The Korea Herald


[AtoZ into Korean mind] World of the in-laws, where gender stereotypes persist

Why do Korean mothers-in-law act superior? The psychology behind Korea's tricky 'si-world' dynamics

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : May 19, 2024 - 17:11

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Shim Yeon-sun, 40, was surprised by her mother's behavior during her brother’s formal engagement dinner, where her family met the bride-to-be's family for the first time to discuss wedding plans.

"My mother, who presented herself modestly at my 'sanggyeonnye' by saying 'My daughter still has a lot to learn,' seemed like a completely different person that day," she said. Sangyeonnye is a pre-wedding meeting at which the families of the bride and groom meet for the first time.

She continued describing how her mother openly displayed a sense of superiority in the interaction with he soon-to-be daughter-in-law.

At one point, Shim's mother looked directly into her future daughter-in-law's eyes and asked, "Do you have any plans on what to do about breakfasts?"

"I was truly taken aback to see my mom behaving like a stereotypical Korean mother-in-law, implying that the wife should cook her husband breakfast," Shim said.

"Besides, my brother doesn't even eat breakfast regularly."

Welcome to ‘si-world’

To comprehend Shim’s mother’s sudden change in attitude, one must first grasp the Korean concept of "si-world." "Si," translating to "in-law," is a Korean prefix used to denote a relationship formed through marriage.

For those in the si-world, the status of being an in-law seems to transport some people back centuries, to a time when wives were expected to be docile, meek and submissive. Here, today's young Korean women, who increasingly pursue careers, care about gender equality and believe in equal contributions to housekeeping, confront gender stereotypes that they believed were fading.

In a 2022 survey by Duo, a leading matchmaking agency in Korea, the significance of future in-law parents' characteristics in the marriage decision-making process was explored. Among men, 59.2 percent indicated that it mattered slightly, while 24 percent expressed that it mattered a lot. For 12.8 percent, it did not matter much, and for 4 percent, it did not matter at all.

Among women, the results differed, with 47.2 percent stating that it mattered a lot, 46.4 percent expressing that it mattered slightly, and only 3.2 percent suggesting that it didn't matter much. Similarly, 3.2 percent of women stated that it didn't matter at all.

The survey was conducted on 250 men and 250 women who were unmarried as of June 2022.

Much of the tension and drama that arises in the si-world revolves around the relationship dynamics of the mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, with occasional tensions arising between sisters-in-law as well.

Similar to Shim’s mother, si-world's influence can cause individuals to behave differently when they find themselves in the role of a woman's mother-in-law.

This mindset is rooted in the traditional beliefs of older-generation Koreans, who were generally taught to conceive of marriage as the process of parents sending their daughter away to join her husband's household -- "sijip" in Korean -- with the expectation that she conform to the culture of the husband's family.

The use of the word "sijip" and the practice of new wives joining their husband's households can be traced back to the Joseon era (1392-1910), the governing moral code of which was Confucianism.

Kim, a 61-year-old mother of a daughter who is married, said that it is difficult to completely disregard or abandon this belief and its associated practices as an older-generation Korean.

"As the mother to a daughter, it was difficult not to worry about my daughter giving a bad first impression to her in-laws," Kim said.

When Kim’s family met for the first time with her daughter’s in-laws to discuss wedding plans, the two sides agreed not to exchange wedding gifts among family members. Nevertheless, out of concern that her daughter might get treated poorly if she didn't, Kim bought Chanel bags for her daughter’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

"My daughter was mad at me for doing this. She thought it was unnecessary, but I am sure she will come to understand me eventually," Kim said. "I simply couldn’t risk anything that might cause my daughter to suffer.”

On the other hand, newly married men are often treated by in-laws as “guests” who should be served well in their in-laws’ homes.

"My husband can easily make himself at home at my parents’ house. But honestly, it is not easy for me to do the same when I go to his parents’ house," said Lim, 30, who got married last December.

"I know that I am expected to do the dishes there or at least show that I am willing to do it."

New generations, new conflicts

A typical, “good” daughter-in-law would wholeheartedly care for her parents-in-law. In the past, when women would live with their parents-in-law, this care was more directly provided.

Now, as newlyweds live separately from their in-laws, the expectation of regularly visiting and calling them to check on their well-being has become a source of conflict for many young Korean women.

“Because expected phone calls from mothers-in-law have often been talked about negatively in the media, I don’t think mother-in-laws these days have this expectation as much,” Lim said.

Instead, such expectations have moved to online spaces like KakaoTalk, South Korea's most widely used messenger app.

“After our wedding day, my father-in-law created the infamous KakaoTalk family group chatroom. It included my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my husband and me,” Lim shared. She thought it was ridiculous because her husband’s family did not have a so-called “family group chatroom” until that point.

Her father-in-law, who is a retired teacher, shares some quotes or poems every single morning in the chatroom and Lim says that she has some difficulty responding to them.

“I feel uncomfortable not saying anything back to him,” she said. She explained that for her husband, it does not seem to bother him because he can simply not reply since he is their son, but it is not the same for her.

So as a solution, she bought a KakaoTalk emoticon set specially designed for daughters-in-law. It was the recommendation of a friend who was also dealing with the same issue.

The daughter-in-law-themed emojis encompassed diverse smiley face characters with comments like “Thank you,” “You are the best” and “That’s great."

“Now I send those without even reading the poems that my father-in-law sends me,” she said.

There is also an emoji set for sons-in-law, but she doubted many men would find it necessary to buy.

Who holds the key?

Some believe that the economic contribution of a husband’s parents to their wedding is also the key to solving this conflict.

“Honestly, I think it also has to do with how much the husband's family pays for the wedding and the couple's house. My family is not exactly rich, so my parents did not contribute much when my brother got married. I think this factor also plays a part in the fact that parents do not act superior to my sister-in-law,” Yoon Ji-youn, 30, said.

Meanwhile, many wives say that the solution to conflict with their mothers-in-law lies with their spouses.

“Even my mother believes that I should be submissive, so I don’t blame my parents-in-law for their attitude. It is just the way they are in their generation,” Ahn, 35, said. “But my husband should know better. Also, if he wants to do ‘hyodo,’ he should know that is 'self-service' and should not be forced upon wives.”

Korean term “hyodo,” or filial piety, is defined as serving and caring for one's parents and is central to Korean Confucianism.

Divorce lawyer Park Je-yeon has seen countless cases where couples end up breaking up, due to conflicts arising from their relations with in-laws, mostly between wives and their parents-in-law. She stressed the importance of the husband's role.

Park shared a case in which one husband demanded compensation from his wife, alleging that she was responsible for the breakdown of their marital relationship due to her inability to get along with his family and speaking negatively about them.

"The court acknowledged that the wife was responsible for the conflict with her in-laws, but it ordered the husband to pay 10 million won ($7,236) in alimony, as the main fault was the husband’s failure to act as a mediator," she said.