Elusive Belonging: Marriage, Immigrants, and Multiculturalism in Rural South Korea ~ By Minjeong Kim
(University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2018, ISBN #978-0-8248-9254-8)
Review by Bill Drucker (Spring 2021 issue)
The author presents a detailed, ethnographic field study of South Korea’s growing multiculturalism via international marriages, specifically Filipina brides who are marrying rural Korean husbands. In her up-close-and-personal accounts, Kim addresses the complex issues of the physical, emotional, and social attachments in these relationships. She also addresses South Korea’s state policies of multiculturalism.
The focus of the study is how the Filipina wives of South Korean men have adjusted to their new lives, marriage, and community acceptance. The numbers of Filipina wives in rural communities have risen from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The state programs that were begun to assist the two-culture unions have not been wholeheartedly implemented, and therefore the adjustment to the Korean country life has been thrust on the Filipina women with little support. The Korean community continues to marginalized these foreign wives. As the title suggests, for these women, acceptance and belonging remain elusive.
There is a theory that mixed marriages by Koreans to spouses from other Asian countries are more likely to be socially accepted by the community, since the foreign brides are also Asians. However, the culture of the Philippines and that of South Korea are far apart. Even religion is an issue. The Philippines is a country of Catholic majority. Even among the Christian Koreans, there is a hard line drawn between Protestants and Catholics. The tightly-knit rural communities of South Korea tends to look upon these foreign wives with suspicion.
Author Kim notes that Filipina brides of her acquaintance are mostly members of the Unification Church (UC), not Catholics. She also noted, unlike Korean members of UC, the Filipina members tend not to be very ardent participants.
The motives for marriage are varied for any couple in almost any culture. Among Filipina brides, there are many economic reasons for them to marry across cultures. On the flip side, rural Korean men live under pressure of continuing the family line. In rural South Korea, there is also a shortage of marriageable Korean women. With the emphasis on education and job opportunities, young South Korean women in rural areas are flocking to the cities.
If the rural Korean community has problems in accepting Filipina-Korean marriages, there is additional anxiety for the parents and extended families when children are born. Foreign wives are in the position of having to raise their children with a strict Korean upbringing. Therefore, the author points out, wives and mothers lose influence over their children’s nurturing years and the children lose out on the rewards of multiculturalism. Already these children are being called Kosian, the legacy of Korean and other Asian unions. This branding, the author suggests, is a new form of social exclusion, a way of labeling the children with racial otherness.
Outside criticism has also added to the anxiety. Since the 1990s, the trend of arranging for international mail order brides (MOBs) boomed, but not without controversy. There has been harsh criticism by human rights groups and feminist groups that these brides are a form of human trafficking. The foreign brides have been targeted also with criticism. Marriage for money, marriage as immigration, loyalty to which country, and so on.
The image of the rural Korean men has been hard. Seen as crude, abusive, or just insensitive, rural South Korean men tend to be domineering. They are subject to their patriarchal family, and to fulfill the duties of a filial son. Author Kim points out that in thousands of interviews, the mens’ personalities are varied, as are their motives for marriage. Some were threatened by their wife’s education and liberal manner. There are, of course, long-standing loving couples.
The demands on a mixed-race couple are strenuous enough. Often the rural Korean husbands have less than a high school education, and are used to physically-strenuous work. Filipina wives are often well-educated, many at the college level. Despite this, the Korean community resists or fails to recognize these women as a potential resource.
Gender roles tend to be more strict in the mindset of the Korean community. The parents of the son in a mixed marriage may object to the foreign wife either working or assuming duties reserved for women in Korean families. However, if the Filipina wife is able to increase the family wealth, there are fewer objections.
Although atypical for Korean families, a rural mixed-race couple may want to find their own place, rather than be in a multi-family home. In one marriage the author documented, the Korean son lived at certain times with his wife and at other times with his family. Foreign wives do complain about the abuses or demands of the Korean-in-laws.
The growing numbers of Filipinas in the rural communities have demanded state-sponsored programs, such as Korean language learning, access to healthcare, and programs to advance their children’s education and welfare. The state has been criticized for dragging their feet on social issues that do not directly involved Koreans.
This idea of multiculturalism is being pushed forward by Filipina wives, not the state. They have made progress in the growing of rural Korean-Filipino communities, establishing networks and sisterhood support groups. They are also sympathetic and supportive of other foreign wives, such as the new wave of Vietnamese brides. South Korean society is lagging and still resistant to realities of the changing demographics.
Korea has long held that their view of multiculturalism has long been of migration outward, beyond the borders of the country. More recent concerns are in addressing the migrations into Korea, how to accept people of other ethnicities who wish to immigrate and apply for Korean citizenship. Korea is their children’s home by language, birth and citizenship. The Filipina wives, their children, and new immigrant arrivals are laying claim, slowly transforming the Korean social and ethnic landscape.
The Korean views of homogeneous society and Confucian values of gender and roles persist, despite the fact that Korea is experience a growing wave of multiculturalism. Immigrants are coming to South Korea from China, and also Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Nepal. White Muslims are another rising group. The changing human demographics in South Korea must be addressed more dynamically as part of the social trajectory into the next generation. This challenges not only ethnicity, nationalism, and citizenship, but the definition of the Korean nation-state.
The 2011 coming-of age-movie, Punch indirectly deals with the Filipino-Korean marriage, and the impact of family disintegration felt by the rebellious son, Wan-deuk. Upon finding his mother, despite the emotions of anger and hurt from abandonment, he is drawn to her. Affection quickly blossoms as they both see that the Korean father has been the one derelict in his parental responsibilities. Notably, the actress who played the mother is Philippine-born Jasmine (Bacurnay y Villanueva) Lee, a successful TV personality, actress, and civil servant. Lee was elected as a representative (Liberal Party) to the South Korea National Assembly in 2012, making her the first non-ethnic, naturalized citizen to become a state lawmaker. She was in office until 2016.
Author Minjeong Kim had written a fresh and sensitive study of Korean intercountry marriages, and the concerns of multiculturalism. She is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology at San Diego State University, California.