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.

One thought on “A Different Daughter-in-Law

  1. Comment from: Cat [Visitor]
    Amanda, I am so envious of you. I married a Korean-American man and his mother is the most unaccepting, critical, harsh, demanding and belittling person I have EVER met. I encourage to embrace your wonderful m-i-l and be thankful. I would give an arm to have your mother-in-law. Korean mothers can be so unreasonable and stubborn in their ways. Good luck to you and Good Man.
    p.s. I think you will have the most beautiful babies. Amer-Asian children are gorgeous.
    =)
    12/13/08 @ 02:39

    Comment from: Shelley [Visitor] · http://shelleythetraveler.blogspot.com
    You’re a really good person Amanda.
    12/13/08 @ 03:14

    Comment from: admin [Member] Email
    I don’t know that I’m a good person. I think I just realized how much Mother had to give up in order to accept me.
    12/13/08 @ 11:38

    Comment from: Amyable [Visitor]
    Amanda,

    I love all your posts but this one really gave me pause. I was trying to put what you were feeling into context of my life.

    I never worried about not being a DIL that my MIL would have wanted. Never crossed my mind until reading your post. My in-laws are your stereotypical “proper, stiff upper-lip” English. They would never express anything negative or come close to complaining. I do know that they are fascinated by how outspoken and assertive I can be. When they are visiting from England they make conversations around asking me about both American and Korean cultures and current events. That can be annoying since I’m the farthest you can get from keeping up with Korean current events but I guess that tells you how they see me – American and Korean. Truth me told, I’m more American then Korean but I don’t “look” it, do I?

    Does Good Man worry about not being the SIL that your parents imagined? If not, why not? Is it because like me, there’s not a language barrier? I just wonder why I didn’t worry about not being the DIL that my in-laws wanted and my hubby didn’t worry about not being the SIL that my parents wanted. I certainly hope it isn’t because we’re insensitive jerks!

    Amy
    12/13/08 @ 14:12

    Comment from: admin [Member] Email
    Hey Cat, I really wish you luck with your 시어머니. I really feel for you. I have heard so many horror stories from foreigners and Koreans alike…

    Amy…I don’t know that you’re insensitive jerks! :) I am going to lump British folks with Americans here and go out on a limb to say that I think, in general, in-law expectations are different in the West. I mean, my parents just want Good Man to make me happy. Also, my brother up and eloped. So as long as we have a wedding, my mother’s happy. Heck, she’s fine if we do a courthouse thing ahead of time to get the visa paperwork started, as long as we tell her first and she gets to be at a child’s wedding. Those are easy expectations to meet.

    But Korean daughter-in-laws–at least ones in Korea–are expected to DO so much. (I don’t know a lot of Korean-Americans, but I suspect that it’s hard to compare young Koreans in Korea with Korean-Americans raised here. Some familial expectations may be the same, I suspect others change, and the non-familial culture is so different…)

    If we had met in America, I probably wouldn’t think twice about how a Korean daughter-in-law is supposed to act. I also wouldn’t be wearing a hanbok at our wedding, or saying my vows in Korean. Those things would feel fake to me. (I mean, I might wear a hanbok to make his family happy, but ehhhh.) But we didn’t meet here. We met in Korea, and after I’d lived there for a year, and gotten to know Koreans and gotten to know a bit about Korean culture. So I know–mostly, I think–how a Korean daughter-in-law is supposed to act.

    I will never be a Korean daughter-in-law. But there are some aspects of “Koreanness” that I’ve taken on. I think I’d be an ass if that weren’t the case! Still, the major, major aspects…I’ll never be what Mother expected. And last night, for some reason, it hit me, the expectations she had to give up, had to adjust. And I felt for her a bit.

    I always thought I’d have a great relationship with my brother’s eventual-wife. Well…he’s married and his wife and I don’t really have a great relationship. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that will change. But I got a second chance with Good Man’s sister. She is the sister-in-law I expected to get (although I didn’t expect I’d have to speak Korean to get her!).

