This week I felt I had been transported back in time to those questionable, ethnocentric 1950s public information propaganda of Britain and North America warning white women about the dangers of the “lusty negro”, when a friend sent me an astonishing “documentary” by South Korean broadcaster MBC regarding the “victims of foreigners”: Korean women who had abandoned all propriety and taken up with the Foreigner, only to be used and abandoned. By Foreigners, the documentary-makers clearly did not mean the legion of foreign brides from China and South East Asia that now make up a forth of marriages to Korean men; for such women are stripped of their foreign identity and given Korean names. They meant, to the exclusion of all other ethnicity, the White North American Male. One gets the impression from watching the video that were the colour of the targeted group different, and in a different local, the documentary makers would be urging the populous to don white sheets and burn a few crosses.
White North American Males have, in recent years, been recruited in droves from North America to fuel the insatiable (ahem) demand for native speakers of English to bring up Korea’s children. The result was perhaps predictable. What Korea wanted (in theory) was young dynamic, highly educated men and women from the West who could help Korea’s future business generation communicate with Korea’s export markets, but what they got, (given that prior 2007 no background checks were required, and no value was attached to actually having an interest in education or teaching qualifications), was the Cream of the Crap. Most came to party; and party they did. A few were downright dangerous.
For the most part, as these young men were in their twenties and early thirties, they were hardly the settling, marrying kind, and Korea provided for them an endless party of cheep booze and more than willing dates. Nor did Korea particularly want them to marry and settle. They wanted them to work for a couple of years and then go home. Any relationships and friendships they formed with the local populations would be, by their very nature, as fleeting as the sojourn. Most of the young men I met in Korea were there to party and make money to pay off university debts and save a little to see the rest of Asia. For the most part, at the weekends they did a young people are wont to do, which is to seek agreeable company. Now, don’t get me wrong – I find the somewhat mercenary “use and discard” attitude morally wrong, and distressing to observe, but you can find that anywhere, East or West. I also did not particularly like the attitude some of these men threw out at western women there, who had a much harder time socially than western men. However, I cannot deny that while these men were in search of agreeable company there seemed no shortage of young Korean women willing to agree.
This documentary is obviously a collection of Confucian fears and phobias surrounding not only the increase in migrant populations in Korea but also to globalization. Korea is attempting as a nation to overcome in a few decades three millennia of cultural isolationism. Foreigners in Korea have usually come to dominate, rape, and pillage, or, in the case of the American military, occupy politely, and I have a certain degree of admiration for a people who have raised their country up from ashes to be a major global player.
However, what is clear to anyone who sits up and takes notice in Korea is that Confucianism is not at the deepest core of what it means to be Korean. Under the Confucian layer is the shamanism (mudang), and the shaman is always bound up with female authority. This is why, I believe, that Confucian patriarchy was so strong – it was in part a reaction to the stronger expressions of female indigenous spirituality and community life. It is also a reason why the Korean matriarch – the adjuma – is such a strong character. I do get the impression that the matriarchal phenomenon has a most uneasy truce with the Confucian values. It is something older, deeper, and stronger than Confucius. That said, the condition of women in Confucian value systems is unenviable.
Korean Women and Western men who date are often seeking a pastishe or sexual mythology of the other. The women is seeking a man who will not attempt to dominate and keep her in a carefully bound Confucian place. She is seeking the freedom, in a sense, of the pre-Confucian model of Korean femininity. She is seeking a man who will support and free her from the vice-like grip of contemporary expectations of the domestically-martyred Korean housewife. The supreme irony is that the Western man she dates is often seeking a more traditional model of femininity, the sweet, submissive, pliant Asian lover which he believes has been lost in the West. It is no surprise that if his encounters ever develop in to something more serious, when a North American man is confronted with his Korean girlfriend’s the inner Shaman – the powerful adjuma – these relationships can flounder on the rocks of mismatched expectation.
This documentary is not just a manifestation of racist fears surrounding the Marauding North American Penis. It is also a an attempt at resurrecting Confucian of control over Korean women, who, in spite of the stigma attached to dating foreign men, and the stigma attached to the female divorcee, are choosing to walk away from abusive relationships, control and institutionalised patriarchy, and determine their own destiny. Dating a foreign man out purely to party may not be the best or wisest way of doing it, but then again, wisdom is almost always a casualty of our late teens and early twenties no matter where we are.
The fact remains that it sucks, oft times, to be a woman in Korea, and perhaps no one feels this more acutely than young Korean women, who are among the most educated, and ironically least powerful people in Korean society. The problem is not the Marauding American Penis. The “problem” is the collective failure to value and respect 50% of the Korean population.