SOLO 55 | Honjok

 

This episode is related to the recent series on Singles in the Marketplace. Peter McGraw speaks to a journalist – Ann Babe – about a group of Korean singles, Honjoks, who are rebelling against the strong cultural norms in South Korea to marry and have children. Besides going solo, this group is also opting out of the typical high-pressure corporate or service jobs that are highly valued in the culture. It is a fascinating conversation in which they talk about using social media to be anti-social, the pursuit of small but certain happiness, and how Korean businesses are better at marketing to singles than American or European businesses.

Listen to Episode #55 here:

Meet The Honjoks

This episode connects to a previous series on singles in the marketplace. I speak to a journalist, Ann Babe, about a group of Korean singles, Honjoks, who are rebelling against the strong cultural norms in South Korea to marry and have children. Besides going solo, this group is also opting out of the typical high pressure corporate or service jobs that are highly valued in the culture. It’s a fascinating conversation in which we talk about using social media to be anti-social in the pursuit of small but certain happiness, and how Korean businesses are better at marketing to singles than American or European businesses. Ann asked me to clarify that she did not discover the Honjoks. Others have written about them, though I happen to think she has done a great job covering the topic. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.

Our guest is Ann Babe. She is a Korean-American independent journalist based in Seoul. She writes about Korea’s women inequality. Her work has been published by the California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times, NBC News and beyond. She has been supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Reporting Project. Welcome, Ann. Thank you for joining us from Seoul, Korea. You are officially the farthest away guest that I’ve had. I came across a fascinating article that you wrote. I saw it on Twitter. It was tweeted to me. It’s called Tune In, Drop Out. In it, you examine a category of young South Koreans who are opting out.

These are individualist loners, and there’s a term for this in South Korea and that’s honjok. This show is coming shortly after me doing a series on singles in the marketplace where I looked at the rise of single living primarily in the United States but touched on it abroad. We looked at Selling to Singles, what are the opportunities from a business standpoint? Businesses tend to be focused on families because of their buying power and their great needs. We looked at the best innovations for singles, and that episode coincided with Singles’ Day, November 11th, the biggest eCommerce day of 2020. I was tuned into these demographic and cultural changes that are happening with people living single and living alone, and then in perfect timing, I came across your article. I’m always interested in how journalists get their scoop. How did you come across this idea?

In 2019, I was reporting a different piece. It was a fairly straightforward, short article about social isolation in Seoul. It was part of this series that looked at loneliness around the world and how we can use technology to combat that. Looking at Seoul, Korea has a rapidly aging population. I think it’s the most rapidly aging in the developed world. I believe now Korea is aging faster than Japan. A lot of these elderly people are living alone and a lot of them are low income or very poor. There still is this epidemic of elderly people dying by themselves. Since they don’t live with anyone, nobody knows that they’re dead, and maybe they’re found days or weeks later. It’s very sad. Part of this stems from their children not taking care of them and Korea having a poor safety net to support them. This article was looking at how we can bring the generations together and connect young people with old people so they can do conversation time, cooking together, meal delivery, skill swaps, all that kind of stuff, and then combat loneliness at the same time

That was a fairly predictable story. We hear about these initiatives frequently like, how can we use tech to bring people together? In the reporting of that, I came across honjok. The idea that some people were using technology in a different way to curate a life alone, and to seclude themselves from others to various degrees, I found that to be much more fascinating. I kept that in mind for the future and I ended up pursuing it about a year later.

When you recognized this group, how did you find them? They seem like they would be under the radar. There’s not an obvious part of the population, given that these people are dropping out from normal society.

In my research, since I was focused on technology, looking online to see what was out there in terms of community building, I was looking at social media because social media is such a community-building platform. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and those sites, I started to notice this hashtag that was Honjok. This idea that people are using hashtags to crowdsource their isolation was counterintuitive to me. It sounds like a paradox and using social media to be anti-social. I thought this is the story that I want to go after.

