International marriages unite two culturesIn a tumbledown shanty on the outskirts of Cheongyang county, South Chungcheong province, 40-year-old Lee Seok-yong and his mother wait patiently for his wife Erlinda Sampero to return home and prepare their supper.
Nursing his weak back, Mr. Lee steps outside to smoke a cigarette while his mother, 74, crouches over a low table chewing on a piece of steamed pumpkin.
As the sky darkens, Ms. Sampero arrives from picking peppers in her neighbor’s greenhouse. Sweating in a “Be the Reds” T-shirt from the 2002 World Cup, the 35-year-old native Filipina quickly prepares a meal for all three adults and her two children, aged five and six.
“She is a doll,” the 74-year-old woman says, holding Ms. Sampero’s hand between her two shriveled ones. “So pretty and so diligent all the time.”
Ms. Sampero remains silent, able to speak only a little broken Korean and English.
There were almost 5,700 internationally married couples in the Korean farm regions as of 2004, a huge increase from 1,600 in 1999, according to National Statistiscal Office data.
Chinese women make up 49 percent of foreign wives of Korean men in farming villages, Vietnamese women comprise 31 percent, Filipinas 11 percent and Mongolians 3 percent. Other nationalities include Thais, Uzbeks and Cambodians.
Although most come to Korea believing they will have a better life than in their home countries, news reports have highlighted unhappy outcomes for some, citing violent domestic disputes or financial hardships that lead to divorce.
A recent Welfare Ministry study on international married couples confirmed the financial plight of such couples, stating that 53 percent earned monthly incomes less than the minimum a family of four should have, which is about 1.1 million won ($1,100).
The report, which was the first governmental study on these couples, said 44 percent earned less than half a million won per month. A further 16 percent reported they sometimes had to skip meals to save on food expenses.
There is no question that Mr. Lee and his family are suffering financial difficulties. Their small residence, Ms. Sampero’s home since the couple married six years ago, is constructed of container box sidings and stands alone in the woods 20 minutes by vehicle from most of its neighbors. Mr. Lee worked on construction sites until he hurt his back some years ago but now relies on a government subsidy and what Ms. Sampero makes at the greenhouse ― about 15,000 won ($15) a day.
However, although he is poor, he said, Ms. Sampero was poorer in her hometown of Anahawan in Southern Leyte province in the Philippines.
Mr. Lee met his wife when he traveled to the Phillipines with the Korea-based Unification Church, which had promised to help him get married if he joined the church.
“Frankly, I had given up trying to find a bride,” Mr. Lee said. “As you know, no young Korean woman would want to come and live in a place like this.”
His father’s last wish, before he died several years ago, had been for Mr. Lee to get married so he joined more than 600 bachelors from farm areas to fly to the Southeast Asian country. He was one of a few who were younger than 40, he said.
Most of the women to whom they were introduced were 19 or 20, he said. Seeing the men, some refused to come to a second meeting, while some Korean men chose to leave the country, saying the women were too young.
Mr. Lee, however, met Ms. Sampero, whom he believed was mature enough to appreciate what an international marriage in a Korean farm village would entail.
They soon registered for marriage and flew to Korea. They never held a wedding ceremony and he never met her family. Ms. Sampero was afraid her parents would not let her go, so they chose to elope.
“But we have been saving up money,” Mr. Lee said. “We could probably visit her father by next year. I feel bad I cannot help her [to earn money].”
Across town in Cheongyang, another couple, Korean-Japanese, had a different story to tell about international marriage in farm regions.
Speaking from their home in one of the few apartment complexes in the village, they said they also met through the Unification Church, of which both were devoted members.
“We have no problem financially. We are just like any other married couple,” said Pyeon Tae-jin, 37. “Our parents opposed our marriage at first because of the testy Korea-Japan relationship, but that was about it.”
Mr. Pyeon is a marketing head of a local newspaper, while his wife, Chisuzu Nagao, 38, works part-time as a translator at a small trade firm in town.
Ms. Nagao said her marriage had nothing to do with hanryu, the Korean pop culture wave that has increased the popularity of Korean men among Asian women.
“I met him in 1991,” she said. “That was when most Japanese still showed contempt for Koreans.”
Mr. Pyeon said that after seeing his happy marriage a brother also married a Japanese woman, while another married a Filipina.
However, he spoke of an elder neighbor whose marriage did not survive. He said the “old man married a young Chinese lady in his second marriage, but the woman ran away after she got her Korean citizenship.”
Hwang Hye-gyeong, an official for women’s policy in the government of Damyang county, South Jeolla province, the province with the highest number of foreign wives, believes cultural differences are the cause of more marital strife than money problems.
People living in farm regions are more conservative, stereotypes against foreigners are stronger and men in farming regions are “more likely to be brusque and less friendly,” she said.
Maricel M. Vicar, a 35-year-old Filipina who came to Korea in 1996 after marrying her husband, Cho Yeong-seok, 41, a native of Damyang county, said she was “shocked and sad” at first because her husband did not talk to her.
“But I learned that Korean men tend to be quieter than Filipino men and that it didn’t have much to do with whether he loved me or not,” she said.
She said she was grateful to county government programs where she learned to cook Korean food and speak the language. Her main concern these days is how she can send her young children to Korean schools.
“Some people just think a child is stupid if he cannot speak Korean well and looks different,” she said. “It hurts me to see my children treated thay way. That is why I am going to make my children speak fluent Korean.”
Lee Il-seob, 40, a mulberry farmer also living in Damyang with a foreign wife, agreed that the cultural gap was more important than financial problems for spouses from different countries.
“It was definitely the cultural and language difference that caused many misunderstandings in the past,” Mr. Lee said. “I think my wife was hurt many times because of such misunderstandings.”
He said he hadn’t understood why his wife, Lee Hyang-nan, 32, from Jilin province in China, got upset when he gave short, blunt answers.
“She asked me so many questions about Korean life that I guess I sounded irritated,” he said. “But I know now what I might have done wrong.”
The couple married in 1996, when he was 31. He had been looking for a wife for years and once took a job at the Nonghyup bank in his town just so he could get married.
“My parents told me I could never persuade a Korean woman to marry me if I was a farmer,” he said.
He had no luck, however, and one day his uncle suggested he go to China with him to meet a Chinese woman. Mr. Lee refused at first, saying it would be difficult for an international couple, considering the conservative attitudes in the town.
When he met Ms. Lee, he said, he immediately fell in love.
“It was my wife’s mother who opposed our marriage. She had heard too many horrible stories about marriages in farm regions,” he said.
He wrote letters promising Ms. Lee’s mother he would make her daughter happy, and she relented.
“I think a lot of men don’t do well in international marriages because their goal is just to get married,” he said. “When you love her and realize that she has feelings as well, there are far fewer disputes.”
by Lee Min-a
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