Matchmaking

Even up to my generation, the marriages in Korea were somewhat arranged. It is not that one has no choice in the partner. It is just that the choices offered were not usually through what one would consider the normal channels in the U.S. (e.g. meeting at work, clubs, bars, etc.).  I am sure much has changed within the last few years, but even until fifteen or so years ago, there were many matchmakers in Korea, some formal, some informal. What do I mean by formal matchmakers? Well, these are women whose actual job is to make matches. They investigate people of marriageable age, details such as the education level, salary, family roots, astrology, etc. Then they act like a dating service, almost like an online dating site nowadays, except no one can lie on the personal profile.

Then there are more “informal” matchmakers. These are women who introduce couples, but they don’t make money. They just happen to know a lot of people and are very good at matching them, like my mother for example. She used to be a teacher, so practically all of her students she taught were of marriageable age up to about fifteen years ago.

In the historical past, the matchmakers did a similar job. They would travel through many cities or towns to find out about marriageable men and women (usually this was for noble families) and would match up families together. The difference between history and more recent time is that the couples now have choices. Before, the parents made the match and that was pretty much it. Most couples did not even get to see their spouse prior to the actual marriage ceremony.

According to my mother, matchmaking nowadays is passing background information to both parties and the contact information. Then if both parties feel like trying each other out, they would meet on a first date. If the couples hit off, they would come and visit my mother with a small gift or drop by to say hello together.

My mother used to jokingly tell me that if I were in Korea, she would have three truck loads of men to match me with. Of course, that is complete nonsense since I am too independent, too educated, and too westernized for most Korean men.

Poet Revisited

My mother is a poet and an intellectual, but she spent many years not actively writing because as a married woman in Korea, she did not have as much freedom to do so. As a person who feels the urge to write constantly, I can imagine how it feels to have to block out that feeling. Living in the U.S., I am not as limited by the role of a woman, but the reality regardless intrudes and I am forever pushing my writing behind the day-to-day life. Writing poetry only feeds one’s soul, no? And the reality wins out…

I initially started writing poetry when I was a teenager, but abandoned it because…I am not sure why. Perhaps I felt poetry came too easily to me, which meant I was not good? My reasoning for stopping is very convoluted. Instead of poetry, I spent most of what little writing time I had on writing stories. The result is that I have not written a single poem for many years. Now full of nostalgia, I start again…like my mother who picked up her pen again as she got older.

Below is a short poem written in English, translated to Korean as best as I could.

When I close my eyes,
What do I see?
Faded memories,
Grey and melancholic.
And I hear a song
that I had forgotten.
My heart sings to me,
Of love and sadness.
When I open my eyes,
That song fades away,
And my heart is forgotten.

눈을 감 으면
저에게 무엇이 보일까요?
색이 바랜 추억들,
회색의 향수.
그리고 내가 잊었던
노래가 들려 옵니다.
내 마음이 제게
사랑과 슬픔에 대한
노래를 한답니다.
하지만 눈을 뜨면
그 노래는 사라져 버리고
내 마음은 잊혀집니다.

Noble Family Tree (족보, Jokbo)

In noble families, 족보 (Jokbo, family tree) that recorded the family tree was passed down. Essentially, the first son of the noble family would inherit this. I suppose in the olden days, it was probably an actual book, like family bible in the west. With Korean war and change in society, I am not sure that families still have some sort of old book they keep. However, the heritage, the noble class…all of that still exists today even though Korea is supposedly a democratic society with no class distinctions. All you have to say is which Gim (Kim) or Yi (Lee) you are and well, people know your family history. 

That is, at least up to my generation. I grew up in Korea during the modernization so it is likely that much of this has changed now, but considering that only a few years ago, there was a startling news of “now daughters can inherit Jokbo (family tree)”, I don’t think the society has changed so much. Other than, now it is not only the sons who can inherit the family tree and Korea has finally realized that gender equality is a thing to consider. It used to be that as a daughter, you got literally crossed off (like a red x mark) from your family tree if you got married.

I know some American genealogy enthusiasts might be overjoyed by the concept of Jokbo and I do agree it is nice that you can trace your lineage far (well, if you have a certain family background). But Jokbo is not just so that you can trace your family history. The matchmakers (and yes, they still do exist at least up until a few years ago) used it to weed out certain health issues, or to make sure the match had this and that features. As a matchmaker, you wouldn’t recommend a woman for a marriage if she had too strong an astrological sign,had family history of not being able to birth a child (especially not able to birth a male child), or other issues in mental and physical health of the family. Essentially, Jokbo enabled what I would call eugenics. Feeling as though I’m a product of eugenics in my history sometimes makes me feel a little strange.