Let’s step back and let’s talk about these honjoks, and we can get into a little bit. I have a Slack channel that I’ve started for SOLO. I put forth a question to the group about this forthcoming episode that I was going to be talking to you about it. One of the members of the community was lamenting the online community. On one hand, understanding how important it is because at least you have some social connection there. On the other hand, how it feels so distant in that way. The underlying assumption is your online relationships are important but not as consequential as not online relationships. Depending on the lens you look at, it’s good and on the other side, it may not be so good. Let’s talk about these honjoks, how they’re different and how they don’t fit into traditional South Korean society. For the readers who’s never been to South Korea and doesn’t know that much about it, can you talk a little bit about the culture, both on the personal relationship, family side, and also on the professional side? It seems like there’s tension with both of those sides of society.

Those are the two major driving forces for this so-called rebellion against the status quo. On the family side, family units are very important here. Oftentimes, young people live with their parents until they’re married. They’re also supported by their parents for a long time financially. It’s not until they start their own family, get married, and have children that they break out on their own. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but this is the generalization. It’s very much focused on what you’re doing as an individual to help everyone else like the country, your parents, your grandparents or whoever.

Very collectivistic is the term that is used a lot for this type of society.

It does. It creates a lot of pressure on the individual to put themselves second. Oftentimes, they’re made to feel selfish for enjoying life or having fun. On the professional side, Korea is an intensely competitive society. This is because Korea industrialized so rapidly after the war. Korea doesn’t have many natural resources. They focused on manufacturing and technology for their economy. This has led to so much competition among the workforce to get ahead. This starts from an early age, all the way from the beginning of the education system. I don’t know if people are familiar with the study culture in Korea, but it is so intense and extreme.

You have to go to school all day. You go to a private academy after school. You go to the library after that. You might get home at midnight and then go to bed and do it all over again. These are middle school and high school kids. It all culminates in this CSAT test. It is the test that determines the rest of your life seemingly if you can get into a good university, and it only happens once a year. If you don’t do well in that test, then you’re out of luck and you have to wait.

How old are you usually when you’re taking this exam for the first time?

This is in high school. It’s like a college entrance exam. This is extremely stressful for them, and then it carries on into the workforce. You have to put in long hours because Korea is so hierarchical, there is such an order in place at the office where you have a boss. You cannot say no to them. They expect you to stay after work and go to these company dinners, drink alcohol, get home late at night, and then go to work the next day. All of this has created this atmosphere where young people are like, “Why are we doing this? It is so hard and we get nothing from it. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, and we want to give up.”

This is reminiscent of some things that are happening in the United States, the intensity and also the singularity of the way that you’re supposed to walk this path. It’s interesting hearing the laments of employers and academics, and also seeing the struggles among high school kids, especially in high-achieving neighborhoods and so on. By the way, I’m also cringing at this. Knowing what I know about the development of humans, this is not good for teenagers to sit in front of books and computer screens for fourteen hours a day. It’s certainly not good, in part because not all of them are good at this. I’m thinking as you say this, “What if you’re an artist?”

With everybody being pushed down one path professionally, and then also being pushed down one path from a relationship, family, lifestyle standpoint. That’s also bothersome because the premise of this show is that marriage is overprescribed. You’ve set the stage nicely about what the pressures are like and how challenging it is. As I was saying, it can’t be a fit for everyone so there’s this group of young people who are opting out. How did this started? Who are these people? How do they opt out? Tell me everything. I need to know everything.

This is a pretty broad term and it encompasses lots of different people who opt out in various ways.

Would I be a honjok?

You could be because you choose to maintain a single-person household. Some people live alone. Some people don’t get married. They don’t have kids. They don’t date. Some people don’t have sex. Some people abstain from the workplace because they don’t want to have colleagues or bosses. They just work freelance. Some people simply enjoy doing activities by themselves, like finding small pleasures in life by themselves. They could be part of a community or have relationships, but they go to the movies alone, they eat dinner alone, or they go to the bar alone.

