For 3 unmarrieds, questions, laughsOn a recent weekday, three working women met for soju (booze) and galbi (grilled beef) at a restaurant in Gangnam, southern Seoul. Their purpose was to talk about marriage, or rather, what it means to be a nocheonyeo (unmarried woman) in Korean society. Back Hye-jeong, 34, is a freelance photographer, Vicky Park, 32, is a travel agent and Gabrielle Lee, 28, is a convention organizer. Ms. Back doesn't find marriage to be crucial. Ms. Park is adamant about wanting to get married soon. Ms. Lee doesn't oppose the idea of marriage, but at this point doesn't feel pressure to make a commitment.
JoongAng: What is your current status?
Back: I haven't had a steady boyfriend in seven years. I have lots of guy friends but no lovers. I have a tendency to dislike getting into serious relationships so whenever I feel like someone is getting too close to me I push him away.
Park: [Giggles] I don't know if I should reveal this to you but I am actually seeing someone. We've dated for 14 months now. As for marriage or a soul mate, I can't say for sure.
Lee: I don't have a boyfriend.
JoongAng: Do you get a lot of pressure from home?
Back: No, not really. My mother doesn't really push me to go find a boyfriend. I mean, first of all she lives in Gyeongju, and second, she's done her share of nagging so there's less pressure now. Of course as a parent she is entitled to worry about me, but honestly it's my mother's friends who keep on saying how much I need to get married.
I have female relatives and people I know who tell me "Do you really need to get married?" as if it's not that big a deal. I know many divorced couples who've told me their horror stories -- how they clash with their in-laws, et cetera. Women say how their hubbies change dramatically after marriage; that is, the men become more authoritarian and controlling with marriage. And because of these examples, I don't really find the need to get married.
Don't get me wrong, though. Marriage is not a bad thing. But it is an institution that women run to when they find it hard to live in this world. Marriage also forces women to live inside a fenced-in arena.
We are all insecure in one way or another, and I believe we must have life partners. I look for security myself. But I don't think marriage is a way to provide emotional security. I don't believe marriage gets rid of all our insecurities.
Park: I think marriage is a necessary social institution. By creating a family, we are developing ourselves as individuals. Marriage is part of an incremental process for a person to go through in life. A family life creates a kind of solidarity that can't be expressed; it gives one a sense of belonging. Human beings are lonely creatures, you know. I deem it to be absolutely vital.
I am pressured to get married at home and at work. Even though I have a boyfriend, my parents are never off my back. My mom calls me two or three times a week and says, "You should really get your priorities straight."
JoongAng: Where did you meet your boyfriend?
Park: We met during graduate school.
JoongAng: What do your parents think?
Park: They don't approve of my boyfriend. He's a foreigner and ... a Muslim.
JoongAng: How do you cope with being branded a nocheonyeo?
Back: [Sighs heavily, as if deploring the term]
Lee: [Laughs loudly]
Park: You know what they call me in the office? "Frozen livestock." They say spinsters are like frozen food that's way past its expiration date, and if one were to eat it, one would get "mad cow disease." I can't argue with that.
[Laughter all around]
Back: I don't get much stress from those around me. The people I work with, makeup artists at the studio, they are a bunch that are in their early 30s who are either spinsters or bachelors. Those that have gotten married are divorced. I don't hear people say, "Boy, you're an old maid. Hurry up and get married."
Park: When I meet people whom I haven't seen in ages, they always ask me, "Do you have any good news to tell us?" [Giggles] I get it all the time.
I meet a lot of men through my work and I feel like they perceive me in two ways. The first is that I am like a half-finished human being. Because I'm not married, they think I'm not quite there as a person. An imperfect human being is someone without a companion. The second perception is that they think there's something wrong with my character, or my personality if I'm not married. Even though I don't think there's anything wrong with me, I can't help feeling ashamed because of this perception.
Back: I feel like men are intimidated by me. Guys tell me they can't find anyone who can match up to my strong personality.
JoongAng: What year were you born?
Back: Year of the monkey.
Park: Year of the dog.
Lee: Year of the tiger.
JoongAng: Then you were all born in what would typically be called strong gi [lifeforce] years for women.
JoongAng: Why do you think you are alone?
Back: I enjoy working out. I'm an active person. And I don't come across as exactly feminine. I talk back to men. Many guys say they like my personality, and even though I'm not pretty, I'm not exactly revolting. But they tell me I just don't have any coquettishness, which is an essential part of female attractiveness. I also have broad shoulders.
Park: [Cuts in, acting macho] Beat 'em up this time!
