Tag Archives: gender role

Day 27: How Is Your Culture (and Are You) Treating Homosexuality and LGBTQ Population?

14 Mar

While visiting my grandparents in the province, I have had to travel to a place where I have limited internet access. I apologize for the delays, but there is no way that I would give up on the last 4 days of my blogging project, so don’t worry J. What I ended up doing, instead of writing, was reading lots of articles, way more than I usually would, because I still had some internet access through my phone. And I thought a lot about how I could connect those to my writing, and here’s one topic that I will talk about today.

I ran into a very interesting article on the LA Times, which featured a Korean actor, Hong Seok-Cheon. He is not one of those Korean drama stars, but he has acted in many series acting in supporting roles. What is so significant about this guy is the fact that he has been an openly gay public figure since 2000.

You may think, so what? If so, good for you, since it may mean that you don’t really feel any prejudice against homosexual entertainers and individuals alike around you. Or maybe you just think that that’s an irrelevant topic to you, although you may feel a slight discomfort with the subject and want to avoid discussing about it. Or maybe you just feel pure disgust by even thinking about it. Within Korean culture, which is still very much conservative at its core (although it has been changing quite rapidly), being openly gay means risking everything in your life. It was even worse about a decade ago when Mr. Hong came out, especially as a public figure.

Hong had to have a press conference as he could not live in the dark (“in the closet”) anymore. He wanted to be someone who he really is, and that is all he asked for, but to make it so public, I am sure it required extraordinary courage. He was on several shows, but he was kicked out immediately. According to the article, he remembers it as the moment where everyone turned back against him, and he even received many death threats. I still remember his “coming-out” event which happened when I was in middle school. It was a shock to me at first, but then I never gave it a serious thought about what kind of impact it would have on the individual and the society as a whole. I was simply too young, while I was living a “normal” life as a majority in which everyone I knew was living a heterosexual middle class life.

Then several years later, I attended a camp called AnyTown during high school in the States. It was a camp to expose teenagers to diverse cultures and social challenges (racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, etc.) so that they can build up more tolerant and vibrant future. I was attending a private school, and it was a privileged environment where I didn’t necessarily experience much diversity. However, AnyTown totally changed my view towards the world as I was exposed to a huge range of social issues besides racism, which I was already interested in. It was my first time to make friends with people who were of LGBTQ origins and to learn about them. Previously, it was not an issue that I had to deal with or was concerned about, because I didn’t have to as a heterosexual female. And the only issue that I had to deal with was mainly related to that of race, being a racial and linguistic minority in the US. But being in the same small group with them, sharing meals, chats and tears, and discussing about intensely personal issues, I became very much aware about the challenges that my friends had to go through in the conservative social norms and hatred-driven (and unreasonable) views towards them. I became a totally different 16-year-old by accepting the diversity that is beyond black and white racial dynamics.

I really believe that anybody can overcome her/his ignorance if s/he is willing to acknowledge the ignorance and prejudices from it. However, I really (and sadly) think that not many people have the ability and courage to do so. Instead, many people learn to dislike/hate others first in the midst of hugely competitive era, where everyone must be a winner of some sort while oppressing those who have some level of disadvantage in the society (whether that be race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical disability, etc). I cannot help but think that we all end up hating ourselves in the midst of the ugly fight, and then hate others even more, just fulfilling a terrible cycle.

Mr. Hong does not have to suffer such extreme hatred anymore. He is now back on TV and is a successful restaurant owner. His restaurant is very famous for the great food and atmosphere, and people want to meet him. He takes picture with the people and proudly walks around the restaurant asking people if the food is alright. Just like a normal person. Nowadays in Korea, I heard that there are even some cable TV channel and social network celebrities who have marketed their “gayness” so well that people actually think that their being gay is actually very “cool.” But there was also an incident about a year ago when a Korean drama series featured a gay couple, many organizations, including national parents’ associations and Christian associations, put a huge ad on a major newspaper saying that “SBS (the broadcasting company which aired the drama) should be responsible if our children die of AIDS.” The advertisement wrongly claimed that the series will make the children want to become homosexual, which is wrong apparently (and where did they get the idea that being homosexual will directly cause AIDS?). Well, have they ever thought that many Korean dramas featuring divorces and couples cheating on each other were actually giving more unhealthy examples of relationships and challenging social norms hence they would be more harmful to their children? Of course, the very same people have not said a word about the influences of such Korean dramas. At least the gay couple in that particular drama actually had a very healthy relationship. What is more family-friendly in this case? Take that.

