Family Matters

For this post I thought I’d share something with you.

My parents are divorced, my father has since remarried and has two more children. This creates some unusual situations and linguistic difficulties in Korea, however. As I’m sure anyone who’s lived in Korea will know, Koreans often ask about your family – how many brothers and sisters do you have, what do your parents do and so on. It’s also worth noting that divorce in Korea is no longer uncommon or even particularly frowned upon – no more than anywhere else anyway. So that’s not the problem. Nobody bats an eyelid when I tell them my parents are divorced, or even when I say my father is remarried. But what do I call my father’s new wife in Korean?

Don’t get me wrong, I know the answer – 새엄마 or 새어머니 are the most common ones. These are the ones I learnt from Koreans. My dictionary also says, 의붓어머니 and 계모. I haven’t heard of 의붓어머니, so perhaps it’s not in such common usage (please correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems an acceptable translation. This makes me wonder why I haven’t heard it more often. I was, however, under the impression that 계모 had more of a negative connotation, perhaps more along the lines of a “wicked stepmother.” The hanja for 계모 – 繼母 – seem to mean “the mother that follows,” or “the mother who succeeded (the first)” – not a particularly affectionate term, but again, correct me if I’m wrong.

So this takes me back to 새엄마, the term most Koreans suggest when I ask how to explain my family. This term means “new mum,” and 새어머니 “new mother.” Now, I don’t particularly like these terms. Divorce and related issues are felt differently by different people, but I would venture that most people in the same situation as me would not refer to their step-mum as their “new mum.” Primarily this is because I still have a mother, but secondly, even if I didn’t the term “새엄마” seems to me to imply that my mother has been replaced, or that her role in my life is now being fulfilled by my stepmother. This clearly isn’t the case, and wouldn’t be even if I didn’t have a mother.

Also, I would like to know from somebody more knowledgeable whether the equivalent term for a stepfather is 새아버지 or 새아빠? I’ve never heard this, and it seems strange that the two wouldn’t be called the same just with father instead of mother. If it is the case that this term isn’t used, does that mean it’s still less socially acceptable for a woman with children to get remarried? Or less of a physical possibility for financial reasons? Or perhaps stepfathers are just not considered “new fathers” – replacement fathers, in the same way stepmothers are considered replacement mothers. I think there are other issues included in this, but I can’t remember everything I wanted to say (I first thought about this post about a week ago), so please do chime in in the comments section.

On top of this, there’s the issue of the children. To me, they’re my half-siblings. In Korean, the most common phrase used is 배 다른 동생, which means sibling from a different belly. I’m not saying I have a problem with this phrase, it’s just different, but suitably accurate. Something I’ve often had difficulties with though when it comes up in conversation is that Koreans struggle with the differences between step-sibling and half-sibling. I often have to explain why one is not the other, but more importantly the significance of that to me. I share 50% the same DNA with my half-siblings, but if I had step-siblings (which I don’t), I wouldn’t share any. It would feel different, although of course this discounts the fact that – as I said above – everyone experiences these things differently. For example, some people may be especially close with their step-siblings.

I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as a complaint or rant – it’s really not. I’m just interested in the differences, and I think it’s an interesting insight into the way Korean society is adjusting to internal changes. I think the term 새엄마 raises some interesting points – is it acceptable to replace a mother but not a father in Korea, is it socially less acceptable for a mother to re-marry than a father, do fathers determine the type of relationship children have with their mothers, step-mothers and even other women, and how is or isn’t that different to other countries and societies? Of course, there are more related issues, and this is a lot to extrapolate from just one little phrase, but they’re interesting topics – and I’d like to read what you think!

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