Friday, March 7, 2008

Inhee's Secret Rebellion

I hate a lot of things. I know, it’s not a quality to flaunt nor is it a quality I’m particularly proud of. One thing I hate is when people personalize their problems. What I mean is that I hate it when people disregard your problems because compared to their problems, you should be thankful that you have such a miniscule issue—besides, their life is so much harder. This being said, I feel like the biggest hypocrite as I’m sitting here waiting for my co-worker Inhee, a thirty-one year old married Korean girl with no kids. I feel like an idiot because I’m doing that which I hate the most, personalizing this before I even get to know her. So—I’m supposed to interview her about women and her experience but—to me, first generation Korean-American girls have it the worst. To be honest, I felt like any of my friends would have more interesting things to say than Inhee would, simply because Korean-American girls my age experience a much different type of sexist oppression than most white girls my age can relate to. What I found after talking with Inhee, was as surprising as it was hopeful; even though she denied the label feminist, her views were inherently liberal and her opinions about controversial issues were astonishingly against the typical Korean traditional ways.

Inhee seems like a typical Korean woman—fresh-faced, quiet, very friendly, very generous, thoughtful, and not one to rebel against authority or tradition. The surprising thing is that she came to America four years ago, got married to her boyfriend of ten years, at thirty-one she doesn’t want kids, and still doesn’t want a formal wedding. I know there seems to be nothing wrong with that, but she told me that all these things made her an enigma to Korean society. She explained, “Typically…a twenty five year old woman should be married and should have at least one child…or at least want all those things.” A continuous struggle she faces whenever she speaks with her parents, is the judgment they lay on her for not desiring an expansion of the family. “They think it’s really weird that I don’t want to continue the family line,” she says. She says that they don’t understand the fact that a woman isn’t just an empty shell that centers around a family and that she never thought kids were appropriate for her. As she was talking, it became more and more apparent to me that the familial unit was of the utmost importance in Korean culture. She says her mother has the hardest time understanding why she doesn’t want children. After struggling to find the right reasons, she says her reason is because she is too selfish and that she’s afraid of being a bad mother. I don’t think she realized that she wasn’t selfish at all and quite the contrary. She defined herself outside of the social and cultural confinements of gender and that seemed much like the second wave feminists or the liberal feminists, but she simply shrugged it off.

It was very obvious that she did not have a typical marriage. She dated her current husband for ten years, and wasn’t even married before she moved here. This seemed particularly terrifying—leaving your entire family to another country seems outrageous to me—but she assures me that unlike most Korean hers was for companionship and love. She explained to me that in Korea, marriages are more or less business deals. There are these large corporations that run matchmaking services and that they split you up into different socioeconomic classes in order to match you with someone compatible. When she first told me that Korean people consider marriages more like business transactions, I thought she was joking but these organizations are very prestigious, and highly utilized by many of the single men and women of Korea. When I asked her if she had met her husband through that she replied with a sarcastic question; “I moved to America, you think I really left my family for some asshole from a matchmaking agency?” Anyways, I started to ask her what other criteria there were for matchmaking and the gender roles became much more outlined as she explained the only question that they ask males pertaining to their physical appearance is height (as tall men are rare) as opposed to women, they take more photos and take measurements. I asked her if there were more women with jobs and she said that one stereotype American women think about Asian women are that they are forced into submissive housewife roles once they are married but this is not the case. In fact, she said that there were more women in Korea that held jobs in proportion to the amount of women that held high-paying jobs in America. I was particularly impressed at this point, until she pointed out that society could care less what kind of jobs the women have, just as long as they have one. She explained that in the matchmaking industry, they just want to make sure the woman has a job because as long as she has a job and is attractive, it makes her that much more appealing to a male if she can support herself. I found that troubling since it wasn’t much about independence but more about projecting oneself as being independent for hope of becoming dependent.