And for God’s sake, no one has the right to judge someone, because s/he is in love. And everyone should support love, no? Cultures are their to change, so shift your prejudices NOW.

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Day 13: Will Leadership Ever Feminize?

24 Feb

About a week ago, I ran into an opinion piece by Joseph Nye on Al Jazeera English titled “When Women Lead the World.” I assisted a research on women’s leadership in Asia briefly while I was in graduate school, so I was intrigued by what this international security guru has to say. This article was prompted by the recent book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I would one day love to read the book on how a psychologist would put the current gender gap in women’s leadership.

Although I thought the article was OK (and I wasn’t disappointed), I still felt like something was missing. I mean, he isn’t the first person who has talked about the importance of more “feminine” style leadership and more women’s participation in leadership roles. Numerous people have already said that “we need more women in leadership positions” and “we need more people who have soft skills and feminine leadership styles,” and why does it ring a louder bell amongst people when a male leader speaks of the issue? (Answer? It’s a MAN speaking of a “women’s issue,” gasp! Well, you all know that it’s not just concerning women when it comes down to talking about a CEO of a global corporation or a prime minister of a country.)

I also thought that he was combining and mixing up two different –although often overlapping and difficult to separate– concepts: “feminine” style of leadership and women leaders. It seems like he’s talking about two different problems as if they are the same one: 1. There are not enough women leaders (hence we need more), and 2. Leaders need more “feminine” skills. Here, his assumption is that having more women would help feminizing leadership.

What Nye referred as “feminine style of leadership” is the antithesis of the old (and masculine) concept of leadership, a style (or multiple styles) that is more collaborative, conversational, participatory and soft skill-oriented, hence feminine. Yes, it is more likely that a woman leader tends to have more feminine style of doing work and going about her businesses, mostly because of the way that she has been educated in terms of how to perform her gender on everyday basis. But I believe that the current female leaders’ leadership styles are more likely to be masculine than feminine, because of the greater societal structure that still favors the masculine style more, and if she wants to be a top dog, she still has to play “fair” with the boys, with the rules that men have set within their club for ages.

I cannot help but thinking that the concept of leadership itself is already masculine but now it just wants to have some sprinkles of “feminine” elements, while it will fundamentally never change its masculine nature. In my radical mind, I believe that without the effort to completely challenge and uproot what it means by leadership, the gender binary will continue to exist with the constant challenge of how to feminize leadership. And let’s not forget that in the world of binaries, the elements that have been identified with masculinity have mostly held positive connotations (think of words like “strong,” “power,” “charisma,” etc.) while elements identified with femininity have been associated with negative connotations (words like “soft,” “indirect,” “peace,” mostly considered weak hence not proper for leaders) especially in leadership sphere.

So back to my point earlier. Here’s what I think.

The reason why we need more women in leadership positions is because women, for ages, have been systematically prevented from making effective political, financial, social and other major decisions that concern the wellbeing of greater population, including both women and men. Often the decisions concerned the wellbeing of free men (excluding women, men of lower classes, people of certain ethnicity/race, people of disability, etc.) and overlooked the concerns for “the others” whose lives were still very valuable.

The reason why we need more “feminine leadership” is because the old concept of masculine leadership is not properly functioning within the more diverse, rapidly changing society and population (with more women participating in various functions of the society) where ideas are constantly challenged and are in need of changes. The “old” concept of leadership has been generated mostly by men, and the leadership skill sets they held have not necessarily corresponded to the needs of the greater human race.

Yes, there are overlapping elements in between, but the two are distinguishable as well.

