-in-law, and the wife's older and younger sisters-in-law).
When we get to cousins, second cousins, great-aunts and the like - older or younger, male or female -, then even the Koreans begin to scratch their heads and consult one another for the proper form of address! Is it any wonder I simply avoid using names altogether and just talk to my in-laws?!
Pronunciation. Korean is a pretty easy language to pronounce, with the possible exception of two or three sounds. I have trouble distinguishing the 'j' and the 'jj', but other than that, I'm all right. English, and especially French, however, are a completely different matter for the poor Korean!
Let's start with English. It has three sounds which are uncommon on a global scale: unvoiced th (as in 'thigh'), voiced th (as in 'them'), and semi-vocalic r. Koreans tend to pronounce the first two sounds as 't' and 'd', respectively. If the r is preceded by a vowel, then Koreans simply lengthen it, omitting the r altogether like the British do; if it's preceded by a consonant, then Koreans usually make a clipped r. They also cannot distinguish the r sound from the l sound, so that my name often comes out Daniel Loy - although the Korean orthography accounts for some of this.
Sun-duk can make all of these sounds, but often clips her r's. It's actually quite cute, though, so I don't bother pointing it out, afraid that she might eventually correct herself and lose her lovely accent!
Other English sounds which sometimes baffle Koreans: z (usually pronounced 'dj'), and f and v (usually pronounced 'p' and 'b', respectively).
French presents myriad problems to the average Korean. First, most of its vowels are unpronounceable to them; secondly, so are a great deal of consonants. The French e, u, eu, eh, and all the nasals (an, on, un, in, oin, and their spelling variants), as well as f, j, soft l, qu, uvular r, v, and z.
Sun-duk has difficulty with nearly all of them, so if she ever does learn French, she will almost certainly always have a pronounced accent. But who cares? Accents are one of the most interesting features of language! Communication is the basis of speech, and if French-speakers can understand her, accent is irrelevant.
French and Korean. Just as I've learned Korean to better communicate with Sun-duk's family, so too does Sun-duk have a smattering of French. Not only are some of my relatives monolingual (or virtually so), but it's very strange, uncomfortable, and even unnatural for me to have to speak to my own parents in English when she's around.
Sun-duk took French in high school, and she brushed up on it last spring, taking institute classes for a couple of months. However, with her mind on English and Chinese (on account of our honeymoon), my native tongue quickly fell by the wayside, so that now she remembers practically nothing but numbers from one to ten! She does desperately want to learn the language, but only when we finally move to Canada. Sun-duk prefers learning aurally, and through immersion. However, whether we ever live in Canada, or in any other French-speaking country, is a question as yet unresolved
Children. One of the compromises we've had to make concerns children. Not the number, mind you (she would like three or four, I two or three), nor the sex (although I prefer girls myself), but adoption.
One of the greatest shocks to a Westerner is the Koreans' dislike of orphans; they absolutely refuse to adopt children. Again, blood and family is paramount, and they feel they could never learn to love, or even like, a child that is not biologically theirs.
Adoption is one of the West's oldest, and most laudable, in my view, traditions, which goes at least as far back as the Greeks, Romans, and even Ancient Egyptians. We believe a child's parents are the people who raised him or her - biology is an accident, and of little import. My own folks nearly adopted, but a concatenation of events prevented them from doing so. The incredibly long waiting lists of couples wishing to adopt is testimony that the rapaciously capitalist and individualist West is sometimes capable of the finest features of altruism.
I've told Sun-duk that I'd like to adopt a third or fourth child if we have two of our own, but she's adamant that we have only biological children. She says that intellectually, she understands my motivation, but that emotionally, she cannot overcome centuries of bias and prejudice against orphans. It's a dream that I've learned to let go for the sake of our long-term happiness; but sacrifice, as everyone knows, is part and parcel of marriage. After all, throwing her lot in with me has meant that Sun-duk can only see her beloved family once a year, if that often. So it's best not to think about such disappointments and focus on what we do have - and that's each other, right?
