South Korean Transnational Mothers


A review of South Korean Transnational Mothers: Familism, Cultural Criticism and Education Project, by Kyung Ju Ahn.

Kyung Ju Ahn’s dissertation is a vividly written ethnography of a timely and relevant anthropological subject: the lives of South Korean middle-class wives who temporarily migrate abroad for their children’s education, usually living separately from their husbands, who remain in Korea. By stating “their stories are my story” (p. 27), she reveals her own identity and the experiences she shares with her research participants; situating the blurred boundary between the researcher and the researched as an advantage in terms of studying in a transnational era when the attempt to establish a firm division between self and other in the making of anthropological knowledge is futile and unpromising, as much as is a strict understanding of “national boundar”’. By closely examining the daily lives of Korean mothers who sojourn in the United States for the education of their children, Ahn offers multiple insights through showing the ways in which transnational mothering practices being currently implemented within Korean gender and family structures are implicated in the following key aspects: the culture of American ethnic churches, the role of communication technology, and the representation of class by legal status of immigration. While it is clear through the ethnography that all aspects are interrelated and cannot be explained on their own, the foci of the four main chapters are coherently organized corresponding to each of the aspects, one by one: familism, ethnic churches, communication technology, and legal status.

The Introduction (Chapter 1) begins by aptly defining the “transnational” of the phrase transnational families/mothers, contextualizing the specificity of the Korean project of migration, so often focused on educating the family’s children. This “transnational” refers to multiple engagements in different national contexts simultaneously, which is different from labor migration and other Asian family migrations involving profit-making through business in that it is migration for pure consumption within the education market. With this contextualization established, Chapter 2 focuses on the history of Korean familism and the gendered practices of the manager role of mothers in their children’s education. A central argument here is that transnational Korean family practices have not decoupled from the Korean patriarchal family system of the pre-globalization era, regardless of the rapidly increasing scale of parents’ efforts regarding children’s education as the primary method of building social capital for upward class mobilization. The gendered division of labor and expectations of mothers and wives have in fact solidified through the transnational family project (of educating children by sending them abroad in their early years), putting the burden of care for family members in multiple locations squarely on the shoulders of the wife in the family. While mothers living with children are responsible for taking care of the children and themselves on behalf of the family project, while foregoing personal concerns, they are simultaneously made targets of moral criticism for not fulfilling their spousal duties (mostly by in-laws, but also by their own parents), with husbands understood as sacrificing too much for not being properly cared for by their wives.

If Chapter 2 thus exposed the unfair public criticism of women within transnational familism, Chapter 3 demonstrates the agency of these women, who do not remain victims of the family structure, but exercise agency via communication over the Internet and mobile technologies. This helps in maintaining marital relationships as well as in solidifying class status through personal networking. The key argument of the chapter is that these advanced communication technologies are tools which allow women to filter communication, in particular keeping the negative aspects of their lives away from their husbands. This filtering results in solidifying spousal solidarity for their common projects; in empowering women through building social networks, useful in practical terms for life abroad; and a sensibility for multiple homes on the part of both women and children, referred to as “spatial elasticity” (p. 174). Chapter 4 elaborates Korean ethnic churches as the sites of social networks that mothers actively cultivate. Ahn then argues that people of three different legal categories among these middle class mothers — those holding student visas, visiting scholar’s visas, or those with green card /citizenship — tend to become involved in local ethnic churches for different reasons: mothers with student visas do not have any capital (no time to care for their children, limited household budget) but the social capital earned through church participation; those holding visiting scholars’ visa are involved in church membership as they feel guilt-ridden for the lack of attention paid to their children because of their professional career; and mothers with a green card /citizenship have both extra time for individual care and financial resources to be devoted to church activities.

Chapter 5 further investigates the different legal statuses of transnational manager mothers in relation to class stratifications and the different strategies of class reproduction that they take in relation to their children’s education. Ahn links mothers with student visas with lower-middle class status, and the remaining mothers (visiting scholar’s visa or green card /citizenship) as upper-middle class, as they have time and money to enjoy their personal life beyond caring for their children. While thus connecting legal status and class status, Ahn also argues that lower-middle class mothers are forced to educate their children in Korean as well as English, to prepare to return to Korea once their visas run out, whereas upper-middle class mothers can focus on English education because they have enough material and social capital to support their children’s continuing education outside Korea. The Conclusion summarizes the main chapters while revealing that the arguments build on Bourdieu’s understanding of social capital as exchangeable with other types of capital, and his dialectical perspective between practice and structure through the power of agents. This is where Ahn situates and confirms the South Korean transnational mothers as being active agents in terms of how they are able to build social capital for upwards class mobility, at the same time as being agents who negotiate with (borrowing Bourdieu’s term) a “structured structure,” that is, Korean familism (p. 175).

Jesook Song
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto

Primary Sources

Field research data on Korean transnational families/mothers
Literature on transnationalism and transmigration

Dissertation Information

Syracuse University. 2009. 192pp. Primary Advisor: John Burdick.


Image: Republic of Korea Passport

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