Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Wife is in Australia, so Who is Cooking my Breakfast?

Not exactly what Koreans have in mind when they think of a cooked breakfast.

So, I'm alone at the moment in Korea without my wife, and will be for a few months yet.  To cope with not having her around, I am turning to the other love of my life, exercise.  I'm busting a gut running up mountains, biking, pumping iron, and circuit training, with the odd game of squash every now and then when I can.  I am almost too tired to be sad.  But of course, I miss my wife being around in so many ways.

My co-workers and other Koreans I know are often quite shocked that I am living alone now, and when I say shocked, I am not over-stating things, they are almost horrified and wonder how on earth I am coping with it all.  I find myself sort of understanding their reaction, that is until they follow it up with why they are so concerned with me.

I reckon I might have told about 25-30 Korean people (in Korean and English) about my wife studying in Australia and I can't recall any of them not saying, in response to this, "But who is cooking your breakfast?!"

What's interesting is that it is always breakfast as well, not dinner (although I am sure they are concerned about my dinner too).  I guess Koreans take the saying, "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day", very seriously.

My usual response to this is that my wife never cooks me breakfast (in fact, I am sure when it comes to breakfast, I might have prepared hers more often), as I usually just eat cereal.  Concern then does then focus on dinner and just how I am managing to get by in life without someone looking after me.  You know, someone to clean the house, wash the dishes, make sure I'm wearing clean underwear, clean my ears, wipe my nose, and make sure I'm not walking out the door in the morning with my clothes on inside out, that sort of thing.

I guess these are the traditional duties of a Korean wife in a traditional, normal relationship.  When I live with my wife, I see things more practically, logically, individually, and perhaps also more from a Western perspective and so does my wife.

We try and do our equal share around the home as a couple.  When it comes to cleaning, however, I am bad, I'll admit it.  I take out the rubbish, wash clothes and always go out when we need something, but most cleaning-related chores I steer clear of and if I do them, I do them so badly that the trouble and strife usually just takes over, no matter how hard she has been working.  Apparently, however, this kind of situation happens in the UK too and I suspect is common world-wide, no matter where people are from.

Looking a bit messy in my kitchen sink at the moment.

I believe that this will always be the case, whether it is fair or not, and it is nothing to do with inequality between the sexes, but simply that women usually care more about a clean and tidy home than men.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as women have always been the primary care givers of children.  An unclean and cluttered home or place of habitation is unsafe for an infant, and so there is a greater instinct in women for more cleanliness and order in the household.  It is not a coincidence that women are usually in charge when it comes to the home.  I am sure, however, that when it comes to Korea, and perhaps in most countries, the delegation of chores probably could be shared out more evenly between the sexes.

Anyway, interestingly, the response from people in England, when I visited last month and told them of my wife and I's current circumstances, contrasted starkly with that of Korean people.  Most often, it was something like, "Oh, that must be hard, don't you miss her?  Aren't you lonely?"  Not a whiff of a remark about cooking or cleaning, or looking after me, the concern was simply for me being away from the one I love.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about this, but then I had a curious thought; how would I have reacted to some English people if they had said, "Well, who is cooking your dinners?" or "Who is doing the ironing?"  I wondered whether I might take offence to this; I think I might have done.  I think I might have admonished them in my head (and maybe in conversation) for stereotyping my wife, to thinking that this is what all Asian women do.

In previous posts, I have lambasted this sort of behaviour.  When people would ask me things like, "What is your wife doing today, cooking?"  (This was often from middle to older aged men and women.)  After a conversation with my best mate in England about this, he concluded that they were just ignorant, not showing prejudice and that they could very well say the same thing to his wife, who is English.  I think I at least partly agree with him on reflection, but I do think there is a hint of stereotyping and prejudice present because of these kind of comments combined with, "Where is your wife from, Thailand?"

