Like Family, Mother’s Hands: 김치볶음밥 and 김치찌게 and 국수

The Korean government might not consider me family since I’m not Korean, but Mother sure does. When Good Man and I finally got home late last night, I told her what happened. I was addressing her with my standard phrase: 시어머니.

Mother said, “Amanda!”

“Yes?”

“When you are talking to something else, I am ‘우리 시어머니.’ But when we talk, call me 어머, 어머니, OK?”

I nodded. “Yes, I understand 어머니.”

She nodded toward Father. “And same for 아버지, OK?”

I started off with 시어머님. Then she asked/told me to drop the 님 (honorific ending) in favor of 니 (standard). Now she’s asked me to drop the 시 (meaning “husband’s”) and possibly the 니, bringing us down to a familial, intimate “Mom.”

Cooking Classes With Mother
In Korean, there’s a saying about the hands’ taste making food delicious (손맛). There’s even an English-language Korean brand of snack food called “Mother’s Fingers.”

Well, Mother wants me to get her 손맛, so she’s going to teach me how to make some of her meals. Today we started with kimchi bokkeum bap. I’m translating from the Korean pretty much as she said it, to the best of my understanding and ability. (She checked my spelling on my written notes and is sitting next to me, helping me right now!)

김치볶음밥

김치볶음밥

“Amanda! Grapeseed oil. Use grapeseed oil, or olive oil. You know olive oil?”

“Yes. But why don’t you use sesame oil?”

“It burns took quickly and makes the food get burnt. OK, grapeseed oil, kimchi, ham—or tuna, tuna always in olive oil—”

“In America, tuna usually comes in water.”

Mother nodded. “Ooo, that is healthy. A little bit of oyster sauce—little bit, little bit, really little bit—rice, onion.” She mixed it all together (hence the “볶음” part) and continued, “When it’s done, turn the flame off and add a little bit of sesame oil and sesame seeds.”

She plated our food and served it to us for lunch. “맛있어?” Is it delicious?

“Mmmm.”

“괜찮아?” Is it OK?

“Mmmm.”

“‘Mmmm 뭐야?” What is ‘mmmm?’

I laughed, “냠냠이에요!”

Next up was kimchi jjigae, which she made for dinner. Mother and Father were out for the night so Mother prepared us dinner before she left. (Dude. I could sooooo get used to daily homemade breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

김치찌게
“Amanda! Kimchi, a little water, onion, tuna and oyster sauce. Cook like this,” she showed me a medium flame, “for about 30 minutes.”

I don’t have a photo of it, but Mother’s kimchi jjigae had much less water than the kimchi jjigae I’m used to. I asked Mother why. She said it’s best without much water.

I joked, “But in restaurants there is a lot of water. Maybe they want more money. A little kimchi a lot of water.”

Father laughed, “Ahhh! Amanda is so good!”

잔치 국수
Finally, she showed me gooksoo, which is what she and Father had for lunch.

잔치 국수

“Amanda! You boil noodles, like this, yes, with a little 다시마 [dried seaweed] and anchovies [멸치].” While the noodles were cooking, she put the sauce together. “A little cooking soy sauce.”

“국간장? 뭐예요?” What’s that?

“Ahh, the soy sauce we brought to America is soup soy sauce. Different flavor.”

I yelled at Good Man, “I told you that stuff wasn’t supposed to go on rice!”

Mother shook her head, “No, rice you need 조선간장.”

“Like Chosun Dynasty?”

“Yeah, yeah. Sauce. Soup soy sauce, green onions, a little sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and sesame seeds. Mix, OK?”

Mother spooned the noodles and some broth into a bowl and added a tiny bit of sesame oil. Then she added some red pepper powder in the middle and the sauce around it.

“맛있어?”

“응, 냠냠이에요!”

Master and Marriage (Again!)

Marriage, Again…
Yesterday, we went to register our marriage at the gov’t office. Good Man wasn’t sure that we had to do it, but I thought we should. In fact, before our legal wedding in America, I argued that I was sure there was something he needed to do at the Korean Embassy and he (and I!) searched the Korean Embassy website, as well as others, but couldn’t find any information.

Well, it’s a good thing we decided to register the marriage because it was supposed to be done within 90 days of marriage! Obviously we’re way past that, so he has to pay a 50,000 won fine. If he pays it before the 14th, he gets a discount and it’s only 40,000 won. Minor problem: we can’t transfer funds because both of us left our bank cards at home. Oh well. His parents will pay it for us.

We filled out the Korean form, using the sample instructions they gave us. The sample instructions were intended for Koreans marrying foreigners in Korea, and in their sample, the groom was automatically the foreigner. An American, in fact. Good Man needed his father’s birth address and he was supposed to be able to write the birth city of his father in Hanja. What? Is that like the Korean version of “Mother’s maiden name?”

