A Different Daughter-in-Law

“Mother, I understand. I brought [Good Man] here. I’m sorry.”

***

Diana and I have been chatting a lot about relationships with Koreans. Not only Korean men, but their mothers.

Korean mother-in-laws get a bad rap. To be fair…I know a lot of women—Korean or otherwise—who who don’t get along with their Korean mother-in-laws. Of course…a lot of women all over the world, in every culture, don’t get along with their mother-in-laws.

Before I met Mother, I didn’t want to like her. I was hellbent on not liking her in fact, because she didn’t want to meet me. Diana (and my mother) told me I needed to give her a chance.

As I’ve written before, a few days before we met, Good Man told me she was nervous we wouldn’t be able to communicate. And my heart…understood.

His mother had an idea of what her daughter-in-law would be like. And I’m sure she never considered whether or not she’d be able to communicate with her (me). Of course she should be able to communicate with her daughter-in-law!

When we met, when Good Man’s parents arrived at that Italian restaurant, I saw nervousness in Mother’s eyes. And I realized, She’s as nervous as I am.

Each time we met, I came to feel that she wanted me to like her as much as I wanted her to like me.

I feel like Mother and I are slowly building a relationship. And the relationship we’ve built so far, has been built because she’s accepted me and because I’ve accepted her. (And Good Man has always stood by me. I think that’s important, too.)

But had she not accepted me when she did, how much more dislike would I have built up in my own mind. How much distance would I have wanted to create? How would things be different?

Last weekend it was Mother’s birthday. We called her—the night before because of the time difference. We chatted. I asked her about the pyebaek, the traditional Korean bowing in ceremony done at a wedding. It’s when the bride is officially a part of the groom’s family. She said we didn’t have to do it.

Good Man explained that we didn’t want to do the thousands of dollars worth of gift exchange between families. But we do want to bow into them. She said, “But you don’t have hanboks.” (She doesn’t know we have them.) Good Man told her we’d get some. She seemed happy.

We know his family expects us to wear Western dress for our wedding. We’re waiting a bit to tell them that we’re only wearing hanboks. We want to surprise them. She won’t get a traditional Western wedding. She won’t get a traditional Korean wedding. She’s getting something in between.

A few days later, Mother called and told Good Man she wanted to buy me a bag. One of those faux Luis Vuitton ajumma bags. She didn’t buy one because the shipping was so expensive. Instead she told Good Man she’d send some money, so could I buy a bag? I ended up buy a rice-sack messenger bag, made from recycled rice sacks by Cambodian women, fair-trade. She wanted me to have an ajumma bag. I bought a fair-trade rice-sack bag. She’s not getting exactly what she wanted, but something similar…

Tonight I was trying to take a nap. I heard Good Man in the office, chattering away in Korean. I started listening and quickly figured out that he must be talking to Mother. His end of the conversation was essentially, “Mother, it’s OK… No, I can’t leave… the visa… I know, I understand… don’t worry… I miss you, too.”

Since Good Man entered on a non-immigrant visa and we became engaged, he can’t leave. If he leaves, he can’t re-enter on his visa. If a family member gets sick, well, too bad. He can’t leave. Because of me.

I listened to him. And I started thinking about what I would say to Mother. After 20 minutes or so, I came into the office. He handed me the phone. Before I spoke to her I said, “Does she miss you?”

“What?”

“Did I understand you? Does your mother wish you could visit?”

He looked confused. He nodded, “Yeah.”

(Side note: the next time I bitch that my Korean sucks, I need to remember this. In July 2006, I didn’t know if “축구” was one word or two. Tonight I figured out both sides of a conversation based on eavesdropping on one side of it.)

I took the phone and started crying. I greeted mother and then started in on a string of Korean. I said something like, “어마니, 미안헤요. [굿 맨]을 보고싶세요. 이해해요. 저는 미국으로 가지조왔어요….” Mother, I’m sorry. You miss [Good Man]. I understand. I brought him to America…

“아만다, 괜찮아요…” Amanda, it’s OK.

“하지만 이해해요. 저도 어마니를 보고싶었어요, 그리고 우리 어마니가 저를 보고싶어했어요…” But I understand. I missed my mother, and she missed me…

I babbled on a bit longer. She kept saying everything was OK, and that I understood.

I don’t know why I was crying. But listening in on Good Man, I felt so much…care for Mother. When I left for Korea, my brother was in Iraq. My mother had her two adult children living abroad. Good Man’s father works abroad, and now he’s gone.

I lived in Atlanta for seven years before moving to Korea. Good Man was in the military for two. But I was only a 4-hour flight from my mother. We were one time zone apart. Good Man was still in the same country at least.

When I moved to Korea, a 4-hour, $250 flight was suddenly 16 hours and $1200. I talked to my mom a lot, but she was (almost) always in yesterday.

And I just felt so much care and understanding for Mother in that moment. I wished that Mother spoke English or Mom spoke Korean, because they could talk. They would understand what it feels like to have a child so far away. But they can’t communicate. Not at all.

Good Man will be the first in his family to marry a foreigner-foreigner. He has one cousin who married a Korean-Japanese person, and another who married a Korean-America, but here he is, marrying a white woman. His mother doesn’t have friends who have been through this. Who can she talk to?

She’s getting me as a daughter-in-law. A white woman who doesn’t understand Korean customs very well, who doesn’t speak Korean very well, and who will never be an expected Korean daughter-in-law. A white woman who will always, intentionally or not, pull her son away from Korea. She’s getting something she didn’t expect.

When I talk to Mother, I actually feel like she cares about me. I don’t feel like she tolerates me. She seems to be 마음이 열린 사람—open-minded, literally an open-heart person.

And I appreciate it so much. And I want to be able to say thank you. Thank you for rearing such a wonderful son, the man I fell in love with. Thank you for understanding.

But I can’t say that. So I just cry and say something that probably sounds nonsensical in Korean. And I hope that I don’t embarrass myself too much. And I hope that she understands.