Wed to Strangers, Vietnamese Wives Build Korean Lives


Seokyong Lee for The New York Times

Kim Wan-su, left, and To Thi Vien at a ceremony in October near Seoul. They were legally married months earlier when Mr. Kim took a five-day tour to Vietnam to find a bride.

Article Tools Sponsored By By NORIMITSU ONISHI Published: March 30, 2008

KWANGMYONG, South Korea — The two couples’ baby girls were born last month only two days apart, the younger one on the morning of the Lunar New Year. Each girl, everyone later agreed, had her Korean father’s forehead and her Vietnamese mother’s nose.

It was one year ago that the girls’ fathers had gone to Vietnam and, in the first two hours of a five-day marriage tour, plucked their mothers out of two dozen prospective brides at the Lucky Star karaoke bar in Hanoi.

Bound by fate and the rhythms of immigration bureaus, the brides, Bui Thi Thuy and To Thi Vien, had landed together in South Korea wondering what kind of place this would be and how their husbands would treat them.

“I feel we share a special bond because we were married on the same date and we both married Korean men,” Ms. Vien said. “We’re the same age and we became mothers almost at the same time.”

And so both new mothers now follow Korean custom by eating seaweed soup to recover their strength. Here in Kwangmyong, a city outside Seoul with a concentration of foreign workers and foreign women married to Korean men, Ms. Vien, 23, lives at the family home of her husband, Kim Wan-su, 40, a factory worker. Ms. Thuy, 23, settled with her husband, Kim Tae-goo, 56, in Yongju, a rural town southeast of Seoul where they grow apples.

The two couples, whose five-day courtship, wedding and honeymoon in Vietnam were described a year ago in an article in The New York Times, are part of a social phenomenon in South Korea. A combination of factors — including the rising social status of Korean women and a surplus of bachelors resulting from a traditional preference for sons — is forcing many Korean men to seek brides in Southeast and Central Asia and China.

In a country that defines itself as ethnically homogenous, marriages to foreigners accounted for one of eight marriages in 2006, more than triple the rate in 2000. In working-class areas southwest of Seoul, like Kwangmyong, community centers now offer services for foreign wives: Korean language classes, assistance with childbirth and for victims of domestic violence, advice on living in South Korea and with the in-laws.

But cultural gaps sometimes make it difficult to reach out to such wives.

“Chinese wives have their own outside network, so they tend to be assertive, and women from the Philippines speak English, so they are confident, but other women, like the Vietnamese, are shy about seeking advice and expressing their problems,” said Kim Myung-soon, a social worker at the Yeongdeungpo Social Welfare Center near here. “They tend to be submissive and smile at their in-laws even if there are problems. And one day they’re gone.”

Han Kuk-yeom, president of the Korea Women Migrants Human Rights Center, a private organization, said the government had not done enough to secure the rights of foreign wives or protect them from abuse.

Some men believe they are permitted to mistreat the women because they paid for the marriage tours and the weddings, and tend to look down on women from poorer countries, Ms. Han said. And the booming international marriage industry has drawn increasingly poor and vulnerable women here.

“Until about three years ago, more educated women tended to come to Korea, but as there are more international marriages, less educated and poorer women are coming to Korea,” Ms. Han said. “And they seem to have a harder time adapting to life in Korea, learning the language and so on.”

Divorce has risen among Korean men married to foreigners, according to government statistics. But it is too early to draw meaningful comparisons with the divorce rate of marriages between Koreans, which has also risen sharply in recent years.

Given the way they meet, both Korean husbands and their foreign wives have anxieties, as Kim Wan-su, removing ear plugs, explained during a lunch break from his job at a car key factory.

While foreign wives worry about how their husbands will treat them, Korean men harbor suspicions that the women married them merely to qualify for work here and to send money to their parents. When Ms. Vien’s parents in Vietnam heard that a Vietnamese bride in Korea had killed herself, they called in a panic. And Mr. Kim fretted after hearing that three brides who had come to South Korea through his wife’s agency had left their husbands shortly after arriving.

“I was worried that my wife would run away, too, but I’m not worried anymore,” Mr. Kim said. “We have a child, and we are a family. My wife didn’t come here to make money.”

While Mr. Kim was at work, Ms. Vien was taking care of their newborn at home. With the birth of their daughter, Dan-bi, Ms. Vien had stopped going twice a week to the local community center where she had befriended a woman from her home, Van Don Island, in Vietnam’s northeast. Ms. Vien had dropped out of college, where she had studied management, because her father, a farmer, could not afford the tuition.

