In Conversation

(From left) Shinae Yoon, Jinah Kim, Nina Moon, Angela Megyung Chung and Amy Anderson.

Do single gals have it better? Is it possible to have the career and the white picket fence? (Do they even want the white picket fence?) Five women tell all.

By Kai Ma
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi

Was 2008 the “Year of the Woman?” Sure, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin made the election feel more like an extravaganza, and there was something quite thrilling about imagining a woman in the Oval Office (not you, Lewinsky). But as gender became the leading lady of last year’s national stage, traditional female archetypes and stereotypes were often re-visited. Some were reinforced.

So, where are we in the mix? What has changed from our mothers’ generation, and what hasn’t? At theKoreAm headquarters, these questions were tackled during a roundtable discussion with five Los Angeles-based women who are prominent in the community. They hailed from different backgrounds, and represented mothers and workers, immigrants and Midwesterners. We even had a runaway bride. And as they collectively examined their expectations and paths, what unfolded was a lively conversation on the myth of marital bliss, the evolving definition of the modern woman, and why it’s so important to find some really good sperm.

KoreAm: Needless to say, last year was huge for women in politics. Do you feel Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were role models or setbacks?

Angela Megyung Chung: They represented the changing moment. If you’re going to generalize Hillary, she’s the advancement: a strong wife who tried to get involved with healthcare, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination who wasn’t always liked and acted uppity. Then, you have Palin: the “hot hockey mom.” It was this extreme juxtaposition of what women should be. Two caricatures playing each other out on the national stage. It was fascinating.

Shinae Yoon: But it didn’t give us many options. I don’t identify with either one and it’s not necessarily just because they’re white. For me, those are not role models.

Amy Anderson: But for a lot of women, Clinton and Palin are role models. People jumped on that bandwagon. My 24-year-old nanny was like, “Go Palin! Rah-rah Palin!” It freaked me out! But no, Palin didn’t set us back. It was still a step forward, even though it was done in a hasty and clumsy way.

Nina Moon: It changed the conversation. There’s a lack of vocabulary to talk about who we are now as women. That’s why [the election] was such a big deal. The press had no idea what to do with Clinton and Palin. I disagree with Palin on probably 90 percent of her platform, but I was upset that the media was attacking her because she was leaving her kids and poor Down syndrome baby to campaign for vice-president.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama has young children, too.

Moon: Yes! And we treat Joe Biden like a saint who sacrificed his career to be with his kids after their mother died. For Biden, it’s a sacrifice. For Palin, it’s cold ambition.

KoreAm: Growing up, how did you envision your own future?

Jinah Kim: Married by 23. And by my 30s, I would have kids and be the president of some country. I had huge dreams.

Yoon: It was drilled into my head that I had to get married and reproduce. But growing up Korean, who didn’t have that expectation?

Chung: I didn’t. I was a very angry Asian girl. I didn’t think about my future. I grew up with immigrant parents who are products of World War II, the Korean War and Japanese occupation. The world felt fucked up.

Moon: I didn’t think I would be married with two kids by the age of 26. I wanted to be a teacher. But when I met my husband, it was like, “Let’s get married.” My mom spent so much time at work, so we didn’t grow up having family dinners. In a way, I was choosing to be different.

Kim: We didn’t want to be like our parents.

Yoon: Right. Whereas with me, there was so much expectation to get married, settle down and have kids that I just wanted to be independent. It was that rebelliousness that made me say, “No, I want to be an artist. I want to live alone.”

Kim: My parents were unusual. They never pressured me to get married or have kids. They never wanted me to go to college.

Everyone: What?!

Kim: They wanted me to be a missionary. I grew up hard-core Jehovah’s Witness. I was telling everybody that Armageddon was coming. And then everything changed when I went to college. [Laughs] Now, I’m engaged to a non-Jehovah’s Witness. My mother has declared that she can’t bless the union of our marriage with her presence. My father died in 2003. So my dad’s dead and my mother isn’t coming to my wedding.

Amy Anderson: I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would end up becoming a single mom. That’s not in anybody’s plans.

Kim: Unless you’re Angelina Jolie.

Anderson: I got pregnant when I was 34 years old. I never even wanted kids. My pregnancy happened by accident. So, I found myself a single mom. It was a really hard transition. But my daughter and I have come to a place of real happiness. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

KoreAm: For those who are single, do you ever envy your friends who are already married with children?

Yoon: No. Because they’ve all turned into these crazy robots! It’s all about their kid.

Kim: And baby yoga.

KoreAm: Mothers, do you ever feel envious of your single friends?

Moon: All the time. [Laughs] I want their clothes, purses. They have jobs and disposable incomes. I never got to travel or have a career. I was applying to grad school when I got pregnant. It’s hard to have it all. But, you have to make sacrifices, and I’m totally at peace with those sacrifices.

Anderson: Motherhood is a total sacrifice. Mothers are afraid to admit this, but I totally go through periods where I mourn my former life.

It’s a well-kept secret that women actually struggle with motherhood.

Anderson: Women are afraid of looking bad. For me, being pregnant was like a 40-week prison sentence in my own body. I would be open about that, and other moms would give me this look, as if to say: How dare you?

Moon: It’s not easy for women to admit that mothering is difficult. That’s why I started blogging. Online, I was able to find mothers willing to admit: Sometimes, I get mad at my children. Sometimes, I even yell at them. Or, how you can’t poop after you have kids. It’s horrible. I wrote a lot on my blog about breast-feeding because it was so incredibly difficult. My nipples bled, cracked, got plugged. My friends and family members would ask, “Do you really have to write so much about your boobs?” People don’t want to hear that stuff.

Anderson: People love pregnant women. But as soon as that baby pops out, you’re no longer adored. You’re judged.

KoreAm: Did sex feel different after you had a child?

Anderson: Did it even happen? That’s the question. I’ve had a long, dry spell. I’m happy being single. I do miss intimacy, but I don’t miss the physical act of sex as much. Am I turning into a nun?

Kim: Sex does get better with age. [Facing Moon] You’ve got a lot to look forward to. You get more hormonal. And extremely horny. You embrace the fact that you deserve pleasure.

KoreAmHow were you introduced to sexuality?

Kim: I had the most conservative upbringing. I didn’t have sex in college once.

Anderson: I was a late bloomer, too. I was raised in the evangelical Lutheran church and received very conservative messages about sexuality: Sex was sinful, make-up was for prostitutes, and only pirates wore earrings. In high school, my mom once made some comment to me about how disgusting oral sex was. I just remember thinking, “Get me out of this room.”

Kim: That means your dad never got any.

Anderson: My poor dad.

Yoon: My parents were the exact opposite. When I was 8 years old, I found their porn.

Chung: I found my parents’ porn, too. Porn videos!

Yoon: I found porn film. Eight-millimeter. That means they actually had to set up a projector to watch it. I think that hypersexualized me. I was sexual very early. But, I don’t have enough sex now. That’s for sure.

Kim: You can have sex anytime you want. Women don’t ever have to go without sex.

Anderson: You can walk into a room full of men and be like, “Hey! Who wants me?” But I’m grossed out by strange dick. I have to know the dick.

Yoon: Totally.

KoreAm:  Sex is one thing, love is another.

Kim: All my girlfriends are single – even though there are 3 billion men in this world.

Yoon: They’re all gay.

Kim: They’re all lame. Losers.

Yoon: Gay.

Kim: When I was 34, I left my first fiancé three months before our wedding. He was extremely controlling and insecure. So, I threw in the towel. Since then, what has been extremely important to me? Maturity, self-awareness, fewer insecurities. Now, I’m engaged to a new guy, who I completely admire. The respect is mutual. He can look at me and say, “You are so awesome.” And I can look at him and say, “You are so awesome.”

Moon: Those should be your wedding vows.

Kim: I’m curious about married life. [Facing Moon, the only married participant] How do you keep it fresh? After 10 years of eating vanilla ice cream every day, do you ever think, chocolate might be nice? How do you keep eating vanilla for 40 years?

Anderson: Add whipped cream.

Moon: When I first got married, it hit me that I would have to live with this person for the rest of my life. But over the years, our relationship has changed; we have a deeper, more intimate relationship than ever before. But one of the hardest parts about our marriage is the incredible pressure from his parents to play a certain role. I wasn’t raised to be the Korean daughter-in-law who goes into the kitchen and cuts fruit. Seriously, how do they do that anyway? Cut the fruit entirely in one peel?

Chung: It’s practically a required skill to be a wife.

Moon: When I was pregnant, my father-in-law was visiting. Afterward, I found out that he was intensely angry and disappointed because I’d left dishes in the sink. To enter a family where paternalism and male superiority is the way it is … makes it hard to understand who I’m going to be in this marriage. I wasn’t raised with that worldview. I couldn’t figure out where my [Korean American] husband stood and where his [South Korean] parents stood. Men have such a privileged position in Korean society, and daughters-in-law definitely do not. I want to please them, just not so much that I sacrifice who I am.

Yoon: If I’d gotten married in my 20s, I would’ve been divorced twice over by now. Marriage can be a great thing. But for me? Nah. It will confine me. It will bring me to a bad place. Sometimes, I go into this little fantasy world where I’m the perfect housewife and live in a big house. And then I think, “Oh, my God, I’m bored. I’ll die.”

Anderson: I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom. I would go bananas. I’m the type of person that has to have something else.

Yoon: There’s a reason why I chose this path: I need mental stimulation. There are things that I still want in life, but what are those things? Now, when I meet a man, I don’t think, “Is this my potential husband?” I think, “Ooh! That might be good sperm.” I want a baby. But the whole house-husband fantasy? Out the door.

Chung: I agree. The idea of marriage makes me depressed. It feels very lonely. Like, that’s it. That’s the end. It seems so constraining. And there are different models for relationships now. If I have kids, I’m not going to raise them to believe that they should only love one type of person. Or that relationships can only be between a man and a woman. Or that your only option is this structured union that is honored by the state or church. There’s this movement now to not have traditional weddings or marriages. When I think about that kind of freedom … it’s exciting.

Yoon: When I was 16, my mom got on her hands and knees and said, “Promise me you’ll marry a Korean.” Now, 20 years later, my sister is living with her long-term [Filipino] girlfriend and we’re going on family vacations together. And my mom is just doting over my sister’s girlfriend. I never thought that would happen. But our parents are people, too. They can change. We just have to challenge them.

KoreAm: What other aspects of your Korean American upbringing do you not want to pass on?

Anderson: I have no idea. My parents are white. [Laughs]

Kim: The whole sense of pretense and lies. Pretending that your struggles don’t exist so that you look good in front of other people. You don’t even remotely earn enough money to own a Mercedes or wear Chanel, but you do so that everybody will look at you a certain way.

Yoon: If I’m going to have children, I don’t want it to be about raising a mini-me. That happened with my mom. I am still an extension of her. I’m nearly 40 years old and she’s like, “No, you are not an individual. You are me. You are mine.” Which is so Korean.

KoreAm: What aspects do you want to pass on?

Yoon: Koreans have a sense of clan. You ban together. That’s something our generation is losing out on because we’re so independent and all about ourselves.

Chung: The amazing, unconditional love. My grandmother is 85, and raised me when my parents were working seven days a week. My family was very matriarchal and women-dominated.

Yoon: That generation of Korean women is very strong — especially the immigrants. They had to work side-by-side and prove that they were just as tough as the guys.

Chung: And do what they needed to do to raise the kids and survive.

Moon: Our parents were maybe not progressive, but they were different. They had to be. As much as there are things that piss me off about Korean culture, there is such beauty. Jeong. Han. There is this depth of emotion and generosity that I don’t see in mainstream American culture.

Anderson: Koreans are the Italians of the East. Dramatic. All emotion.

Kim: Hardcore.

Yoon: My father, with his brother and sister, escaped northern Korea right before they closed the border. My father passed away two years ago and never reunited with the rest of his family. That sense of loss and longing that he had his whole life, of never knowing and never having seen, affected me tremendously. This idea that I could lose it all. But it also shows such strength. That through all of that adversity, they were able to have a family, move to the United States, not speak the language, but still have this life. If I could do a quarter of that in my lifetime, I would be such a success, you know?

KoreAm: What choices do you have that other women did not?

Yoon: I wouldn’t have thought 20 years ago that I had the option of being a single mother. But now I think, “Wow, I can do that.” When I went to the gynecologist, the first thing she asked was how old I was. Then she said, “Have you thought about fertility? You need to freeze your eggs.”

Kim: We’re geriatric. Pregnancies after 35 are considered high-risk. During my last appointment, my gynecologist told me, “Your eggs are old.” I got old eggs!

Anderson: I was just in Korea, searching for my birth family. Single motherhood has such a giant stigma. The majority of children who live in orphanages in Korea right now are not orphans. They’re the products of divorced parents or poor families. If I were living in Korea, my daughter would probably be living in an orphanage. That idea is absolutely unbelievable. It’s unfathomable. Now as a single mom, I’ll never take for granted that I’m able to raise my child, be respected, have a career. It seems like such a simple thing here in the United States but it’s immensely complex in Korea.

Chung: I’ve realized I can do what I want to do and be happy. That seems so simple. But for our grandmothers and mothers, those are mutually exclusive.

Moon: There’s a generation of feminists who think that women that stay at home with their children are shafting other women. Setting back the feminist movement. But to me, feminism is about having the freedom to make choices. I want to stay at home. That choice is what provides my version of personal fulfillment.

Kim: Sometimes, all the options we now have make us feel crazy. Life would be simpler if your parents just arranged your marriage. But as much as we bitch and dish about our lives, I would never trade places with my mother. We’ll take the complexity. We’ll take the modern life!

The Participants

Amy Anderson, 36, is a comedian, actress and writer. She created the first Asian American stand-up showcase, Chop-SHTICK, at the Hollywood Improv, and has appeared on Comedy Central and VH1. Born in Seoul, she was adopted as an infant and raised in Minnesota. She is the single mother of a one-year-old daughter.

Angela Megyung Chung, 31, is an attorney with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, writer and former community organizer. Her writing and political work focuses on racial justice, gender liberation and international human rights.

Jinah Kim, 36, is a correspondent for NBC News and KNBC. Born in Seoul, she immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 6. Her passions include languages, traveling, recycling, literacy and environmental causes. She is the president of the Asian American Journalists Association in Los Angeles.

Nina Moon, 26, is a writer and founding editor of Kimchi Mamas, a blog for mothers of Korean American children. She lives with her husband and two young sons. She dreams about eight hours of consecutive sleep, a house with a picket fence and enough spare time to read novels again.

Shinae Yoon, 37, is the executive director of Visual Communications and the executive producer of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. She has worked as an arts administrator in the non-profit community for more than a decade. Originally from Chicago, she is also a filmmaker and has written and produced several short films.