Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Tragedy of the kirŏgi appa

Space Nakji got me thinking again about the concept of the kirŏgi father, or "wild goose" parent, who sends their spouse and children off to live in another country, usually for education. It is one of a number of family archeyptes where a married Korean couple ends up living for a long period of time, typically several years, separated by hundreds or usually thousands of miles of land and ocean. (In the past, it was not uncommon for a husband to go off to another country for work or study while the wife and kids stay in Korea.)

I have some definite opinions about these long-common family situations, and this may offend some people. I think there are a lot of married couples willing to be split apart for work-related reasons, arising from back when marriages were set up or between two people who otherwise really didn't know each other WELL before they got married (despite dating in a coffee shop once a week for six whole months!), and afterward they really find that they don't share much in common, including a deep, longing love for the other.

For such couples, living apart is not that hard, and it's even a welcome relief, a respite from the routine grind of being with someone with whom you share little more than a bed, a house, and an occasional romp in the sack.

And so many people end up in these trans-oceanic marriages that Koreans in general end up thinking it's "normal" or "okay" to subject one's marriage to this. The dysfunctional becoming normative.

So even people who DO have that deep, longing love for their spouse end up thinking, "Yeah, maybe I should live in Dallas for three years to help my career," thinking that if others can endure time apart from their spouse, so can I.

But they can't. It only works for people who lack true love in their marriage. People who do have that true love of their spouse find out they have subjected themselves to years of hell! "Why didn't anyone warn me this was going to be so hard?" they scream inside themselves. Because for so many other people doing this, it's not.

Those others have a heart that is frost-bitten—toward their spouse, at least—and they hand you a poker and say, "Look, hit me there!" to show you they don't feel a thing, and you think to yourself, "Hey, am I the same way?" but when you get stabbed with a sharp poker, it hurts like a muther fu¢ker because your heart is not frost-bitten.

Pity those in Korea in love with their spouse, because they are in a world where marriage is a sham—romantically at least—that is just designed to further the aims of the in-laws, surrounded by people who got married out of familial or social obligation.

They live in a world where so many marriages exist just to exist, not to be an expression of love, and their loving relationship is under constant assault by frost-bitten married people who give them bad advice about what is acceptable in marriage, or worse, people who would undermine their marriage with thoughts that cheating is okay, sex outside of your marriage is okay as long as you're not unfaithful with thoughts of love for someone else.

Pity the people who truly love their spouse, but were convinced by others' words and actions that it's okay to subject your marriage to one of the worst traumas imaginable for a happy life together. It is like poisoning with arsenic. It is a blow to the marriage, and it often ends up being one that, if it doesn't kill it, leaves the once-happy marriage permanently maimed when the two kirŏgi are finally reunited.


  1. few weeks ago, I was introduced to president of this mid-sized korean bio-tech company. A very pleasent, smart chap.
    Anyway after the meeting, we went out for dinner and was talking about business and what not..and the subject turned into drinking habit.. bio-tech guy says how he isn't much of a drinker but ever since he sent his wife and kids to canada(why?), he's become very lonely and started drinking wine to pass the time..
    Space and you talking about the subject suddenly reminded me of this
    otherwise cheery chap suddenly making a sad face when talking about his wife and kids living in canada..

    offtopic, but why do they send'em to canada?

  2. He obviously wasn't very keen on them... Only bad people go to Canada ;-)

  3. Kushibo,

    I was about to respond to your comment on this topic on my blog, then realized it made a lot more sense to come on over here and do it. So, howdy neighbor!

    Your post is really interesting and really depressing, and you've voiced some thoughts I've had about marriage in Korea as well - how they exist just to exist and aren't necessarily about finding real love.

    The funny thing is that sometimes I think I never feel more American/Western than when discussions of love and relationships arise. Back in my days of studying Korean, I was often the odd girl out in my classes (which were mostly full of Japanese women) because of my wacky ideas about "love and romance." The Korean teachers and the Japanese students were all in mutual agreement that the most important factor in choosing someone to marry was their salary and job security. I remember one day in particular when the question we had to discuss in class was what we would do if a boyfriend/fiancee lost his job. All of the women said that they would break up on the spot. I can still remember the tone of horror in my own voice when I blurted out, "You would dump them the same day they were fired?!" None of the women, teacher included, got why this was a big deal.

    Nowadays, in my two English classes as well, I always wind up feeling like the romantic fool with my radical idea of actually loving the person you spend the rest of your life with. Imagine!

    Anyway, I meant to come over here to talk about the wild goose father I mentioned in my recent post. My first impression of him was that he was much like other older Korean men I've met - stoic, authoritative, etc. etc. The first time he surprised me was when we talked about dating and marriage in class. I asked him how he met his wife, expecting something along the lines of "We met in a coffeeshop every week for a month, then we got married" but instead he told us a rather touching story about young love. Even though he spoke in halting English, there was still a palpable tenderness.

    Then, over that ill-fated dinner, he talked about his recent visit to the US to see his family and talked about how each visit is harder than the last. He wasn't maudlin about it; he's still pretty stoic. But I was impressed, nonetheless, and kind of depressed, too.

  4. Nothing wrong with being a romantic fool. Sometimes romance is the only thing keeping your head in the clouds...


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