Also as a side note… I believe that there are plenty of women leaders around the world, especially at the grassroots level. Unfortunately, they are often underappreciated, which is another proof that the definition of leader and leadership is often limited by male discourse. For example, what about Somaly Mam of Cambidia who was sexually enslaved while she was a child, yet overcame her past and established an organization advocating for many children who suffer the same brutal sexual violence because of poverty? What she has done certainly requires tremendous courage and leadership. While new leaders have emerged from these “soft power” sectors (the arts, academia, NGOs, education, etc), the way that society still defines leadership is very much confined to politics, corporate sector and military where the real power lies (talking about the very real presence of patriarchy everywhere).

Hmmm… there’s simply too much to think about, especially when it’s on gender and power relations. I think the world would be a better place if women have ruled the world from the beginning , haha –or at least easier on my brain. Let me leave you with a humorous writing written by Gloria Steinem, “If Men Could Menstruate.” I think this is my favorite piece written by her.

Day 11: On Korean Drama Series…

22 Feb

I have a lot of time nowadays. In fact, I have enormous amount of time that I end up doing the least productive things throughout my days. One of the (terrible) hobbies that I picked up to fill up my time during my “post-school transition period” is watching TV. It’s one of those habits that once you pick up, you can’t get away from it, sort of like an addiction problem (gasp, it might actually be addiction!).

So today, I decided to do something productive out of my mindless hobby: writing about the things I observe and being the critique of it from a gender analysis perspective. I admit that I’m pretty rusty on all the feminist theories and what not, but heck, I’ll just do what I’ve been doing over the past 10 days, and hope you’re OK with my critiquing on K-drama scene.

Living in Southeast Asia for a while, I experienced and lived through the popularity of Korean pop culture. Unlike in the US, I think there are much more common threads between Korean and Southeast Asian cultures, hence Korean drama series are very popular. Trust me, I met so many people who are very much into Korean drama series or Korean novelas as Filipinos call them. It was, in a way, a shock to be reconnected to the culture that I was not a big part of, and hey, I think it actually improves the reputation of Korean people in general in the continent, so I have nothing against the overall positive outcomes and influences.

And now, I’m based in Korea, I get to watch many more of them, and every day, I go in front of the TV at 10pm to watch my regulars. While I watch them without thinking so much, I feel a little bit of guilt, especially looking into the very apparent stories that I know for sure how it’s gonna end, especially in terms of relationships. Yes, the actors and actresses are unbelievably good looking, and that for sure is unrealistic. But what I’m trying to point out is not so much of the unrealistic looks, but more of the gender role that female characters play, and how the media at large is reinforcing how women should be like if they want to have their fairytales and happy endings achieved.

Firstly, I have made a list of female characters that may show in Korean drama series.

Type 1. The beautiful one who has lost everything but has the men of her dreams nearby

This is the most common one I think. As I said earlier, most of the actors are beautiful in the series, but the female protagonist is always the most beautiful one. She often possesses next to nothing (maybe an orphan, or with an alcoholic father, or left with younger siblings that she has to support by herself), but she is always an optimist. She is unbelievably nice, so the world may give her all the difficulties possible, but she always survives, often with the help of a nice guy (that she will end up being together “happily ever after” by the end of the series). She doesn’t know how to be angry, so a jealous girl (who will be explained as a “type 2” character) may do everything possible with her will power and money, but she eventually wins. There are usually two guys, who are very handsome of course and hey, very wealthy as well. They can be cousins or very good friends who end up competing for the unfortunate nice girl.

Female Type 2. The beautiful one who has it all but wants to take away the main male character from the nice girl

She seems to have everything, wealthy family, a good job, and what not. The world envies her for what she has, and she is admired by those who surround her. But she is often very unhappy and bitchy. All she wants to do is taking away the only happiness that the Type 1 girl has: the main male character (who is really nice, good-looking and rich). She does anything and everything possible to get his attention, and he may pity her as a friend, but his heart is always with the type 1 girl. She will never get her happy ending, because she is the “evil” one who pursues what she wants.