The honjok is a big tent. One of the things that you do in the article is you lay out the language, these different terms. There are subcategories of honjoks.

There’s an entire taxonomy that describes the people and also the activities that they do by themselves.

I wrote down the people or the activities. If you could share the terms so we can get an idea of what this is. There are those who reject marriage and children.

Those are bihon. Bi is no and hon is marriage, so no marriage. This didn’t make it into the article. This is a separate word from mihon. It means no marriage too, but traditionally in Korea, mihon is used to describe a woman who hasn’t gotten married yet but hopefully, she will someday. It’s like she hasn’t completed her life yet. She’s not married, but the assumption is that she wants to get married and she can’t. She’s trying to but she hasn’t been able to yet. In contrast, bihon also means no marriage but it comes with this connotation that the woman is making the choice not to get married.

The word that comes up in the US language is spinster, a woman who’s never married. It’s not always clear whether that she’s a spinster by choice or by chance, but it comes off negatively. Is bihon used in a negative way, or is this a celebrated term in this community?

It is celebrated. It’s co-opting the negative mihon and saying, “I am bihon and this is my decision. This is what I want to do.”

I love this because I have this conversation time and time again about the challenges of this project, and that is there is not a good language for people who are single by choice. All of the languages around this is built around a language about relationships. It’s called marital status or relationship status. Everything is built around those terms, which tend to be positive and the terms for someone who might reject marriage or children tend to be more on the negative side. I like this idea of co-opting language and making it positive in that way. Maybe I’m going to start using some of these terms if can do it in a way that is correct and sensitive. There’s another one which is rejecting sex and romance.

These are four Bs. If bihon was saying no to marriage, the four in front of the B indicates no to four things, which is saying no to marriage, children, sex and relationships.

Are these people necessarily asexual, that they lack the drive and the interest in sex? Is this more of, “I’ve made a decision to shun this element of my life,” or is it some combination thereof?

It could be both. It could be someone who has no interest in sex. It could be someone who’s decided, “Sex and relationships are too much of a commitment for me. I can’t fit it into my life.”

It is not worth the effort. I had a previous episode about asexuality, and then there are also these people who are aromantic. It’s interesting because you can be asexual but not aromantic. You could be maybe aromantic but not asexual, or maybe both. You may still have marriage and kids, even with those kinds of things. It is an interesting world and one that is understudied, under-appreciated and one that we don’t have conversations about. It’s very striking. One of the things that have been fascinating to me is as I’ve pursued this project, a Pew Research Center study in the United States, a survey found that half of the adult singles are not interested in dating. We have this tendency to believe that single people are often single because they want to date but are bad at it. They want to date but they’re unappealing or they want to date, and they never want to stop dating. They never want to settle down. What is emerging and one of the things I want to try to be more sensitive to and aware of for my readers, is they are a large group of people who for now or forever going on dates, having sex, having relationships, having a romance. It is not just something that they want.

These terms are pretty fluid. People may identify with honjok now, but they’re not signing up for it forever necessarily.

There is a term for when a honjok eats alone. It sounds like a set up to a joke but it’s not.

It’s honbap because in Korean, bap is when you eat.

I want to digress for a moment talking about this because there is this weird stigma about eating alone that I notice. You see it when a host says to you, “Just one?” They almost are surprised and waiting for your partner. If you go to most restaurants with the exception of bar eating, there are at least two seats at a table, if not many more. I’m curious about eating alone in South Korea.

It is the same as you describe where if you go to a restaurant by yourself, typically the host or the waitress will ask you, “Are you waiting for someone? What’s wrong?” I interviewed a woman who went to a barbecue restaurant on her own. The waitress and some other patrons who are there to eat came over to her at three different stages throughout the night and asked her, “Are you okay?”

Do you recall her response?

