First Meeting: The Korean Man of the Family
There’s only one important man when it comes time to meet the significant other’s family in Korea and that is the father.
To me, and I would imagine to most women, the mother was the person I wanted to impress and I had already met her a couple years earlier. I wasn’t very concerned with the father, what father wouldn’t I be able to impress after all? Joking aside though, I was not prepared for how serious meeting him was really going to be or what it meant.
It was about two and half years into the relationship, we’d already been living together for two years and one day Jae-oo suddenly said we were going to Busan on the upcoming weekend and I would be meeting his father.
I thought it was sudden the way he brought it up as there had been no mention that his father even knew of me before that. On the train south, Jae-oo added that his father had known he had a girlfriend but just found out the week before that I was a foreigner and putting two and two together, I came to the conclusion that this must be why he wanted to meet, or maybe just see, me.
Once again we arrived outside of his sister’s door and Jae-oo was clearly nervous. It wasn’t until that moment that I became a bit nervous myself, after all if he was nervous there must be something to be nervous about. We entered into the living room and everyone was standing in this awkward circle. Jae-oo made an introduction on my behalf and I bowed and said hello. We sat around a table in the living room similar to two years before when I’d met his mother but this time his father was on the couch and I sat on the floor across from him with everyone between us forming the sides of a circle. Again, exactly the same as when I had met his mother, I had no idea what everyone was waiting for and if it was me that should be speaking up first. He just stared at me. He continued to just stare while Jae-oo’s mother began to talk to Jae-oo about me clearly so that his father could hear. She talked about my current job status and where I was from and how long I’d been in Korea, things like that. I don’t think anyone likes to be talked about while they’re sitting right there, and this was even more awkward as she was telling Jae-oo, who obviously knew everything about me, about me so that his father, sitting right next to her, could hear. When she was finished, more silence.
After the introductions, I was told we’d be going to lunch together. We all piled into the cars, Jae-oo and I with his parents and his sister’s family in their car and made our way to a buffet restaurant, only for the benefit of me I realized. Buffets are expensive here and I never eat enough to make it worth it. I prefer a good ole’ pork stew, a Busan specialty, over a buffet, any day. They were trying to impress me, or make sure I was satisfied. I told them they didn’t need to go to all of the trouble, but I could tell that they wanted to, so I acquiesced in the end and ate as much as I could handle. The whole meal was mostly silence in between eating and people getting up and down to get more food.
At one point, I was alone at the table with Jae-oo’s dad and nephew. There was a large tv screen on one wall showing Busan’s team, the Lotte Giant’s, playing baseball and I thought, here’s my chance to say something to him myself, try to have a conversation and show him that I’m trying. I asked him if he liked the Giants, after all he’s a Busan native and I know at our house during baseball season there’s a game on every night except Mondays. I mentioned their star player at the time Lee Dae-Ho and he just stared at me and when his wife returned to the table he told her I had said something to him but he didn’t understand it. I told her that I’d just asked if he liked the Giants and she translated my Korean, which she understands just fine, into Korean to him. He shrugged his shoulders and went on eating his sushi. There went that opportunity to find something in common. When Jae-oo sat down his mother told him that I’d tried to talk to his dad. He asked me what’d I’d said, I told him and he chuckled and asked why. Why? To make a good impression, obvious to me but to no one else at the table it seemed.
After lunch his parents left and we went back to his sister’s house to sleep for the night before returning to our home in Seoul. Upon our arrival back in Seoul, Jae-oo’s mother called and said that his father had asked if we had enough money for our house and if we needed anything. Jae-oo and his mother were extremely happy. It seemed by him asking, that meant that Jae-oo’s father had given us his approval.
After that when we’d visit, I’d still usually just see his mother and every time I did see his father, I’d try to talk to him and every time was the same. His mother would translate my Korean into Korean for his father. Jae-oo said his father didn’t know I could speak some Korean and apparently assumed every time I was talking to him I was speaking some form of English or maybe Konglish. I still don’t know how that is possible, or why he thought his wife understood me if that was the case. But, so it goes.
After we got married, we started going to their house for the Chuseok and New Year’s ceremonies. Jae-oo’s dad has gotten used to me sitting next to him in front of the television talking to him, or trying to at least. For some reason, my need to find something in common that we can bond over is just one sided. I’m not sure if that is for all Korean families or if this is an anomaly in my in-laws’ case, but the entire family doesn’t seem as concerned as I am to find something that we share interest in. As much as I try to accept this, I end our trips rather disappointed most times since the conversations just didn’t bring us any closer in my mind.
The last time we visited, we went out for dinner with his parents and Jae-oo’s mom told his dad he couldn’t drink because he had to drive us home. Of the four of us, only his dad and I can drive so I said I wouldn’t drink and I could drive. His dad just lit up and drank a bottle of bokbunja and seemed happier than I’d ever seen him. We ate up the eel and the side dishes. Some of them I’d never had before and was hesitant to try, but when his dad nudged me I dug in. It was pretty amusing and once we were back at home his dad plucked my cheek like dads do and said he was happy I liked to eat everything and wasn’t picky. It was the first time I actually felt close to him and it only took four years and it wasn’t even a conversation, it was because of food.