Norms in South Korean culture
November 27, 2012 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Korean culture filter: Are you familiar with Korean culture from 30 years ago? Can you tell me if these experiences were normal in terms of the social culture at that time?

My husband was born in South Korea in the early 70's, and moved to the U.S. in the early 80's, around the first grade. He recently told me about several incidents that occured when he was a child, where family friends, men, would grope his genitalia, in the presence of his father for sure, and sometimes other family members (his [older] sisters; he is not sure if it ever occured in the presence of his mother).

He thinks that it most commonly occured right when the person would arrive for a visit, like during the greeting phase of when you arrive somewhere. The man would put his hand down my husband's pants, and would say something joking like "Let me see how you've grown". In all such incidents, his memory of the events is that it was over quickly - within a matter of seconds. He doesn't think it was always the same person who groped him; he thinks that it was a common occurence, and happened with several people. He isn't really sure how old he was when it started, he remembers it from around 4 or 5, and the last incident he remembers happened when he was about 9.

He does remember one specific time that he protested being grabbed, and his father told him to stop protesting, that it was okay.

These incidents occured both in Korea, and after they came to the U. S., but with Korean friends.

So... was it common within the Korean culture for adults to grope children in this manner? My husband literally has no one he can ask about these incidents. Any family members who might remember them would certainly vehemently deny that they ever occured. Obviously he will be pursuing therapy. The reason for asking this question is to try to get a sense of the context of these incidents, so that he can go forward with processing his feelings around these experiences.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I just know that in North Korea in the 50s-'60s, the young Kim Jong-Il used to do this to schoolmates and I think it was considered an inappropriate form of bullying, according to the book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:42 AM on November 27, 2012

Oh my god.

I think the important thing here is that he recognizes that he was uncomfortable with it, regardless of a norm. There are plenty of things that someone's family might condone or even encourage that (duh) leave a lasting negative impact.

For me, in a situation like that (well, not involving my genitalia getting grabbed), there are two violations: first, the general "this is something that makes me uncomfortable" and second, "this is something in which my family/friends -- the people I am supposed to trust to protect me -- are not only NOT protecting me but actively participating in my distress/discomfort."

Maybe you might consider this something like binge drinking behavior: it's a cultural norm, not illegal, and encouraged by the people around you. Does that mean your negative experiences should mean something less than what they do? Because they still happened. That's the toughest part about a situation like this: the feeling that because it was condoned, your feelings don't matter (and maybe you're "making it up").

Whether or not he's not able to establish a cultural context, I hope he can come to terms with it. You're a wonderfully caring partner to help him work through this.
posted by Madamina at 7:52 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ha ha. My uncle did this to me when I visited him when I was 8 or so. This was in the 90's. Although he was the only one he did it. I didn't think much of it because, like your husband, it was over in seconds and it was more playful than malicious. I also remember bathing nude with my female cousin who was my age which I think is definitely a no-no here.

I personally chalk it up to cultural differences but obviously if it disturbs your husband he should seek out therapy.
posted by rq at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2012

I can't answer the actual question but as an outsider, back in the late 80s, I was surprised to see that nearly every Seoul photography studio window featured at least one framed portrait of a really fat, naked male toddler. They were always sitting with their legs apart, genitals proudly on display. Usually they were in a fancy, throne-like chair.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:36 AM on November 27, 2012

Well, first off if this is something that your husband is uncomfortable about and wants to speak to a professional, he definitely should. Also I am obviously not going to be able to speak to the appropriateness of this relative's motives.

However having said that, from a cultural standpoint this is (was?) not an uncommon thing. It comes from holdovers of old-fashioned Korean traditions that male children (and in turn their genitals) are a source of pride and just different ideas about nudity and children. Older, close female family friends, like the halmuni who took care of my bro when he was younger, might make comments too while changing diapers in a look how he's growing! Kind of way. Child nudity wasn't considered something to be seen as sexual. Kids accompany parents to public bath houses or bathe with parents etc (too many awkward moments of going to the ladies bathhouse with little boys running around who ate their with their moms...though interestingly it is less common or unheard of for daughters to accompany dads to the men's only section.)

A relative telling a young boy child "gochu jom bojah" or "ulmakeum kutnah bojah" is equal parts thinking literally that the family jewels are the 'family jewels' and playful teasing. and up until I moved away in the 90s it wasn't uncommon for photo studios to display a sample of their dol or baekil photos of baby boys photographed proudly enthroned in the buff, future manhood on display (not done for girls, obvs).

I do think such things are probably frowned upon more nowadays than it used to be. That might be where your husbands relative's denial comes from in part with your husband seeming uncomfortable about the incident. For example, there was a story (could be an urban legend since I can't seem to find it online now) passed among newly immigrated or first generation Koreans living in America as a cautionary tale about cultural differences about a well meaning old lady who did the whole 'let's take a look at your gochu!' to a kid and ended up being charged with child molestation, which puzzled and frightened a lot of people.

But again reiterating the above is just providing general cultural context. How your husband feels about it and how he is discussing it with his family or others are all up to how he wants to handle it.
posted by kkokkodalk at 10:07 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

According to the comments in this thread here, that's a thing. The fourth comment says:

. Omfg what a joke. Yes, pulling on some kid’s penis is disturbing, but it is common for older Koreans to do it to a nephew, or other young family member (lol).
I forget the Korean phrase, but it’s something like, “has young pecker gotten bigger?”

And the sixth says:
re#4 – Exactly Koreans do it to young boys often (or used to) – always grabbing the boys cock to see how big it is (Korean mothers still do it with their sons in the shower each day, until the son is 12/13 years old) – and the grandparents do it to their grandsons a lot (just like the Mexicans, Chinese, Indians (India) etc...

I'm not finding a googleable phrase, but apparently it's not an unheard of practice. I'm sorry your husband had to go through it.

On preview, Kkokkodalk has better info.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 10:17 AM on November 27, 2012

Kkokkodalk has it. Still fairly common. Your husband's feelings about it are another matter entirely, and, of course, valid and meaningful.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:35 PM on November 27, 2012

yes, this doesn't sound at all unusual in Korean culture back then. I'm sure it still occurs but not nearly as prevalent because we've become more westernized.
posted by Wanderer7 at 10:52 PM on November 27, 2012

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