Back: Yeah, right. Because I look so tough on the exterior, men feel turned off.
Lee: [Turning to Back] Now you're 35 in Korean age, so I guess it would matter less, but how did you feel when men first started telling you that they found you too masculine?
Back: Honestly, I still get angry when guys say that. I'm a woman. I don't like it if women try to act like men. Women should be women. But I admit, I'm not your typical woman. I work with a lot of men, so I've trained myself to become tougher on the outside. I don't want to appear frail to them professionally. And that habit of acting tough has sort of carried on.
Park: Korean men can't bear to see women who are smarter than themselves. My younger brother tells me, "You should have eyes that give the impression you're an airhead, not a smart aleck." Men don't like women talking about political, social issues. It's a taboo, a turn-off for them.
Lee: I agree. Men don't like it if they lose their power. My brother also tells me, "I would never want to date you, Sis. You're too smart for your own good."
JoongAng: Do you think you are unhappy because you are not married?
Park: Unhappy? Yes, that may be true. If everyone around you is married and you are not, of course you're going to feel miserable. Among a hundred "old maids," I think only two or three truly feel good about themselves.
Back: [Cuts in] If you want to age gracefully, you need two things －－ money and looks. People will be condescending if you have one and not the other.
Park: There's more value-added to those who are pretty. It's something that can't be helped. If you're attractive, then you have more confidence, whatever age you are.
Back: Maybe we've been brainwashed in this regard, but when I look at spinsters in their early 40s, they look so pitiful and shabby. We have to be aware of how others look at us. It's important to create your own sense of style and presence.
Lee: You know, I hate the fact that a person's worth is measured by whether one is married or not. People's judgment originates from marriage. If you're not married, then there's more scrutiny and negative perception.
JoongAng: If you were to get married in the very near future, what aspect of marriage would be most terrifying for you?
Back: What petrifies me the most is infidelity. What if my partner falls in love with someone else after we are married? I don't mean just have an affair. I've seen that happen a lot. That's why I'm so ultracareful about marriage. You really can't be sure about people's feelings. Korean men are unfaithful, and they won't change their habits just because their wives tell them to. I really can't trust them.
Park: I think marriage is like betting. I mean, I don't believe in soul mates per se, but I believe there are "best couples." People can make the effort to become good partners to one another. I'm not perfect and nor is the guy, but I think marriage is worth the investment.
Women and men have different expectations in relationships. Women want spiritual companionship -- what people call friendship -- while men, they're simple. They just want sex. Both see relationships blossoming from these goals, but I strongly believe both have to make a concerted effort to make any marriage work.
Lee: I have morbid fears about future conflicts with in-laws. And the fact that we, as a couple, may run into financial woes.
Park: To give you a brief answer, I am afraid of divorce. I am afraid of trust being broken.
JoongAng: What is your ideal partner/husband?
Back: I have to love him unconditionally and vice versa.
Lee: It's not going to be easy. How much of that do we see?
Park: I want someone who cares for me, someone who is family-oriented.
Lee: Someone who is loyal and someone who is financially better off than me. I think family background is critical. I don't want someone who comes from an extremely poor family who has made it on his own. And I don't like mama's-boys.
JoongAng: Why do you think you are not married?
Park: I've been too ambitious. I wasn't sick and tired of being single －－ until now. My work had always been more important to me. But these days, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure and need to get married. My relatives think I'm not married because I like the single life.
I have fears about getting older. I mean, menopause comes early for women these days. I want to have kids before I'm 35.
Lee: I started feeling very lonely this fall. My friends who are married and have a baby tell me how important it is to go through childbirth early, for the health of the child, that is.
Park: If I get married in a couple of years and have a kid, my kid will be in elementary school when I reach the age of 40. Now that's scary. Forty seems so far away for me.
Lee: I want to get married. I want to feel emotionally secure. I want to feel freedom in marriage. But I am not desperate at this point in my life. I think marriage is a necessity for everyone, though.
JoongAng: Would you compromise?
Park: I would. I'm not getting any younger.
Lee: I wouldn't compromise. Not now. I am at a turning point in my career, and at this point, I don't feel the need to compromise.
Back: I have to say, it's better to see women nagging than men trying to play cute to women. But in my case, I abhor myself when I try to act all mushy around men. In all my relationships with colleagues and friends, I have not met any guy whom I could or would act all cutesy with. In my opinion, men should be magnanimous and kindhearted. All the creeps around me are so narrow-minded.
Lee: I agree.
by Choi Jie-ho