Racism in South Korea? Foreign wives feel at home in Gimpo city

Yen, a Singaporean, and her South Korean husband Dae Sik picked his friend's farm in Gimpo, South Korea, to hold their wedding ceremony. The picturesque nature at the doorstep is one of the reasons that beckon Yen to this city. -- PHOTO: YEN
Yen, a Singaporean, and her South Korean husband Dae Sik picked his friend's farm in Gimpo, South Korea, to hold their wedding ceremony. The picturesque nature at the doorstep is one of the reasons that beckon Yen to this city. -- PHOTO: YEN
Yen, a Singaporean, spending the weekend on the farm of her husband's friend in Gimpo, South Korea. No bigger than half the size of Singapore, Gimpo in the northern part of South Korea is a city of farms and factories where weather-beaten men have li
Yen, a Singaporean, spending the weekend on the farm of her husband's friend in Gimpo, South Korea. No bigger than half the size of Singapore, Gimpo in the northern part of South Korea is a city of farms and factories where weather-beaten men have little luck finding local wives. -- PHOTO: YEN
Yen, a programme producer from Singapore, going through traditional Korean wedding rites with her husband Dae Sik in Gimpo, South Korea. She is surrounded by her mother-in-law (on her left) and the rest of her husband's family. -- PHOTO: YEN
Yen, a programme producer from Singapore, going through traditional Korean wedding rites with her husband Dae Sik in Gimpo, South Korea. She is surrounded by her mother-in-law (on her left) and the rest of her husband's family. -- PHOTO: YEN

My best friend of almost 30 years recently got married to a South Korean man whom she met on a friend-making website and barely saw in person during their one year of courtship.

She spoke no Korean and he could barely string a sentence properly in English – their only medium of communication.

But so strong was her conviction that he was Mr Right that Yen, my 36-year-old buddy, quit her job as a programme producer in Singapore and moved to Gimpo, a lesser developed and unglamorous city compared to its next-door neighbour, Seoul.

No bigger than half the size of Singapore, Gimpo in the northern part of South Korea is a city of farms and factories where weather-beaten men have little luck finding local wives.

But while snubbed by South Korean women for its dearth of hip hangouts and relatively low societal status, Gimpo can be attractive for some foreign women.

As in the rest of South Korea, foreign spouses are covered under national medical insurance that heavily subsidises medicals bills. For major illnesses like cancer, these women need only co-pay about 5 per cent of the bill. And childbirth is free as the government will absorb all charges.

The country even offers free Korean language classes for foreign brides within the first five years of their stay.

In Seoul, however, the residents sometimes come across as being biased against foreigners. In a Reuters report earlier this month, ethnic Koreans born in China and working in Seoul complain about being picked on by the locals for their accents.

These Korean Chinese are disparagingly referred to as joseonjok, a term that literally means the Korean race but has now become an ethnic slur due to the negative connotations that the media associate it with in crime reports involving these immigrants.

By contrast, the people of Gimpo appear to welcome foreigners, even into their families.

Most residents in this city, home to some 300,000 people, know someone who married a foreign woman – usually Chinese, Filipino or Vietnamese. To some of these women, Gimpo is their ticket out of poverty back home. But to others like Yen who grew up in a big city, it is a step back from modernity.

There is basically nothing here, Yen says to me. The only decent shopping centre by Singaporeans’ standard is the Lotte Mart which is about the size of the Takashimaya in Singapore. It is located next to the Gimpo airport, a 40-minute bus ride from her apartment.

If you are an authentic pizza lover, you will be sorely disappointed here for there is not a single Italian restaurant in sight - the closest thing you can find is probably Korean fusion pizza.

But even so, the friendly community, safe streets and picturesque nature at the doorstep are some of the reasons that beckon Yen to this city.

“There are no Shenton Way-like areas, so you can always see the blue sky,” she said. “It’s amazing how urbanisation can co-exist with the countryside.”

During their free time, Yen and her husband Dae Sik, a 43-year-old logistics company owner, visit his farmer friends and kin and help themselves to tubby mushrooms and colossal cabbages plucked fresh from the farms.

They held their wedding ceremony last month at a friend’s vast farm that even had two swimming pools.

“Gimpo is a very safe area in general. You can leave home without locking the door,” said Yen. Compared to Seoul this place is not as crowded and the winters are milder than in other provinces, she added.

When I met Dae Sik - whom I affectionately nicknamed Teh C as it sounds like his name - for the first time over dinner in Singapore, I was literally lost for words.

Given his limited English, our conversation was jarring with unintelligible stutters and what seemed like eternal pauses as we wrung our brains for the simplest words to use.

It was awkward.

When he spoke about his love for meditation, I casually asked why.

Orgasm, came his deadpan reply (not too bad for a guy who claims he reads Ladybird children’s books to expand his vocabulary). I guffawed, almost choking on my potato as he tried to teach me and my husband how to attain happiness through the transcendental experience.

Till today, I still don’t know if this guy knows exactly what orgasm means but his remark certainly was the climax of that evening.

Hey, I’m liking a Gimpo man already.

leeck@sph.com.sg