No Two Lee-s Are Alike – Korean Last Names

Some people ask me how it is possible for Koreans to marry each other as the majority of Koreans have the same last name. Obviously that must mean they are all related. I sometimes only smile at that. It is not sad enough that most Korean names have been badly anglicized, but well, now they are all the same just because they happen to sound the same?

It is true most Koreans have last name Kim (actually pronounced Gim – 김) or Lee (actually pronounced  Yi – 이), but hidden behind those single syllable last name is an origin of where that Kim or Lee came from. Most Koreans (well, at least my generation) know what kind of 이 or 김 they are. And yes, some of them are related if they come from a family tree, but most of them are not. 

For example, my last name is 이, but I know I am 평창 이씨 (Yi from Pyong Chang). Just by knowing that, you can trace your family tree (your ancestry) back hundreds of years. My mom’s last name is 김, but she is 경주 김씨 (Gim from Gyungju). She has an illustrious family tree that goes back to the era of three kingdoms (roughly 1st century B.C.E.). Well, actually there was a fourth kingdom of sorts, but the history labels this era as three kingdoms. Gyungju Gim line comes down from the king of Shilla (one of the three kingdoms) that unified Korea.

Since I have always been told of my ancestry that goes back hundreds/thousands of years, genealogy really has not been much of an interest to me like it is to many Americans I met. I had completely taken it for granted. Yet as I see my family history disappearing with my parents, I now feel I should record something of a recent past. It is one thing to know that I can trace my ancestry far back into the past, but another to actually know who my grandparents or great grandparents were.

Success Through Husband

My maternal grandfather was apparently a romantic soul. Having grown up as a second son to a very prominent family, he was not at all realistic, but loved poetry and knew nothing about earning a living. My grandmother was always perplexed why he would send her love letters as she was more like a man than a woman in that sense. In early 20th century, she was a woman who went to study at a medical university in Japan during the age of Japanese occupation in Korea, despite the discrimination. Unfortunately, her family lied to her about her grandfather being sick so that they could bring her home to marry her off.

That was the life of a woman then. 

My grandmother halted her medical study after a year and the only way for her to succeed was through her husband whom she thought was smart, but terribly unrealistic. While raising two daughters and working as a teacher, my grandmother pushed my grandfather to become a lawyer. Then, as he was somewhat useless as one (accepting chicken and whatnot as a fee for representation rather than money), she pushed him to become an interpreter, using her own large dowry to pay for the exams. That is how my grandfather came to be an interpreter to general Hodge, who was the military governor of South Korea under the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK).

Sadness of a Second Daughter

I have mentioned before, the Korean tradition of putting importance in having a male child since a female child could not inherit the family tree. That was changed only a few years ago. Now I suppose I could carry on my family tree (족보) if I feel inclined, except the honor would then fall to the first child and I am certainly not the first child of my family. I would like to blame this sexism on the acceptance of Confucianism into Korea, but the importance of men in the society started much before Confucianism. Things just got worse for women after the Confucianism.

My grandmother was a second daughter of a prominent rich family in the North. Her younger brother had died and she only had an older sister. Having no son from the legitimate wife in the family, my great grandfather’s son from his concubine had to be brought into the legitimate family tree. As my grandmother was quite an independent character even in those days, I can only imagine how she had felt about that when she had single-handedly fed her entire family after the war even though all of the lands and possessions became the adopted son’s possession.

A Place to Encounter Best Grilled Fish in Seoul

Grilled fish (mostly mackerel, 고등어) is a very popular dish in Korea. It is popular so many restaurants have it as an option, especially in the touristy area of Seoul. However, one thing to note about Korean restaurants in Korea is that most authentic and good ones are very specialized. They don’t usually have a menu composed of all kinds of different foods, but specialize in a single topic. So if you want to find the best grilled fish, you go to a restaurant where the primary topic of their menu is grilled fish related items. Also, there is usually a spot where many restaurants all congregate and specialize in grilled fish. It is strange how that works since you’d think grilled fish restaurants would open far away from each other, but for some reason, many of these places are right near each other.

