Weddings: Korean Ways to Tie the Knot SPECIAL FEATURE 6 International Marriage: A Personal Account

When getting married, everyone has to make adjustments to make the relationship work. An international couple may generally face more challenges in this respect. But things can also turn out unexpectedly easier as they did in my case. Over the past 20 years since I married a Korean woman and settled in Korea, I have witnessed remarkable changes in the perception of international marriages in Korean society.

An international couple smile happily during their recent wedding ceremony in Seoul. Though it is generally assumed that international couples have more adjustments to make, overcoming the challenges that a married couple may face is more about personal differences than nationality.

It is March 1996. I have been in Korea for about six months now. I am sitting in a restaurant outside the front gate of Ewha Womans University, waiting for my language exchange partner to arrive so we can begin our exchange of languages, Korean and English. I look at my watch; she is 10 minutes late. Just then, a girl I have never seen before hurries through the door and sits down across from me. “Sorry, I’m late,” she says in hesitant English. She explains that my partner is busy with schoolwork and asked her if she could take over. I frown, but I decide I will see how things go. I figure that I will study with her for a few sessions and then make some excuse not to continue the language exchange.
To my surprise, though, my new partner is quite enthusiastic about teaching me Korean. I continue to study with her informally until enrolling in a language program at Yonsei University, and she continues to help me as I study there. But there is something more, something that goes beyond language study. Exactly one year after that day in March 1996, we are married. Language Study Partner to Life Partner It has been nearly 20 years since then and we are still going strong. People often ask us about the challenges we have faced being in an international marriage. I guess they expect things to be much more difficult than in a “normal” marriage. It is true that cultural adjustments have been necessary, of course. There are things that are done a certain way in Korea but are done a different way in the United States, and vice versa. Cultural adjustment is an important part of living in any foreign country, but it becomes much more urgent and vital when you are sharing your life with someone from that country.

It hasn’t all been difficulties and obstacles, though. There have also been pleasant surprises along the way. For example, in Korea, a son-in-law is traditionally quite welcome in his wife’s home and the motherin- law takes every opportunity to spoil him. He is, to borrow a Korean phrase, a “guest for a hundred years.” The relationship between a Korean mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, on the other hand, has traditionally been a difficult one. In the U.S., things are different, if not exactly reversed. Mothers-in-law and sonsin- law often do not get along, while mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law don’t have nearly as hard a time as they do in Korea. As it turns out, my wife and I got the best of both worlds: My wife gets along great with my mother and my wife's mother was far more than just a mother-in-law to me before she passed away.
To be honest, most of the adjustments we have had to make have not been cultural; they have been personal. That is, we have had to make the same adjustments that every married couple has to make if they want a successful marriage. Basically, you have to learn how to share your life with another human being. It may sound counterintuitive at first, but in a way I think we might have actually had it easier because we were an “international” couple. I feel that my wife and I had an advantage because we went into our marriage expecting things to be difficult. After all, we were coming from two completely different cultures and two completely different backgrounds. How could it be anything but a challenge?

More Personal than Cultural Adjustments
The truth is that everyone who gets married is marrying someone from a different culture, in a manner of speaking. The couple might be from the same country and the same general culture, but they are from different backgrounds, were raised in different families, and have different life experiences. Perhaps most importantly, men and women are very different, no matter what culture they come from. In some ways, a Korean woman may have more in common with an American woman than she has with a Korean man. Yet, I often wonder if people in “intranational” marriages go into their relationships with an understanding of the challenges they are going to face. My wife and I went into our marriage ready to deal with some serious adjustment issues and I think this allowed us to overcome a lot of our differences very early on. When one of us did something that frustrated, confused, or hurt the other, it was fairly easy to just chalk it up to “cultural differences” and move on. As time went on, our rough edges were gradually worn down and we learned to get along smoothly.
This has been my experience of international marriage, but it is not a typical case. I am an American man married to a Korean woman. I am not a marriage migrant. That is, I did not move to Korea for the purpose of getting married, but I just happened to be living in Korea when I met my wife. Another thing that distinguishes us from other couples is that we do not have any children. I suppose the ramifications of that would require another article to explore properly, but it is safe to say that we are unusual in that regard.
According to 2015 government statistics on “multicultural marriages,” the typical international marriage is between a Korean man and a Chinese or Vietnamese woman. Perhaps the most prominent image of international marriage in Korea is a young man from a rural village marrying a woman from Southeast Asia. In fact, statistics from 2016 show that 22.7 percent of all marriages among men engaged in farming or fishing over the previous five years were international marriages (down from 40 percent in 2007). This is often what comes to mind when Koreans think of international marriage. This phenomenon is both positive and negative. On one hand, it addresses and, to some extent, ameliorates a very real social issue in the Korean countryside — namely, a shortage of brides — but, on the other hand, negative stories abound. A bride from a poorer country running away shortly after her arrival in Korea is a common one, for example.

