9.09.2013

Solidarity is for White Women in Korea, too. Re: The Fear of Becoming a Housewife

Let’s talk about how so many writers lazily toss around Confucianism and its’ impact on gender roles in Korean society. Let’s pursue alternate, more complicated and more rigorous discussions of Korean society. At stake is not only intellectual rigor, but the pursuit of mutual understanding that can only be achieved when we stop recklessly dismissing cultures when we could be building solidarity. Although there are many pieces in which we encounter the assertion that Korean gender roles are Confucian, I am going to point to a piece by Megan Harper who recently contributed “THE FEAR OF BECOMING A HOUSEWIFE” to Groove Magazine.

Harper writes (emphasis mine),  
“This year, I married a Korean man. He isn’t “Korean-Korean,” which is our code to mean he is comfortable with the ways of life outside of the peninsula.”
"He understands the limits that Confucianism places on women and tries his hardest to understand my expectations of equality."
"I have met many women with advanced degrees in subjects such as Russian literature, Chinese and graphic design who abandon all career goals once they marry. Or maybe it is because many of the young women I work with consider university to be simply a way to meet a wealthy man and become his housewife."  
"What I was not prepared for, though, was the depth of his parents’ gender roles, my feelings toward their way of life and the effect these things would have on my ability to relate to his parents. It is hard to hide my discomfort when I see my mother-in-law prepare a beautiful dinner that her husband has half eaten before she even has a chance to sit down. I cannot understand why she tolerates this lack of family assistance. Although I am embarrassed by my own narrow-mindedness, this type of event, and my perception of her, makes it very difficult for me to relate to her; my own refusal to take on the “housewife” role has made it hard for me to embrace this woman.
I know that traditional gender roles continue to exist in my own culture, but they feel much more limiting in Korea. Perhaps it is because, as an outsider, they are easier to see." 
When I hear similar comments from Americans (ex. I frequently hear something like "At Chuseok all the men drank and all the women cooked and cleaned, can you believe how sexist Korea is?") I add this bit of analysis: Perhaps it is easier to see Korean women this way because I was raised in a culture that stereotypes Asian women, I was raised falsely to think that my culture has the 'most' gender equality, I was raised in a culture willfully blind its own exploitation of Asian women. It is important for people from my culture to unlearn some of the racism and nationalism we were raised with. .

TO SUMMARIZE the piece, the author (not Korean) discusses a process of negotiating gender role expectations with her (Korean, but not so-called “Korean-Korean) husband. The author also reflects on her own attitude toward her (I guess the author would say, “Korean-Korean”) “traditional” mother-in-law’s gender role and Korean women's sacrifices for family. The piece emphasizes a link between “traditional Korean” (Confucian) culture and gender role expectations, contrasting this with only the briefest of references to her own culture. Her unnamed and largely un-examined culture is not subjected to the same lens. The key words used to describe women and her home culture include: equality, independent, respectable, equalized gender roles, etc. 

Honestly, at first I wanted to get behind the effort the author says she is putting into understanding her mother-in-law, but ultimately found the piece somewhat offensive and the cultural explanations kind of lazy and stereotypical. This is no doubt because SO MUCH of our dialog in English-language literature talks about Korea in this way. I struggle to find English newspapers abroad that don’t talk about Confucianism in every piece about Korea, even when it is about a plane crash >.< Even many Korean friends and classmates will emphasize Confucianism instead of other explanations possibly because it has become a quick and easy way to describe and emphasize perceived differences. Back to what the Grand Narrative dubbed 
the author concludes,
"I hope to share with others my unexpected limit in understanding that arises from my own gender role expectations. Regardless of my mother-in-law’s reasoning, it is futile for me to judge her. I will strive to respect her for the sacrifices she has made while using my own life to demonstrate equalized gender roles."
FIRST and FOREMOST I have to critique the way that the author positions her life as a demonstration of equalized gender roles to her mother-in-law. Despite prior reflections on trying to be open-minded, the piece asserts a instructive superiority of a not 'Korean-Korean' life and mindset over a 'Korean-Korean' life and mindset. The author also leaves out a lot of incredibly important context about these so-called 'equalized gender roles.' This discussion may also reveal our blindness to our own privileges and complicity in exploitation that we externalize and blame on others and other cultures.

LET’S START with how not unique to Korea it is to have a mother-in-law that does the majority of the housework or who has ‘traditional’ views about gender, motherhood or being a wife. Personal disclosure, I recently married an American man and my mother-in-law and I have some quite different and some shared views about culture and gender roles even though our citizenship is the same. Before my partner, I once lived with a long-term with a partner and his mother who migrated to the US from Mexico. My partner’s mother and I also had some different and some shared attitudes about culture and gender roles despite not having the same citizenship. I lived in a homestay in Korea for over a year, and once again similar and different ideas about gender roles. My mom did all the cooking and cleaning except for once a week when my father typically ordered in food and dumped trash. Guess what, if you are raised by a single mom (as I later was, and as my cousins were), who is it that is doing the cooking and cleaning? I bet it is usually still mom and not dad. Thinking about the men in my life growing up, I have an uncle who migrated from Greece to the U.S. Another uncle migrated from Iraq. During all of the Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox Catholic, and Islamic holidays, also during the Chuseoks, Thanksgivings, the quinceañeras, even during the national holidays and other special occasions that I have attended and participated in, women did the cooking, the cleaning, the care and love work. 