Female Type 3. The lovely tomboy who eventually realizes her feminine side eventually (and gets to live in her fairytale eventually)

This is the newest development in K-drama, I believe. More of romantic comedy material character. She is someone who is definitely not perfect in terms of her behavior. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she sometimes acts like boys (and this is supposed to be the proof of her imperfection). She is clumsy, too. Usually, the main male character doesn’t consider her has a potential romantic partner, but hey, it’s OK. The way she acts is so lovely that he will eventually fall for her. She gradually develops her love for the guy and tries to act more “like a girl” so that he will pay attention to her. By going through lots of accidents together, they eventually realize that they are in love, hence, happily ever after.

 

Yes, these are stereotypes, and each story carries different characters, but I think these are pretty much what I have seen over the past years when I have had the chance to watch a series even partially.

As I said in my previous posting, I believe that the media tells the viewers a lot about how they should be like in their everyday behaviors, while the ideal is often impossible. Whether we want it or not, the drama series are of great influence on the society’s imagination of “perfect womanhood.” And the influence that they have on women, especially young women in their 20s and 30s, is rather uncomfortable for me.

Through the unreal characters like the three types above and their romantic and human relationships in general, the viewers unconsciously learn about how their behaviors and relationships “should be.” The shows tell the viewers how women should be like if they want to be loved, whether by a potential romantic partners or by the world. If one wants to be liked, she has to be nice, but it’s OK if she is clumsy and not so smart. She is always in need of help, and the prince will surely help resolve the issue, while she by herself often can’t get out of the mess that she is in. But she should never be assertive, because being assertive means that she speaks her minds, and of course no one likes a girl who is expressive. She doesn’t know how to actively pursue what she wants (whether social status or the love of her life), but she sits there and waits until they come to her. And hey, don’t forget that she is flawlessly beautiful. In other words, a smart, confident, go-getter woman cannot be someone who is loved, but someone who is just foolishly nice and needy can achieve a successful relationship with the man of her dreams and with the world. WHAT?

Yes, it’s easy to tell people, “well don’t watch the shows if you don’t want the influence.” But how could that be even possible while internet portal sites are talking about the stories, the main topic of conversation amongst your friends are about the series, and the current cultural trends simply carry these stories in our everyday lives? Everyone knows that they are not real.  But the shows magically realize our fantasy world as if they can become real, something that could potentially happen. The show producers constantly produce and reproduce the unreal images, and they sell really well, not just in Korea, but in many other countries, too.

But how many more of the three types of women do we have to bear, simply to satisfy our voyeurism for impossible fairytales?

Day 8: Do I Like Being a Woman?

19 Feb

Today, I just felt like making a list of reasons why I like and don’t like about being a woman (and the gender roles that come with my sex).

Firstly, the don’t list. I don’t like being a woman because:

It’s too difficult to pronounce “girl” than “boy” in English. I had to practice a lot to make the perfect “-rl” sound.

I was made fun of because I wanted to play with toy guns with my cousin when I was 4-ish.

My class number in elementary school (which is given to every child in a class in the order of birthday in Korean school system) was in the 40s or even 50s, while the first half, usually between 1 and 25-ish, were all taken by boys, and even the girl with the earliest birthday was number 23 or later.

I was a disappointment to my grandparents, as the first born of the first son of the family was a girl (me!), not a boy.

I have to try to speak quietly, “more like a girl.”

I am afraid of being physically and sexually assaulted.

I have suffered the pain of PMS-ing and period for over 10 years, and the cramps will probably go on for the next 20 years+.

I have felt that I was too chubby, multiple times, while my weight was, in fact, normal or even below average at times.

I have been told once that the greatest achievement in my life would be getting married and being a wife and a mom, instead of becoming the biggest entrepreneur, life saving doctor, kick-ass advocate for a cause, or something like that.

I am “too emotional.”

I am not (supposed to be) good at math and sciences.

I was supposed to wear a pink hat as soon as I was born (and I don’t even like pink).

I have been objectified.

I am always afraid of/ not able to walk around the street when it’s dark by myself.

I’ve tried to be “effortlessly perfect.”

