Over the past two weeks, I have had conversations with males, females, expats (varying in nationalities) locals, married, single, and undisclosed. Inevitably, nearly all the conversations made their way over to the wonderful world of relationships and dating with an allusion to gender roles. It was thought provoking to hear the variance in ideas, stereotypes, and myths about those topics in general, but it was particularly interesting to hear about them as they pertain comparatively to Korea… In this post I will attempt to speak on those topics from the reference point of womens’ roles using content compiled from conversations I have had without specifying with whom I had them.
I’ll start by free associating about women in general (please feel free to add, disagree, or agree):
Women’s roles in the west have shifted from traditional homemaker, mother, wife to one in which women are multitasking the aforementioned with all that comes with having a professional career (seeking higher education, leadership). Women’s roles globally seem to be shifting in this direction, some slower than others. Along with the shifting of roles, characteristics are also shifting. For instance, women are moving from being dependent to independent, people-pleasing to assertive, agreeable to outspoken, supporters to leaders.
Now, in addition to assuming the traditional female role, women in the East have also been stereotyped for being remarkably submissive, obedient, timid, reticent, compliant, and eager to please. Asian women have also been categorized as sexually exotic and have been impacted by a history of societal forces shepherding them into the images of “Geisha Girl,” “China Doll,” and “Comfort Women.” The history embedded in these images of Asian women went on to define desirability and attractiveness. Loosely, I experience the definition as this: light skin, petite, almond shaped eyes (comes with the territory), and long, black hair. (An image suddenly surfaced of women in S. Korea (SK) holding umbrellas to block the sun from coloring their skin and then me, walking around in a sleeveless shirt w/o sunblock hoping that the sun will bless me with its kisses of color). Thus, we see many Asian women in Asia fitting this standard of beauty. Furthermore, because globalization is westernization to some extent, the definition of beauty has expanded to include western features such as: bigger, rounder eyes, smaller faces, and taller noses – at least, in SK. In Seoul, there are advertisements for plastic surgery plastered shamelessly and it is quite common for Korean women to have eyelid surgery to add a crease in their eyelid, making them appear rounder, and nose surgery to add a bridge to their nose, giving it a taller appearance (see: Chicago Tribune article). And having these surgeries do not appear to carry the stigma that we may find in the U.S. (excluding boob jobs in Newport Beach). In fact, it seems to be par for the course. Also see: Economy Blunts Korea’s Appetite for Plastic Surgery
So speaking specifically about women’s roles in Korea – in conversations I have had, (which I am very aware are not representative of anything other than my own experience), it appears that in SK there is an interesting dynamic taking place for women in the shift from traditional to modern. Sure, modern Korean women are multitasking/juggling like women around the globe; however, in this movement instead of shifting there is a merging. So they are not shifting from dependent -> independent, they are both. And some women in N. America may say, “yes, I am independent at work/school but more dependent in my marriage/family.” But I would argue that women are both independent and dependent in work/school. For instance, SK women in the work setting may assert themselves by disagreeing (tactfully) with a male colleague but may also find herself serving him at the lunch table. So it’s not an either/or, but a both/and (for you postmodernists). In my opinion, this merge demonstrates Antevasin-ness and I feel that it takes great skill to juggle the role merge and I admire SK women for their juggling abilities.
But as an Asian American foreigner inside SK, I find myself feeling conflicted. Where do I fit into all this? For instance, if I meet my partner’s Korean boss, do I align with the cultural expectations and make sure to fill his cup first at the dinner table? Bow my head slightly and smile when I greet him? Or do I maintain my American egalitarian stance (which was further impacted by my year spent in SF working with several feminist, strong-willed women) and initiate a handshake and make direct eye contact? I find myself negotiating these types of cultural differences in every interaction with locals. And the psychologist in me can’t help but overanalyze each decision I make (What does it mean if I am not serving the men and those older than me first at dinner? What does it say about me if I do? Am I changing mySelf if I do? How will this change impact my relationship with my partner? With others when I go home? Etcetera.)
I am definitely not done with this one. But I’ll give it a rest for now. The next post will address the relationship and dating piece as promised.