She said, “I’m fine.” For some people, they see it as an embarrassment because it’s like losing face in a way, a shame that you don’t have anyone to share a meal with. I don’t know if you’ve had a Korean meal.

I’m living in LA. I enjoy Korean barbecue quite a lot.

With the barbecue, there’s that big grill in the middle of the table. It’s communal because you’re all supposed to grab and share from the same grill. There are all those side dishes that you share as well. Lots of restaurants are not built for a single setting or single serving. Now these people are going to honbap specific restaurants, and these are establishments built especially for them that have maybe partitions between the eaters. They set out a little cubicle looking thing and they can plug in their phone and they can watch TV. They can get this little mini barbecue set or mini portions.

This foreshadows a question that I have for you that we’ll get back to, which is how is the economy and how is the marketplace adapting to this group? I want to get through this list because there’s other good stuff on here. The next one is when a honjok plays alone.

That’s honnol. Playing alone, I don’t know if we use this term in English because it sounds like it’s for children, but it means partaking in leisure activities alone.

Maybe you go for a walk, going to the movies or go to an arcade. There’s an actual term for going to the movies alone.

It is honyeong.

I love going to the movies alone. I’m surprised more people don’t do it. This came up in an episode. If you are solo minded, I can recognize how awkward it might be to think about going to the movies alone. When you think about it, movies are a great solo activity. No one’s expecting you to be talking. You don’t necessarily need the conversation afterward to process and appreciate it. You can always talk to someone else who saw the movie elsewhere afterward. It’s nice to be able to do it on your schedule to make it leisurely, to sit in the seat that you want to sit in and so on. I remember when I started going to the movies alone a lot, which was in graduate school on Friday night. This is a way to decompress after a very hard week of work.

These days, in Korean cinemas, because of COVID, they block out every other seat. Even if you went with your friends or your date, you couldn’t sit next to them anyway.

There is a term also for shopping alone.

It is honsho.

I never thought of shopping as necessarily a group activity to begin with. Is that not the case in Korea? Is it typically something that you do with your family, with your partner or with your friends?

There’s a difference between running errands like shopping for your deodorant or something or basic necessities. That’s not so exciting to do with other people. In Korea, shopping is more like getting nice clothes, purses, jewelry or makeup. It’s more of actual activity and you bring your friends, or often a girlfriend brings her boyfriend because she wants him to buy everything.

The last one is when a honjok travels alone.

That’s honhaeng.

Is this domestic or international travel, or it doesn’t matter?

It could be a day trip or it could be a two-week holiday. In Korea, it’s not that common to travel alone. Also, a lot of people always want someone there to take pictures of them. A companion becomes important to be your photographer. To do it alone can be seen as provocative and outside the mainstream.

Do you have a sense of how big this cohort is?

It’s hard to say because the only real data is on single households, but that does not encompass the entire group. We don’t know.

You could be a honjok and still live with your parents.

Yes.

I find it encouraging. This is not a matter of me thinking about this as a curiosity. I think this is a good development, knowing what I know about a one size fits all culture and what it does to outsiders and how bad it is for their mental health, for their physical health. How bad it would be if a honjok decided to go against his or her desires to not have a family, and decide to go ahead and have a family in order to fit in. I feel bad for their partner. I feel bad for the children that they have. I certainly feel bad for them because they’re not living their best life. This group is connected using media and technology. How does that work if they use social media to be antisocial?

Not every establishment in Korea is conducive or optimal for a honjok. You want to find the places where you will feel comfortable being alone. In order to do that, the best way is to look on social media. They can use hashtags and see what is a good bar for drinking alone and then identify that place.

This is one of the things that happens a lot. If you’re part of a minority, if you’re living an unconventional life, and if you’re living a life in which that unconventional life is stigmatized, it can make it difficult to meet other like-minded people, other people who have the same set of preferences, because where do you look? Where do you ask? When you look around the office, there’s no one like you. When you look around the dinner table, there’s no one like you. That’s important. One of the things that I’m doing with this show is trying to bring together people from all over the world who share this perspective. I did my monthly Zoom call and I had one of my audience say to me that she thought there was something wrong with her for not wanting to have a relationship. She thought there was something wrong with her for wanting to be single and for liking it and enjoying it. I think that’s a terrible way to live. One of the beautiful things about technology is it gives you reach.