My comments were not appreciated while male colleagues’ comments were.

I still have to “play like a man” in professional world.

I have to always justify myself why I am a feminist.

BUT, I like (love) being a woman, despite all the negatives above, because:

I can wear both pants and skirt.

I have a legitimate excuse to eat as much chocolate and sweets as possible once a month.

I’ve met and got to form meaningful relationships with many more inspiring women than men (and I don’t think the bond would have been possible if I were a man).

I can get three inches taller than my actual height, if I wanted to (but usually don’t).

I am able to see the world from the “woman’s perspective,” which is “minority” but more refreshing and powerful to the patriarchal society.

I got to be interested in many minority issues regarding race/ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, physical and mental capacity, etc. because I have also experienced how it’s like to be a minority as a woman.

I can choose to bear a child, if I wanted to (hopefully at some point in my life).

I still have a shot at being the first Korean female Nobel (something) Prize winner.

I can become a trailblazing woman in improving the future generation’s life in terms of gender relations.

I can become a girlfriend/partner/wife and a mother who will make a great feminist clan one day.

My list could go on. I noticed that it was a lot easier to make the “don’t list.” I love being a woman, and I mean it, but I just have to wonder long and hard why it was so much harder to come up with the things that I like about being a woman.

Day 6: How We Exercise Our Gender and Sexuality Daily- And Un/consciously Choose to Oppress Minorities

17 Feb

Today, I ran into an article on the Huffington Post, written by a writer “Amelia.” She is a regular blogger on HuffPost, and although it was my first time running into her article, I became a huge fan of her writing. I was deeply touched by her courage to make bold social comments by telling the readers very personal stories, and I saw nothing but courage and humanity.

The very article was titled, “When Your 7-Year-Old Son Announces, ‘I’m Gay.’” Some of you may feel uncomfortable, and others may find the degree of courage to tell such a story very touching. Or maybe you feel both ways, and I do hope that what you are feeling is nothing negative. She tells us that her son, after he learned the definition of word “gay,” figured out part of his identity. He tells his parents that he’s gay. Amelia’s (and her husband’s) reaction is something so respectable. She accepts him as he is and lets him know that she loves him no matter what multiple times. However, she also does not forget to warn him about how people in the society may not like that particular part of his identity. In the story, the level of unconditional love as a parent is almost heartbreaking, perhaps because she foresees the difficulties that he may face and has to tell him that people may not like him for who he is.

This article totally reminded me of a Korean television program that I watched recently. It’s a Korean version of Super Nanny, where a child specialist goes into a family of a child that has behavioral problems and advices on good parenting. The very episode that I watched was somewhat disturbing and confusing to me. The specific boy’s family consists of the parents, younger sister (around 3-4 years old maybe) and himself (who seemed to be about 6 years old). The father was away in the Middle East for his work, so he has been mostly absent throughout the boy’s life. The mother was not a very happy person, partly because of the stress coming from the pregnancy of the third child and having to exercise the role of both father and mother. The boy had several behavioral problems, many of them from such family circumstances. One of the problems that was raised was that he liked girly stuff. He likes to play with dolls and stuffed animals (unlike other boys who run around and play with robots and toy guns), fancies skirts (which he had a few), and not aggressive at all even when his younger sister picked up fights.

What bothered me was the child specialist’s evaluation. She said that the boy is at the developmental age when children figures out how boys and girls “should” act differently. She claimed that he “lacks healthy male role model [due to the absence of his father] hence missing out on the opportunity to develop his masculinity during the crucial period.” She then suggested that he learns Taekwondo where he can be surrounded with a bunch of boys and takes the master as his male role model. By showing many feminine characteristics – such as not being able to fight back against his younger sister over a toy, liking the color pink, and liking cleaning the house— the boy, only 6 years old or so, was stigmatized publicly as someone who is in trouble, who is not behaving right.

