Korea: Making pastry and friends through the Red Cross

Published: 6 August 2013 9:00 CET

By Francis Markus in Seoul

Up to their elbows in dough and chestnut and sweet red bean filling, more than 20 women are rolling and kneading away in the kitchen of a community centre run by the Republic of Korea National Red Cross, a 45-minute drive from downtown Seoul. They are making pastries for the elderly and vulnerable.

But it’s not just the humanitarian side of this confectionary-making session that’s important. It represents a valuable opportunity for social contact because these women are members of the more than 400,000 multicultural families in the country – overwhelmingly foreign women married to Korean men.

“I come here to meet my friends,” says Cinia Kim, as she laughs and jokes with two other Filipina women working at the same table.

“Apart from these get-togethers, many of the women lead relatively isolated lives,” adds instructor Moon Jai He.

“Mostly, the Korean husbands are a lot older than their wives – sometimes 20 years older – and they’re relatively conservative. They don’t want their wives to go out to work because they’re afraid they might run away.”

The 34-year-old and her two friends confirm that not being allowed by their husbands to go out to work is a key issue for them, especially if they need to send money back to their families, but Cinia says that she would never consider running away.

Windmill of Hope

This bread-making session is part of the Red Cross Heemang Poongcha programme (or Windmill of Hope), which targets migrants, the young, elderly and vulnerable, as well as multicultural families.

There are hundreds of thousands of foreign women, mostly from other parts of Asia, who are married to Korean men. Many of them live in rural or suburban areas and in relatively low-income groups. One of the key problems they face is acquiring proficiency in the Korean language and negotiating often difficult relationships with their husbands’ family.

Asked what additional support would be useful, fellow Filipina Marie Ann Madrid replies without hesitation: “Classes for our Korean husbands to help them understand our culture better.”

This need to make the process a two-way street is something the Red Cross is acutely aware of and it has been reflected in many aspects of the programme, such as in some cases enabling the wife’s mother to come from her home country to assist with childbirth. It also implements visiting homeland programme. But it is a challenging process.

Women from China, including a large number of ethnic Koreans, make up the majority of the multicultural marriages. While they don’t face the difficulties that others do in making themselves understood, they also need to adjust to Korea’s different social norms.

“People in Korea express themselves in a much gentler and more respectful way than we do, so when we first arrive, we can easily offend people without meaning to,” says Han Yihua, an ethnic Korean woman from Shenyang in north-eastern China.

With the pastries now in the oven, there’s now a little time to reflect on broader issues. “What I think would be really useful would be the kind of training which gives us the skills to find a job on the Korean employment market,” says Sunan Yoschamnankit, 44, from Thailand.

Instructor Ms Moon acknowledges that only a tiny number of women from her classes have had the ability or the motivation to get licences to operate as professional bakers. “Many of the women are starting to worry about their future economic security and about how they will live once their husbands are too old to work,” she says.

Working with corporate partners

Given that the Red Cross strategy is to work increasingly together with corporate partners – Samsung, CJ and Korea Zinc Company provided the ovens in which the pastries are fragrantly baking – “these corporate partnerships could offer us the best way to try to provide the kind of more specialized training the women want,” says Kim Doosoo of the department responsible for the programme.

There are no ready-made answers at the moment. Just as the pastries need time to brown, so the Red Cross work with these women and other vulnerable groups will evolve and mature over time to meet their changing needs.