Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I've Been Trying Every Night
All of my students in this particular class were assigned to speak on the subject of “What is the most serious problem in Korea?” Lee intended to use the inquiry as a lead-in to the main body of his speech, which was about the unemployment rate in Korea. No one responded to his rhetorical question, but he succeeded in prompting dialogue when he provided an answer of his own: “My goal in life was always to get married,” he said.
Lee had done so sometime before that, no small accomplishment for a Korean guy in his mid-20s who is not yet employed (you’d also think that the fact that he looked not a day over 16 would also hurt his chances). Before he could continue, a follow-up query came out of the audience: “What about being a father?”
Having not expected a response, he paused momentarily, but not much longer than that. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I try every night!”
Lee got a pretty good grade on his speech, but as an aside I told him that there were certain things I, and his classmates, really didn’t need to know.
His remark does gel with the impression I’ve gotten of Korean people, however, in that they really like the idea of having a family of their own. This contrasts greatly with the American men of Lee’s age that I know, most of whom regard every day that they remain unmarried as one more potential day of carefree partying that will more than make up for the cereal and burnt toast they have to eat every morning.
A lot of Korean guys, however, can’t wait for marriage, and generally try to do so by the time they’re 28 or, like me, 29. One of their biggest obstacles toward doing so is the Korean job market, which is saturated with young jobseekers, all of whom have been studying English, Chinese characters, HTML and Linux for years, and many of whom can play the clarinet.
The other major obstacle is Korean women, who have recently started making headway into the job market of this deeply-traditional country and many of whom are in no hurry to jeopardize their career trajectories just so a Korean guy can spend his evenings trying to become a father.
Upon my arrival in Korea more than three years ago, I found a lot I could relate to in the average local male. Like them, I hadn’t done as much dating in my 20s as the average American guy, preferring to spend many of my evenings and some of my weekends working late or reading. It’s not for everybody, but I personally found it very rewarding: I may not have had as many girlfriends as some of my peers, but unlike them, I know the definition of the word “euphonious.”
Like many Korean men, I looked forward to marriage, betting that the loss of short-term carefree partying opportunities would be offset by the benefits of living with someone who could toast bread without blackening it, and who could recognize mildew. What I couldn’t relate to nearly as well as the tendency of most Korean men to have children right away after getting married. I wondered if they had some aversion to having money to keep in their savings account.
Furthermore, pretty much everyone says that once you’ve succeeded in becoming a father you’re going to spend a lot less time (ahem) trying to become one in the future.
This year, just before my 29th birthday, I was excited to have finally acquired a wife of my own from among the local populace. I was somewhat less thrilled by some of the things she said, such as, in response to a question of how many children she wanted to have: “As many as possible!” Other statements used to put me at ease had mixed results, such as “My mother can help us raise it.”
That’s great, I thought, but I have a really good chance of paying off my school loans soon. Furthermore, that plan of yours would entail spending more time with your mother. And less time trying.
You can then probably imagine my surprise when my wife’s pregnancy test recently came back positive. I was startled at how rapidly I seem to be growing up this year, at how fertile my wife and I seem to be, and most bizarrely, how okay with it I am. Unlike many other couples currently striving, I have brought new life into the world without really planning to. My child will almost certainly grow up multi-lingual and experience a lot more of the world than I was able to at a young age.
It may not have been my goal in life, but some of the greatest accomplishments in life are achieved without trying.
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