My Korean Mother-In-Law’s First Visit

On my way home from work this afternoon Jae-oo called and told me his father would be coming to the city to go to a tax office and may possibly be staying the night at our house. Our house? Possibly? Of course Jae-oo is currently in a van on his way out of the city for a concert, so just me and his dad. This scenario reminded me of the one and only time his mother visited us just before we got married.

We’d already been living together for a couple of years and his mother called up one day rather abruptly and said she’d be up on Saturday and she’d stay the night and leave Sunday. I wondered why she suddenly felt the urge to come and visit. Of course, Jae-oo tells me this and then nonchalantly mentions that he has a concert and will be gone most of the afternoon and evening for the show. Just me and his mother, I mulled over the idea for awhile. It’s not that I don’t like his mother. I like her a lot in fact. But we can’t really sit around for hours and gab, so I wondered what we could possibly do for so much time alone.

The day came and I had cleaned and gone shopping for food and prepared the blankets for her to sleep on. Jae-oo and I went to the station and retrieved her and then he left and we both stared at each other. She asked me a few questions about life and our house and what I thought we needed. This is a recurring situation with us. His mother often asks me if I want this or that, or tries to buy me things and as thankful as I am, I just never want to take too much or seem like I want too much. It’s a balancing act of sorts, between taking enough so that she feels like she’s doing something for her daughter-in-law and not taking too much that she feels burdened. To be honest, I’d just prefer to buy things myself and not have to think so much about it all.

Here we were at Homeplus standing in the home section and my mother-in-law wants to know what I want for our house. I stood there silently while she went through a list of things asking if we had this or that. I finally told her we could use a mixing bowl. We picked one out and I could tell she didn’t think that was enough, so I told her maybe some drinking glasses would be good. She was still not satisfied and it was clearly getting awkward. It may have been more helpful in retrospect, if she just told me how much she wanted to spend and I could have figured it out. I said maybe we could come back when Jae-oo returned in the evening and she felt fine with that and we went to the food section. I wasn’t quite sure why we were buying food, since I had that covered, but I let her do her thing.

Back at the house, we unpacked everything and she went straight to the kitchen and began cooking dinner. I went to her side and wondered what I should be doing and more importantly I wondered what she was doing. Was it normal for a mother-in-law to visit and then cook the meals? Was this a Korean thing? You certainly wouldn’t catch any mother-in-law I know in the States doing that, unless she’s pushy and doesn’t think her daughter-in-law can take care of her son. My mother-in-law told me to sit down and watch TV and not wanting to make the situation more awkward by saying I would cook, I did as I was told. Jae-oo returned home and we ate the delicious dinner she’d prepared together.

The next morning, I woke up to find her standing on a chair, as she is quite short, with all of my cupboard doors open peering inside. This was actually reminiscent of a nightmare I’d had a few nights earlier and I almost ran back into my room upon seeing her. Jae-oo is the only son and he is the oldest, if we were to follow Korean traditional customs, his parents should really be living with us. I like his parents, but I wouldn’t really want to live with any parents: his, mine, or otherwise. If we lived with them, I think I’d be on the edge of my seat constantly thinking about what is proper or not, I’d never be able to eat pasta again, and I’d never be able to wear a tank top in the summer when it’s burning up because I’m sure that’d be improper. The first idea that raced through my mind upon seeing her precariously standing there was that she really was moving in and taking over and rearranging my kitchen. I think every girl has her own way of arranging her kitchen or doing tasks in the kitchen, most likely taking after her own mother. Jae-oo’s sister washes her dishes the exact same way as her mother and I arrange my kitchen like my mother does. It was sort of a shock to the system to see my mother-in-law up there and this wave of ownership swept over me. What was this other woman doing in my kitchen? After I took a deep breath, I realized she was cleaning and in fact had already cleaned out the refrigerator and the bathroom and swept the floor. I told Jae-oo to tell her to stop and she said she’d be done soon and would make breakfast. How long had she even been awake? Was this her passive aggressive way of telling me my house was dirty?

