Identity as a Foreign Wife in Korea

Now that I’m married to a Korean native and living in Korea, what do I call myself? I used to identify as an expat (as that’s what most Westerners call themselves when moving abroad for work). But now I only work part-time and my job does not make up an important part of my identity anymore. I don’t fully consider myself a teacher, though maybe that’s an attempt to get away from the label as just another teacher living in South Korea.

So should I call myself a trailing spouse? After all, I did mainly move to Korea to be with my husband and start a life here with him. And being a married woman now makes up a large part of my identity. But the term trailing spouse also sounds as though I would follow him anywhere, whereas both of us made the decision to live in Korea, as it’s a place that we both enjoy and can see ourselves long-term. My husband’s also expressed his desire to move abroad down the road should we find a reason to.

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In the future, I want to take the citizenship test in Korea and become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Korea. It would make everything much easier, especially if we have kids and raise them in Korea. The Korean passport is also one of the most powerful passports in the world, so I would be upgrading my status in the world in a sense.

Koreans use the word ‘우리’ (we/our) for a lot of things. The word is used to replace me or my. In a collectivist society made up of a very patriotic and homogenous people, the word makes sense. They say ‘우리 아들’ (our son) and ‘우리 아내’ (our wife) instead of my. At first, I thought it was strange, but I’m even comfortable using it now. However, they also use it when they talk about Korea. Instead of saying the country’s name, they say ‘우리 나라’ which means ‘our country’.

I asked my husband if, in the future, were I to become a citizen of Korea, would I be allowed to use the phrase ‘our country’ when speaking with Koreans. He told me that I would probably get strange looks and that it might not be acceptable to many Koreans. I can understand that, having lived in Japan, where I know people who have lived for over 10 years and are still only seen as gaijin (foreigner), mostly because of the way they look. Even those who were raised in Japan and are of Japanese heritage, if they look more Western than not, are not considered Japanese at first glance.

In Korea, I have a lot of privileges as the wife of a Korean native. I’m taken more seriously in some regard, and people are interested in me as a foreigner but I don’t get completely bombarded with questions about what I’m doing in Korea and what I know about the culture. However, it is also difficult because I’m expected to know how to do things that I still don’t understand, such as being a daughter-in-law (며느리) and all the tasks that come with being the wife of an only son.

I am getting used to cooking and keeping our house clean in case guests come over, and I have to suck it up and say, “Yes,” whenever my mother-in-law or sisters-in-law tell me to do something. Had I married an American, I would most likely be able to assert my opinion more, but here I am expected to help out, greet everyone, and I’m not really allowed to express my opinions. Especially if they go against the grain.

Later, if Junkyu and I become parents, I will most likely be referred to as ____’s mom. My name will become a less relevant detail to most people. I noticed this for the first time in Japan, and it bothered me to tell the truth. I didn’t want to have to lose my identity as a whole person, should I become a mother. My sisters-in-law don’t even refer to one another by name. Most of the time, they will say, “Hey ____’s mom, can you pass me that?”

I understand that it’s the Korean culture, but it will definitely take some time to get used to that. Husbands and wives also stop calling one another by name when they have children. A lot of the time, they call each other “mom” or “dad”. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in English, because it does, but I think it is definitely more prominent in Asian culture.

However, having lived abroad many times and in many different contexts, I think I can safely say that I am the most confident in who I am at this point in time. When I was a student in Japan, I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘the foreigner’. When I worked in Japan, my identity as a teacher was strong, and I wanted to present myself as a good ambassador for my country and culture.

Now, I am free to be myself. I am a wife, but that is not the entirety of my existence. I have a voice and I am still learning how to use it. And I still have a lot of studying to do before I will be able to completely express myself and my identity in my third language.

6 thoughts on “Identity as a Foreign Wife in Korea

  1. Holy cow. I thought only American kids referred to a classmate’s mom as “so-and-so’s mom.” Wow. Is this the case for boy’s and girls? Do father’s get referred to as “so-and-so’s DAD?” Because, if not, I think I have steam at the patriarchy coming out my ears.

    1. Well I think it depends on who is talking. I have heard the men referred to as so-and-so’s dad, but if it’s like the man’s boss or friend then they use their name. I’m sure that goes for women, too. Friends who knew each other before they have kids generally use each other’s names. But teachers and the people you meet as a parent (aka other parents) use it they way I described. I don’t even know my husband’s sisters’ names… He might have told me once but I have to call them “my husband’s sister” in Korean (which is hyung-nim). His cousins also have to call me “my cousin’s wife”. Koreans only use first names if the person they are talking to is younger than them or the exact same age (same birth year).

      Korean culture is pretty patriarchal, though. But from my experience, I see more working moms here than I did in Korea and I see a lot less overt sexism, too. Though many people will tell you the opposite. Meh.

      My mom usually refers to my childhood friends’ moms by name. So I didn’t really think it happened much in America hahaha.

  2. This is a wonderfully legit post that I thoroughly enjoyed! I actually have a blog in progress about the role of accents in shaping identity as well so this was good food for thought. Well done.

  3. Interesting to hear your thoughts and how things have changed for you! Even though I understand it, I still don’t like how to be Korean and call Korea home you have to be ethnically Korean, no matter how long you live there. Whatever you choose to refer to yourself as, you’ll still be an expat as anyone living outside of their native country is an expat, it’s not tied to working in another country. I get that that is often linked to people living shorter-term, though I tend to refer to people as either short-term or long-term expats :p

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