Pinay Migrants Gasp for Air in South Korea’s Closed Society

Remedios Ramel with daughter, Nelgilyn (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

Remedios Ramel with daughter, Nelgilyn (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

"What do you say when your daughter says she has found the man in her life, he’s a foreigner, and she has to live very far away? You just weep, but you don’t let her know,” Remedios Ramel, 53, says sadly. This diminutive widow from San Mariano, Isabela did laundry for several households so that her daughter Nelgilyn could go to college and find a nice job. But after only three days of dating, Nelgilyn, 24, decided to marry a Korean. For Remedio, the suddenness of it all still cuts like a knife.

Rosa Tamidles, 56, who sells banana-cue on Legarda Street in Manila, on the other hand, says marrying a Korean was a dream-come-true for her daughter, Ester Duzon, 25, who had always wanted to go abroad.

Although Ester did not go to college, and her older sisters did, she deplored the choices they made. “So many children, no jobs.” Ester shelled out for food, tuition and school projects and was left with no savings from her meager salary at a school canteen. “I said to myself, this life is not for me” and decided to enroll herself in the Korean mail-order bride catalog.

Ester Duzon with mother, husband and kids (Photo by Rochit Tañedo)

Ester Duzon with mother, husband and kids (Photo by Rochit Tañedo)

Ester and Nelgilyn are but two of some 12,000 Filipina mail-order brides, the fourth largest population of total marriage-immigrant women in South Korea. Located with the assistance of religious agencies or international marriage brokers, they came to Korea beginning in the 1990s. Motivated by practical needs, they cling to assurances from OFW networks who say that this arrangement offers a better prospect of material prosperity than being a factory worker in Taiwan or domestic helper in Tripoli. Today, Filipinas make up 15% of the documented and undocumented Filipinos in South Korea, now roughly 85,000, and mostly industrial laborers.

Bride Shortage

South Korea’s market economy ranks 13th in the world and is the most industrialized member country of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But with burgeoning wealth come the problems: the influx of foreign workers; an ageing population; a low fertility rate (as of 2009, the second lowest in the world) and a shortage of brides.

In 1993 there were more foreign husbands marrying Korean women, but after 2000, almost 75.5% of all mixed marriages in Korea were between a Korean man and a foreign bride. By 2011, there were 111,796 marriage-immigrant women in Korea from Asian counties, such as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

For the past two decades, Korean farmers and fishermen had been increasingly unable to find wives due to their low socio-economic status. “With industrialization rapidly advancing, more and more Koreans from the countryside have flocked to the cities. For those choosing to remain in the farms, there have been significantly less opportunity to marry since Korean women aspire to higher standards of living and benefits only available in the cities.” says Jung Bub Mo, anthropologist and former director of the NGO, Asian Bridge Philippines.

By 1992 this social problem had spread to the urban setting as well. Korean men in the factories had a harder time finding a Korean woman to marry them. But this was due as well to selective abortion, the effects of which had become evident by 1992. With the advent of ultrasound facilities in the early 1980s, the selective abortion of female fetuses became a serious problem in Korea.

Although today the gender ratio at birth has normalized at 100.6 boys for every 100 girls, eligible Korean women have gone to college, and found highly paid jobs and thus prefer well-educated, equally upwardly mobile Korean men. Many have chosen to postpone marriage to a later date, sometimes foregoing childbearing altogether.

Quick Courtships

“At age 34, I knew I was too old to look for a Korean wife,” said Ester’s husband, Park Jeong Yin*, a tall and shy factory worker from Pohang City. “My mother was getting old and kept pressuring me to find a wife, so I did try these matchmaking agencies, [still a booming business in Korea], but because they grade applicants according to income, I always didn’t make the grade.”

Ester Duzon's husband "Park Yeong Jin" (fake name) and child (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

Ester Duzon's husband "Park Yeong Jin" (fake name) and child (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

He soon found a friend who was married to a foreigner. Although he had heard heart-breaking stories of foreigner wives running away, his friend said a Filipino matchmaking service might offer better chances since Jeong Yin could speak “a few basic English words, and so could Filipinas.”

Jeong Yin did not waste time and found a Manila intermediary who showed him potential candidates online. “The candidates’ responses to a 40-question survey were more or less the same for all applicants, said Jeong Yin, “so you tend to go by the photographs.” With his choices down to four, he soon arrived in Manila with a dozen other men in 2007. His first choice was only 20 years old, a 17-year difference between them. “I must admit that I was greatly attracted to her. But after our first date, I thought, how could we have a life together? You see, she wanted to come to Korea and be a singer. So, I said I might give the next one (Ester) a try. Her reason for going to Korea: ‘I want to help my husband’.”

Jeong Yin, cradling his one-year-old daughter, pauses for some time, recalling that crucial decision. “When a woman answers like that, you could tell yourself – maybe it’s not true. It does hit you. But you are searching and hoping. I guess it was the kind of thing I wanted to hear.”

The dream of relative independence and having one’s own flat went bust as soon as the Filipina brides arrived in Korea, for it is the “shee-uh-muh-nee” (mother-in-law in Korean) who is the authority in the home, not her son.

A second date was arranged with the bubbly Ester, who claims she’d been rejected by a Korean twice before. “She was outgoing and sociable, always finding out what’s the problem; while I was the introvert. I felt she could belong anywhere.” After the second date, Jeong Yin proposed marriage and met his prospective in-laws at their residence.

Ester’s home, an 8-square meter accessoria atop the estero bordering San Beda College on Mendiola can be reached through a maze of narrow alleys, its makeshift stairs requiring the skills of Spiderman. “It opened my eyes,” said Jeong Yin, seeing where and how his future bride lived. “I knew I could offer her something more,” he says modestly.

Mother-In-Law Rules!

When asked what is the key question they should have asked on the first date, the Pinay wives chorused: “Do you still live with your mother?”

They all admit that the dream of relative independence and having one’s own flat went bust as soon as they arrived in Korea, for it is the “shee-uh-muh-nee” (mother-in-law in Korean) who is the authority in the home, not her son.

Not only does she demand the Korean way of domestic servitude in cooking and house cleaning, she has to be served and also has to eat ahead of the rest. She also knows that her son spent a huge amount to find a wife, so she expects obedience as a return on investment.

Glaring differences in food culture result in skirmishes every day. For example, Koreans have three full meals a day and no in-betweens so some feel slighted that the wives eat only a small portion of what is served. Preparing snacks is forbidden, but Pinays confess to going dizzy without them. How come, shee-uh-muh-nee asks, there’s just too much cooking oil and soy sauce used for sautéing when meals should only be steamed or boiled. Filipinas, in turn, are freaking out from left-overs left to ferment in the fridge as “búro” or fermented foods which are Korean staples.

Then there is the matter of children. Some wives noticed a big change in attitude once they were pregnant. “My mother-in-law changed her tone of voice, and was just so solicitous, I was so surprised,” says one. Another felt her mother-in law was crossing the line when she admonished: “Now that the baby is here, you should focus on the baby and not yet sleep with my son!”

Practical Needs

The second question Pinays ask has to do with finances. Having been former breadwinners, Pinay wives say they still badly need to send money back home. Before the advent of smart phones, they demanded an allowance for long-distance calls.

Dr. Carolyn Uy Ronquillo, professor at Woosong University in Daejon observes that conflicting mindsets about marriage prevail. “The Korean says: once married, you focus on nothing but your husband and children. But the Filipina says marriage means you don’t forsake your own family even as you gain a new one.”

But Jihyun Kim, in a 2014 study on Filipina wives’ acculturation in South Korea, asserts that the migrant wife would not have the freedom to choose how she wants to acculturate while living with a Korean husband. Thus, Ronquillo exhorts her cadre of young Filipinas to learn the Korean language seriously as it is crucial to survival and also has a significant influence on their children’s development and school performance.

Bullying/Wang Ta

Jung Bub Mo cites that in this rapidly multicultural environment, Korea may be guilty of “GNP racism” where foreigners are judged according to whether they came from wealthy (high Gross National Product) or poorer countries.

He adds that many mixed children are often the targets of “Wang Ta” or school bullying. Thirty-four percent (34%) of the children say they get picked on “because my mother is a foreigner,” 20% cite “problem with communication,” and 15% say “no special reason.” Wang Ta is also one of the reasons why there is a huge disparity between Koreans and multi-ethnic children in school. Korean children in general finish elementary, middle school, high school, and 90% of them are in college while among mixed children, only 80+% finish elementary and middle school, and only 65% finish high school.

A Closed Society

To address the migrants’ adaptation woes the NGO, Asian Bridge, launched the first Meet the Parents in 2010, flying in elderly folk of various nationalities to Seoul but found that not having a common language was counter-productive. The following year they decided to bring in parents from one country at a time.

Meet the Parents Welcome Banner, Seoul, South Korea (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

Meet the Parents Welcome Banner, Seoul, South Korea (Photo by Rochit Tañedo) 

“It’s a reality that there is discrimination in Korean society as a whole as ours is really a closed society. We’ve never been a melting pot, and we’re not really used to foreigners. Inclusiveness is important, and not only preserving the Korean bloodline,” says Kwang Jin Cho, a longtime ally of Filipino civil society and Board Chairman of Asian Bridge Daegu. “These intermarriages were so rare before but now you see a ‘mixed child’ in every class in elementary and middle school,” observes Jin Cho.

Rules Are Rules

Then there is the question of divorce. Korea is second only to the United States which has the highest divorce rate in the world. The proportion of divorce among Korean men and foreign brides is higher by 12% than Korean couples. This is largely due to the age gap that averages 12.1 years between a Korean man and a foreign spouse while the average gap between a Korean man and a Korean woman is only 2.2 years. Between Filipina spouses and their Korean husbands, the average age gap is 16 years.

