A year ago, a friend of mine, a female radio producer in Seoul, confided that visiting someone who had just given birth horrified her. She talked about this young mother as being cooped up in the apartment all day while her husband worked, and feeling her intelligence diminishing to the level of her baby’s from lack of contact with other adults and the outside world. She was so starved for meaningful interaction that even the arrival of a deliveryman delighted her.
The friend added, if this isolation is the price one must pay for motherhood, then that’s a reason why many women wouldn’t want to be mothers.
The archetypal Korean mother has long been one who gives and does everything for her children. (Think “Mother,” the 2009 movie from director Bong Joon-ho, about a mentally disabled young man accused of murder and his mother who stops at nothing to save him.) But perhaps not any more. Young mothers want to be out and about in public, with their children in tow, and it has prompted a backlash.
“No-kids zones” are South Korea’s latest cultural battleground. Children and their adult companions are being refused by some business owners. Pictures of signs that politely but firmly ask parents with young children to go away have been making the rounds online. Social media are abuzz with views both for and against.
The possible origin of no-kids zones can be traced back to several years ago. In a highly publicized 2011 case in Busan, a ten-year-old girl was burnt by boiling water during a visit to a restaurant with her parents. Two years later, in 2013, the local court ordered the restaurant owner and the service worker to pay 41 million won ($37,000) in damages, saying they were 70 percent at fault for the injury.
And in 2012, a 9-year-old boy suffered a burn in the food court of a big bookstore in Seoul when a woman in her fifties spilled hot soup on his face. The child’s mother took to the internet to issue a plea for help in locating the perpetrator, who apparently had disappeared after the incident.
When CCTV footage surfaced, it actually showed the boy running into the woman and making her spill the soup, and blame was laid on the mother for not supervising him in the first place, and for playing the victim.
By 2014, there were already reports of restaurants banning children, as owners didn’t want to be liable for accidents. But debate over the policy’s appropriateness has intensified in the past two years as mothers seemed to become the main target of the criticism over misbehaving children.
To be sure, proponents of no-kids zones say they simply want to protect their right to enjoy peace and quiet as South Koreans become more mindful of etiquette and personal freedom. There is widespread feeling, rightly or not, that South Korean children are especially out of control while parents barely acknowledge the commotion. When raising the issue with the parents, “Mind your business” or “I will deal with my children as I see fit” is the stock reply. Contrition is in short supply.
“‘Dear Customer: Could you please take a little care so that your child will stop shouting or running around? They are disturbing other customers who are reading or having conversations.’ The answer I got was ‘This is a coffee shop, not a library.’”
But there is substance to the argument, advanced by some women, that in a country where women still carry out the bulk of domestic chores and are more likely to be primary caregivers for children than men are, grievance directed at bad parents is often grievance at mothers. During daytime on weekdays, it is mainly mothers who accompany children to cafes and restaurants, and they are the ones with most to lose from being denied access to specific establishments.
Mothers were once hallowed figures in South Korea, whose virtues were extolled in popular media. Recently, though, they suffer opprobrium over the perception of being a nuisance to society.
Doenjang-nyeo and kimchi-nyeo are but two neologisms that gained prominence as expressions of anger against privileged young women. Instead of being socially conscious and industrious, the words insinuate, too many young women while away their time at expensive cafes and restaurants and buy brand-name fashion on credit. Imagined and propagated by masculinists who rage against their eroding privileges, the vision of such women takes the blame for everything from shaking the country’s moral foundation to withholding babies from a nation plagued with a record-low birth rate (1.17 per woman nationwide in 2016).
Now we see the proliferation of the term mamchung — referring to an older, married version of doenjang-nyeo, who lives a life of luxury off her husband’s paycheck, justifying her comforts by talking about her hardships as a mother, and supposedly frequenting chic cafes and brunch places and skin care clinics in her abundant free time.
Mamchung combines the English word “Mom” and the Sino-Korean character for insects, which can also mean parasites. In short, parasitic women feeding on hard-working men.
While women of leisure certainly exist in South Korea, how many mothers fit into the profile of a parasite? In an opinion piece in left-leaning daily Hankyoreh, the mother of a 30-month-old child described her own predicament: “Until now I never considered myself to be an impudent customer that deserved be called a mamchung, but now it’s clear I am one when seen by other people.”
She explained, “Duri [her child] doesn’t eat an adult’s portion. So [at restaurants] my husband and I don’t order for him and simply share our food with him. Even that feels selfish sometimes. Fortunately most restaurants (even when we don’t ask) provide an extra plate and fork for him, and that only makes me feel even more apologetic. Then Duri starts causing a ruckus, as he does at home, and when I try to stop him, I also get noisy. Then I feel sorry to the restaurant owner, servers as well as other customers.”
“If I am to be a conscientious mother, I shouldn’t go to restaurants at all,” she lamented. But she asked, don’t you know how hard is it to find a place to entrust your children to? Don’t mothers have a right to eat out sometimes with their children?
It seems that many South Koreans don’t agree. One survey by Gyeonggi Province Research Institute in February of last year had 51.4 percent answer that customers’ happiness was more important than children’s basic rights. Another, conducted by a polling company Realmeter, showed support for no-kids zones at 54.7 percent, with 36.2 percent opposing.
Besides the implication of misogyny, the support for no-kids zones can be justified only by ignoring the fundamentally discriminatory nature of any policy that targets specific demographics for exclusion. In South Korea we have already seen businesses try to ban foreigners. Now we want to ban children and those who come with them. Who is to say others aren’t next in line for ostracization?
In fact, just two months ago, leftist outlet OhMyNews poured fuel to the fire by running an essay titled “We Have No-Kids Zones, So Why Not No Ajae Zones?” (Ajae is another word for ajeossi, middle-aged men often accused of self-entitlement and insensitive behavior.)
And in a comment to that article, someone wrote that what we need are no ajumma zones. “Is it only ajeossi who are loud? The same goes for uneducated middle-aged women.”
I wanted to comment, “I want people like you banned from where I eat.”
The most rational solution for the no-kids zone controversy would be to allow everyone entry, but reserve the option to expel customers whose action infringes on the rights of the businesses and other customers. And education of parents on the importance of regulating children’s behavior in public is paramount.
Or else, given the already existing penchant for forgoing parenthood, more women will simply opt not to have children, ensuring that, as the Hankyoreh writer said, South Korea will become a no-kids country. And that would be an apt price to pay for a nation that tolerates wholesale discrimination.
Cover image: Who’s to blame for no-kids zones? (Source: Pxhere, Creative Commons CC0)