Vietnamese study to be ‘perfect Korean wives’

‘Wife classes’ take hold in Vietnam as South Korea addresses a surge in international marriages – and its problems.

Pham Que Nguyen teaches a Korean culture class to Vietnamese wives in Ho Chi Minh City [Lien Hoang/Al Jazeera]

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Written in Vietnamese, the text implores the new brides: “Keep in mind! Rice goes on the left, soup to the right when setting the table.”

Complete with illustrations, these and other lessons from a South Korean government textbook make up courses offered throughout Vietnam for women preparing to join their husbands in the northeast Asian country.

The how-to-be-a-good-Korean-wife classes, sponsored by the South Korean government, are a product of high divorce rates among South Korean men and foreign wives, domestic violence, and family instability.

International marriages in South Korea have skyrocketed with 29,762 in 2011, compared with 4,710 in 1990, according to government-run Statistics Korea.

Kim Ki Young runs the Asia Cultural Exchange Foundation, a private Korean organisation that hosts the Korean wife classes in Ho Chi Minh City. The reality, Kim said, is that commercial brokers fly Korean men into Vietnam to meet women, and many tie the knot within a week.

“I think a lot of women come not only for economic opportunity, but they do come for marriage, they really do come for husbands who can love and support them.

– Minjeong Kim, sociologist

The South Korean government is concerned these marriages could breed greater social problems. So it is investing to increase these couples’ success rates – hence the “orientation” classes. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family contributes about US$100,000 for wife education, said Kim.

During a recent study session in Ho Chi Minh City, instructor Pham Que Nguyen covered everything from the prosaic to the paramount, from kim chi and snowy winters, to emergency numbers and dual citizenship. In breezy pedagogical style, she urged the 20 students to participate.

“If we don’t have this foreigner ID card can we work?” she asked, standing near a South Korean map and gesturing towards a slideshow presentation.

“No,” the young women replied, one after another.

As Nguyen moved to a whiteboard to translate Korean script into Vietnamese phonetics, the brides and brides-to-be followed along with language manuals. They took these home along with a “Guide to Korean Life”.

The booklet is filled with photos of traditional clothing, instructions on the difference between Korean and Vietnamese child-rearing, tips to deal with in-laws, and a reminder that having a refrigerator doesn’t mean one should keep food for more than a week.

‘Healthier’ marriages

At the South Korean Consulate here, there are three visa windows: one for marriage visas, flanked by two for general applications. The number of Vietnamese wives in South Korea has exploded in recent years, from 77 in 2000, to 7,636 in 2011 – by far the largest increase among any foreign group. Vietnam even beats China as the top wife-sending country.

A 2011 research paper in the Current Sociology academic journal attributed this spike to decades of business ties between the countries, a strong international marriage industry, and “a high rate of female singlehood and the omnipresent social pressure on East Asian men to marry at any cost”.

Minjeong Kim, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s sociology department, said the prominent role of marriage brokers has led to the jump in Vietnamese women marrying South Korean men. But the trend is shifting with many Vietnamese wives now meeting Korean husbands through relatives.

“That means now the marriage is getting healthier,” Kim Ki Young, the school’s director, said in an interview at his office above the classroom.

Korean culture class in Ho Chi Minh City [Lien Hoang/Al Jazeera]

Tran Thanh Ha said she met her 38-year-old South Korean husband through family. She’ll be reuniting with him if her visa request is granted. Ha, 19, is of typical age among Vietnamese marriage migrants.

Ha comes from Vinh Long, a province in the Mekong Delta, where the vast majority of Korean-Vietnamese matchmaking happens. She said she loves her partner and is excited to go to his homeland.

“Of course I’m scared, but my aunt lives there so I feel better,” she said after accepting her course completion certificate.

With the money from South Korea’s government, Kim’s wife-teaching programme, which began in January, has instructed about 2,000 Vietnamese women for a one-day, eight-hour class. South Korean funding also finances a similar course in Hanoi, and a three-day version in Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta.

The education centres are becoming “the place to provide important information for a great number of marriage migrant women”, Ko Si Hyun, consul of the South Korean Embassy in Hanoi, told Al Jazeera in an e-mail.

Domestic dangers

Divorce in international marriages continues to grow with 11,495 in 2011, compared with 1,694 in 2001, according to Statistics Korea. Some marriages crumble with Vietnamese women marrying for money only.    

Another factor is the large age gap between Vietnamese wives and South Korea husbands with an average 17 years’ difference, according to researchers Daniele Belanger and Tran Giang Linh.

Hard figures on domestic violence in these unions are difficult to find, as the Korean National Police Agency and Statistics Korea were unable to provide numbers. However, there have been reports of South Korean men beating and killing their foreign wives in the past, as well as migrant wives committing suicide. 

Vo Thi Minh Phuong, 27, was married to a 47-year-old South Korean man for eight years before she asked for a divorce – a request he refused to grant. Phuong had told her family that her husband regularly beat her.

Last month in the port city of Busan, Phuong took her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son up to the 18th floor of her apartment building, then jumped off with the children in her arms. She wasn’t the first Vietnamese wife to commit suicide in South Korea.

Minjeong Kim said she hopes the wife-teaching programme will help to head off violence, but for wedded bliss she said it’s not enough just to focus on language and logistics. There’s also a culture of distrust and prejudice towards the incoming spouses.

“I think a lot of women come not only for economic opportunity, but they do come for marriage, they really do come for husbands who can love and support them,” she said, based on her interviews with couples during a year of field research.

Women, for their part, fly to their new homes with flawed expectations, especially about their husbands’ socioeconomic status. All of these problems point to incompatible pairings by marriage-brokering agencies that Kim called “very irresponsible”.

Kim Ki Young at the culture school [Lien Hoang/Al Jazeera]

International marriages, however, have worked out for many couples in South Korea. Belanger and Linh have written that “marriage migration” has empowered Vietnamese women. Girls who once served their families have now become decision-makers thanks to the leverage granted to them by their marriages.

Belanger and Linh canvassed hundreds of Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta, including one family who said that “now since the daughter sends home a lot of money, everything must be approved by her and everybody in the family has to obey her”.

While the status of Vietnamese women rises in their homeland, the South Korean government is also working to achieve the same in that country.

“The government is expanding migrant wives’ social rights through these kinds of public programs,” Kim said. “They are changing laws and policies to really accommodate migrant wives.”

Source: Al Jazeera