When Cynthia Hidalgo, 30, divorced her violent husband in 2009, she was unable to establish financial capability thus she lost custody of her two older sons and was only awarded the youngest child. Without alimony, she eventually had to send the toddler to her mother in the Philippines so that she could work.

In a heart-tugging moment at the Meet the Parents reunion, her 5-year-old son struggled to break free from her embrace and ran to his Lola. She had become a stranger to him.

Recently Park Sung Min, Asian Bridge trustee, brought to the Ministry of Justice a Filipina who had fled her home as her husband threatened to kill her. But the ministry insisted the filing of divorce was a few days overdue and the woman had to be processed for deportation. Sung Min tried to explain that it was a question of survival from a very violent husband. The officer said “rules are rules.”

According to a Geert Hoftstede study, South Korea is considered a collectivistic society. This manifests in the long-term commitment to the member-group. Loyalty is paramount and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. It also exhibits “high uncertainty avoidance,” maintaining rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. In this culture, there is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work).

Pastor Park Sung Min, Asian Bridge trustee, laments this lack of flexibility. “The barometer for calling ourselves an advanced society is how we treat migrants--those who are invisible and who will settle for so little. That is why we invited even the politicians. They have to invest in programs and policies that protect the human rights of migrants, too.”


Through the years, many Filipinas have flocked to the migrant centers in the cities to share serious problems, mostly on the linguistic adaptation, social isolation, and racial discrimination that they face.

Inside a store, a Korean may unwittingly be asked outright: “How much did you have to spend to get your wife?”

“Of course, you feel the discrimination the minute you are on the sidewalk, inside the bus, at the market, everywhere,” says Fe Vedeja, 47, who came to Korea in 1999. “You know they look down on you because you married a Korean because of money,” bristles this former public school teacher who swears that her marriage is anything but that.

Matched by and married under the Unification Church, she had to undergo a 40-day seminar to absorb the values of the church, specifically, the wife’s obedience to the husband. But very quickly, her world crumbled when her father-in-law fell ill from intestinal cancer and her husband had to sell their farm. Things took a turn for the worse when their house was demolished due to a road widening program. Shortly after, she lost her firstborn, and then had to take care of an ailing mother-in-law. Thus, Fe has been the breadwinner from Day One, teaching English to Koreans.

Compared with other nationalities, the Filipinas seem to be able to make good use of the counseling sessions there. “It is way easier to establish rapport with Filipinas since they are able and willing to verbalize their feelings,” says Kim Jea Yun, social worker at Dong-gu Multicultural Family Support Center in Daejon.

While a few husbands say that these counseling sessions have proved therapeutic on their marriage, some Korean mothers-in-law still insist on taking their daughters-in-law to and from the center for fear that they might run away, or suspect that there might be some hanky-panky going on when Filipinas speak in Filipino. One resentful Pinay wife says: “But this is my down-time from all her meddling.”

The Role of 'Host'

Iric C. Arribas, then Chargé d’Affaires (now posted in Saudi Arabia) cited the positive steps towards the regulation of Filipinos’ employment permits.

After two years of stay in Korea, foreign spouses have two options: an F5 visa for Permanent Residency; and F7 visa for Naturalization (obtaining nationality) which may be acquired though the following: 1) if marital status is maintained 2) if marriage is not kept, it must be due to death and disappearance of Korean spouse 3) if it is proven that the Korean spouse is responsible for the divorce and 4) having under-aged children of a Korean spouse to look after.

Foreigners holding an F-5 visa who have lived in Korea for three consecutive years after obtaining their F-5 status are allowed to vote.

There are recent gains in Korean Civil Law. Uncontested and contested divorce proceedings may be completed in one day. English-speaking, procedure-trained volunteers are on hand to assist foreign spouses. Said volunteers translate and explain all the documents to the parties and are also present when the couple appears before the judge. The contents of the petition are read aloud and if both agree and say “yes,” the judge declares the couple divorced and the petitioning process is complete.

“These are manifestations of South Korea’s acceptance of its role as host,” Arribas says.

Ignorance vs. Compassion

For the Philippines, the pre-departure orientation seminar Filipina brides must attend is apparently insufficient. At the Korean Embassy, Korean men marrying foreign brides are given a two-hour talk, but there is no discussion of country-specific issues. Moreover, it is conducted in Korean and foreign spouses are not addressed.

“Efforts such as the Asian Bridge’s “Meet the Parents” provide a positive step though not far-reaching enough. It’s a temporary two-week relief, but afterwards it’s a one-way street again, where the Korean rules, says the social worker Kim Jea Yun.

“Koreans have not an iota of knowledge of the desperate situations of the wives. The Korean man and his mother probably ought to visit the Philippines and see how the other half lives. It can go either way, but we have to take that risk. Because that experience can lead to compassion and that is what we need.”

*NOTE: Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of Korean husbands.

Rochit I. Tañedo is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. In 2012, she accompanied forty parents of migrants to Korea. Since then, the Pinay wives, with the help of women’s NGOs and church institutions have advocated more fiercely for their rights through social media.