Sunday, January 20, 2008

Interracial Marriages

South Korean society is smitten with the issue of ``interracial'' or ``mixed'' marriages ― typically rural Korean bachelors marrying (South East) Asian women. Statistics are always cited: percentages, divorce rates, projected percentages of future mixed-marriage offspring and so on.
Others speak of mixed-marriage repercussions on Korea's ``ethnic homogeneity'' with some assuming that such homogeneity has always been and others implying that it never has been. Amidst a rocketing divorce rate, others speak of ``saving'' these marriages, most commonly referring to communication differences, both cultural and linguistic.

In fact, there's never a shortage of discussion on the various ways an interracial marriage can be undermined: miscommunication, or the inability to communicate at all, deceit on either side, pressure, and cultural dislocation.

What is never entertained, however, is the possibility that many of these marriages never had a chance to begin with and what Korean culture needs is to engage a self-monologue exposing various aspects of its culture that validate this.

Three such aspects, each of which I will briefly outline below, should be indispensable to any discussion of interracial marriages: lack, power, and fetishism.

In a recent article on Korea's interracial marriages one Korean marriage broker speaking to a fellow Korean client, is cited as telling him that ``the [Vietnamese] women have come out looking their best for you. But don't expect them to look as pretty as Korean women." Perhaps this broker is employing an anxiety-inducing sales tactic by imploring the men to make haste in securing a bride and not to be too picky.

After all, if they do not succeed in Vietnam then perhaps they are not likely to be capable of succeeding elsewhere, least of all in Korea where, as the media and others tell us, their low-income lifestyles, older ages, previous marriage failures, and various problems often kept secret from future brides, guarantee them almost unmarriageable status.

Most significant is the sense of lack built into the very process of corresponding with the broker and, therefore, the denting of marriage before it has even begun.

When the women are described as good, however much they may be lacking a Korean woman's beauty, and the men implored not to compare them to Korean women, the implicit logic is that Vietnamese women are a compromise, or supplemental, essentially a reserve since they are settled upon in place of other women lacking but otherwise more desired.

Accordingly, a man is being encouraged to both pursue one woman while simultaneously desiring another, at once summoning his desire while displacing it elsewhere.

Despite this lacking within mixed-marriages, both in the sense of unfulfilled desires for unattainable Korean others, and as signifying all the social shortcomings that necessitate such marriages in the first place, it is, however, far from the mark of social abjection.

In fact, in so far as these marriages are a many sided, often contradictory, discourse in South Korean culture, what marks inadequacy can also mark privilege. Ironically, it is this very institution which signifies lack that also allows them to compensate for it, carrying within it acts (en)gendering social privilege, or, at least, a certain socially masculine prowess, namely power and fetishism.

In ``Notes from the Underground'' Dostoyevsky portrays a man, the nameless main character, who fantasizes about saving Liza, a woman in a precarious predicament.

But it is obvious that this fantasy played out with Liza was intended to stay no more than just a fantasy, for he is in no financial and psychological condition to be assuming himself a savior of another.

In the end the underground man expresses, with paroxysmal force, his insecurities and weaknesses, the social trembling and trepidation of one bent on establishing power over another as a result of above everything else being so powerless himself.

To both the reader and Liza, the figure he cut before meeting her in his home in all his shame turns out to be not his fact but his fantasy, perfectly incapable of being another's benefactor when he himself has fallen so far, or, was never so high enough to have fallen at all.

Unfolding throughout is the often hidden hand of male-centered power in relationships where poverty and sexuality are inextricably compounded to evoke a gendered desire for the abject but salvageable ``fallen woman.''

No comments: