By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a first generation Korean American married to a non-Korean man, Lea Armstrong had to overcome challenges uncommon in other marriages, including cultural and language barriers with her husband.
A large majority of Korean women married to non-Korean men are living in America and are married to American spouses. This year, Armstrong’s organization, the World Federation of Korean Intermarried Women’s Association (World KIMWA), hosted their 6th annual conference in Seattle. This is the first time the conference was hosted outside of Korea.
The opening night at the Seattle Airport Double Tree Hotel brought in about 100 members in attendance from five countries, which included the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, and the Philippines. The evening was hosted by Mary Nam, newscaster for KOMO News, and attended by honorable guests such as Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Sen. Paull Shin of the 21st district in Edmonds.
“[Lea Armstrong] has the tremendous drive to organize such an organization like this despite a lot of challenges and opposition from the country and also the people,” said Shin at the conference.
In 2004, a group of intermarried Korean women met in Korea to discuss issues and challenges unique to their situation while establishing new friendships. The meeting happened again the following year and
led to the founding of World KIMWA in October 2006.
“Traditionally, Korean people believe in one blood. For years, they didn’t even open their hearts to accept Koreans married to non-Koreans,” said Armstrong. “Now, there are not only Korean women married to non-Korean men, but Korean men are married to non-Korean women. Young people also go abroad to study and get married there. We also have many foreign workers that marry Koreans. The whole country is going to be globalized anyway, so they’ve started accepting it. Some of the older folks have a harder time accepting why Koreans marry non-Koreans.”
Sen. Shin shared his experience as an intermarried Korean. Shin and his wife endured many hardships in 1963, when their marriage was still deemed illegal. He credited the efforts of Armstrong and KIMWA members for the global recognition and acceptance of interracial marriages like his own.
“You’ve become a fountainhead, also a foundation of humanity — not just of racial equality, but family equality,” said Shin.
Korean women were known to have married non-Korean men as early as the Japanese colonization of Korea. This increased in the 1950s during the Korean War.
Since its founding, World KIMWA has spread to nine different countries, with 26 chapters in the United States. Each chapter participates in service activities and hosts events to promote Korean culture.
“The vast majority of KIMWA members left their native home to start their wedded life in a different country. Some don’t have family here. KIMWA provides them the support they may not find otherwise,” said Nam, who is also married to a non-Korean.
Nam grew up in the States from a young age and did not have to overcome many cultural or language barriers in her marriage. “I didn’t leave my family and move out of the country to start over. In many respects, it’s a lot easier for men and women of my generation. That being said, there are experiences unique to interracial couples. We have twice the culture in one household.”
“KIMWA now has different generations of Korean wives. Together, we can input greater social contributions to the places we live and to Korea at the same time. We can help each other as well. We can be ambassadors for our culture to Koreans and non-Koreans as well,” said Armstrong.
The opening night of the conference included music and Korean folk dance. Some of KIMWA’s other cultural events include cooking lessons, tea ceremonies, and arranging traditional wedding customs. The conference was followed by a three-day program with seminars and discussions about the globalization of Korean intermarried women and their future role, promoting Korean traditional foods, and World KIMWA’s role in advocating for multicultural families in Korea.
“Attending a lot of the functions, going to a lot of the cultural events, and having the opportunity to go to Korea and meet different people really helped shed light on the family dynamics of Asian culture,” said George Bradley, husband of Northwest KIMWA President Sonnia Bradley.
“One of the things about being the spouse of a World KIMWA member is meeting other spouses in the same situation to share ideas, share challenges, and talk about other cultural aspects,” said Bradley. “KIMWA allows the entire family to help. It also provides the entire family the opportunity to be involved.”
KIMWA provides an outlet for both wives and husbands to talk about the good and the bad and to partby phone and e-mail so they may reconnect.
Members of World KIMWA celebrated the completion of a successful program on August 5 aboard a cruise ship that sailed from Lake Union. Currently, KIMWA continues to grow. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Switzerland and states like Oklahoma and Texas are currently waiting to start new chapters. ♦
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.