In Kwangmyong, the couple lives with Mr. Kim’s mother and his older sister’s family — a total of nine people — on one floor of a three-story brick building on a narrow street. The older sister, Kim Ho-sook, had welcomed Ms. Vien and helped deflect the Kims’ 80-year-old mother, who was unhappy about the arrival of a foreign bride and said repeatedly that it would lead to the family’s downfall.

Last fall, the day before the couple held an elaborate wedding ceremony here after their quick wedding in Hanoi, the elderly mother — whose unhappiness was compounded by Alzheimer’s disease — ran away from home for 12 hours. The family tried to hide her disappearance from Ms. Vien and her parents, who had come to South Korea for the wedding. “But somehow Vien guessed what was happening and she started crying,” the sister-in-law said.

Last month, the day before Ms. Vien was scheduled to leave the hospital, her mother-in-law disappeared again, displeased that the baby was not a son.

“My mother still won’t even look at the baby,” the sister-in-law said. “She tells me not to like the child because it’s not a boy.”

Complicating matters, doctors recently diagnosed a hole in the baby’s heart and are not sure whether it will close on its own.

“I miss my mother a lot, especially these days,” Ms. Vien said. “I’m Vietnamese and everyone around me is Korean, so I feel a lot more ease talking to my mother. We can be on the phone for hours.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, with the baby sleeping peacefully, Ms. Vien seemed in better spirits. She and her husband sat on the living room couch, often holding hands and showing the kind of affection they had displayed during the first week of their meeting.

Both said they were more committed than ever to building a life together, though they acknowledged gaps in culture and language. Their biggest arguments have occurred after he has gone drinking with co-workers and broken a promise to come home at a certain hour.

“I’m a working man, and she doesn’t understand that going out drinking with your co-workers is a necessity in Korean culture,” Mr. Kim said. “I feel that Vien thinks I didn’t keep my promise because she’s from a foreign country and I look down on her.”

Ms. Vien said that was not the case. “I’m your wife, and I don’t like it when you come home so late; nobody in the family likes that,” she said. “I get frustrated and worried. If I were Korean, I’d be less worried, because I’d understand exactly where you were. But I don’t.”

Ms. Thuy said, as she tucked in her daughter, Hyo-min, in the one-story red brick house that her husband, Kim Tae-goo, recently had built in Yongju, a two-hour drive from Seoul, “I’m going crazy because I can’t communicate with my husband.”

Ms. Thuy (pronounced TOO-ey), who finished high school in her hometown, Quang Yen, in northeastern Vietnam and soon after started seeking a husband, said she found learning Korean difficult. But Mr. Kim said she was not trying hard enough.

“She’ll repeat a word just a couple of times and then give up,” Mr. Kim said. “She should appreciate the fact that I’m trying to teach her. Our biggest arguments have been over this.”

“He doesn’t try to speak Vietnamese,” she said, adding that he knew only how to say “hello” and “how are you?”

They live with Mr. Kim’s mother and his 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage. (His first wife was Korean.) At home, though, Ms. Thuy seldom speaks with her in-laws.

“My daughter referred to her only once as ‘mother,’” Mr. Kim said. “But my mother and daughter don’t dislike Thuy.”

Ms. Thuy has yet to make friends outside. Although several other Vietnamese wives live in the area, Ms. Thuy, in a sign of the lingering regionalism seen among many Vietnamese wives, does not socialize with them because they are from Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, in the south.

“They’re from Ho Chi Minh, so whenever I run into them, we greet each other,” she said, adding that she found it difficult to befriend them.

The birth of their daughter, coinciding with a lull in the apple farming season, has given the marriage fresh meaning, the couple said. Mr. Kim, who participated little in child-rearing during his first marriage, is now actively involved, scouring the Internet for information on everything from breast milk to hiccupping to diapers, while Ms. Thuy never lets the child out of her sight.

Sometimes they reminisce about their first meeting at the Lucky Star in Hanoi.

He picked her, she teased, only after his first three choices had turned him down. He had seemed rich, she said, and she liked that he was a farmer, like her father.

“I would have led a much more difficult life in Vietnam, because people are still poor there,” she said.

He indicated that he was glad about the outcome, too. “I don’t want to sound as if I’m looking down on Thuy,” he said. “But if I had married someone who was more educated or taller, I don’t think she would have been happy here with me. So I think we are a good match for each other.”