Published: Wednesday February 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 5:31:53 PM

Class divide on show

K-dramas highlight state of social immobility and family in South Korea.

THE popular terms eomchinddal and eomchina have become a syndrome in the last few years, indicating the “perfect people who have it all” by the South Korean standard.

Literally translated as “my mother’s friend’s daughter (or son)”, they refer not only to a son or a daughter-in-law, but also to the ideal child: An eomchinddal is good-looking, a graduate of a top South Korean or US college, holds a high-paying job, and on top of everything else, is also popular. Some well-known real-life eomchinddal include actress Kim Tae-hee, a Seoul National University graduate, and Korean-American Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk.

But what if you “have it all” except for parents who can provide financial support? Recent South Korean TV drama series’ protagonists are not eomchina or eomchinddal, but are instead capable or enterprising individuals who struggle because of the socio-economic status of their parents.

No matter how hard they try, these young men and women find it difficult to get the jobs they want, marry the ones they love and, sometimes, be the person they want to be. The shows reveal the complex duel between traditional Confucian values and today’s social immobility, where one is often judged and even stigmatised by the status of their parents, rather than who they are as individuals.

A sin against heaven

The protagonist of the KBS drama series My Daughter Seo-young, one of the biggest hits in South Korea in recent years, would have been a perfect eomchinddal if only she were born into a financially stable family.

The established and attractive lawyer (played by Lee Bo-young) is married into a chaebol (family-run conglomerates) family, while hiding the existence of her father. In fact, she lies that he is dead and completely cuts ties with her father, a debt-ridden gambler who spent all the hard-earned money that she had saved up to pay for college.

What Seo-young has done is often locally described as paeryun: a sin against heaven. It goes against South Korea’s traditional and Confucian values of filial piety. In the show’s promotional poster, Seo-young holds a red apple, a clear stand-in for Eve’s forbidden fruit right beside Sam-jae, her incompetent, troublesome father. She is permanently scarred by her unforgivable lie, just like Adam and Eve by the original sin after the fall of Man.

The drama series reveals a rather disturbing and complex truth about the Korean marriage market: Incompetent parents can be an obstacle to one’s marriage prospects. Some may argue that it is better to market yourself as an orphan than as one with inept parents.

“I see it as a denial of one’s class,” says culture critic Lee Moon-won on Seo-young’s “sin”.

“It is important to note that the rigid Confucian class system, which did not allow any social mobility, existed in South Korea up until just about 70 years ago. I think many Koreans still subconsciously think they are subordinate to their parents, and they automatically inherit their parents’ status. There is also this inherited victim mentality that one’s poor family background severely limits one’s potential for success. Seo-young’s decision can be seen as an extension of that.”

The contemporary marriage market, which is an opportunity for upward social mobility for many, especially in these economically difficult times, now evaluates a marriage candidate based primarily on how much wealth and power their parents wield.

Seo-young’s “sin against heaven” is motivated by her desperate desire to be judged as an individual, not as the daughter of an ex-gambler, based on her own accomplishments.

“It’s a phenomenon that appears when society offers limited possibility of social mobility,” Lee says.

“Back in the 1980s and 90s, one’s social standing was often labelled by the college they went to. But education and training no longer guarantee a higher socio-economic status. In such an economic environment, you either have to be rich by birth or marry someone rich. In a way, we are going back to the old caste system.”

Climbing the ladder

The fact that many young, capable female characters choose marriage to climb the social ladder in TV shows and films (last year’s romance film Architecture 101, SBS’ King Of Ambition and KBS 2TV’s The Innocent Man) has to do with the economy and increasing class immobility.

A study released last week by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said while 73% of the people in South Korea’s lowest income bracket saw no change in their income, 79.9% in the highest bracket also maintained their income level without changes. The study also said the proportion of households that escaped poverty from the previous year, measured by their disposable income, fell from 35.4% in 2005-06 to 33.2% in 2006-07 and 31.3% in 2008-09.

In 2011, Hyundai Research Institute estimated the real youth unemployment rate, for those between ages 15 and 29, to be 22.1%.

Social critic Lee says today’s young women, born in the 1980s and 90s, tend to be more “conservative” than those of the “386” generation – those born in the 1960s who were very politically active as young adults, and are considered instrumental in the pro-democracy movements of the 1980s.

“Today’s youth experienced the financial crisis of the late 1990s while growing up,” Lee tells The Korea Herald.

“They witnessed their parents losing jobs. They saw families breaking down. I think the shared experience of the recession gave them a sense of collective anxiety and yearning for a financially secure life. And for many who experience fierce competition and unemployment, the way to get that security is through marriage.”

Not just any daughter-in-law

Cheongdam-dong Alice, a popular SBS drama series, is in fact about a young woman’s “journey” to Cheongdam-dong – one of the wealthiest areas in southern Seoul – by seducing a second-generation chaebol into marriage. Its protagonist, Se-gyeong (played by Moon Geun-young) believed in l’effort est ma force, meaning “hard work is my strength”. The fashion designer couldn’t afford to study overseas, but won many local design contests and mastered French on her own.

After much struggling, Se-gyeong finally lands a job at GN Fashion, an apparel company in the ritzy, image-conscious Cheongdam district of Seoul. Her “official” boss In-hwa is the company president’s younger sister – at 29 only two years older than Se-gyeong – who became the youngest person to be appointed to her position.

“What sucks is your taste, not your resume,” In-hwa bluntly tells Se-gyeong. “Taste is an accumulation of what you see and think, as well as the kind of things you are exposed to, from the moment that you were born.”

What she says completely shatters Se-gyeong’s life philosophy rooted in hard work and consistent effort. Upon this realisation, Se-gyeong changes her life’s course to try to become a “Cheongdam-dong daughter-in-law”, a term referring to stylish young married women of the upper crust living in a wealthy neighbourhood.

Reality behind fantasy

The two drama series reveal the bitter reality behind the eomchina fantasy – that an eomchina or an eomchinddal can hardly ever be self-made in today’s South Korea.

“I know many people who work hard to become ‘something’,” says Adrienne Lee, an aspiring fashion designer in her 20s who recently decided to go abroad after failing to receive job offers locally. Just like Se-gyeong, she speaks foreign languages and attended a prestigious local fashion school.

“But all you can be after working hard is really just a ‘hard worker’ and that is it. I think the title of eomchina can only be achieved by receiving quality education from an early age, constantly being exposed to high culture. And one cannot enjoy any of that without the help of one’s parents.”

The terms eomchina, eomchinddal and even “Cheongdam-dong daughter-in-law” have one thing in common: Those who are considered to be “perfect” and “have it all” are all indicated with their family titles, as sons, daughters and daughters-in-law – above all else. The terms indirectly honour the parents for their children’s accomplishments, rather than the sons and daughters themselves.

The eomchina and eomchinddal are a fantasy not because they don’t exist, but because they leave out people like Seo-young or Se-gyeong, who could have it all except for the right family. – The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, south korea, class divide, tv series


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