That’s where all these online communities have sprung up. They don’t necessarily come together to engage that much with each other. Sometimes, it is to know that there are other people like you in the world so that you don’t feel like some weird loser in Korean society. There are these platforms. In the article, I mentioned King of Honjok and Honjok Dot Com. These are websites and apps that honjok can go to find resources to live their lives, recommendations for single household services or subscriptions or products. Also, maybe go on the forums and ask other honjoks like, “Do you have any advice for XYZ,” or “If I’m trying to do this or that, what would you recommend?”

Did you spend some time in these forums and these communities as you were doing your research?

I also found new sites that exclusively publishes news about single living. If you look at any subset of news, like tech news or lifestyle news or women’s magazines, a lot of them assume that you are trying to attract a partner or that’s what you’re preoccupied with. There’s a lot of content now that’s written specifically for single people.

The United States is much more individualistic. There’s a lot more tolerance for diversity in terms of lifestyle and so on as demonstrated with regard to almost everywhere you look for it here. A lot of that has to do with essentially the founding of the country being focused on personal liberty and so on. Yet, what you’re describing to me seems so cutting edge for singles compared to what is available here in the United States. Why do you think that is? Is it because it’s such a pain point that there has to be something?

On the one hand, the economy recognized this big opportunity to cash in on the single markets. Korea is great at capitalizing on these moments. In Korea, single households have more disposable income than families because of the education system that I mentioned. If you have kids, you are spending all your money on their school, their private tutoring, their academies, their extra studies, and all their experiences. This is why lots of women don’t want to have children anymore. The birth rate is at an all-time low in Korea because it’s too much of an undertaking. Many women say, “I don’t want to do that. I already make less than men do because of wage inequality. Anything I earned, I would rather focus on myself.” They have more money to spend. Since companies have recognized that, they have built entire shopping networks apps to cater to single people. This would be like small furniture or small appliances or individual settings of dishware, all these types of things.

The shrink it model, which you’re starting to see in North America too. First of all, there’s a lot more opportunity. There’s a lot more focus. This is coming on the heels of a series on singles in the marketplace. I’ve been struck by how American businesses are and European businesses are missing out on opportunities. I’ve already written a little note for my teaser here. This says Korea is better at marketing to singles than here. What else is there? There’s this sort of shrinking the individualizing. What are some other things that you were struck by as you were looking at the marketplace, the business reaction to this? It must be a sizable enough group in order to move the marketplace.

In the US, there are a lot of singles, but they’re not alienated from mainstream consumerism. Some of them have no problem with being in the workplace, but the main character in my article felt like she was constantly beaten down by her superiors. They would shame her all the time for being one minute late or doing one tiny thing wrong, for the smallest mistakes. She didn’t feel like she could ever live up to their expectations. She thought, “Why should I even try anymore?” She decided to become a NEET person, which is Not in Education, Employment or Training.

What is her name?

Her name is Hye-min.

Let’s talk about Hye-min. How did you meet Hye-min and how does she live her life as a NEET?

I met her because she has quite a popular account on Instagram. She has 40,000 subscribers or followers. She creates these web toons or these cartoons that portray the honjok life.

We have an Instagram account for Solo called @Unapologetically_Unattached. I followed her after I read your article. I am looking forward to seeing what she’s been doing.

She has this great cartoon series that features a protagonist which is her, a single woman who’s trying to make her own way in life. She started this cartoon out of a place of desperation where she felt like she was weird and different and not accepted by society. Her parents always told her like, “I think you’re the only one who feels the way you do. You should get over it and move on.” She always thought, “I’m not asking for anything wrong or outrageous. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels the way I do. I don’t think I’m abnormal and strange.” She started to channel her energy into this cartoon series and she finally posted it. She got a strong public reaction and it resonated with a lot of people. It validated her experience to her.