It took forever to get the marriage registered because he needed to translate the entire American wedding certificate. By hand. On A4 paper. Poor guy.

When we finally finished, the clerk was concerned that the wedding certificate wasn’t valid because it said “copy.” Yeah, it says copy from the court and has the county clerk’s signature and a raised, embossed seal on it. I made that clear and luckily, the clerk’s boss agreed.

They had a sign up that they do “Traditional Korean Wedding Photograping.” (Yes.) The sign said they only did it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was Wednesday, but I asked if we could do it, since I’d seen two foreigners have it done twenty minutes earlier.

Then we were told that it’s only for marriages where both people are foreigners, because there are too many Korean-Non-Korean marriages.

I patted Good Man’s chest and said, “하지만 제 남편의 마음 속에서 미국 사람이에요.” But in my husband’s heart, he is an American.

She laughed and said since it wasn’t busy, she’d do it. So they took us over to a corner with a traditional Korean screen and put traditional Korean wedding hanbok costumes on us (one size fits all!) and took our picture.

I was thankful. A gov’t official bending on two rules? Taking a photo of a Korean and American on a Wednesday? Thanks, lady!

So now we have legal wedding photos where I’m in a cotton dress and Good Man is in jeans, family wedding photos where we’re wearing hanboks, and Korean registration photos where we’re wearing traditional wedding costumes. All that’s missing is a white dress and tux photo, which you can get done at photo studios in Korea. Maybe for our anniversary. ^^

Good Man asked if I would be put on his family registry. Nope. Because I’m foreign. So I’m not family.

Sigh.

Korea.

Master!
Good Man and I met Master’s family last night. Of course, on all counts, it was great.

On the way to the studio I passed two of my studiomates. They walked by, not immediately recognizing me, and I turned. They turned their heads, too, and sort of slowed down. “Hey! Do you remember me?” I called out in Korean.

They looked surprised and starting hitting each other. I said, “It’s Amanda!” They nodded quickly, bowed deeply and said hello and we chatted for a few minutes. It was cute. They’re in middle school now.

We brought some small gifts for Master and his wife and some for the kids. I decided to put them in three separate gift bags. We gave the kids their gifts (a pajama set and top for each). In Korean culture it’s rude to open gifts in front of the giver so they ran into their bedroom, opened them, and brought them back out.

Master’s Son in His New PJs

Master’s Daughter in Her New PJs

He gave me a gift and asked me to open it. I did and it was another gorgeous box made out of hanji (traditional Korean paper). His mother made it. Inside? Korean socks!

We went out for samgyupsal and had soju (of course). Master hasn’t had soju in ten days because he’s been so busy. He told me that and I said, “I don’t believe it!” (I really didn’t believe it because I misheard him and thought it was ten months!)

Then we went out for patbingsoo (Korean shaved ice) and had coffee at his house.

His son didn’t remember me (of course, I wasn’t expecting him to) but apparently his daughter checks out my Cyworld all the time, so she remembered me (which was a nice suprise). At first they were both sort of shy, but they warmed up really quickly.

In fact, his daughter was hilarious. When we were eating patbingsoo, she wanted the exact same spoon I had. She looked at my spoons, looked at the rest of the spoons, and chose the one with the same handle decoration. Then she took both spoons and compared them very carefully to make sure they matched.

When I ordered a chocolate banana patbingoo, she whispered, “Amanda, we will share, OK?” (Of course…it’s Korean culture!) She wanted to sit next to me (and made me switch seats with her since she’s left handed and I’m right handed), she wanted to hold my hand, she wanted to chat and chat. She learned (sort of) how to use my camera and wanted us to take photos of each other taking photos of each other.

It was wonderful. It was like nothing had changed and I’d never been gone.

Nothing except Son and Daughter are so tall! And Daughter can write in Korean! (She wrote me a little Christmas card telling me she loves me.)

We spoke a ton of Korean (and a little English) and reminisced about different things. I was finally able to tell him how much I hated the octopus (squid?) I ate really early on in Korea after mountain climbing. He laughed and asked why I ate it. I said I didn’t want to be rude. He said he and his brother kept giving me the biggest pieces because they didn’t want to be rude. We all got a good laugh out of it.

He told me that my Korean was really good and he could tell I’d been studying in America. When random Koreans tell me my Korean is good, I know they’re just being polite. But I trust it coming from him. And in traditional form, the more soju we drank, the less Korean I spoke and the more English he spoke! I really enjoy speaking Korean with Master and his family. It’s so easy with them.

We also talked about my studio in America and I told him why I’d been refusing to test. (Too expensive, owner makes up tests to make money, not in any hurry to get another belt, etc.) He said as long as I plan on testing in Korea again one day, I can put it off. I sort of needed to hear that. Despite being at my new studio for a year and a half, still feel, in my heart, that Master is my instructor and Tongil is my home. I don’t want to disappoint him, so getting permission to put off testing was nice.