    Mother only has one son. She doesn’t get a second daughter-in-law chance. And listening in on Good Man, I realized, she had to give up a lot of her expectations in order to accept me. And she did it quickly. For a woman of her class and generation… It impressed me. And it touched my heart.
    12/14/08 @ 01:05

    Comment from: Lily [Visitor] · http://lunalil.com
    Oh Amanda. Your post made me cry. My SO’s mother is Korean-Korean and I can’t speak nearly as much Korean as you.

    Anyway. I understand – but you are a good person and Mother seems to be a good person, so I think it will work out.

    *hugs*
    12/15/08 @ 02:04

    Comment from: william [Visitor] · http://psycho5728.wordpress.com/
    this was very nice. thank you. i think ‘compassion’ is the word to describe that moment you had on the phone.

    do you expect good man’s family to be wearing hanboks, too?

    ~w
    12/15/08 @ 04:14

    Comment from: Diana [Visitor] · http://storysinger81.blogspot.com/
    God, hon. Very beautiful post. BUT… while you did get a little lucky, here’s what a very wise lady from Australia told me (who just recently married her own Korean fella) when I was fresh off the boat here in Korea and having a great time, but feeling bad for others who were having a less awesome time… you make your own luck. To a greater or lesser extent, expectations usually become first impressions. Both you and your (still future) MIL went into that first meeting terrified for the worst, but hoping, hoping, hoping for the best. And determined to MAKE the best out of whatever happened. So OF COURSE, you both like each other and care for each other now.

    Which was, by the way, the POINT of girlfriend (and I assume maternal) peptalks. But really, in the end, I knew it would all work out. Because just like you approached Korea (and studying Korean) with such zest and energy, your future in-laws never stood any chance of not liking you. You would have kept at it until they did :)
    12/15/08 @ 05:39

    Comment from: jody [Visitor] · http://thelinkbetween.wordpress.com
    I have a sri lankan MIL just as wonderful! Thanks for putting it into words.
    12/15/08 @ 21:33

    Comment from: Susie [Visitor] · http://www.third-culture-kid.com
    Hi Amanda, what a great post! Being blessed with a wonderfuly accepting Aussie MIL myself (I am of Sri Lankan heritage), I agree, your MIL is a heroine. It’s hard to know how much an MIL is giving up, or how much of an effort they have put into coming half-way to meet us daughters-in-law. Kudos to you for understanding her, and all the best for the future!
    12/15/08 @ 22:36

    Comment from: Gori Girl [Visitor] Email · http://gorigirl.com
    This is a really lovely post. My Indian MIL (I’m white) also has an Indian DIL – luckily my husband has a brother – but she never got the Bengali (her particular ethnicity) DIL that I suspect she was hoping for. Nonetheless, we both have made an effort to have a good relationship – our first fews meetings were just like yours: difficulty communicating, both of us worried that we wouldn’t get along, and therefore trying really hard to do so nonetheless. Attitude is everything. I’m sure your MIL will greatly appreciate a “fusion” wedding. (And oy vey on the immigration paperwork – if you can afford it at all, get a family immigration lawyer, and be sure to file for a permit to allow your future husband to leave the country will the paperwork is still being processed, ’cause it can take awhile.)

    I also have a Korean-American uncle, and my aunt and his mother have always had a good relationship.
    01/07/09 @ 06:25

    Comment from: beret25 [Visitor]
    Your letter was quite refreshing, but all MIL is not like yours, God Bless You! with me I never got that fardue to the fact of greed, disrespect, stubborness, and a mama’s boy mentality which I could not accept and the blatant interference into our life to a point where I came to a realization as to why continue this relationship when I know in future this is going to be a no win situation.

    Mama’s boy refuse to support my decision, in the end both parties demand money for me to end my relationship, well I walked away and never looked back. Several years later he found me and apologise and want to begin again, I told him to go and take a flying leap.
    02/27/09 @ 22:37

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