Modern Grace is a monthly column for Best of Korea by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Last month, I wrote about the aspects of Korean culture I’m proudly passing on to my kids. This month I’m tackling the parts of Korean culture I’m adjusting for the twenty-first century (or happily abandoning altogether). Some things just don’t work anymore, if they ever did, and one of the wonderful things about being an immigrant and part of the Korean diaspora is that it gives a wider perspective of both cultures. I think this gives us the opportunity to fine-tune the cultural experience we might want to share with the next generation.
1. Traditional gender roles and supporting a patriarchal mindset
This is a no-brainer, and a part of traditional Korean culture I abandoned decades ago. As a girl growing up with a firm sense of my ambition and identity, it made no sense to me that I would not be allowed to access the same opportunities as boys and eventually, men. It infuriated me when family members made comments like “that’s good enough… for a girl.” Or when I noticed that girls were expected to do domestic chores like cooking, washing dishes and waiting on elders, while boys sat around being waited on.
My grandmother, a highly intelligent woman whose father chose not to educate her as far as her four brothers, understandably never recovered from this injustice. She, however, chose to perpetuate unfair gender roles in her own four kids. She had internalized the system that disenfranchised her so deeply that she no longer believed it could be toppled.
Think this is a three-generations-ago problem? Check out the novel/feminist manifesto KIM JI-YOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (translated into English by Jamie Chang). A runaway bestseller in Korea, Cho’s novel enumerates the many ways in which women are struggling under an outmoded patriarchal system today.
Simply being aware of our biases is a good start, but here are some practical ways to combat gender stereotypes in parenting:
- Practice gender neutral language that does not reinforce harmful binary stereotypes. Toys, activities, colors, appearances, emotions and jobs are all gender-neutral. It may take some effort and practice to change language or thought patterns many of us were raised with; but using gender neutral words and language breaks down artificial limitations. This gives everyone more freedom.
- Model equitable or balanced domestic work at home. It may not be possible to split domestic work evenly if one parent works outside the home, but it’s still possible to model a mix of responsibilities so that kids see all jobs are for everyone. Chores have no gender!
- Teach and review guidelines about body anatomy, autonomy and consent with children from a young age so that they know their bodies should never be violated by a peer or adult. Teaching children the proper anatomical terms for their body parts from a young age sends the message that bodies are not shameful. Teaching and practicing consent helps protect children from potential abusers, who rely on gaslighting techniques to muddle boundaries.
2. Birth order hierarchy
Was it Psy that made “oppa” known to mainstream American culture? Birth order hierarchy is a tricky cultural convention to navigate as a Korean-American mom because there are genuinely wonderful things about this tradition that I’d love for my kids to experience. But there are significant pitfalls, too. The Korean language has unerringly specific terms to describe every family relation. (And yes, the terms are gendered and subjugate the maternal line as less important than the paternal line.)
The advantage to this specificity is that you always know where you belong on the family tree, and you know how everyone is related. When all is well, the effect is lovingly cozy. Everyone is tucked into their own special spots.
The disadvantage? The elders (and elder siblings) traditionally call the shots, whether or not they are equipped to do so. Younger siblings and younger generations are expected to fall in line. Worst case scenario, the elders feel that they have sacrificed in vain while the younger generations feel they have been oppressed and robbed of their freedom. It’s a dysfunctional cycle that can spin for generations.
I want my kids to experience that family kinship and closeness that is so emotionally gratifying and important to well-being, but I never want them to feel that they are required to obey their elders purely because of age or hierarchy. I don’t want their relationships to be defined by their birth order, like so many of our elder generations’ family and social relationships were.
While my husband and I cherish and prioritize our family relationships, we also try to model critical thinking, open discussion and the value of personal consent so that everyone can arrive at the best decisions for themselves.
3. Focus on physical appearance and body-shaming
Watching K-beauty take off in the West has been so much fun. I love a good skincare routine (although mine is way fewer than ten steps), which my mom drilled into me from puberty. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!
What I don’t love are the constant comments on physical appearance that seem ubiquitous in our culture, as well as the assumption that bodies should be slim in order to garner approval. I’ve seen and experienced so much anxiety and disordered eating in our community because of these “norms,” and I can’t wait to let the cycle end with me. Here are some ways to switch the focus:
- Focus on body strength and fitness, rather than size or appearance.
- Praise effort rather than outcome.
- Celebrate aesthetic self-expression rather than a “perfect” look.
- Model healthy self-care and self-love by speaking positively about your own appearance, regardless of the number on the scale.
You might have noticed that all the cultural adaptions I’ve suggested here are in the service of supporting mental health. Mental health is an important conversation for everyone, across race and ethnicity and culture. It’s especially crucial for Asians and Asian-Americans, who have historically suffered in silence.
I’m excited about the strides I see in our community to create new paradigms, and I’m prioritizing efforts to protect mental health in myself and my family, especially in the post-Covid world.
Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at www.gracewuertz.com