[OUTLOOK]Faking feelings for financial gainThe American TV series “The Waltons” was shown on a Korean channel in the 1970s. The series was a human drama about a big family living in the countryside of Virginia, the United States.
In the mid-1980s, I happened to see reruns of the series in the United States and I had a slight culture shock because the relationships of the family members felt different to when I saw the show in Korea.
In the series dubbed in Korean, the relationships between the father and the sons and between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law felt like Koreans’ because when the show was translated and dubbed into Korean, different registers of the Korean language were applied.
But that was not the case in the original television series, of course. The daughter-in-law did not use honorific forms when talking to her mother-in-law and the father and the son were comfortable with and close to each other, like friends. In general, in Western cultures, parents and children have more casual and informal relationships. Western family members have less formality and also care less about it.
But in Korea, most parents and children try to play their roles or try to abide by the norms expected by others, instead of revealing their true selves.
A Korean political scientist who recently passed away at a young age wrote a book titled “The Birth of a Man.” The book is a collection of autobiographical essays in which he recalls and analyzes his early life. In the book, he wrote that, in Korean society, parents are often treated the same as royal courts or holy places. Most Koreans put on masks for other family members, according to the author.
Many will find Confucian culture to be the reason for that. The emphasis on filial piety is inseparable from Confucianism.
But we cannot and should not ignore an economic motivation which works in secret behind the ethics of respecting one’s parents. In a way, it can be said that children carry out their filial duties in return for the inheritance that they will later receive from their parents.
Parents hand down their assets to their children, expecting the children to support them when they are too old to work and to pay tribute to them after they die. Children inherit parents’ assets by implicitly making promises to do just that.
Thus, it is hard to say parents and children have humane relationships. Due to financial interests, Korean family relationships have become very different from those of Westerners such as the Waltons.
An even more worrisome problem is that family members make such calculations inside their families even more seriously and deliberately. In particular, since apartments prices have surged, an increasing number of families have signed contracts between parents and children. Even a bank has started seeing clients ask for such policies.
Children can get their own houses by fulfilling filial duties, while parents can get respect from and assurance they will be taken care of by their children and avoid paying real estate taxes. It is quite a good deal, after all. People now bring their children along to visit their parents more frequently. Some daughters-in-law decide to have babies in order to receive apartments from their parents-in-law.
As real estate prices keep surging, respect for one’s parents has become a financial plan. When filial piety should be a natural and pure feeling, it has been tarnished due to economic interests. Thus, bonds between family members are more likely to become tense and distorted. Some time in the future, filial piety may become a duty written as a contract signed by rich families.
There are many reasons housing prices should be normalized as soon as possible. One of them is to restore family relationships. We need a housing system in which, when people come of age, they are able to find homes without much help from their parents. Society should take responsibility for the welfare of senior citizens as well.
In that way, parents and children will become liberated and show their real feelings without faking it. These things make a country an advanced one. After we become one, we can talk about which is better, Korean traditional family relationships or Western ones. For now, that is not an urgent matter.
*The writer is a professor of sociology, graduate school of environment studies at Seoul National University.
by Jun Sang-in