When people find out I’m married to a Korean man, the most common question I get is, “But what food do you eat at home?” (The answer is: both). But I think dinner is the least important cultural difference that our marriage has. It’s a continual learning experience, especially since my husband and I have a language barrier. If you have one too, you can understand how difficult it is to navigate having two cultures in one home. Here are the top three cultural differences you may have to work through in your marriage if you are an expat woman married to a Korean man.
One of the biggest changes between the life you led at home and the life you’ve started in Korea is probably the lack of attention to special days. Those might be Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, and your wedding anniversary (which are often not celebrated at all in Korea) It’s a good idea to clearly tell your husband that certain days will require his participation, since you are doing the same for his holidays. For me, I insisted that my husband celebrate our wedding anniversary with a special dinner, and he agreed to take off work for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He doesn’t understand the traditions I cherish, such as decorating the Christmas tree or giving gifts (gifts in Korea always equals money) but he participates in them anyway.
As for Korean traditions, you’re probably familiar with Chuseok and Seolnal (Lunar New Year). When you’re married, your role in the celebration may change -- you may be expected to help cook or learn a family recipe. Your husband may also want you to attend the memorial service that Korean people often hold for their deceased relatives at the cemetery. If the cemetery is privately owned, you may be asked to help clean up or pull weeds from around the graves.
Don’t be surprised -- or offended -- if shortly following your marriage you receive demands to get pregnant from elder family members. I often shrug them off with polite laughs before changing the subject. And finally, perhaps one of the worst-hated quirks of Korean culture: you may get comments on your weight, whether you’ve gained or lost. This is a common thing that Koreans do to each other when they haven’t seen someone in a while; they might not understand why it is offensive to you.
Among the expat women community, a common issue for those married to Korean men is the frequency of hoesiks (회식). Hoesiks are a common part of the Korean work culture, and it’s considered important bonding time for workers and their bosses. Hoesiks usually consist of a long dinner, which the boss pays for, and there is usually compulsory drinking involved. Sometimes, the boss will then take his employees to another bar or a noraebang afterward. This tradition stems from Korean work culture in the 1980’s and 1990’s during Korea’s economic upswing, when the job and work culture were of the utmost importance.
Hoesiks can last for hours, often late into the night, and they can be on any day of the week. This can be irritating for their wives, as wives are usually not invited to these outings, and their husbands can come home drunk late into the night. It takes away from time as a couple and as a family, and often, the husband does not want to go -- attendance at hoesiks is assumed and mandatory. These days, forced company hoesiks are generally becoming less common, but your husband will probably have to attend a hoesik anywhere from once a week to once a year.
While your husband might not have a choice in whether or not to attend, he should control his alcohol consumption while he is out. It might be helpful to have a talk with him about the negative effects of his drinking, and how the hoesiks are affecting you. However, since hoesiks are often closely tied to job performance in Korea, it is not really up to you whether he attends.
Another stark difference between Korean and Western culture is the emphasis on family. In Western cultures, we often see husbands and wives as teammates who back each other up. However, if there is ever a disruption between you and his family, you may find that your husband is far more concerned with keeping the peace than taking your side. There is strong respect for elders, especially parents, in Korea. This can often mean that in the moment, your husband will be agreeable to appease his parents’ wishes, and he will likely want you to do the same.
As frustrating as this can be, it’s important to look at it from the larger scope of culture -- it’s not wrong, just different. However, there may be some things you don’t want to compromise on. You may not want his parents to live with you, for example, or you might not want his parents to have a say in what you name your child. These are things that you and your husband need to have serious discussions about early on, so the two of you can be prepared if that situation arises. If it comes down to choosing you or stepping up to his family, that is a harder decision for a Korean man to make than it is for most Western men.
Of course, the most important factor in any marriage is communication. If there is a language barrier, extra patience, a notepad, and a translation app may be required. If you encounter any issues with these cultural differences, it’s best to take your time to communicate your thoughts and hear his.