Yes, the main concern for the specialist and the parents was that he might become a misfit in the conformist society where standing-out is not OK. But by not accepting who he is, by telling him that what he is doing is something shameful and wrong, they are telling a 6-year-old that he must be concerned about how people would perceive him at such a young age, instead of being concerned about learning about and accepting himself. There is also an implicit message that he cannot be loved if he does not act like all the other boys in the society. Isn’t the love from parents supposed to be unconditional? Couldn’t they accept him as who he is and just watch him how he grow as a whole person, someone who loves him as he is?

These got me thinking a lot about how we perform our gender and sexuality. There are a lot of discussions regarding LGBTQ population and how we, the majority heterosexuals where girls dress like girls and boys dress like boys, should treat them. There are plenty of political, religious, social discourses that support or disagree with the idea of homosexuality and LGBTQ population. Is it nature (Is she “born this way”)? Is it nurture? Does one choose to wear something that’s not normal to that specific sex/gender? Can one be “ungay-ed”? Would God approve homosexuals and transvestites?

In the discussions, we often forget some simple truths. We are socially programmed to develop prejudices against something that is out of ordinary and minority, regarding gender role, sexuality, race/ethnicity, whatever. And when things are not quite fitting together, we impose ridicule, hatred and injustice against the minority and feel compelled to push the “abnormal” to become “normal,” because it’s OK to hate those who are not in line with the majority. Before we teach our children (OK, I don’t have any, but the younger generation) what kind of gender one should or should not perform, why can’t we teach them how to love themselves as they are, instead of trying to fit into the social expectations? And why can’t we teach them to love one another because they are different, not despite? After all, everyone is made differently, even minor things like the shape of one’s feet.

When I become a parent, the first thing that I will teach my child would be how to love herself as she is, and I will love her no matter what.

Day 5: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 2)

16 Feb

In the last post, I said that the overarching policy frameworks are mainly patriarchal, and that is what is preventing the formation of long-term policies. And the specific problems that I can think of (or heard of) are below.

First of all, in my opinion, Korean culture (along with others) has demanded women’s tremendous sacrifices for their families, although its women got to take various social roles outside of their homes over the past several decades. In traditional Korean household, she is the one who takes care of domestic duties while the husband is the “breadwinner” who works outside, bringing income to the house. However, Korea’s economy has modernized in a very short time span, without giving people enough time to change the traditional family/social norms. Hence, even if both the husband and the wife are working, woman “naturally” has to take care of the work outside and inside household. For example, both of my parents work as teachers, and they bring similar amount of incomes to the family. However, my mother’s work doesn’t end at 5pm when she gets out of her workplace, but continues as she has to cook dinner, clean the messy house and fold laundry. When I was much younger, she breastfed me, read to me and helped my homework when I was enrolled in school, along with doing all the house chores. I don’t remember when the last time my dad actually did any of the work (no offense to him), and if he did anything, it was him offering help, not doing his duty. My mother was often at a place where she had to feel guilty as she had to leave me with my grandmother (who raised me since I was born until 9) and had to ponder whether she had to choose either her work or her wife/mother duty. And this was the 80s and the 90s.

Is it any different now in Korea overall? I don’t think so, unfortunately, although the modern fathers are more involved in childrearing than my parents’ generation. Even today, many young mothers have to ponder whether they are going to keep working, take some months off (maternity leave) or just quit her job so that they can devote their time for their babies, thanks to family friendly labor policies and practices. It is commonly believed that the child has stronger bond to the mother than the father, but I think it’s a matter of how we humans make it to be (i.e. it’s not a matter of nature, but nurture). I don’t think women are any more caring than men, especially in terms of parenting. What I mean is that many fathers have not been actively involved in raising children ever since they were born, and seriously, other than the fact that man can’t produce breast milk, there is no difference with the mother in terms of parenting. The child is the product of the two people, and let’s face it, the parental responsibilities have never been fair. Culture dictates people’s behaviors, while “policy making culture” within the country is the space for policy makers to influence the social norms (how things “should” be for the general social wellbeing). Policies which does not seek to influence shifting of cultures and behaviors are short-sighted and doomed to be ineffective. Korea needs a very deep gender role overhaul.

