Sunday, November 05, 2006

why get married?

My dad called earlier in the evening and we talked for about forty minutes. The house in northern Virginia is getting a major roof overhaul, and the folks are wondering whether I can make it home for the holidays (probably not; I wasn't planning on going anywhere until next summer).

Right after I hung up with dad, the phone rang again. This time it was my #3 ajumma who lives in Karak-dong, in the southeastern part of Seoul. I haven't spoken with any of my Seoul-based relatives in months (and I've got a lot of relatives here); Ajumma's call was a surprise, not least because it happened at 11:20pm... which, on second thought, is par for the course with my Korean friends and relatives.

Ajumma hasn't changed. After asking me what I'd been up to, she immediately turned to the question of marriage: "Are you seeing anyone right now? When are you going to have kids? Are your brothers getting married? How old are they?"-- etc., etc.

In Korea, you're on a schedule. By the time you're X years old, there are certain things you should have done, and perhaps the most important thing is getting married. Me, I'm on no such schedule. I can't say I feel much pressure about this, because I'm pretty good at tuning out many of the opinions I disagree with, especially opinions that relate to me personally.

Because I'm 37 years old (38 in "Korean age"), alert sirens are blaring in the heads of people like my #3 ajumma (I call her "#3 ajumma" because she's the wife of my mother's third-oldest cousin; Mom's got four male cousins in Seoul). I've become that most dreaded of beasts-- the no-ch'ong-gak, or "old bachelor." In Korean culture, marriage equates to maturity: you can be an unmarried fifty-year-old, but people will still view you as an overgrown child.

In my case, "people" is restricted to my Korean relatives, who truly see me as Korean, or mostly so. The rest of Korean society couldn't care less what I do, because no one else here sees me as Korean. I have to be in the West for people to recognize my Asianness. On the peninsula, for whatever reason, I'm automatically lumped with the Aryans. Ha ha!

I see no reason to get married. I'm lazy, selfish, and still saddled with significant debt. My last few "relationships," if they can be called that, ended unpleasantly (the most recent one, from almost two years ago, still stings). I no longer think I would make a good father, though I'm pretty sure I'd make a good uncle.

Marriage is a huge commitment. Some people are well equipped for it, I think; they muck their way through married life just fine. No marriage is perfect, but some marriages are obviously worthwhile, while others strike me as matches made in hell. My buddy Mike has, in my opinion, an excellent, healthy marriage. He's got three kids, a loving wife, and still has his sanity. My French "brother" Dominique has four kids, a loving wife, and seems to be doing just fine, too.

But I also have friends in Korea and the States for whom marriage seems to be primarily a burden-- something to complain about or to escape. A few of my expat friends in Korea are divorced (having been married to Korean women), and they are unanimous in their advice to me: "Avoid marriage if you can." For the moment, I agree with them.

My buddy Dr. Steve once prophesied that I would probably spend my life alone. I consider that a distinct possibility. As an independent introvert who doesn't want to spend his days worrying "about a lot of shit," as Curly from "City Slickers" might say, I'm no longer sure that the life I used to envision-- that of a husband and father-- is really the life for me.

I've wondered, sometimes, whether this dovetails with my academic interest in Buddhist monasticism, but I know for a fact I could never be a monk: I'm too undisciplined when it comes to food, and when a woman's ass (or face, or chest) moves into my line of sight, I'm not inclined to look away. How monkish is that? Perhaps a monk might lapse now and then, but a good monk would be expected to get back on track, not to follow every wayward impulse.

Am I doomed to a life of bachelorhood? Well, I wouldn't call this a "doomed" existence by any means: I'm basically happy as things are right now. What's more, every fiancéed Korean female at my place of work has approached her impending marriage with a sense of dread. That, to me, doesn't weigh in marriage's favor. The single life suits me fine.

Besides, if people are unwilling to commit themselves to a partner for life, why should they marry? People who marry without having thought the matter through risk dooming themselves to years of unnecessary hardship, a time during which they have to struggle to find reasons to appreciate their own situation. If marriage is going to produce such a struggle, I'd say: avoid it. If, on the other hand, a man or woman can vouch that "married life has its ups and downs, but I don't for a moment regret marrying the person I love," then that's great. By all means, get hitched! Sure, you might reply that marriage is always a gamble, that no one can ever be totally sure what they're getting into. My response to that is that some people switch off certain perceptive faculties when choosing a mate, much to their detriment later on. Seeing clearly-- and taking one's time-- can greatly reduce the risk of falling into a marital Gehenna.

For me, right now, marriage doesn't seem worth the pain and struggle and lack of freedom. Maybe I'm a commitment-phobe. Maybe I'm so irretrievably introverted that marriage is a ridiculous prospect. Or... maybe Miss Right will strut into my reticle tomorrow and I'll end up having to delete this essay. Life is funny like that. As the song says, "C'est la vie, say the old folks-- it goes to show you never can tell."


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