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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Bride shortage has S Korean men looking abroad

One such case is that of 27-year-old Maria Mashanova, ethnically half-Russian, half-Belarusian, and thoroughly western-looking. She grew up in Uzbekistan and has been living in Korea for five years with her Korean husband.  She acknowledges, “Often these couples meet over the internet,” but Maria met her husband, Joon-ho Lee, a chauffeur by trade, on her own when she came to Korea seeking work in 2003.  She later returned to Uzbekistan, where she registered her partnership; meanwhile, Lee registered the union in Korea, after which Lee officially invited her to Korea on a family visa.

“I never considered marrying a non-Korean before I met Maria,” Lee told France 24. (The couple are technically in a state akin to a civil union, and not legally wed. She has not obtained  Korean citizenship, she says, as this would complicate her return visits to Uzbekistan.)

Mashanova’s family was deeply shocked when she informed them of her plans. She recounted, “My family said, ‘But you always hated Koreans!’” Mashanova explains that none of her family or friends back home was fond of Koreans, of whom there is a marked population in Uzbekistan. “I thought Koreans only thought about money and that they were cheaters.”

The family soon warmed up to Lee, though they have never met him.  They refer to him as “Hyungbu,” the Korean honorific for “brother in law.”  Lee sends money to Mashanova’s family whenever he can, as well as surprise gifts of clothes or laptop computers.

The couple live in a small rural town in a southern province known as Chung Chong Nam Do, where an interracial marriage is far more visible than in Seoul. “I am the only white face in my neighbourhood,” she says. “I love living in Korea,” she says, “But the people here don’t really let me feel Korean.  They stare and never look away. I’m like a little monkey to them.”

She is worried about the day when her two children, ages 2 and 4, begin to attend school.  “They’re fair-haired.  I’ve heard of people having problems.” She describes her Korean as “not very good.” (the interviews were conducted largely in Russian). The South Korean government offers free Korean classes for women in her position, but she says, “I didn’t have time because I got pregnant right away.”

Korea's reputation for xenophobia once led it to be dubbed "the hermit kingdom," Now, however, owing to a calamitous bride shortage, South Korean men are now importing western brides. Korea historically has been so notoriously hostile to foreigners that one nineteenth-century British writer called Korea “The Hermit Kingdom.” Marriage to a non-Korean – even to a fellow Asian - brought shame to an entire family, and biracial children were ostracised and often abandoned.

According to the New York times, 14% of  married couples in Korea are between a Korean and a foreigner - up from 4% in 2000. A number of Eastern European women figure prominently in the new demographic landscape.(france24)

Foreign brides like Mashanova have become such media darlings that entire an television series is devoted to telling their stories.  Entitled “Love in Asia,” the weekly hour-long television series begins with describing the couple’s (especially the woman’s) woeful lives prior to meeting each other; it chronicles the courtship and the obstacles they faced from friends and in-laws. The popular programme recently celebrated its 100th episode. According its official web site, it is “a moving project devoted to foreign women who came to find their dreams in Korea, in Korea.” (Repetition in original) An Egyptian woman’s story is described thusly: “From the ancient land of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, Sarah came from Egypt to Korea looking for one thing: Love.”

Mashanova knows fifteen other former Soviet Union women married to Korean men, most of them in Seoul. Galina Deberdeeva, a 27-year old ethnic Tartar who grew up in Uzbekistan, came to Korea to work as a part-time model and met her husband at a gym. For her, the chiefly difficult area of adjustment to Korea was the food. “I missed bread,” she said. “I hated sashimi. And I couldn’t eat the kimchi without rinsing it off first.”

Korean sociologist Kim Hyun-mee has devoted much of her career to helping the plight of international brides, whether they were brokered or met their husbands on their own.  The sociologist observes, “In Korea, blood is the most important thing in its national identity . The new marriages stimulate society and ask what is it to be Korean.  For the first time,  Koreanness is now an unfixed concept.”

 Anastassia Koukouchkina assisted in the research of this article.

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