She an artist. This is not a world that is as welcoming to artists and we need artists. You can’t have everybody being scientists and business people.

In Korea, artists are not valued as much. Everyone aspires to get the Samsung job and the civil servant job. She never wanted that, and nobody understood why so she found her own way.

That is a theme of, “I can’t help myself,” but it’s a theme of this project, which is when you embrace single living, it can provide you options. You can use the freedom. You don’t need to make as much money because you’re not going to be supporting a family, and because you have lower expenses, you can live in different places. You can travel more. You can become an artist rather than a business person. I find this uplifting. I like giving people choice. I like giving people the liberty to live a life that makes them happy, not being a civil servant or working at Samsung. Artists are late. They don’t show on time. You have the license to show up a little bit late without it affecting your livelihood. Are there any other striking reactions, either from the culture, the marketplace, the businesses, or even from this group themselves that stood out to you as you were writing this article?

I do want to mention that there is a gender aspect to this because Korea is a deeply patriarchal society. It’s misogynistic and women are placed under these impossible expectations. The pressures that they face are to be mothers, to be wives, and that’s their value in society according to Korea. Their personal beings are reduced to babymakers. A lot of women in this era want to focus on their careers or they want to do what makes them happy. I think honjok resonates especially with women.

I certainly can see that. I’m not surprised at all from my familiarity with the patriarchy in the United States, how freeing that can be to deviate from that traditional conventional be a wife, be a mom, especially because educational opportunities I assume abound now. The counterpoint to this and I’m curious if you’ve seen this with the males. The patriarchy also oppresses men. There’s a reason that in the United States, middle-aged men are most likely to commit suicide. The idea of the pressure to be the breadwinner, the pressure to be the provider puts men in situations where they make choices about how they live their lives, the jobs they do, the hours they work, the risk they put themselves in order to do that. I’m wondering, is there a flip side to that where there are men who are stepping away because they don’t want to work for Samsung, they don’t want to do those jobs that are the company men jobs that we know traditionally? At least I’m aware of the Japanese culture.

There is that, and then there’s also the fact that in Korean courtship culture, men are expected to pay for everything. A lot of young men simply don’t have the money to do that. The unemployment rates among youth in Korea or young people in Korea are incredibly high. There’s something called Sampo generation. Sam is three and po is giving up, so it’s giving up three things generation. These three things are courtship, marriage and children. It’s across genders, but a lot of men are in this generation because of the courtship part and the financial part where they can’t afford to have a girlfriend. The expenses of saving up for marriage, a house and kids’ educations is too much.

This is relevant. I may call this episode “Meet the Honjoks” as the title of it. I have a previous episode called Meet the Love Jones Cohort. Sociologist and demographer talks about how single living in the black community in the United States is this counterintuitive path to the middle class. The idea is you give up children. You might avoid someone else who is in debt and you decide to live on your own. That can be freeing in a sense. It sounds like you’re describing a similar path in Korea where you give up these expensive things. You live a simpler and unconventional life. In that way, you can at least afford to live.

There’s also another word in Korea, that’s sohwakhaeng. That means small but certain happiness. It’s like instead of saving up for a future that you may never get to, and killing yourself to put all your money into savings to get that house and support those kids and be married, instead you spend it in small ways that will bring you happiness.

In the world of behavioral economics, we talked about smoothing your consumption, there’s a tendency in general for people to spend a lot when they make a lot of money, which tends to be in the middle of their life. They’re poor when they’re young and they’re poor when they’re old because they don’t have income at those times. The idea essentially is you bring down the peak. You never had a big house in a fancy car, but when you’re younger, you spend money that you’ll have in the future. When you’re in the middle-age, you save more to have money as you’re older so you have this flatter consumption curve, as you call it a smaller, but certain happiness across the lifespan, rather than in some middle part of life.

