Middle-aged and very vexed

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Middle-aged and very vexed

Korean men in their 40s are changing. In the past, they were blunt and stoic, but today men are more emotionally sensitive.
Not only do they enjoy watching melodramas on television, but their eyes often well up while enrapt in the story. Housewives talk with friends about the changes they find in their husbands. Once these men couldn’t care less about housekeeping, but now, even the most die-hard salaryman cooks and cleans (on occasion). What is becoming of middle-aged Korean men? Recently, four ordinary white-collar workers in their 40s gathered one evening in front of a theater in Daehangno, central Seoul. Ham Seong-ok, 43, Park Deuk-soo, 43, Lee Seong-goo, 41, and Goo Dong-yeol, 41, have never met before. But on this day, led by the psychiatrist Jung Hae-shin, they described their lives, their hopes and their fears.


"Korean men think that to endure and overcome the most extreme situation is the greatest virtue,” says Jung Hae-shin from the stage. She’s reciting a monologue from a play.
“Such men, when they turn 40, they are faced with physical and mental limitations,” she continues. “They feel weak and emasculated. Men at this age become sensitive, with adolescent-like emotions. For the first time since their teenage years, they look at themselves in the mirror and see their families and wives in a whole new light.”
“It’s a chance for men to break free from the mental yoke of responsibility as the head of the house. It should be thought of as a blessing.”
All four men nod in agreement throughout the play at what Ms. Jung says on stage.
When the two-hour show is over, the four men and Ms. Jung head to a nearby bar and start to discuss their lives and how they are similar to those in the play.
Here’s what the men said during their conversation. But to protect their privacy, their names are not attached.

Going back to one’s adolescence.
* As I’m in my 40s, I think I’m becoming weak. I feel responsibility as the head of my family, but I’m not Superman. I feel lonely and that’s why I often go hiking on my own.
* Every year I’m the only one giving a gift on my wedding anniversary. I have never received a gift from my wife. By now, I guess I should have given up, but lately I feel vexed. When I express my discontent to my wife, she gives me this odd look that seems to say, “Why has this man become so puerile.”
* My heart used to jump when I saw an attractive woman on the street, but now I feel nothing. I wonder if I’ve already become old. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start cheating on my wife.
* Sometimes, like in the movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” I dream of having a romantic affair behind my wife’s back. It’s not that I’m not happy with my wife. When a man is in his 40s, I think it’s a period of seduction, and not an age free of vacillation.

Ms. Jung says that men, when in the midst of extreme adversity, seek their wives. When that need for comfort is not returned by the wife, men then start to seek other women. Therefore men in their 40s are most likely to be vulnerable to affairs.

Missing one’s parents
* Ever since I turned 40, I started to think a lot about my parents. Nowadays, after having a few drinks, I always call my parents. And every time they scold me, “Drink moderately! And why are you always calling after drinking?”
* I, too, am not a good son, but after passing 40, I often think about my father who passed away. My father’s grave is not far from where I live and I remember one day when I was really drunk, I visited the grave with some soju and dried squid.
* My wife sometimes receives e-mails from our child. Once I stole a glance and saw that our child wrote “I love you mom.” I felt jealous. I wrote a letter to my child and wrote “Dad loves you,” but I received just a two-line reply: “Dad I need some allowance. And buy me a gift.”
* Once I had a huge quarrel with my wife. My children, who were siding with their mother said, “Mister, you’re wrong.” It wasn’t “dad,” but “mister.” That moment I left the house and started to wander the streets. Tears were running down my cheeks.

Sorry’s and I-love-you’s
* After the financial crisis, the company asked me three times to retire. Every time I wondered if I should, but I could never discuss the issue with my wife. I didn’t know how she would react. I was worried that she might go into the bathroom and start to cry.
* Recently I registered some of my property in my wife’s name. She really thanked me. As a joke, I once told my wife that I would leave the house with only a bag if we got a divorce. I plan on doing so if it happens, as long as my wife and children could live comfortably.

All four men confess that they cannot discuss their troubles with their wives. Ms. Jung says that they should always talk to their spouses because it’s what their wives want. “You could loosen that psychological tension once you start spilling out what’s on your mind,” she advises.
Around 11 p.m., one man shows everyone that he has just received a message from his wife on his cellular phone. His chest heaves with pride as he reads the message out loud, even though nobody asked him to. “Honey, I pray that you come back home with your pride recovered,” one message read.
The table of men, which earlier had been depressed, starts to change, lighting up at hearing that message. After finishing up at the bar, the men agree that they want to have another round. They have never met each other before, but they have something in common, and that has formed a bond of understanding. The four men stay out until dawn and with the rise of a new day these men have become new men, now more confident and more understanding.


Portrait of the ajeossi as a middle-aged man

The subjects that men in their 40s talk about most to their friends or neighbors.
Work -> children -> education -> health -> politics -> economy

The people who have the most influence on life and values.
Friends and associates -> spouse -> children -> parents

The things they think are most important in life.
Health -> steady job -> personal property -> success -> friends -> love

How men relieve stress
Alcohol -> smoking -> sleep -> exercise -> grinning and bearing it

by Sung Si-yoon
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