HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — They met for the first time at a hotel coffee shop. He’d flown five hours from South Korea. She’d come eight hours by bus from the Vietnamese countryside. The attraction was modest but enough. About 18 hours later, they were married.
With the exchange of rings, provided by a broker, Danh Thi Cam Loan and Lee Kwan-ju became sudden partners in a matchmaking gamble — one in which strangers sharing neither language nor culture embark on a life together.
Such mail-order marriages have boomed in South Korea over the past 15 years, driven by a glut of low-earning men who struggle to find partners in their achievement-obsessed country. But a problem has developed: Too many of the marriages are falling apart almost as quickly as they start.
Mounting concern about the mail-order marriages is now prompting South Korea to more forcefully regulate the process. In perhaps the boldest step, its government is funding several bride schools in Vietnam — day-long or three-day courses in which women are introduced to the Korean language and customs before getting their visas.
For Danh and Lee, their marriage last October was just the beginning of an odyssey that typifies both the hopes of the women coming to Korea and the realities that await them. Over the next six months, Danh, 20, would learn the basics of Korean, wait for a visa, board an airplane for the first time and finally join Lee in Wonju, a city of 300,000 some 90 minutes east of Seoul.
Lee, 36, who manages a computer cafe, paid several thousand dollars to a broker for the opportunity to travel to Ho Chi Minh City and marry for the first time. He knew he was taking a chance. When he first met his wife, there was almost nothing that they could say to one another — at least nothing that felt important.
She didn’t know that he faced pressure from his father to “continue the family line” and that his trip to Vietnam happened almost entirely at his dad’s urging. She didn’t know that, before she walked into the hotel coffee shop, he’d already met with 19 other women — some too young, some already divorced, nobody perfect. She didn’t know that he felt “a lot of pressure” as he sat there, asking basic questions to one woman after the next with the help of a translator.
Danh figured she’d tell Lee about the details of her life only as her Korean language skills improved and she could say things just right. She’d dropped out of school after the seventh grade because her family couldn’t afford education for both her and her brother. Her previous boyfriend was six years older, a drunk, and she feared that her next one would be a lot like him. She’d come to see Vietnam as a dead end. A move to Korea, she felt, was a chance for something else.
“I’m hopeful but nervous,” Danh said while waiting in Vietnam for her visa.
After their marriage, Lee went back to Wonju. Danh stayed in Vietnam, hoping to join him soon. Lee bought a Korean-Vietnamese dictionary. Danh bought a phrasebook. She entered Lee’s cellphone number into her smartphone and saved it under the name of “Beloved Happy.”
Class is in session
Danh had months to get ready for her move, but much of her preparation was concentrated into a single day, when she walked into a second-floor classroom at the South Korean Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. There: bride school. Twenty-seven other women who’d taken the same matchmaking gamble. Some wore hooded sweatshirts and kept their hair in ponytails. A few rested motorbike helmets on their desks.
The eight-hour class isn’t mandatory, but the certificate that women get for the course helps with their visa process. Ideally, school officials say, the course would be longer. But most women, like Danh, come from the Mekong Delta. They can pay for a round-trip bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh City but not for a hotel.
“Frankly speaking, this is not education. This is orientation,” said Kim Ki-young, whose Asia Cultural Exchange Foundation runs the school with an annual $80,000 in funding from the South Korean government. Still, he credits the government for trying at least this much. South Korea’s television dramas, popular throughout Asia, portray a nation of heiresses and Casanovas — leading some foreign women to expect a life of luxury and tender companionship.
“Most of them have some kind of fantasy,” Kim said. “They think they will be very happy.”
Marriage, more than any other factor, is changing the complexion of South Korea. About two decades ago, the South was nearly as ethnically homogenous as its authoritarian neighbor to the north. But foreigners now account for almost 3 percent of South Korea’s population. Tens of thousands of women, mostly from China and Southeast Asia, enter the country every year after tying the knot.
South Korea has appeared supportive of the influx while taking steps to remove some of the taboos and traumas. The government has increased its budget for multicultural families, setting up hundreds of support centers across the country. In 2011 it started to require an exchange of health and criminal records as part of the marriage arrangement, a way to ensure that women aren’t duped by brokers into marrying men with hidden problems.
But it’s the latest government step, taken in April, that has the potential to redefine — and slow — the mail-order-marriage process. The Justice Ministry announced that wives would receive visas only if they shared at least one language with their new husbands. The mandate doesn’t affect those like Danh, who married months earlier, but it does make her the last of a breed: somebody bound for Korea without flourishing language skills.
At the class in February, there was only a cursory lesson on language. The teacher, Nguyen Hoang Phuong, explained the Korean alphabet and the pronunciation of letters. She asked the women to parrot a few sounds.
“Ni-eun,” she said, pronouncing a Korean letter.
“NI-EUN,” they said.
They blazed through a 114-page basics-of-Korea textbook. Nguyen explained why young people shouldn’t sit in priority seats on the Seoul subway. She told them that new Korean mothers eat seaweed soup, high in nutrients. And she said Korean wives always, always dote on their in-laws.
South Korea, in that classroom, still seemed a little unreal. The women giggled at their mispronunciations. A video about daily life in Korea explained the country’s four seasons, including a hot summer and a brutal winter. On the screen, office workers were shown bundled in scarves. A snowplow carved through Seoul.
The women gasped.
In quieter moments, though, some admitted that they were worried about going. One student confessed to the teacher that she was “disgusted” by the notion of sex with a stranger. One 19-year-old, Sin Thi Khanh Ly, said she’d been told by her parents to find a South Korean man. “My family is very poor, and I try to be obedient,” she said, “but I’m not very comfortable with the idea.” Her husband is 42, she said.
Danh, though, tried hard to stay optimistic. She sat in the first row, her hair in a bun, her mouth in a perma-smile. By that point, she had a good feeling about her husband. They talked every night by phone, though fitfully — tourist phrasebook language. And when Lee ran out of words, he’d sing to her. They did this enough that Lee started to feel like he was in love. Danh, meanwhile, started knitting an image of her and her husband kissing. He had a boyish bob of hair and a soft face, and he was already planning for a 2016 trip back to Vietnam, where the two of them would visit her parents.
“She’ll be the translator,” he said.
An ‘awkward’ reunion
On the April morning that Danh arrived in South Korea, Lee headed early to Incheon airport. He’d long imagined the way their meeting would feel — an embrace, a sense of excitement. But he waited and waited at the arrival gate, and eventually Lee realized that his wife had walked right past him, not recognizing him.
When they finally reunited, “we didn’t even hug,” he said. “It was awkward.”
But Danh soon settled into a routine. She hung out at a Vietnamese restaurant two blocks from Lee’s apartment, and she attended Korean language classes three days a week. There, she met a group of fellow wives — including one who’d been married for years — who fast became her confidantes.
Her husband proved to be sweet, she said, though sometimes almost too doting. They often watched television at night, and they tried to talk. But sometimes, Danh would spend long periods on the phone, speaking in Vietnamese with people Lee didn’t know.
“We’re not able to reveal deep things,” Lee said. “I look up words on the Internet.”
Still, a union was building. One recent afternoon, Danh got some big news. She was by herself — Lee was at work — but she didn’t want to wait until he came home.
So she told him the news the only way she knew how.
She texted him a picture of her pregnancy test. There were two red lines.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.