They recognize that’s healthier for them. Korea has very high depression and suicide rates. It makes sense to have this small but certain and reliable happiness at regular intervals.

I’m happy that we talked. The last thing that I want to talk about before I turn it over to you for anything that you think would be interesting. It’s fascinating how this group has emerged. I’m not surprised why they’ve emerged. They’re emerging. They seem resilient. They’re forcing the economy and the country to adapt to them in some way. There’s a positive language that’s associated with this movement. There is even something that a lot of people will find amusing but I like in some way. It’s these solo marriage ceremonies. What’s the story with these things?

In Korea, when you get married, the wedding gift is always cash. Instead of doing a wedding gift registry where you register for homewares as we do in the US, they always get cash gifts. For women who wanted to still get that, but they didn’t want to commit to a lifelong partner, they thought, “Why am I being denied these cash gifts? I’ve had to give them to all my friends when they got married, and because I choose to be single and to commit to myself, I’m not getting the same benefits.” They decided to throw their own wedding ceremonies for them. They get cash. They also get to indulge in wearing a wedding dress and take wedding photos as many women want to do. They get all the same perks and benefits, but they don’t have to get married.

Is there anything else that I’ve missed as an outsider about this phenomenon? Is there anything that has struck you as interesting or might be useful for the audience to know about?

As much as these people have taken matters into their own hands to empower themselves, there are some of them who maybe are in a position of alienation. They are almost forced to do this. While we like to think of this as this great liberating experience for everyone, it’s not exactly happy across the board. Some of them feel like, “I have no path forward. I would like to get married but I can’t. I want to maybe follow the traditional path but it’s impossible.” They feel cornered into this lifestyle.

This is the perspective that a lot of people have about singles, which is your trying to survive singlehood versus celebrating it. Unless you know someone’s psychology and their situation, these two people are indistinguishable. The person who wants the conventional but can’t have it, versus the person who’s spurring the conventional and finding a way to be not only comfortable about it but being celebratory or unapologetic about it. What’s interesting is that both of those groups are going to benefit by reducing the stigma associated with it. How nice would it be for people not to feel this overwhelming pressure to get married and have kids?

As I like to say, “We don’t have the overwhelming pressure to eat Italian food on Friday night. You can have Indian food if you want.” If you want Italian food, great. You should have it. The idea that if you decide to have a marriage and to have children, people will congratulate you for it, but they’re not congratulating you because they’re happy that you will avoid this other bad outcome, which was not being able to do it. The person who decides not to do it deserves the same type of congratulation because they’re living the life that they want to be living. I agree with you that the more that this phenomenon happens, the more it chips away at tradition. When things aren’t traditional, then it becomes more about true preference that ends up being.

This is super cool. I have traveled extensively in Asia and I have never been to Korea. I am now even more eager to go to hang out with my honjok brothers and sisters, even though they don’t want to hang out with me. This was great. I enjoyed your article. I will put it in the exhibits. I also put your previous article on social isolation in those exhibits for people to read. I know you’re starting your day at the same time that I’m ending my day. I want to say thank you for your time. I appreciate you doing this.

It is my pleasure.

Resources mentioned:

About Ann Babe

SOLO 55 | Honjok

I’ve reported on the ground from sub-Saharan Africa on fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Reporting Project, as well as from across the United States, Southeast Asia, and my birthplace, South Korea.

In my work, I like to explore cultural identities as they intersect with issues like social justice, civic engagement, public space, migration and displacement. I’ve written for The California Sunday Magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and other publications. My long-form work has been featured by Longform and anthologized in The New Stories We Tell: True Tales by America’s Next Generation of Great Women Journalists. I have completed Hostile Environment and First Aid Training.

I live in Seoul and Brooklyn. My heart remains in Wisconsin, where I grew up and where all the best cheese is.

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