NEXT, the author is worried about becoming a Korean housewife and wants to keep working. I would like to see a follow-up reflection by the author on how she engages her husband, husband’s boss, her boss and most importantly her mother-in-law or possibly a nanny in a few years when she wants to keep working and is struggling to find daycare. Will grandma be more relatable or her gender role more appreciated when the time comes to make that decision? Though, I honestly really hope we don’t need that reflection because I hope SOME administration will start taking social welfare policy seriously.  

I sense a rebuttal: So you say American women and European women's workforce participation has surged? Let's break that down a bit, too. Women in my family, a grandma or an aunt not working outside the home, absolutely took on the care work while both or a single parent were working. Let's look at broader social trends. At the same time that women's workforce participation in the US and Europe has surged, simultaneously world migration trends reflect a major shift toward a majority of migrants being female? In origin societies we see complex family decisions over whether or not to send daughters and wives abroad for migration to destination states in Europe and the Americas. Migration patterns all over the world are pushed by gender roles that haven’t changed THAT much in the ‘West’ and by economic competition that compels all sorts of changes in societies. What work are female migrant laborers doing? Largely care, reproductive and sexual labor. How many affluent households in the U.S, in Western Europe, in Korea and Japan are replacing middle and upper-class family housewives with migrant or increasingly 'competitive market-solution' labor like fast food, boutique daycare, dry cleaners, etc.? I love all the fancy jargon we (myself included!) use to glorify and add scientific weigh to our own cultural solutions while we dismiss other countries for having ‘traditional’ or in this case ‘Confucian’ solutions.

FINALLY, let’s get to Confucianism. I don't think the author understands Confucianism and how it has transformed and been transformed by Korean society. Nor do I think the author tries to think of other explanations besides Confucianism. The Confucian card is over played and we are missing out on better explanations. Too often, writers use Confucianism as a neat and tidy quick way to dismiss something in Korea as essentially 'pre-modern' while simultaneously failing to make any further inquiry into Korea's modern history and society.

In particular, let’s drop the 'backward Confucian Korea' trope and seek more nuanced explanations. Frankly, in the context of this piece, the Confucian trope pretends that all issues in Korean society today are 'pre-modern' and tied to some ingrained sexist cultural/religious though pattern. I think that bit of explanation is tidily left off because that would implicate modern structures all over the world and also require consideration of Korea's colonial and occupied recent history. In turn, this ignores the role of government intrusion into family life in modern Korean history, and especially the mobilization of family and housewife for a decidedly neo-liberal international market. Was Park Chung Hee acting in accordance with Confucianism or aligning policy with the cold war and international markets?

Furthermore, is that mobilization of women and family an isolated experience in Korea? No. Even seen a poster of Rosie the Riveter? Or a war-time volunteer nurse? Or a Red Cross volunteer knitting socks? Oh, those examples are too distant and you don’t want to compare US and Europe in WWII to post-colonial and Korean War recover era Korean workforce mobilization? What happens to American and European women during recession? Hours and benefits cut to keep “more people at work” rather than all-out cutting jobs? Funny how we keep reading that women and people of color in America are disproportionately losing benefits and having hours cut.

Like the Americas and Europe, Korea has also had mobilization of women for home labor, for labor in manufacturing and unpaid care labor for troops, students, husbands and sons, and so has every other country ever. How can we use Confucianism as the sole explanation for anything in Korean society while ignoring the influences of religion (Protestantism anyone?), Japanese colonial state education of women for low pay low skilled labor (Thank you NEW RIGHT textbook revisionism, what a TRIUMPH that was for gender equality), US-ROK economic ties and international markets that mobilized men abroad to wars and oil fields, rapid modernization pressures and lacking social safety nets. I don't have a full explanation, but lazily tossing around "Confucianism" isn't good enough and we need to start a better dialog about societies. More urgently, we need to keep promoting less offensive conversations about Korean women, men and their families. Not just on blogs but also in news media and academia, too.   

Maybe in Korean society we need a dose of something similar to what intersectional feminism and the recent #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen dialog represent in the US. As feminists, let’s stop dismissing other women’s culture and start listening. This dialog would be a vital precondition for really working together to face inequality and other challenges we face in our societies.


I’m guilty of some laziness too, that’s why I need to keep listening, studying, reflecting and looking for other viewpoints. Re-reading some of my posts on this blog, I realize that in my living and studying process I’ve changed my views quite a lot over the past 14 months of blogging about gender and Korean society. Thank you to readers and critics and friends for your dialog. Since I know I am also in a privileged space where I can access information as my full-time occupation, to spread some of that around, here is a short reading list that inspires much of what I have written here:

Chang, KS and MY Song. 2010. “The stranded individualizer under compressed modernity: South Korean women in individualization without individualism” The British Journal of Sociology 61(3): 539-564.

Cheng, Sealing. "Sexual Protection, Citizenship and Nationhood: Prostituted Women and Migrant Wives in South Korea," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 37, No. 10, Dec. 2011.

Cho, Uhn, “The Encroachment of Globalization into Intimate Life: The Flexible Korean Family in “Economic Crisis”” Korea Journal 45(3), 2005.

Cho, Joo-hyun. “Neoliberal Governmentality at Work: Post-IMF Korean Society and the Construction of Neo-liberal Women” Korea Journal 49(3): 2009.

Nelson, Laura, “Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea,” 2000.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, published by Stanford University Press, 2001.

Kim, Hyun Mee. "The State and Migrant Women: Diverging Hopes in the Making of “Multicultural Families” in Contemporary Korea" in Korea Journal, Winter 2007.

Yi, Eunhee Kim, “’Home is a Place to Rest’: Constructing the Meaning of Work, Family and Gender in the Korean Middle Class,” Korea Journal 38(2), 1998.