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[Kim Seong-kon] Elegy for ‘unwanted’ Korean fathers

Recently, a poem written by an elementary school child appalled Korean fathers. It reads: “Mom I like, for she cares about me/ Fridge I like, for it gives me food/ Puppy I like, for he plays with me/ But Dad? I don’t know why I need him.” The terse poem painstakingly exposes the relentless present reality that frustrates fathers in Korea. Though many Korean fathers would be amused by this cute poem, the sense of being “not-wanted at home” would surely devastate Korean men who think they have devoted their whole lives to support their families. 

Although hard-working and conscientious at work, some Korean men may not be exceptional fathers or admirable husbands. Many have to leave home for work early in the morning and return late at night. They do not have enough time to spend with their children or wives, and thus often neglect their duties as a father and husband. Korean men tend to think, or want to believe, that as long as they fulfill their roles as the family breadwinners, they can be respected and exempt from any responsibilities at home. Contrary to their wishful thinking, however, their children and wives will grudgingly remember their absence, indifference and negligence for a long time.

Exhausted from a demanding week at work, Korean men want to stay in bed longer than usual at weekends. However, even this humble dream to sleep in cannot come true easily. Their wives will loudly wake them up even on Sunday mornings, urging them to take the family on a picnic or go shopping. Children are a whole different problem. In Korea, there is a joke that Korean children, who seldom have a chance to interact with or even see their fathers, are uncomfortable at the mere presence of a father figure, and will thus complain to their mothers, insolently pointing at him, “Mom, who’s that stranger over there?”

Under these circumstances, who needs a father anyway? All you need is a caring, affectionate mother who serves as your lifetime manager. In Korean society, mothers are indispensable, crucial for your success and social ascension; because she plays the role not only of your manager but also your advisor, counselor, and matchmaker. Compared with a mother, the role of a father is so insignificant that children often think that father is someone who is in their way, meddling and interfering, not being helpful at all. I have a friend who married very late and thus had a son when he was in his late 40s. Since the child was enormously fond of his mother, he thought of his father as his rival whom he should get rid of in order to monopolize his mother. Perhaps it occurred to the child that his father was much older than his mother, and thus would die soon. So one day, the child horrified my friend by asking rather bluntly, “Dad, when are you going to die?”

Fortunately, poor Korean men are not alone in this present-day reality. American men, too, went through a similar situation in the 1950s. In his monumental book, “The Mechanical Brides,” Marshall McLuhan explores the cultural connotations embedded in the popular comic strip “Blondie.” He begins his essay with the following questions: “Putting up with Father? Why is that shrill, frantic, seedy, saggy little guy so popular?” McLuhan continues: “Each has the same theme model mother saddled with a sad sack and a dope ... Blondie lives for her children, who are respectful toward her and contemptuous of Dagwood. In Dagwood Bumstead, McLuhan sees the archetypal American man as a hen-pecked husband and failed father: “He is an apologetic intruder into a hygienic, and save for himself, a well-ordered dormitory. He attempts to eke out some sort of existence in the bathroom or on the sofa (face to the wall) are always promptly challenged. He is a joke which the children thoroughly understand”

Like Dagwood, the typical Korean man also resembles someone who lives in a dormitory or a boarding house. For these men, home is a temporary place where they eat and sleep only; most of the time, they are out at work. And their constant absence gradually erases their once unflinching existence. Like Dagwood, Korean men are like intruders into a well-organized matriarchal home where their bossy wives wield real power. And like Blondie, Korean women assume the role of model mothers who strive and aspire to climb up the ladder of social ascension.

Meanwhile, Korean men helplessly watch as their dim existence at home is rapidly diminished, flickering until it is finally extinguished. Perhaps Korean men should cease to be such workaholics, and increase the time spent with their children and wives. Then the last line of the abovementioned poem might be changed to: “Father I like, for he cares about me, provides food to me and plays with me.” But will the day come in the near future? Nobody knows for sure.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. Ed.
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