One such well-known grilled fish place in Seoul is Honam Jip (호남집). It is near Dongdaemun (동대문, east gate) at the busy marketplace there (specifically, Dongdaemun subway station stop exit 8). Be prepared for one of the best tasting mackerel (with rice and accompaniments of course). Do not worry if your partner is a vegetarian and/or not into fish. There are other things on the menu, but if you don’t taste the grilled fish, you are missing out.

신사임당 (Sin Saimdang), A Woman Who Defied Her Time

As Korea has been for many generations, a patriarchal society, one does not encounter too many notable ladies of noble descent. There are a number of common class ladies who were Gisengs that defied their time, but defying the traditional role as a noble lady was difficult. With transmission of Confucianism, a philosophical idea that holds appeal as a pure form, but one that I have hard time liking due to its often misogynistic nature, a life of respected noble ladies in Korea was confined to being a wife and a head of the inner household. Even if some noble ladies were well educated and accomplished through the aid of their fathers, once they were married, their life had to take a back seat to their husband’s. 

신사임당 is one lady who defied that, partly with help of her father who chose a husband for her who would let her flourish, although at the end, he also became jealous and did not act as a supportive husband. She was considered an ideal lady by Confucian standards, yet she did defy the custom of being overshadowed by her husband and male-oriented society. Her extremely accomplished poems and paintings still remain to this day.

Korean Proverbs

I spent most of my childhood hearing Korean proverbs from my grandparents and my parents, but I rarely paid much attention to them. I understood and knew many of them, but they were not something I actively thought of. The only time I actively paid attention to them was during one winter break while I was going to elementary school. Our homework was to collect at least fifty Korean proverbs and learn their meaning. Obviously as an elementary student, I promptly forgot most of the proverbs I collected after the assignment was over. Strangely, these proverbs have been appearing in my head more and more often of late. I am not sure why, but as I was describing them to my husband in English, I thought perhaps others might enjoy the wisdom of these Korean proverbs.

I mention three here to begin with, just to wet your appetite.

  • 수박 겉 핥기: In literal translation, this means “licking watermelon surface”. The older generation usually say this to the younger generation when they are doing something with no depth. Essentially, if you are reading headlines of news without really delving in to what’s going on, you have done this. It is telling you to put more effort in as your understanding is shallow.
  • 도토리 키재기: In literal translation, this means “measuring height of acorns”. Usually people say this when you are trying to make distinction in things that really make no difference. This is often said when people are arguing about something that really makes no difference.
  • 그림의 떡: In literal translation, this means “rice cake (Korean kind) in a picture”. This is said when you have something you can see and perhaps even touch, but you can’t really have it. Essentially envision that you really want that bar of chocolate, but if you can’t have it than it becomes just a thing in a picture.

Historical Women of Art and Poetry (Giseng/Kiseng, 기생)

Hwang Jin Yi

Historically in Korea, only two types of women danced professionally, 기생 (Giseng or Kiseng in old way of transliterating), and 무당 (Moodang). Moodangs were like shamans. Gisengs were like Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, except even more legitimized. They were not part of the noble class, rather, they were part of the lowest class in Korea, yet they were women of power. They were women of intellect and poise who could compose poetry better than any poet, know politics better than any politician, danced, played instruments, sang, and participated in diplomatic relations. 

One very famous Giseng named Hwang Jin Yi, often portrayed in various dramas, was so desired that one noble man who visited her when she was very old apparently fell in love with her with her beauty, which perhaps came from her intellect and poise since she by then probably had lost all her bodily beauty.

It is true that not all so-called Giseng were of this caliber. There were several tiers of Giseng and the lower tier Giseng were more like the modern-day call girls. The top tier Gisengs, however, were registered as part of government and not even high level nobility could easily touch. Gisengs started their education early in their life. Not all Giseng are born from a mother who was also Giseng, but some chose that life because perhaps they craved freedom or they had no choice because their family, even if noble, was too poor. 

Despite having much more freedom and power compared to other Korean ladies, Gisengs were still women of that era. Those who were born to Giseng could not be anything else. They were not allowed to marry a man of a noble class. And they were forever relegated to a life of a caged bird who sang for their life. There were many poems that survive from the famous Gisengs throughout history. Their poems are often poignant and sad.

More on the poetry of Giseng on my next post…

Personally I wonder what I might have done if I were born in that era. I am from a noble family root, and even though I would have had a life of privilege, my life would have been one of gilded cage. Would I have consented to life of being another’s life, life hidden away into a household? Or would I have chosen to be free and found a life of Giseng more preferable…?