First Meeting: The Korean Women of the Family
Two weeks ago, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law both called to ask what I wanted for my birthday. I’m getting better at telling them what I need, because I’ve realized when left to their own devices they get me things that aren’t me at all either because what they’re giving me is what Korean family members usually give each other, or they just don’t know me all that well due to the obvious language differences.
I’m still not sure which is the case, to be honest. I can explain things in Korean until I’m blue in the face, but when it comes to showing my personality, my real personality, it’s a strange thing. It seems in another language my personality is slightly different. That’s not to say they don’t know me however, we’ve come a long way from our first meeting five years ago.
It was a rather quickly put together event that, to me, was nothing special. Jae-oo and I had only been dating for a few months but something inside of me told me he was the one, though we didn’t get married for another three years. He was headed down to Busan, where his family lives, and I said I wanted to come and meet them.
To me it was a get your family used to the idea of you dating a foreigner meeting, and give them many future years of adjustment and acceptance time. It was just a meet and greet after all.
Minutes before we arrived at his sister’s house however, Jae-oo told me to be prepared because couples, be they long term or not, don’t usually meet the parents until they’ve decided to get married here. I walked into a room with his mother, his sister and her husband and two children. After I used the little Korean that I knew at the time to introduce myself, which Jae-oo had to translate because they couldn’t understand me, his mother’s first real statement was, “Oh, good! She’s not fat!” and I wasn’t quite sure of an appropriate response. Apparently when Jae-oo had called and mentioned he was bringing his foreign girlfriend and she was American, his mother could only picture some big western girl. I was certainly still larger than her and his sister, who both stands a full foot shorter than me. The follow-up was a question about my job and when she seemed satisfied with my working girl status, we were seated.
We ended up seated around a small table in the living room on the floor, though they told me to seat myself on the couch on one side. I wasn’t quite sure where I should look. My two options were his mother, who just stared at me without saying a word for most of the time, or his sister who wouldn’t even give me a glance. I was extremely thankful, as I think all of us were, that there were two very young children in the room to play with to fill the awkward silence. Jae-oo’s mother asked if we were getting married and Jae-oo explained that I just wanted to meet them and explained that maybe westerners have different customs when dating. It was clear after that, that the family had been expecting some sort of announcement and when none came, the air in the room calmed itself and his sister got out some food, though she continued not to look at me for the next few hours. At one point, everyone was in another room and I was left by myself in the living room when Jae-oo came out to ask how I was. The tears welled up in my eyes because I felt as if his sister didn’t like me and worse I didn’t know if it was me or if it was that I was a foreigner that she was opposed to. As logically, and awkwardly as could be, he went and got her and told her to come into the living room. He explained how I was feeling and she explained that she couldn’t speak English and was extremely embarrassed about that, but she didn’t mind that I was a foreigner. A weight was lifted. There was a small comfort in the fact that my being a foreigner, the main idea of it at least, wasn’t threatening to his family.
The weight returned upon my asking when I’d be meeting the patriarch of the family and Jae-oo’s mother explained that, though they were happy to meet me, I wouldn’t be meeting his father until there was a marriage announcement or at least a more definite and long-term relationship status. The conservative stories I’d heard about his family held true in this sense and I wouldn’t meet Jae-oo’s dad until two years or so later.
His family became accustomed to me and my visits, as I to them. We would stay at his sister’s house every time we went to Busan which didn’t change until we’d gotten married and were invited to sleep at his parent’s home. His sister bought small sandwiches or fruit for me to eat in the morning, knowing that a big bowl of rice and kimchi wasn’t really what I was craving at 8 o’clock in the morning. They also came to realize I really didn’t eat much rice at all, so it was better to give me about half as much as they gave the other adults and give me a child-size helping instead. I became used to his family constantly asking if they could buy me something or give me something, which though I found welcoming, I also found extremely awkward because I didn’t really want nor need anything generally and the things they would suggest I felt were more than should be offered to just a girlfriend. They would persist and Jae-oo would tell them something that suited both sides. Jae-oo’s mother got used to, and I like to think has come to enjoy, my persistence on hugging her when I meet her and then say goodbye. Now, even Jae-oo goes in for a hug from his mother, something they never did before I came along.
I had never had any problems getting people to warm up to me but his family sure was a challenge. The very conservative values, and later I would see just how conservative when I met Jae-oo’s father, were hard for me to understand. Their lack of overt smiles or laughs or expression of any kind was another thing that was hard for me to digest. Before our wedding ceremony in Korea, we got our families together for a meal and I don’t think it was until that moment that Jae-oo’s family understood why I was always trying to crack a joke or play a game with someone. My family has to be the complete opposite in terms of what we do when we get together. After that meal, Jae-oo’s family didn’t seem as uncomfortable with my need to make everyone smile or laugh around me or just make the atmosphere generally more lighthearted than the quite serious atmosphere that their family maintains.
I had to re-evaluate my approach and adjust some of my expectations for what I thought an in-law family would be like, but I’m very grateful for the family that I’ve been let into. I’m a very lucky daughter-in-law with a Korean family that could have made our choice to marry more difficult than it was. I’m glad they were just as accepting as my family was to Jae-oo. Though there are still some things that seem strange to me, like when his mother sends me a box of 20 apples, a bag of rice and 5 pairs of socks in the spring, or calls out of the blue and just asks if my heater is working, with no previous indication that it wasn’t; I know she cares and this is how she’s showing me. Our conversations are not deep or note-worthy, but they are ours. Our relationship is like no other that I have ever had. Being accepted by the women of the family was the reason I started learning Korean seriously and I’m glad that we can have conversations now, even though their southern slang and my northern pronunciation can still be a hindrance to understanding. Five years have gone by since that first meeting and I still feel like I want to know so much more about this family that I’ve married into and yet I’m sure after another five years there will still be just as many questions.