It was almost too much for me to take and I took Jae-oo aside and asked him if he thought our house was a mess. He said no and asked why. I explained that you would never catch my mom in my house cleaning or cooking and that if she did come over and cook by herself she would in essence be saying I couldn’t cook. If she cleaned my house, she would be saying my house was dirty and I couldn’t keep a clean house. My mother would be welcome to help me in the kitchen, but she wouldn’t do it all herself and when we ate the food, even if it wasn’t perfect, she’d be sure to make a positive comment on the taste. Why would she do that? Because every child that moves away still wants to impress their parents and prove that they can stand on their own two feet and a parent’s approval is the end game. Jae-oo’s mother had taken that away from me and had made me feel defeated as if I couldn’t take care of her son.

I hadn’t cooked a meal and my house had been cleaned after I cleaned it. Jae-oo explained that it was a Korean mother thing to do and shouldn’t be taken offensively. Of course my brain knew she wasn’t trying to tell me I couldn’t cook, which I know she thinks regarding Korean food, or that my house was dirty, but it still felt that way. It was interesting that Jae-oo hadn’t even considered that his mother doing this would be strange or unpleasant to me. He took this to be a common occurrence and didn’t realize my mother wouldn’t do the same. We ate breakfast together and took her to the station to return home, a part of me thankful to have my kitchen back and a part of me still seeking the approval from his mother that I didn’t get.

Since then, I’ve talked to other Korean women about this and they all say their mothers and mother-in-laws do this when they visit. When I ask them how they feel about it, overwhelmingly the answer is that they know they should be thankful because their mothers are trying to show that they care and this is how they do it. They know they should be thankful, but are they really thankful? I’ve started trying to cook more Korean dishes, mostly side dishes right now, but I hope that the next time his mother visits at least one dish that I made can be on the table. If she takes more than two bites, I’ll know I’ve done well.

8 thoughts on “My Korean Mother-In-Law’s First Visit

  1. Aww, I think you’re doing very well bridging the cross-cultural gap! And I can tell you that yes this kind of behaviour is totally normal for Korean mothers. It’s really not about you at all – she feels its her duty to do these things, and her way of showing love in the short time she has with you. I can also tell you that this is not just a Korean mother thing – when Agri’s mom visited us, she did the exact same thing. She was cooking and cleaning up a storm…and yes, it can make you feel, um…inadequate… ;)

  2. I read a lot about korean traditions concerning marriage and I can tell its not easy being a wife in korea and the mother in laws are more intimidating and more involved in the marriage than usual yours doesnt look dangerous to me lol you look like a loving wife btw I always find cross cultural marriages cute cause they need more effort to make them work good luck

    • Marriage is what you make it I think. My husband can cook and clean and I’ve always thought we should work to make our house and life together. Luckily he agreed I guess, haha. He’s not your normal Korean husband I’ve heard… especially since he does all of the laundry. Good for me. And my mother in law is not very intimidating and can’t be all that involved I guess since she lives hours away in another city. I think I have a great mother in law though. She’s always been welcoming, helpful and caring.

  3. This is not behavior unique to Korean mothers. My German mother-in-law used to clean the house every time she came to visit. I consulted with my German friends and they said, “Let her, she’s showing she cares,” followed by a dry comment that I could send Mama over to their apartments next. :-)

  4. Pingback: Why Korean Mother-in-laws Are The Best | The Soul of Seoul

  5. Pingback: Why Korean Mother-in-Laws Are The Best | The Korea Blog

  6. I’ve read your blog here and there for a while, and I must say it’s really refreshing and reassuring to hear our experiences are sometimes quite similar. I’m an American girl from the Midwest married to a Korean boy, and often navigating cultural differences can be eye opening, funny, strange, and difficult, especially when I don’t really know and rarely see any “Western” women with Korean men to share experiences with.

    Anyway, one thing I have learned is that my mother in law will most likely never say “I love you” or be affectionate with me (besides the awkward half-pat-on-the-back hug). What she will do instead is cook a ton of food or give us gifts of fresh fruit or ask “What do you need?” to which I never know how to reply. It’s these acts of service and these gifts that I’ve learned to take as her “love language.” I’m still trying to find ways to show my love and appreciation to her that make her comfortable.

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