My experiences being a Korean woman in Shanghai

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/20 18:03:40


Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Life is good as a Korean woman in China. Whenever someone here asks where I'm from and I tell them that I am Korean-American, I am met with an excited stream of information about my own people, our television dramas, music and trends.

Back in the US, where Korean pop culture has produced only the gentlest of ripples compared with the continuous tidal waves of popularity it presently enjoys throughout East Asia, my ethnic background had no particular impact. Only occasionally could someone in New York identify to me, say, the lead singers of 2NE1 or successfully reference a Park Chan-wook film.

But living in China, where images of Korean women and men are featured in shopping mall advertisements, restaurant billboards and television commercials, my genetic makeup is cause for celebration with nearly every stranger I meet. For the first time in my life, I am the owner of what sociologists call "cultural capital," that is to say, power or status simply as a result of my heritage.

Here, everyone seems to have been hit by the Korean Wave, and sure enough they also have many questions about it. I receive numerous such queries while sitting in the backs of local taxis. A cab ride is the perfect unit of time for two strangers to get their bearings on a single topic.

"Where are you from?" the drivers inevitably ask.

"I'm Korean-American."

"Ah, Korean women! They are all so beautiful." Then after a pause, "but many do plastic surgery, don't they?"

"Yes, it's quite popular in Korea. Many people, both men and women, do it."

"And Korean women," the drivers continue at some point, a glimmer of hope in their eyes, "they are very docile, yes? And they always listen to their husbands?"

I do not crush their fantasy. Of course not every Korean woman limits her world to domestic chores and subservient deference to her husband. But many, especially of the older generations, do.

Those I talk to in China paint the picture of being a Korean woman as positive, even enviable: Korean women are beautiful; Korean women have the best skin; they act soft and feminine; they cook delicious food.

Sadly, many of those stereotypes have come about because, for Korean women, there is immense societal pressure to conform to extremely narrow standards of beauty.

Korea's cosmetics and surgery industries are wildly successful because they prey off of insecurities bred by unrealistic expectations controlled by corporations, media and men. Korean women may have nice skin and may always look stylish, but I'd pause before saying their lives are to be envied.

On the street many Korean women are slaves to social pressures; at home they wait on salaryman husbands who work and play till late and whose only responsibility is to bring home a paycheck. Though things are slowly changing, Korea is still in many ways a patriarchal society that leaves women falling far short of their true potential.

I was born in Korea and raised in the US, but I felt the full force of my motherland's traditional values when I lived in Seoul for several years as an adult.

Cab drivers in Shanghai like to ask me to confirm their notions about Korean women as if we are some kind of exotic breed: the demure domestic goddesses of East Asia. Here in Shanghai, this breed of women is so rare as to have become a modern-day mythical object.

If one day I have a daughter and must decide between raising her in Korea or Shanghai, it's very possible I might choose the latter. Though this city is far from perfect, at least here young girls are pushed to succeed, to work and to play on an even field with the boys. In that regard, Korea still has a long way to go.

As far as the cultural capital I have been given in China - yes, it has its benefits for me day to day. But it's important to understand where this capital comes from and what it costs: it certainly is not for free.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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