South Korean single mothers turn to theater to strike back against stereotypes

Soft acoustic guitar chords and sniffles from the audience provide the soundtrack as Lee Yeon-ji tells her story of life as a single mother in South Korea. A spotlight settling on her, she addresses her 4-year-old daughter:

"I was advised to put you up for adoption so you could be taken in by a rich family," the 37-year-old office worker acknowledges, pausing to hold back tears. "Now I couldn't imagine you being raised by someone other than me."

Though the situation may not strike Americans as unusual, in South Korea it is an extreme rarity. The country of 50 million people counted just more than 10,000 single mothers in 2012, the latest year for which government statistics are available. That's up from about 5,000 a decade earlier, but still only 0.02% of the population.

In socially conservative South Korea, single mothers are often ostracized by their families and can struggle to find jobs. A mother who raises a child out of wedlock is generally seen as selfish, depriving her child of a "fair chance" in a country where a two-parent home is viewed as vital to preparing youths for the hyper-competitive education and employment markets. In recent years, divorce has become more common, but couples tend to stay together until after their children reach adulthood.

But women like Lee are starting to push back, through protests, civic actions — and now, theater. In November, she and four other single mothers took to the stage to perform "Special Stories From Normal Women," a play they wrote illustrating their struggles with unplanned pregnancies, conflicts with their partners over how to handle the births, and their anguished decisions to raise a child on their own. The women play themselves, and the scenes are all based on their real life experiences.

"The stereotype of a single mother in Korea is someone who has been abandoned and is poor and depressed," says Kim Yeo-wool, 34, one of the single-mom performers. "There is some truth to that, but we want to show that there's more. A lot of us are living happily."

In an early scene of the play, which the women performed twice on one day at a local theater space, Lee attends a parents' meeting at her child's school concerning a student production of "Romeo and Juliet." She encounters another mother, who upon learning that Lee is unmarried, calls her poor and pathetic. She then tells Lee that because she is unwed, she has no business being involved with "Romeo and Juliet," since she obviously has no clue what true love is.

That scene births the play's main plot line, with Lee and her single-mom friends putting on their own version of the Shakespeare tragedy, starring a single mom as the female protagonist.

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The mothers' decision to put on a play came from a sense that their other activist efforts haven't conveyed the texture of their lives and personalities.

"We've done a bunch of protests and campaigns, but we wanted to bring people into our lives and thought we needed a cultural medium to accomplish that," said Choi Hyung-sook, 44, another of the performers.

Despite its serious intent, the play is leavened with humor; its promotional flier says the women decided to "raise a child instead of marrying one" — a dig at South Korean men who often rely on their wives to cook, clean and launder the clothes.

With South Korea's birthrate at an all-time low — as of 2014 it was 1.21 births per woman over an average lifetime — and the government struggling to find ways to increase it, single mothers see bitter irony in the prejudice they encounter.

"Our country's birthrate is rock-bottom, abortion is illegal, and still society is hostile toward single mothers," said Kim.

The women in the play contend that government should provide more financial support to nontraditional families. Single mothers are entitled to a stipend of about $130 a month if the woman's income is below 1.2 million won (a little more than $1,000) — half what the government provides to two-parent families that adopt domestically.

Statistics Korea, a government body, says single women account for 2% of births, but more than 90% of babies put up for adoption, as many of them don't feel able to raise a child on their own.

The single mothers have found enthusiastic support from an unexpected quarter: Korean orphans adopted by American families who are now adults.

Jane Jeong Trenka was born in South Korea and adopted by a Minnesota family as an infant in 1972. One of very few Asian children in her community, she says she often felt unwelcome. She returned to South Korea as an adult to find her birth mother, and has stayed. She is president of Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, a group that advocates for closer regulation of adoption.

Last year, Trenka gave birth to a daughter, whom she is raising as a single mother in Seoul. She says she regularly runs into prejudice.

"When I introduce my baby and people hear that she has my surname, and when I tell people I'm an unwed mom, they give me the evil eye," Trenka said.

International adoptions began in South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War, primarily as a means to find homes for mixed-race babies conceived by Korean women and U.S. soldiers, said Arissa Oh, an assistant professor of history at Boston College and author of "To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption."

Since the 1980s, Oh said, international adoption in South Korea "has been the mechanism through which the government removed the children of single moms."

Lee, the office worker, said that although in her life as a mother she has doubted her ability to raise her child and struggles on her small salary, her life is brightened by her daughter's love. She weaves anecdotes of motherhood into a tapestry of memories she recalls when she needs a boost: the way her little girl greets her with kisses, and the look on her daughter's face when she devours a slice of watermelon, her favorite fruit.

At the end of "Special Stories From Normal Women," the performers' children run to the front of the room to present their mothers with flowers. They smile, embrace and bow in front of the small audience.

"This journey has been tough," Lee said later, sitting with her daughter, her only child, on her lap. "But I got something lovely out of it."

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 28, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Acting out the role of single mom - South Korean mothers turn to theater to strike back against stereotypes and portray their reality." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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