Another reason for not having children seems to be the economics of having children which is not economical at all. It’s just too darn expensive to raise even one child in a family. Even if both wife and husband work, it is impossible to have big savings from the beginning, as the housing cost is getting quite expensive in the urban area. Many couples start their lives with some debt, and then when they finally decide to have a child or two, the expenses are tremendous, starting with all the basics like diapers, formulas, and clothes (that they will grow out of so quickly). I remember watching news on how expensive these items are, way more than other countries with the similar purchasing power. When the child grows, they have to go to nurseries, kindergartens, schools and extracurricular activities, but they all cost tremendous amount of money that the parents may not have. The government came up with “free pre-school education policy” for the bottom 75% of the economic strata, but to be exact, the education is not free as the government provides about 150USD a month per family with a preschooler, while the monthly fee of a private kindergarten is often easily 300-500USD (or even more). So the name of the policy itself is pretty populist in itself as you see. I can’t imagine having 2 kindergarteners in my family and supporting them with my pay. I mean over 1000 dollars a month just for schooling? Even if both of the parents work, it is a huge chunk of spending. Now, the elections (both for the national assembly and presidential) are coming, the politicians decided that they will expand this to all households with pre-school age children as of this year. And what would happen to the budget of this country? I have no idea, and it’s only scary to think of the terrible cycle of near-sighted populist welfare policies and budget limits. I mean I’m all for welfare, and South Korea’s welfare system has a long way to go, but I hate these populist politicians and their policies playing with the tax money without much planning, while all they need is just a few more votes.

I’m sure there are many other reasons for low fertility rate. Some couples agree to not to have children, and it’s their life style choice that I have nothing against. Others choose not to marry, which reduces the chance of having children tremendously (In Korea, alternative family forms, such as single parents raising children without partners and gay couples adopting children, are not very common and perceived with much cultural stigma).

But in sum, Korea has many different elements that prevent young women and men from having more children (or having kids at all). Human, cultural elements are missing in family policies very often, causing other issues which require more new policies. Some Korean policy makers now seem to realize gradually that it’s not just “women’s problem” but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in terms of social and gender norms, and policies should have long term goals which can drive the change of traditional mentality. After all, it is most important to create an environment where people can willingly have children, not because of the national economic issues, but because they want to have the joy of having more family members.

Day 4: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 1)

15 Feb

I have a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and master’s in Public Policy. While I have these swanky titles after 20 years of formal education, I honestly cannot tell you what these disciplines are about and what I actually learned. But I can tell you for sure that I learned how to think about various social issues from the perspectives of the both disciplines. And today, although my cold meds are bothering me extremely, I really want to get this off of my chest. It’s about birthrate in South Korea.

Many demographists and others have pointed out that South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, fighting for the top (?!?) along with Japan and Singapore, two other developed economies in Asia. Just to get some perspective, I have found the CIA data on global birthrates, which ranked the countries with the highest birthrate on top and the lowest at the bottom.

Not so surprisingly, out of 221 countries, South Korea ranked 215 (in other words, 7th in low birthrate) while Japan ranked 220, Hong Kong 219 and Singapore 216. Yes, the data might be a bit skewed because Monaco, Hong Kong (which is not a country, but oh well) and Singapore’s population sizes (and samples) are perhaps not so compatible with those of South Korea and Japan. Regardless, low birthrate is one of the greatest threats in more developed countries as the aging population is rapidly increasing, posing financial threats to the country’s welfare budget, further economic development and many other elements. So maybe to many people’s minds, it is a policy problem, and I totally agree. But I would argue that it is also a greater social and cultural issue that should be attacked from a much wider angle, while globally, we are still facing the issue of population explosion rather than lack of people.

Korea’s Two-Child Policy

Perhaps you are familiar with One-Child Policy in China which is strictly enforced by the government. But Two-Child Policy of South Korea was rather a series of campaigns from South Korean government in the 1970s and the 80s to encourage couples to have only 2 children. I don’t believe that there was any penalty for having too many or incentives for having fewer than 2, but it was a campaign under dictatorship, so many people were often more or less collaborative to government’s policies and campaigns.

