Cao Thi Nguyen, left, and social worker Park Jee-hee outside Myeongrak… (Ju-min Park / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Seoul — Cao Thi Nguyen and her baby were marooned in a strange land without family or options.
The young woman, who moved here from Vietnam two years ago to marry a South Korean man, had been kicked out of her home after a fight with her husband's family.
Unable to speak Korean, the slight 29-year-old wandered the streets of Seoul for months until she found a refuge designed to help the growing number of foreign brides in the country -- nearly half of whom report suffering domestic abuse.
Myeongrak Village, a motel-turned-shelter with a capacity for 14 residents, serves women exclusively, providing food and medical costs and a chance at self-reliance.
In South Korea, which in recent years has imported more than 100,000 foreign brides from such nations as China, Mongolia, Vietnam and the Philippines, many newcomers struggle to adapt to their adopted homeland and its close-knit culture. Some are abandoned by their new families.
"Many of those living here were forced out without any preparation by their irresponsible families," said Park Jee-hee, a social worker at Myeongrak Village.
Nguyen is typical of residents at the shelter.
"My husband and his family did not allow me to learn Korean because then I could go out and hang out with friends," said Nguyen, who is seeking a divorce.
At Myeongrak Village, residents have their own rooms and share a common kitchen on each floor. But more important, they enjoy the support of their peers, who share their grief, emotional scars and hope.
Jung Mi-ryong, a 15-year-old Chinese girl who lives at the shelter with her mother, said life was hard with her new family.
"My Korean stepfather was paranoid about everything my mother did," she said. Her mother is now divorced.
The nonprofit center, which opened six months ago, is run by the South Korean Buddhist group Cheontae Order, which says the need for such services is clear.
In South Korea, men now outnumber women, who often postpone marriage to pursue careers. The trend is most pronounced in less prosperous rural towns that have seen women leave for big cities. The women have been replaced as marriage partners by brides from developing countries.
Many inter-cultural couples tie the knot within two or three days. The quick matches sometimes end in tears -- and worse.
According to a report from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, nearly half of the foreign brides in South Korea say they have experienced domestic violence.
Activists say they face a language disability that worsens conflicts with their Korean husbands and families. Traditional views in many conservative families also lead to breakups.
"I heard my mother-in-law saying that my child was born from a rented belly, which is mine," said a 32-year-old woman surnamed Kim who declined to give her full name. "It was a shock."
Despite their problems here, many divorced foreign brides say they want to stay in South Korea to seek their fortunes. Some are studying Korean and plan to become citizens.
But women living in Myeongrak Village say their experiences at the shelter are crucial to their success. The three-story shelter feels more like a college dormitory where residents cook together and make friends.
"Now it is tough financially, but not emotionally," Kim said. "I feel safe."
Nguyen recently failed to show up for a job interview: She said she panicked at seeing incomprehensible Korean-language signs at a subway station.
Nguyen, holding her 19-month-old son in her arms, knows the clock is ticking. Because of a growing need for space, shelter residents are required to move out after one year. Nguyen has lived there since the shelter's opening.
She is determined to become independent. She wants to enroll her son in day school and land a job.
For now, though, she's safe and satisfied.
"I'm happy to be away from my husband," she said. "I'm with my son. And I have new friends."
Ju-min Park is a researcher in The Times' Seoul Bureau.