If they are guilty of a prejudice like racism, I am now inclined to think it does not have any malice about it. Painfully ignorant, yes, but I think I would like to take a step back from that post now and admonish myself for being a little too quick to judge these people.  They had spent their lives in a town of very low ethnic diversity, they had almost no experience travelling, and very little experience interacting with anyone who wasn't White and British.  I believe they simply weren't really prepared for the introduction of me with a Korean wife, whether in person or merely in conversation and clumsily just searched for something to say.

So you see, what I find interesting is my intuitive double standards for reacting to how Korean people perceive my relationship and how English people perceive it.  It seems Koreans are stereotyping themselves, so is it any wonder some Westerners believe these things too?  I must also add that, in most cases I have known, wives in fact do cook breakfast for their husbands, do most of the cleaning, and do look after them, even take the reins in their husbands lives in Korea.  And whats more, most of the discussions I have had with Korean men about marriage end up in them telling me that this is what their wife does or that they look forward to having a wife who does it.  I guarantee that when I have a new lot of students in March at my boys high school, and I say I am married to a Korean woman, that a great many of them will ask me whether she cooks well (once a student asked this question and I replied that she was "alright", and he replied with, "oh, I feel so sorry for you").

I do think that Western culture is a bit caught-up in talk of racism and prejudice at the moment.  We seem confused and very intolerant of ourselves when it comes to what we say about other cultures and not inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt on matters of prejudice.  No doubt there are many cases of cultural chauvanism, racism, and genuine prejudice and discrimination, but I think many cases of simple ignorance in dealing with those of another race or culture are painted in this way and I think this maybe a little unfair.

I'll leave you with a link to a post from Roboseyo, a blogger in Korea that I have had a few disagreements with, but one whose blog has always been worth a look.  I think what I have written here relates quite well to what he, very sensibly, writes about TheKorean's theory of culturalism and how many Korean people are quite possibly as guilty, if not more so, than anyone else of it when it comes to themselves.  He uses the example of Kim Seong-Kon's article in the Korea Herald, a professor of English at Seoul University and apparently well-respected Korean intellectual (although he did happen to write one of the worst articles I have ever read on Korean mothers).

It seems Koreans are stereotyping themselves more than anyone else, but if it is what they believe about themselves, isn't it hard to call it prejudice if Western onlookers believe it too?


  1. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as women have always been the primary care givers of children. An unclean and cluttered home or place of habitation is unsafe for an infant, and so there is a greater instinct in women for more cleanliness and order in the household. It is not a coincidence that women are usually in charge when it comes to the home.

    You need to be careful with this type of speculation, particularly when it is done in order to demonstrate that a conventional societal expectation is, sociobiologically, the natural order of things. In philosophy of science it's known as a "just so story" - - and has historically been used to "demonstrate" that just about any prejudice you can think of is somehow "natural".

    It may be correct, or it may just be that housework is crap work, and so male-dominated societies have delegated it to women and established it as a cultural expectation. I don't know the answer, and neither do you. The point is it is very easy to make this sort of sociobiological explanation for any theory you want to make. I.e.:

    "As has recently been shown, a certain amount of exposure to environmental pathogens helps build the immune system of young children. However a notable exception to this is meat, which must be eaten quickly before it spoils. In traditional society, women were responsible for raising children, while men were responsible for hunting meat. Thus it is natural that men should be more concerned with providing a pathorgen-free environment in which meat is less likely to spoil, thus demonstrating their prowess as providers, while women would tend to favour an environment with a reasonable amount of immune-system building pathogens. Thus we see that housework is and always will be the natural role of men."

    Not arguing that at all - just demonstrating the slipperiness of such unproved and probably unprovable evolutionary explanations.

    1. Yeah, I agree with your criticism. It was a bit of a side-point to the post and I don't think it affects the main point.

      However, it makes a lot of logical sense to me, and this is my opinion. Of course whether it is natural or a prejudice caused by a male-dominated society makes absolutely no difference to its rightness or wrongness. It could be perfectly natural and the evolutionary theory completely true, but that wouldn't mean the division of household chores unevenly done by women would be right or just or a good thing. As I wrote, the delegation of chores should be more evenly shared, I guess, in an ideal world. This is true regardless of whether the reasons for the cause are natural or not.