Taking a break from crafting my latest presentation for my Korean class.  We’re supposed to present on something that we haven’t written a paper about, which is (to me), ridiculous; if I cared about something enough to write 2+ pages on it in a language that I don’t speak particularly well, then it ought to follow that it should be something that I would present well/would inspire heated discussion and debate amongst myself and my peers (who, in this case, happen to be three undergraduate boys, two of whom are 교포 – I swear, nobody bothers learning Korean at the advanced level).  Alas, I’ve already written about my two favorite things to talk about in Korean (the K-pop industry and plastic surgery), so I had to come up with something else.  I spent hours and hours about 15 minutes racking my brain to think of something in line with my interests that wouldn’t totally bore my classmates to tears (while also simultaneously downloading some new music to listen to while writing the damn thing [here are the songs I chose – a wonderfully disparate collection, and yeah, I know the addition of that wacky 2008 JeTiHyun collaboration “오빠 나빠” is an odd choice, but I was feeling nostalgic for my first summer in Korea; consider Lena Park to be the redeeming factor]) and I finally came up with something that has boggled and continues to boggle me: arranged marriage in Korea.

I have no statistics to offer about how many couples today are the product of arranged marriages; judging by my Korean friends and their families, it SEEMS to have been more popular with the previous generation than it is with mine, but is by no means extinct today.  Also, distinctions between what constitutes and does not constitute an arranged marriage are by no means hard and fast.  It really depends on whether or not you view 선 보는 것 (best translated as “a blind date with a view towards marriage”; in other words, kind of an expedited dating process, wherein the two parties are in agreement before they meet that if it seems like they mutually suit each others’ wants and needs, then a marriage will take place) as a “truly” arranged marriage; given that the participants generally have a say in the matter (as in, if he/she truly hates the person that he/she was matched up with by their parents/the matchmaker, they don’t have to marry said person), it’s difficult to equate that with, say, my great-grandmother getting off the boat from Italy and meeting her betrothed in the shipyard.  I guess “arranged marriage” is, essentially, a blurry and mutable concept; personally, I would place marriages by 선 under the umbrella of arranged marriages; 소개팅/미팅 couples, not so much.

I remember when I first found out about these sorts of arranged marriages, I was in absolute disbelief.  I was all, “OMG that’s soooo stoopidddd why would any educated, liberal female (or male) decide to dooooo thatttt?!”  Given that my college roommate’s parents’ arranged marriage appeared to have been set up by a completely incompetent matchmaker (read: they couldn’t stand each other), I wrote the practice off as not only antiquated, but ridiculously snooty (the way my roommate told it, many elite families from the upper echelons of Korean society opted to arrange marriages for their children so that they could ensure the selection of a spouse with a suitable pedigree; then again, this was the same roommate who seemed convinced that she couldn’t loan me her designer clothes because my lack of a “suitable pedigree” would ensure that I would dirty them or, at the very least, depreciate their overall value, so I would take anything she says with a grain of salt).  I still think it is, but having seen some success stories (JM’s parents squeal squeal omg they are unbelievably cuuuute) has led me to somewhat soften my opinion on the matter.

What HASN’T quite softened, though, is my general disdain for the societal pressure that leads most young people to seek out arranged marriages.  While I’m sure quite a few of these arranged marriages are still made with family connections/breeding in mind (and boy, do Koreans hate non-purebreeds – the word for “mutt” is 똥개, which literally translates to “poop dog”), I’m willing to be that more than a fair amount are the result of a bunch of single women and men in their early 30s who (along with their families) are completely freaking out that they haven’t followed the Trajectory of Successful Koreanhood and have yet to marry or birth/sire a son.  And while I acknowledge the fact that that sentence was a sweeping generalization (included mostly for comic effect), you get the general idea.  There does exist an intense societal pressure on young people (particularly women) to marry and have children before/around the age of 30, and a failure to do so can be viewed as some sort of negative aberration, and it can result in people doing some relatively outlandish things in order to fit the mold.  Case in point: I met an unni (I’ll call her HM here) in July 2009, and the one thing I clearly remember about her from that time is that she was literally obsessed with getting married.  She was probably 28 or 29 then.  In the scant two months that I spent with her that summer, she went on a bunch of different blind dates and (much to her dismay) still had no boyfriend by the time I went back to the US in late August.  Before I left, she asked me if I thought that getting plastic surgery would improve her chances at finding a man, a question to which I truthfully responded, “No, probably not.”  But I returned to Korea again in late May 2010 to find that, sometime in the space of the 8 months that I’d been gone, HM unni had (a) gotten double eyelid surgery, (b) done 선 (recall that this is blind dating that is intended to result in marriage), and (c) gotten engaged.  This scenario, along with this absurdly short timeline, would almost never happen in the United States (except in extenuating circumstances that might induce couples to marry quickly, like pregnancies or military service, etc).  It is now November 2011 and HM unni is pregnant with her first child.  I guess she must be either 30 or 31 now.  Well done!  Societal success!

It would be foolish of me to come down too hard on arranged marriages; the problem is not the idea itself, but the societal trends and pressures that make it seem like the only compelling option for young Koreans who, for whatever reason, have scared their parents into thinking that they’ll never have grandchildren by not marrying in their 20s.  Difficult to say what, if anything, can be done to reverse the course beyond the expiration of the current generation of conservative old people – kidding, kidding.  I don’t have reliable statistics for Korea to back it up (I’m sure I could LOOK it up, but I’m too lazy at the moment), but I’m willing to bet that the average age at which people are choosing to marry is rising, which could indicate a reversal in social views towards marriage/a shift in the priorities of young people.  In any case, I’m heartened greatly by many of my unmarried, late-20s/early 30s teachers from Sogang who have embraced their freedom, moved out of their parents’ homes (still relatively unheard of for unmarried women in Korea), gotten PhDs, traveled the word, etc.  May many other women break free from societal constraints and embrace their untethered single lives!  Let’s all go to Italy, drink a shitton of wine, and eat gelato until we throw up on the tricolored marble of the Fiorentine Duomo!