Of course there were legitimate reasons. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (even worse than North Korea and Ethiopia at the time), and as the government pushed for economic development, controlling the number of population became a key factor in promoting this national goal. Since Korea traditionally had been an agricultural society, a family easily had over 6 kids. There were simply too many mouths to feed in the country and families while there were too few economic opportunities (i.e. jobs). But with the rigorous campaign during the 60s and the 70s along with truly miraculous economic development, the average number of kids per family dropped to 4 kids, then to 2 kids during the 80s. As part of the campaign, the posters below were distributed by the Ministry of Welfare and Korea Family Planning Association. The top one says, “Let’s have only two kids whether sons or daughters,” while the bottom one says, “Even two are too many.” Obviously they did not foresee the problems that the future would face while there are too few kids around to support the national economy.

Source and more information: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2010/koreafertility.aspx

I don’t feel that the campaigns were incorrect, and they were necessary moves at the time to lift the country out of poverty (and for the population of developing countries, I believe that encouraging fewer kids while promoting proper nutrition and education is a key development strategy). Korea then and Korea today have completely different economic situations and needs, and I believe that developing countries should actively participate in lowering birthrates.

However, South Korea’s policy did not consider the potential sex-ratio imbalance, as people still had strong preference for sons over daughters. Girl children were often aborted illegally (abortion has been illegal in Korea), and it caused sex-ratio at birth of 108, meaning 108 boys for every 100 girls (in 2005), according to a UNFPA report. Although the son preference has been reduced (and nowadays, there’s actually a general sentiment towards daughter preference) and the ratio is more or less normalized (around 105:100, which is considered almost “normal”), there is a whole policy challenge regarding marriage migration (i.e. “importing” wives from other countries —a new form of mail-order brides– mainly from China, Viet Nam, and the Philippines, but not limited to) and increasing number of multicultural families. The trend is a challenge for welfare and education policies among others, while Korea has been a relatively homogeneous country for many years. This policy showed the necessity of considering human behaviors and cultures into the policy, while cultural and social norms greatly influence people’s behavior reacting to policies.

Why are family policies not working today?

So back to the question of why South Koreans do not have enough children…

Firstly, I believe that the policy makers’ perspectives are starting out on a wrong foot. To me, many policy makers on families, children and women (which all fall under the vague category of welfare policy) have been asking the wrong questions. They have been asking, “Why are women not having kids?” But you all know very well that it takes two to have a child. Such a question inherently blames only women for not being married and pursuing other goals in lives, stigmatizing women for “going against the nature.” Well, it might not be so surprising that such policy question is asked, because the entire policy framework regarding this issue is constructed under patriarchal assumptions just like many other policies. I am aware that women are also parts of the policy formation, but one’s sex has nothing to do with the role that one chooses to play, even in policy world. As long as birthrate is considered primarily “women’s issue,” or women’s issues are considered the same thing as family issues, further policy discussions would not make much progress.

In addition, there’s a problem in considering population simply as numerical values, not humans. As seen in Korea’s two-child policy, the government did not necessarily consider the cultural preference of having son, and that those sons may not end up with partners because there are simply too many men compared to the number of women (potential marriage partners). It seems that the sustainability of family units was never a big question to the policy makers. The campaign did not penetrate well enough to change a certain culture and behaviors that are discriminatory and sexist against female children. Part of the reasons is that policies are quite politicized and the policy makers have to implement those policies that would bring the most bangs for the buck they spend within the fiscal year or until the next elections. When the discussion of having children and raising them is only focusing on the economic impact and numbers, such as potential “units” who will participate in economic activities and the number of tax payers, we dehumanize the meaning of family and bring further challenges throughout the implementation of policies. Women’s bodies are only valuable because of their reproductive organs and their “natural roles” as the caretakers. Children are only future workers and tax payers. Men are a small part of reproduction and breadwinners. The gender role assumptions are quite stark in policymaking while humans become simple units of a country, no?

Part 2 will continue tomorrow (when I can think and breathe better). I will write about what the actual problems are in birthing and raising children in South Korea.