Asia Pacific / Social Issues

In rapidly aging South Korea, the 'model daughter-in-law' is Filipino

by Claire Lee


In a mountain village thousands of kilometers from her native Philippines, Emma Sumampong nurses her elderly mother-in-law while also caring for her husband and children, working on the family farm and holding a part-time job.

She is one of tens of thousands of women who have married South Korean men and migrated to the rapidly aging nation, where women are increasingly shunning marriage and traditional expectations that wives should care not only for their husbands, but also their elderly in-laws.

Migrant women such as Sumampong, who met her husband, Lee Byung-ho, through a Philippine church matchmaking service, are making up some of this shortfall.

Unlike other developed Asian economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore, South Korea has never allowed foreign workers into its care industry unless they are ethnically Korean, but some regions have been subsidizing “marriage tours” for single men in rural areas struggling to find native wives.

Sumampong juggles the needs of three generations in her rural home, but also must work on the family land and hold down a job.

“I have to stand strong both in mind and body to overcome whatever difficulties will come my way,” the 48-year-old explained.

Her days begin at 5 a.m., when she gets up to make breakfast for the family and to do household chores before taking her three children to school. She then goes to work as a clerk at the county office.

In the afternoon, when she is not at work Sumampong tends the family vegetable fields before cooking dinner, cleaning up and helping her children with their homework.

She is the main caregiver for her 89-year-old mother-in-law — who cannot walk unaided — helping her to use the toilet, bathe and dress.

Her efforts have been noticed: In June, the nation’s Family Welfare Association gave her hyobu status, an award for filial service to her parents-in-law. She also cared for her husband’s ailing father until he died in 2012.

While there is a specific category for migrant wives, the national award is open to all. But fewer and fewer South Korean women are willing or able to provide such care, traditionally regarded as part of a daughter-in-law’s role.

Entrenched patriarchal attitudes mean that working mothers must take on most domestic chores, as well as performing in their jobs — a situation causing some women to reject family life.

Last year 22.4 percent of single South Korean women thought marriage was necessary, down from 46.8 percent in 2010, according to government data, while the nation’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world.

The country is facing a demographic time bomb — by 2030 almost a quarter of the population will be at least 65 — and with little state help provided there are concerns about who will care for the elderly if families do not.

Park In-seong, 48, who looks after his ill, widowed mother in Incheon, has tried international marriage agencies, so far without success.

“Realistically, no Korean woman would marry a man like me, because it automatically means having to support my mother,” he conceded.

“Some men are very lucky — they somehow ended up with very kind wives who care for their parents-in-law,” he said. “I’m so envious of them, but I know I can’t be one of them.”

In the countryside, the problem is even more pronounced after decades of youth migration — particularly of women — to the cities. Those that are left often strongly adhere to traditional gender roles.

Sumampong’s mother-in-law is a case in point: She was infuriated whenever her son tried to help his wife with housework.

“She always emphasized men are like kings,” Sumampong recalled, but said she tries to keep a positive attitude about what is expected from her.

Asked if she is happy, she said, “I was just very glad to start a family with my husband.”

Lee makes a modest income from his job at an electronics company, supplemented by income from the farm.

Sumampong plans to use her prize money — about $2,000 — to visit her family in the Philippines, whom she last saw six years ago.

She is viewed as a role model by some in her village of Hoengseong.

Municipal official Nam Koo-hyun — who nominated her for the hyobu award — said, “She sets such a good example to other migrant wives in our town.”

Around 260,000 women have moved to the South to marry Korean men. Some 15,000 arrive each year, the largest proportions coming from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, often seeking to escape poverty.

Some face abusive relationships, while experts say many migrant wives are pushed to adopt patriarchal Korean values, regardless of their original culture.

There are even textbooks stipulating that Korean men like women who “genuinely respect their husbands and follow their husbands’ opinions,” and who “speak tenderly” and behave in a deferential manner.

Hyunjoo Naomi Chi, a public policy professor at Hokkaido University, explained, “The hyobu award reproduces the traditional gender roles … as if being the sole caretaker of the family is something all women should do. And to give out these awards to migrant women is even more ridiculous, as if to say that to be a wife of a Korean you need to be this ‘ideal woman.’ This is now almost a myth as young Korean women leave rural areas specifically because they do not want to do so.”

Bonnie Lee, who works in Seoul and has no plans to marry, agrees the awards are outdated.

“Virtually no Korean woman in their 20s and 30s would want to be called a hyobu,” she insisted, pointing out, “We’ve never had such awards for filial sons-in-law, because they don’t exist.”

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