Marriage Migrants and Multiculturalism
The Korean government recognizes the difficulties faced here by those who immigrate to Korea for the purpose of marriage. In the First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy (2008–2012), the government devoted an entire subsection to marriage migrants, outlining the need for measures to help them adapt to Korean society and achieve financial independence. In the plan, the government acknowledges that marriage migrants face discrimination and even human rights abuses, and steps are being taken to address these issues. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family publishes a “Welcome Book” in eight languages that is designed to provide practical information on adjusting to life in Korea, and activities such as kimchi-making festivals and other educational programs are designed to introduce international brides to important aspects of Korean culture.
Perhaps more important than such institutional efforts on behalf of marriage migrants and other international couples is the average Korean's perception of international marriages. It is true that there is a lot of negative media coverage related to international marriages, focused mainly on “fraudulent marriages” or “marriage scams,” but among the general public the perception of international relationships and marriages seems to have improved. I remember the days when a foreign man walking hand in hand with a Korean woman would elicit scowls at the very least, and quite often insults and abuse. Now, however, people are much more accepting of international couples. This is part of the increasing acceptance of foreigners in general in Korean society, but it also goes far beyond that. Many people seem to be more amenable to the idea that foreign residents can play an integral part in Korean society and are not necessarily just transient visitors.
Interestingly enough, while the social and cultural acceptance of international marriages in Korea is on the rise, the number of international marriages has been on the decline. While the rate of marriages has been declining on the whole, the rate of decline in international marriages has been even steeper. Partly as a result of increased supervision of marriage brokers and the introduction of tightened criteria for screening marriage migrant visas in 2011, the number of international marriages compared as a percentage of all marriages in Korea decreased from 10.8 percent in 2010 to 7.4 percent in 2015. Given that the number of marriages with Chinese spouses in particular has decreased, while that with spouses from the United States and other OECD countries has increased, the overall decline may represent a shift in the types of international marriages that are taking place rather than a trend that will continue indefinitely.

It is difficult to predict the future of international marriages in Korea. Whatever that future may be, it will be part of the general development of multiculturalism here. Greater acceptance of international marriages will happen naturally as people who may not have been born in Korea or are not ethnically Korean become a more accepted part of Korean society.

The Changing Perception of International Marriages
It is difficult to predict the future of international marriages in Korea. Whatever that future may be, it will be part of the general development of multiculturalism here. As a nation, Korea has a very strong ethnic identity. This identity was of course forged over many centuries, but the Japanese colonial period, during the first half of the 20th century, probably played the largest part. As Korea lost its status as a nation and the people were in danger of being subsumed into the Japanese empire, they developed this strong ethnic identity as a defense mechanism. As a result, today Koreans identify as such because of their ethnicity, not because of the passport they hold. This is why a Korean-American who may have been born and raised in the United States will still be considered “Korean,” while a Westerner who has naturalized as a Korean citizen will continue to be considered a “foreigner.”

The changing perceptions of international marriage among Koreans have brought changes to the idea of Korea as a “single ethnic group.”

It is likely that the new era of international marriages and multicultural families will change this perception of identity because multiculturalism also generally means multiethnicism. Ideas of bloodlines or of Korea’s status as “a nation composed of a single ethnic group” (danil minjok gukga) will have to be rethought — and are indeed being rethought even now — as the Korean population becomes much more diverse culturally and ethnically. Something else will have to form the core of the Korean identity, something that can be shared by everyone who calls Korea their home.
Even a cursory glance at current events is enough to see that multiculturalism is under siege in the West. There are those who still hold out hope that people from different cultures might be able to live together in peace, adopting common values that will benefit all. But there are others who say that multiculturalism is a failed experiment, that the values held dear by many in the West are in danger of being overthrown and must be defended against outside forces. I do not know what will become of Western multiculturalism, but I think it is safe to say that Korea will face many of the same challenges if it continues down the road of multiculturalism. Will Korea be able to avoid some of the pitfalls along the way? I believe that the status of international marriages — what role they play in society, how they are perceived by the members of society, etc. — will be one good indicator of what lies ahead. If my own experience is anything to go by, the signs are good. But I know that there is still much room for improvement.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Kim Dae-hyun Photographer
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