Baby Making and Christmas Trees

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend my second Korean wedding. My co-worker, Angela, made a beautiful bride and she and her new husband are as cute as they can be. A Korean friend and I were chatting about how nice the wedding service was when she turned to me and stated that she would be getting married this year. At first I thought she was joking; “I didn’t think you had a boyfriend?” I asked. “I don’t, but I will still get married this year. My parents will make me.”

Almost all Koreans live with their parents until they are married. As single girls begin to approach the age of 30, their parents begin to be concerned about their finding a mate; once women pass this age, it becomes difficult to find someone willing to marry them. It was once explained to me in a Christmas tree analogy. Many people want to buy a Christmas tree before December 25th for reasons of finding the best tree before it’s snatched up by other customers. This also allows plenty of time for decoration. The 25th, Christmas Day, is a great day to buy a tree, because it’s still not too late for the tree to serve its purpose. However, who wants to buy a Christmas tree on the 26th? Trees become increasingly difficult to sell with each passing day after the 25th. Likewise, 25 is the ideal age for a woman to be married [mind you this is Korean age, so it’s actually 23]. Marrying a girl younger than 25 is equivalent to that of snatching up precious arm candy. With each year after 25, like the aging trees, customers- or potential spouses- decrease in number.

Though this analogy usually scares aging twenty-something women a bit, it doesn’t seem to be pressuring them into marriage. I don’t know if I’d call it westernization, but like many other countries, more and more women are attending universities these days. While they are still paid drastically less than their male counterparts, they are insistent upon pursuing higher education. It’s a shame, however, that even though my generation of Korean women spend their entire lives buried in their books to achieve degrees, they almost always stop working once they are married. The Korean social structure demands that women tend to domestic and childcare responsibilities in addition to caring for the elderly in their family. You’re especially S.O.L. if you marry the first born son, as your in-laws almost always move in with you. With few incentives of married life with the added burden of in-house in-laws breathing down your neck all the time, who can blame women for wanting to wait to get married. Forget putting your kids in childcare, and I’m pretty there’s no concept of nursing homes in this country. Confucianism doesn’t allow for such atrocities.

I recently read an article that stated 59.1% of females aged 25-29 in 2005 were unmarried, a big jump from 39.5% in 2000. The proportion of women staying single between the ages of 30-34 also increased by 19%. And this is just in 2005; I’m sure these numbers have grown over the past 5 years. As expected, because women are waiting to get married, fertility rates are dropping. A recent population report by the United Nations reported that Korea now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. As you can imagine, this has the government in a tizzy, proposing all sorts of things to encourage people to start baby-making. The government’s not stupid. They know that women will have more children when there is greater gender equality, as evidenced by the population increases that occured when women entered into the work force in Western cultures. Sure, there are plenty of women who work full time, but not many of them hold high positions in executive and professional jobs. When this does happen, and it will, eventually, there may actually be such thing as childcare and nursing homes. Who knows?

I have so many Korean friends who have dreams of pursuing interests, such as traveling the world. A friend who majored in Thai has always wanted to live in Thailand, at least for a little while. Due to the Korean requirement of filial piety, however, she won’t, as her parents won’t allow it. (This girl is 30 and still has a curfew, as so many Korean daughters do.) Instead, she’s forced by her parents to go on blind dates- “mandatory dating,” if you will. In a country that’s modernizing on a daily basis, it’s still stuck in cultural limbo. Societal ways and the Korean people are changing, pulling society in a different direction; however, it remains rooted in traditional values and customs. These roots seem to be holding on strong, but it’s a wonder when they’ll be pulled so hard that they break.