I wondered why Koreans and Korean-Americans substantially more concerned about their looks than in American society? I had my theories pertaining to this question, I figured maybe the ratio of men to women were at one point substantially lower on the latter so that the women became increasingly more competitive but Inhee had no clue as to what I was talking about. Inhee explained to me that the pressure to be physically perfect is much different amongst Korean women as opposed to Korean-American women in the states. “In America, the competition is everywhere, girls eye and size you up and down—especially in your (my) age group, since there are not many Korean-American girls here (in America),” In Korea, she said it’s less of a competitive thing more than the aim to be more “American” looking. I’m a little confused at this statement and instead of the ratio of men to women, Inhee seems to blame Korea’s narcistic nature on the emergence and popularity of American movies in Korea. She says the more Koreans were exposed to what Americans found beautiful—bigger eyes, bigger breasts, and tan skin—the more women asked for these things from their cosmetic surgeon. This, to me, could be seen as a mild form of imperialism where America’s presence is through cinema instead of a physical literal presence. She explained that it was sad that women in Korea no longer embrace their naturally beautiful features—the features that make them beautiful as an Asian woman, not to the standards of American. The more this “epidemic” spreads, the more men are given the excuse to be “so picky”, prioritizing looks over other attributes, and thus resulting in men seeing women as objects made for their pleasure and disposal rather than people, she concluded. Lastly, much like Marilyn Frye’s description of double-bind, Inhee explained that although beautiful women are praised for their looks a woman is typically viewed for beauty or brains. Never both. She said that Korean people do not think these things can coexist in a woman which only goes to say that women are only required to be two-dimensional beings.

Not everything about Korean culture was disheartening and nothing made me realize that more than Inhee’s personal views and experiences. When we began to talk about materialism in Korea, Inhee told me that a lot of women use their sexuality to get designer merchandise from wealthy men. I wasn’t as shocked with this statement because women in American do the same thing, however, Inhee said that in some cases, the women and men will “lay the deal on the table.” I couldn’t believe it, I was astonished that a woman would even stoop to that level unless it was something initiated by her, and only her. My disbelief and distress did not resonate with Inhee. I misjudged her completely, I thought. In my head, I assumed she would be overly conservative and frigid in her opinions but what she said to me next humbled me greatly. She explained that though she didn’t label herself as a feminist, but she knew much about feminism, that I (one who does label herself as a feminist) “should understand the concept of a choice” and that I should disregard the stigma that may come with any decision a woman makes. She explains that though she may not do such a thing, a man is stooping to a lower level by purchasing an expensive item in exchange for sex. It was definitely something that we both agreed to disagree upon but I couldn’t help but feel a little stupid.

I sat back in my chair—amazed. I ask her how someone whose parents didn’t let her watch a movie until college—was so liberal about a mild form of prostitution. She said her openness to these things were due to the fact that she had been fortunate to have removed herself from these pressures. Growing up as a girl made her realize that if she ever had a child, she wouldn’t put so many restrictions on her children because of their sex. One very valid point that she brought up was that when her parents restricted her from watching movies at home, it simply made her want to watch them even more. Later on in life, even when it came to matters of the opposite sex, her parents refusal to acknowledge these issues or talk about them openly simply made her want to do those things which she was forbade from. She said that much of the sexual double-bind that Korean girls face in society is due to the fact that their parents made sex seem dirty by leaving the issue unaddressed and highly offensive. Even now, as a thirty one year old woman, her parents still seem to have an invisible force as she told me she would probably have to have a formal wedding as to appease her parents.

I have the most trouble understanding why we suffer for the things that are out of our control—our gender, class, race, and sexual orientation. I’m sure if we had to make these choices ourselves, we would see a much different world than what we live in today. Sure, at one point or another, we’ve all thought that our lives were a little worse than everyone else’s, but what I felt most hypocritical about was that I assumed Inhee would have nothing to teach me and that I would hear the underlying voice of my parents through her. This is where I think most people fail—not just women, feminists, or just men—but people fail when they dilute themselves into thinking there is nothing else to be heard or said. I don’t know whether I can be as defiant as Inhee was to the life her parents idealized for her, but at the least, I’m fortunate to be living in a generation where I can reverse the effects of narcism, sexism, and materialism. I didn’t see it at first, but after talking with Inhee, it came to me that things were progressing. The fact that a slightly older woman could be such an anomaly to Korean tradition made me realize that this secret torch, one which gave me permission to stand against the norms, was passed down to my generation. Much like Kathie Sarachild’s article about “Consciousness Raising,” talking with Inhee made me realize that women need to continue talking and listening to one another or else we won’t know where to pick off where the others had left us with. In the end, Inhee deviation from typical Korean society made me realize that my generation’s situation isn’t the worst and that if so much progress is noticeable in comparison to my generation, a lot can be done in the short time I have.

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