I found out some bad news. A new studio moved into the neighborhood—right at the end of the block. That’s why he hasn’t been drinking. He’s been spending his time renovating the front of the studio to compete.

We spent about four hours together and it just reaffirmed that I will always be friends with Master and his family, no matter where we all live and how long it is before we meet again.

Like a Man

I called Master this morning. We made plans to meet tomorrow night for dinner and chatted for just a few minutes. When I hung up, Mother was laughing and laughing.

“Amanda,” she said, “men say it like this.” She said hello in a strong voice like I said it. “You are a woman. Say it like this,” she instructed. She dropped her voice and sounded demure and gentle.

I laughed and laughed. I know that women and men speak differently. When I lived in Korea I had one language partner of each gender, and in America I specifically found a female language exchange partner because I wanted to sound more natural.

However. While I can do the whiny Korean voice thing with Good Man, and the demure voice with new people, I can not do anything other than the strong voice with Master. He taught me taekwondo. We bowed in and out of most classes with a loud, clear, “통-일!” and a salute! He taught me how to drink soju. If I suddenly changed my voice to be all demure with him, I’d feel like I were flirting!

I laughed and said, “Ah, Mother, I understand, but I learned Korean from Master, so, I sound like a man.” I decided not to try to translate that I would feel inappropriate to go all demure, too.

Mother laughed and nodded her head, “OK.”

I thought for a minute. I make my Korean 어s a little too North Korean. “I have a North Korean man accent,” I said.

Mother, Father, and Good Man all laughed.

***
Tonight we went on Yongsan base to meet my aunt, uncle, and cousin. It was the first time any of us (Mother, Father, Good Man and I) had been on base. We had a lovely dinner and it was so nice for our families to meet. I do, however, find it rather funny that the first extended family members Good Man has met (excluding the grandparents at the wedding) are the ones who live the farthest away!

Cousin is claiming that he has Korean grandparents now. Considering how many times Mother or Father have said, “When you have kids…” I think they’re happy to claim him.

Father and Cousin

My aunt is a goofball. My cousin is a goofball. Aunt was telling him not to make faces, but in every photo he wasn’t, she was. Meanwhile, Good Man was doing something odd with his mouth and Father was closing his eyes. So this is the best you get.

(Christmas 1986, we went to Florida. Someone, someone in my family has photos of Aunt and I, Aunt and Johnny, making crazy faces at the camera. She hasn’t changed much since then, really. Hmm. It occurs to me that in 1986, Aunt was younger than I am now. Wow.)

Family

Korean War Memorial at Night

Forgive the photo quality. I usually shoot RAW but I’m currently shooting RAW and JPEG Basic since I don’t have access to my software here. These JPGs are basically straight from the camera, so the quality is poor.

Red Peppers at Grandmother’s House

Sister

Floating Bridge in Jinju

Balance: Finding my Place as an American Daughter-in-Law in a Korean Family

Balance

Over the course of two days, I have met 20 living family members and three dead family members.

I was engaged in an exercise in finding my place in Good Man’s family, both immediate and extended. It was also about realizing why Koreans interact with foreigners like they do.

Saturday: Jinju

Yesterday we drove down to Jinju (진주) from Seoul. We visited Good Man’s Maternal Grandparents, his grandmother, and we had to do a ceremony to honor the anniversary of his grandfather’s death (in 2005).

Although I lived in Korea for two years, I never got to see many of the family ceremonies. I went to two weddings and a first birthday party (돌잔치;), but I never made it to a Chuseok (추석) or a lunar new year (설날). Since we happened to be here during the anniversary of his grandfather’s death (counted on the lunar calendar), I got to see one of the family ceremonies.

I’ve always thought that the reason I get along well with Good Man’s family (and by that, I mean primarily his mother) is because I’m Korean enough but not too Korean. If I weren’t Korean enough, his family might think I’m rude. After all, I did live in Korea for two years, I married a Korean man, and I study Korean. Every mistake in etiquette and behavior would be counted as a strike against me. I would need to be more Korean. Yet…if I were too Korean every mistake would be counted as a strike against me because why couldn’t I understand the rest of the culture if I already understood so much? So I’ve found this balance where every “Korean” thing I do counts for me. I am Korean enough. I know enough of the etiquette that mistakes I make are forgiven. This is a good place to be in.

But navigating that liminal space, sliding between American Amanda and Korean Amanda, can be trying.

