An American Family and a Korean

The first trip home with Jae-oo was a lot of introductions. Not only was he meeting friends he’d heard stories of but just as, or maybe more, importantly he was meeting my family. He’d met my mother on her visit to Korea but was now meeting my sisters and then aunts and uncles and grandparents. That may sound like the whole family, but that is just the beginning. My family is large and large in the sense that my mother’s generation has remained very close to their cousins which made the “aunts” and the “uncles” of my generation nearly triple and which meant we grew up with just as many more cousins, who wouldn’t really be called cousins but rather second cousins if we were to get into it. At that point it gets confusing and so my mother opted to have us call closer relatives “aunt” and “uncle” if they were older and those younger to be called by name, and this is where Jae-oo had a hard time.
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On the plane home from that first trip he’d asked me to draw a family tree so he could remember who everyone was and how the seventy people I call close are related. This was interesting to me because in Korea we can call any stranger on the street grandfather or grandmother, an older woman in a restaurant aunt, and a friend brother or sister even though they have absolutely no familial ties to us. Because of that when Jae-oo asked me to draw him a family tree to show him how we were all related, I wondered why it could be all that important when he, in my mind, is so used to calling people in familial terms who aren’t in any way related. Although at the same time, in Korea there are terms solely denoting whether a family member is on the mother’s or the father’s side and so in that sense when I call my mom’s sister “aunt” and my dad’s aunt “aunt” with no distinction it can be rather confusing, and that’s just the beginning.

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I was calling my grandmother’s sister, in fact my great-aunt, “aunt” and calling one of her daughters “aunt”, as well as calling her other two daughters by name and that was just one family. The rules of who to call aunt and uncle weren’t the same across the board. One family was all called by name, and one family had one of my mother’s cousins being called “aunt” but her husband being called by name. When I’d finally gotten through introducing him to my grandmother’s side of the family and then my grandfather’s side of the family there was my grandmother’s second husband’s family to introduce. Jae-oo asked me at one point why I called Grandpa Don “Grandpa Don” when my sisters called him “Grandpa” and I had to explain that I had had a few years with our first grandpa before he died and so when Grandpa Don came into the picture he was the second to me, but the first to my sisters and cousins. I’d taken up calling him Grandpa Don naturally and no one seemed bothered by it, and that’s how most of the titles we use came about.

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Another issue came up if Jae-oo asked someone else what they call another family member. I call my mother’s cousin Maureen “Aunt Maureen”, but my cousins call her Maureen. At any one time in a room with all of us together one person could be going by three different titles depending on who is talking and so his questions abounded. He wasn’t the only one to ever ask questions. This situation would happen with any boyfriend or girlfriend being introduced around. The difference was in the way that Jae-oo wanted to know the relationships so that he could use the proper familial terms whereas, as was pointed out by my sister’s boyfriend of many years, a western guy would be more concerned with names and using names until marriage at which point he may shift into more familial terms. What is proper for a western guy to use in terms of titles with his girlfriend’s family wasn’t on my mind when I introduced him just as it was not on his mind. He had wanted to know who was who and how we were related and thus he was calling my mom “mom” and my grandma “grandma” from the get-go. If he were speaking Korean, there would have been a more proper exchange of titles and he would have known how to go about that, but since it was in his second language, and this isn’t something an ESL learner would study, it was all new to him. As a matter of fact, when I met Jae-oo’s family the same thing happened. No one had told me what to say or how to call on anyone, which I think is something that’s taken for granted. Introductions are something we learn very early on, how to introduce ourselves and how to meet people, but when you add another culture into the mix what is proper or not is confusing. I’m sure Jae-oo hadn’t thought about it from my end, just as when I introduced him around I didn’t think about it from his end. These people were in my family, I’d never seen them from the outside and his family was family, so I ended up calling his mother “mom” from the first meeting. Luckily for both of us and our families, everyone was easy going and understanding about it all.

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Introducing my family members is always a big task because there are just so many people and in retrospect, whether it was because Jae-oo went straight into using those familial terms or because he’s just such a nice guy, he seemed to fit right in and rather comfortably so from the beginning. It certainly made me more comfortable. Coming from such a large close family can make it difficult to bring new people in and seeing how Jae-oo took to my family and how my family took to him was such a huge indication of what our future could hold. That first trip with all of the introductions and big American hugs would have probably left most people with their arms in the air ready to give up, but not him. He got his family tree and by the next trip was reminding me how everyone was technically related and had the titles memorized.

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