This week, the sixth graders are learning how to make comparisons. His hair is shorter than mine. I’m faster than you. The elephant is heavier than the gorilla.

My country is better than yours?

Every time I check my American news, there seems to be another attack on women. Well, not all women (actually yes, all women); not women who think that women don’t need access to birth control or abortions or whatever else an autonomous, independently-thinking woman might desire for her own life.

Let me get back to comparisons for a minute. Is it better to be a woman in Korea or in America? Usually we western women snap at the latter. America! (or Canada! or U.K.! or whatever). Korean society, while technologically advanced and economically on par with most of the Western world, is stuck in a quagmire of gender roles that harken back to 1950-60s America. Read On the Road or watch Mad Men; whether you were a homemaker, a corporate climber, or a beatnik hipster, women were getting stomped on and abused. Parents making decisions until the husband can take control; husband sniffing every skirt, chasing tail, while wifey is home with baby; girl pursued by married men or left when the men get bored; raped in the office and told to stay quiet. Whatever. It’s basically the same here. Even my most intelligent and independent Korean colleagues are still being told by their parents what they are allowed to do this weekend, are grounded for coming home late, are told they have to pursue whatever job their dad has decided for them, or told that the man they are in love with will not be permitted to ask for their hand. Yes, I’ve heard all of these things from Korean women – single adults. And the married women! The first week I was here, a young, gorgeous, funny science teacher walked in and asked me point blank if I loved my husband.

“Yes!”

“Oh…” she said wistfully. “I wish I still did.” She went on to divulge that they’d only been married a couple of years, but he worked 70 hours a week, she hadn’t been able to conceive so her in-laws were on her about that, and how she wasn’t sure what the point was anymore. I sucked my teeth together to keep my jaw off the floor.

This is the norm.

Since Americans are brought up to BE INDEPENDENT, these issues are quite troubling. But on the other hand, Korean women have a few things on us.

I can get birth control at the pharmacy, without a prescription, for about $6/month. Now, I understand that annual physicals are really important, and I have no idea how often or if ever those are scheduled by the average Korean woman. But there certainly isn’t anyone around saying that birth control shouldn’t be affordably available to anyone who wants it.

Women are PUSHED in education. My brightest and most achieving pupils are girls. I have a lot of intelligent boys, but you can see the competitive fight is strong in the girls. They want to be doctors, lawyers, scientists. Yes, some of them won’t go to college (is it sad that I can say that about elementary students?), but those who want a professional future WANT THE BEST JOBS OUT THERE, and everyone is cheering them on. I’ve heard talk from some people that Koreans still value boy babies over girls, and will keep having children until they get the coveted penis, but I have a LOT of only-children who are girls. Their parents are investing in them, not giving them the leftovers of the prized brother.

Although in many respects Korea is still a Man’s World, a woman was recently selected by the leading political party as candidate for president. There is a strong chance she will win this year’s election, and Korea might have a female President before America.

And what about America? Of course I have much more independence as an individual, but I also have been supporting myself since I was 18. Korean women (and most men) generally live at home and on their parent’s dime until they get married – university, rent, meals, all taken care of. That seems like both a pro and a con, but so does my situation. Sure, I have a loud voice with which to communicate what I want for my life and my body, but it turns out that a lot of people who don’t know me or what I want for my life have more power to make decisions for me. Why should anyone other than ME get to decide if I want to take birth control or start a family? And for that matter, just because a stranger thinks it’s wrong to have sex before marriage, why should that be the theme by which all women’s health decisions are made?

These days it seems impossible to talk to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. I am disheartened and dismayed. Because if people are making decisions for me, and nobody will listen to me, where is my voice? What is my life, and how much is it worth other than the value and role that outsiders determine?

Is my country better than yours? Honestly, American women shouldn’t feel like they are any better off than our sisters in most other countries. Recognizing that, it’s time to consider how much we want to control each other, or if it’s better to give us each the freedom to control ourselves.

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