Sadness of Having a Third Daughter

Despite all her brilliance, my grandmother initially had two daughters. Not having a son was of course a woman’s issue in those days. The science now shows it is really a man that is crucial to determination of sex, but in those days, people just assumed it was woman’s fault if she could not have a son. When my grandmother was about to have her third child, she was called to her husband’s household to have the child there. Everyone had wanted a son and thought the third child must be a son and therefore should be properly birthed at the family house. Although my grandparents lived in the capital, my grandmother traveled to my grandfather’s rural family holding.

Unfortunately, the third child also ended up being a daughter, my mother to be exact. Having birthed another daughter, my grandmother was not exactly treated well. Normally after birth, if it was the birth of a son I suppose, women are given seaweed soup (helps with blood loss, etc.) and taken care of. None of that happened for my grandmother. She was essentially ignored at my grandfather’s household out in the middle of nowhere. He was not there obviously since he was still studying in the capital. I can just imagine what my grandmother had felt. especially after growing up in a rich household with more freedom than other women and having studied medicine abroad.

Thankfully, my great grandmother came to the rescue. My great grandmother (everyone called her 진진 할머니) bought a very expensive dried seaweed, a package that was about half her body size, and other food items. Then she literally hired a motorcycle man out of nowhere to motorcycle her way into the mountain top household. Entering her daughter’s husband’s household, she took over the kitchen, made the seaweed soup and proceeded to feed her daughter. Normally this would be unthinkable. Usually the mother of the married daughter should act humble so that her daughter does not get mistreated. My great grandmother, although she is the most womanly and motherly person, defied such custom. Needless to say, no one dared oppose her as she stayed with her daughter for a while to take care of her after the childbirth.

Go great grandmother! Maybe I take after both of these great ladies…one can only hope.

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.

Why sons?

You learn about gender inequality early in your life in Korea. The idea of male superiority infuses into your life, almost as you are born…as people questioned my mother why after having a second daughter and the last child she will be able to have, my mother was still happy to have me.

My father was the 5th first son of the generation of first sons, carrying on supposedly an important noble lineage (although not as famous as my mother’s ancestors). That meant he needed to have a son, and if he did not, adopt a son of one of his brother’s children as his own. Even at a very early age, I was aware of these questions. When I was very young, I remember my sister telling me I have to be like a son to my father because he did not have one. As though not having a son is such a bad thing. A message received…being born as a girl is something to be unhappy about.

Thankfully my father never adopted any of my uncle’s sons and he did at least send a message to his daughters that women are equal to men, at least his daughters I guess. Of course, what he preached never really showed in his behavior toward my mother. So the next message received…wives were indeed not equal to husbands.

Then there are messages from your schoolmates in the elementary school, those who will tell you that boys are superior to girls. Sadly so many girls truly believe that by then, since that is how they grew up. If a girl has a brother, the treatment toward the younger or older brother is so obviously better that it is hard to ignore. When girls receive top marks, which I have done often, it is often because they are lucky or they are still young so when they grow up, things will change. Another message received…boys are indeed superior to girls.

I have received so many messages in my life, and not just as I was growing up in Korea. I am glad that I escaped to a country with more equality although I have experienced rampant sexism in the U.S. as well. At least my life is not all about getting skinny and finding a husband, a pattern which even very accomplished and smart ladies of Korea seem to fall into.

What is strange is that, at many points in Korean history, there were queens, and women of extraordinary abilities who were never forgotten. What has happened to our society to change that?

I am still waiting to receive that message…