Thursday, October 30, 2008

[Multiculturalism Is the Future] South Korea’s foreign brides

Hidden dangers abound in the hastily arranged marriages that leave many women unprepared to deal with life in Korea

Editor’s Note: With the number of foreigners residing in South Korea exceeding one million, 2 percent of the country’s total population, a society that once presented itself as a single race has found itself past the threshold into a “global” society. But examples of friction and maladaptation are also increasing. The Hankyoreh is presenting a series in six installments entitled “Multiculturalism Is the Future,” examining methods of resolving cultural shocks and conflicts arising from rapid entry into a multicultural society.

2:00 p.m., September 22, 2008. The immigration center at Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh International Airport. Family members have clustered around Tuyet (not her real name), 20, a young woman with an even younger-looking face, who sits in a wheelchair. Some of them lower their heads, unable even to look, and some of them hang onto the wheelchair and weep sadly. Neither the family nor the home country has changed, but this pretty young woman’s body is covered in wounds as she sets foot once again in her homeland a little over a year after marrying and traveling to South Korea. Tuyet’s mother, Nguyen Thi Lien Ji, 50, appearing worn-down in her reunion with her daughter, went to the airport hearing only that her daughter was coming back sick, and her body became rigid when she learned that her daughter was suffering from total paralysis, barely able to speak.

Four days later, it is Tuyet’s hometown, Tan Phu District, Dong Nai Province, located four hours from Ho Chi Minh City by car. As I meet with Tuyet again in a rundown house on the most secluded back street, she is lying on a cot in a dark hut, only blinking her eyes. Her mother says, “We are barely surviving, earning 30,000 dong (around 2,000 won) a day selling rice noodles.” As tears well in her eyes, she adds, “I don’t know how to live with my daughter coming back like this after getting married.” Barely managing to communicate through her younger brother, Tuyet says, “I missed my home so much, and I regret marrying and going to Korea recklessly.” Adding gestures with her hands, she says, “If there are other people making the same decision I did, I would like to stop them.”

Tuyet’s story is a typical example of the misfortune suffered by women who enter hastily arranged international marriages, without sufficient information or understanding about their husbands or the culture they are marrying in to. In Tuyet’s hometown village as well, there are several other young women who have immigrated to South Korea or Taiwan through international marriages.

In August of last year, Tuyet married a man from a South Korean farming village who was around 20 years her senior through an international marriage broker, but her husband was admitted to a mental hospital seven months after the marriage because of mental illness. Left alone in a country home with her old, invalid father-in-law, she was unable to bear the hardship and drank poison.

It is around 7:00 p.m. on the day of Tuyet’s homecoming. Darkness has fallen on District 8 in Ho Chi Minh City. The building is reminiscent of an inn, built on the side of a remote residential street, and women boarding together on its third floor have formed a line and come downstairs. Meeting strange foreign men for matrimonial interviews, they are young women from the country who have gathered together from all over Vietnam to enter international marriages.

A total of 27 women are living together in one large room. A young woman informs me, “We sleep on one blanket each, we eat plain rice and maybe noodles, and even that is only two meals a day. It’s already been several months of this tedious waiting.” The goal of these women from different homes, and in different positions, is one and one alone: international marriage. A 21-year-old woman from Can Tho, located four to five hours away by car, says, “If I can just escape from this situation, I don’t care how old the Korean man is.” These brides-to-be mostly go through a group marriage interview in the manner of a beauty pageant selection, and their trip to Korea is decided with just one day of ceremonies and consummation.

Taking wedding photographs with his Vietnamese bride in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tam Seng Park, “J,” a Korean farmer in his 40s, explains the schedule, saying, “Two days ago I came into Vietnam through the agency of a Korean marriage information service. The other day I had an interview with 60 or so other men at the wedding hall. Today is the wedding and the consummation, and after going on our honeymoon tomorrow, we’re going back to Korea the day after tomorrow.” These rapid marriages are producing many side effects, as in the case of Tuyet.

In the four years since 2004, the overall number of divorces in South Korea has gone down, but the number of divorces in 2007 for women immigrating through marriage was 5,974 cases, a 44.5 percent increase from the previous year. In the past year, there have also been three cases of women who have died from their husband’s abuse or taken their own lives.

Dr. Tran Hong Van of Vietnam’s Institute of Social Sciences, Southern Region, said, “It is a reality that more than 90 percent of Vietnamese women who have entered international marriages are going overseas to places like Korea through Vietnam’s illegal marriage brokerage system, which has developed into a corporate model over the past 10 years or so.” Dr. Tran emphasized, “The governments of South Korea and Vietnam have to put their heads to get and work to solve this problem.”

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