Back in May, last year, I wrote a female perspective piece about a shocking event that happened in Seoul in mid-spring. To summarize that piece I shed some light on how women or females within Korean society are treated and often not respected because of their gender.
Wanting to speak more about women in Korea I would like to share some historical and modern views of gender in Korea in regards to roles within home & family life, (i.e. marriage, children, stay at home life), career pursuits & life goals (i.e. being a career woman, deciding to have or not have children, living a single life).
To start it is important to make note that South Korea among many Asian countries is a collectivist nation that follows an ideological communal view of common values, traditions, and beliefs benefiting the group and society as a whole. Since the start of pre-modern Korean history, during the time of Goryeo(*when King Taejo united the separate peninsula nations together) a unified ‘one nation, one people’ identity was founded by Taejo following the creation of the Joseon era. Over the centuries, decades, and even after the Korean War the Korean people both in the North and South have held onto their collectivist beliefs and centuries old identity.
The reason for explaining pre-dating Korean history is to highlight collectivist views that currently exist in modern Korea. One relevant view that remains heavily present is the ideological view of women in Korea’s dominant patriarchal society. Similar and yet somewhat changed are the former and current roles that women in Korea play. For example, compared to the former days of Joseon era women today in Korea possess not only a home life but also an individual life for which they can choose. The division of the role of women is due to the mirroring of global exposure with the outside world and continued the rise of globalization.
Since the acceptance of women receiving education to the acceptance of women entering into various job sectors in: civil service, government, armed forces, etc. the view & role of women as solely maintaining home & family life has changed. However, upon my experience in living in Korea for three years, and upon learning more about the present trend in lifestyles that women(*sometimes foreign) in Korea live I’ve come understand that the former communal views of a woman’s place in society remains contested.
At the age of 24,25,26 women in Korea should be preparing themselves for their future – be it a future home life through marriage, planning to have kids if already married, or re-adjusting their career goals. These are prominent examples of upheld communal views & beliefs that many Koreans possess for young females. Reading an article last year about Lee Jin-song’s book “The Right Not to Date,” Lee discusses an ingrained ideological view of young women in Korea having limited choice in how they are to live their life. According to Lee, how someone (a woman) lives their life is simply up to that person. However, living within a collectivist nation young women in Korea intuitively feel like their life choices are limited.
For women in Korea who are 25+ or already 30 years old and are still unwed, possess no children, or have not started their careers stigmas may be placed on them. This once again is due to the communal views & beliefs that many Koreans possess for young females. Lee, who herself is 28(*officially 29 in Korean age), currently single, and back in school for her postgraduate degree in Korean literature believes that personal choices should be respected, even while traditional beliefs and views remain the norm.
Having Korean female friends between the ages of 25-32, both married & unmarried, dating & single, I find that living a personal choice outside of traditional norms in Korea can lead to dire life fulfillment stresses for young women. While these female friends of mine fall into various criteria areas with some who have chosen marriage life and early child-rearing and others who have chosen to remain single and re-start their careers they all still feel societal pressure to meet expectation views placed on them: be it from their spouse, family, in-laws, friends, co-workers, etc. Ultimately, no matter what life goal or path they have chosen they will receive some form of scrutiny based on communal expectation.
Returning to Korea recently to see my boyfriend I too felt the weight of the country’s societal views during my stay. Being both an outsider and insider due to my intimate relationship and ties to Korea paved the way for scrutiny to a (foreign) young woman as myself. While in my home country my lifestyle is viewed and respected as my own in Korea balancing my career at home and relationship abroad has received raised eye-brows and confusion. To close Korean friends and societal onlookers my life is unconventional, by not following the norm.
Dating long-term, choosing a career over early marriage, wanting to live abroad, living on my own as a young woman remains the less-trotted path for many, even nowadays. While Lee laments that some women, particularly young women in Korea, are choosing to live their lives how they see fit there still are many young women born into or acculturated to the societal views, traditions, and beliefs and will more than likely follow the standard norm.
Norms know no bounds. For young women who have crossed the threshold of marriage, have children or plan to, have given up their careers, or are home wives, societal views still imposes itself. However, some women would state less so than the women still deciding between a career & life goals or home & family life. I have come to understand just as Lee did, I believe that no matter what age you are as a young women you will receive some form of rebuke from those close to you and those not. In these moments young women should follow their own conscious and make decisions that best fit their needs, as well as, their wants.
“The Right Not to Date,” is a chronicle of Lee’s own experiences as a young woman. It certainly may be an insightful read for any young women in Korea who also have had similar experiences, or seek advice in overcoming societal stigmas, and living the life they truly want to live for themselves and not society. As for me, Lee’s reflection brings to light personal worries of my own in terms of marriage and career pursuits. Being a young woman in Korea, but also a foreign woman I found my career pursuits limited, and by my mid-twenties received many comments about marrying and settling down. However, leaving Korea removed such societal pressures from my daily life and helped me focus on only my career & life goals. Yet, upon returning once again all of the former worries(*that are present worries among women in Korea) once placed on my shoulders seemed to return in a wave.
As a young woman with an interest in a possible future back in Korea I wonder whether or not societal views will change(i.e.staying single vs dating, getting married at a suitable age, being pressured to start a family, or the low support for women’s ambitions & careers) for the next generation of young women, or whether societal views will continue to remain strong on life decisions that women ultimately decide to make for themselves.
If you are female reader what societal views or norms have you come across? Have you followed these views/norms?