Children's Names. What can be one of the greatest points of contention within a couple skipped right by us like a sun shower. Sun-duk has chosen the children's Korean names for whenever we're in Korea, and I've chosen the French i.e. Western) names for all other occasions. In Korea, they will bear their mother's surname; elsewhere, mine.
The only thorn concerns euphony; I don't like the sound of her names all that much, and she feels the same about a few of my choices. However, we both trust each other's ears with respect to our native language, so the potential argument comes to end before it even begins.
Language in the Home. Usually, in a Korean-Canadian couple, English is the language of choice. There are several reasons for this: the Korean spouse has spent years studying English, while Korean is only taught at one or two Canadian universities; Koreans are better at languages, and work harder at them, than English-Canadians; and most couples end up living in Canada, where the quality of life is much higher.
Our case is very different in that neither one of us speaks English as a native language; we are both EFLers! That's because I can't speak Korean as well as Sun-duk speaks English, and she can barely speak any French at all.
So which language(s) will we use to speak to our children at home? Another easy question: Korean and French, of course. Not only would we feel uncomfortable speaking to our children in any language other than our mother tongue, but there's the additional fact that no matter what country we live in, English will likely be the language of instruction in the international schools.
Many monolingual people think that bilingual or multilingual homes confuse young children and make them bad learners, but that's bunk. I say that as a linguist who has studied the question in university, and who can refer all doubters to any number of books and web sites that will corroborate my statement. Confusion is not what I'm worried about, however; as a French-Canadian who grew up outside Quebec, I can tell you that assimilation is much more likely to occur than mixing up words and grammar from different languages.
Both Sun-duk and I love the cultures we grew up in, and want to see them passed on to future generations. We hope we can instill these feelings of pride and respect in our children, but as all things in life, there's no guarantee we'll succeed. There may very well have to be another compromise along the line...
Living Abroad. The first thing I told Sun-duk when we started to get serious was that if she didn't like to travel, to live in different countries, to be away from Korea and her family for extended periods of time, then we should not stay together.
That doubtless sounds callous, but the way in which my life had unfolded 'til then, the talent and drive which I knew lay within me, waiting to flower, had convinced me that my path did not run along the rut of domesticity. In order to fulfill my potential, to be happiest while working in society's best interests, I had to teach wherever I could, learn the local language and culture, and eventually spread my wings beyond education. If I had to do it alone, I would.
Sun-duk assured me that she was possessed of similar ambitions, even telling me her ultimate goal was the West and the United Nations. She had just begun her Master's degree in International Studies and Business, and that was enough to persuade me that she might be the only woman for me - certainly in Korea, and perhaps the world.
Mongolia was our first big challenge - Sun-duk's first time to live in a country where she knows neither the language nor the culture. It was quite a shock to her (if you will allow me the cliche), and it took a while for her to recover; but with the myriad career opportunities just waiting to be plucked by the likes of us, she has expressed a desire to stay on a second year - winter willing!
What of our children? Again, many ignorant people believe that shuttling kids across continents, sticking them in international schools, does them a great disservice, both socially and educationally. Poppycock! First of all, exposure to many cultures and languages can only be a source of strength for the future; secondly, the education offered at international schools is invariably better than what is available in North America... and a hundred times better than a public Korean school's. Think 'private', and you'll know what I'm driving at.
Everything we do, everywhere we go, every job we take, is done with an ultimate goal in mind: the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs or the United Nations. We want interesting, challenging jobs that will let us travel and earn decent money at the same time; jobs that will expand the minds and breadth of experience of our children; jobs that will allow us to help as many people as possible. Some will say that you can't always get what you want, and that's true; dreams are hard enough things to realise in the best of circumstances. But with all due respect, we're not ordinary people; and it's plain for all to see that we've accomplished a great deal already.
Fate does not exist; life is what one makes of it. It's in the trying that one gets a true measure of one's worth - failure is irrelevant when the will has demonstrated a capacity to survive against all odds.