Grandmother

When we got to Jinju we immediately went to the hospital to visit Grandmother. Grandmother is in her 80s and rather ill. I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand who most (all?) of us were. She was in her hospital bed and made no real sign of understanding why we were there. I met several of Good Man’s uncles and his eldest cousin, his wife, and their children. But I wasn’t sure what anyone wanted me to do, so I mostly hung back and waited for directions.

At one point Mother called me over and said something in Korean. I replied, “Yes, I know this is Grandmother.” She repeated herself. Ahh, she wanted me to yell “Grandmother.” So did and I held the woman’s hand and waited.

After a few moments, another family member took his turn and I stood near Good Man. He started crying because of his grandmother, and because of his father. Of course, that made me start crying and then Mother started crying. Sigh.

Men

We went to the house that Father grew up in. It’s one of the more traditional style houses. In fact, when Father was young it was his job to stoke the cooking fire in the morning!

When we got out of the car, we were greeted by more people I was introduced to. I made the mistake of telling Gomo (Father’s Sister) nice to meet her. Hmm, I’d already met her. Mother pointed it out and I apologized and said that all of the woman were wearing black, so it was hard to tell them apart. They understood.

We came into the house and I greeted everyone. I decided to err on the side of caution and be as polite to everyone as I could be. I didn’t know who the oldest family member I’d meet would be, but I knew that almost everyone was older than me and male and thus they were all higher than me in Confucian rank. So I figured if I was slightly too polite to someone I didn’t need to be too polite to, I’d be forgiven. So for all of the uncles I bowed fairly low and used both hands to shake theirs and said “십니까;” instead of “세요.” For Good Man’s cousins I bowed a little shallower and still used more polite speech.

After I met all of the men I headed to the kitchen. The men were in the main room and the women were in the kitchen. “The men are all there, I am a woman, so I am here,” I said. The women laughed and complimented my Korean. The women were running around preparing a ton of food. I asked if I could help and Mother directed me to just rest. I said, in Korean, “OK, but I have two hands.” The daughters-in-law and Gomo laughed but I knew they weren’t laughing at me or my Korean. I knew they were laughing because they were happy with my offer.

Mother gave them the honey powder I’d brought and they each thanked me in turn. I had assumed Mother would say the honey powder was from her (which was fine with me, since she was the one who wanted to give it out). But instead she presented it as a gift from me.

After a fair amount of time I asked Mother if I could go outside and take photos. She granted permission and again, the aunties laughed…this time because I’d used “시어머니” to refer to Mother. Again, their laughing didn’t seem to come from a place of meanness, but rather surprise that I was using the correct title.

Fish

About 20 minutes later Mother came out and called me back into the house to eat. Again, the men ate in the living room and the women ate in the kitchen. There was Father’s Sister, four of the wives of Father’s Brothers (Mother included), the Chinese-Korean wife of Good Man’s Eldest Cousin, and me.

We were having some sort of fish. 과메기.

I hate fish. I hate fish with a passion. Except for canned tuna fish.

I was sitting next to Mother and I said to her, quietly, but loudly enough that everyone else could hear me, “I really don’t like fish.”

“Ahh, just try one bite.”

I suddenly had flashback memories to being in Sweden with my penpal friend Stina’s extended family, eating surstr?mming.

Mother gave me some cabbage and put dried seaweed (yum), fresh seaweed (ugh), fish (ugh), soybean paste (yum) and raw garlic (yum) on it. I rolled it into a packet and ate it.

Unfortunately I had forgotten what I’d learned while eating surstr?mming. When you have to eat something you can’t stand, several small, quickly chewed and swallowed bites are better than one huge bite where you’re going to have to chew and chew to get to the swallowing stage.

So I chewed while Mother, Gomo, the three daughters-in-law, and Cousin’s Wife all watched me.

I chewed and I chewed. And I tried not to think of how much I hate fish and fresh seaweed and I forced myself not to gag and finally it went down.

The women smiled and Mother said, “Good.” I didn’t have to eat any more fish. (Thank kimchi.)

Right there I’d found that balance. Korean enough to eat that fish. American enough to stop after one piece.

Father was in the living room (next to the kitchen) and gave us a bottle of beer to share. I opened it and Mother, Gomo, and I shared some beer. I poured correctly, which the women had to comment on, of course. I told a story about drinking beer at my Korean elementary school with my immediate boss between classes and the shock that that was.

Father asked for the bottle opener and I handed it to him. “Wow! She knows to hold her left hand under her right, correctly!”

Misunderstood

Over our late lunch (~4:00) Mother explained that the ceremony would start around 10:30. I asked what would happen and was told that people would bow. I asked if only the men would bow. They said yes. I asked if Gomo was allowed to bow.

But this is where I was misunderstood (probably in large part because I didn’t use “Gomo” in my question!). They thought I was asking if I could bow and said I could.

I realized they were misunderstanding me and said, “Me?”

“Yes.”

I shook my head, “But it would seem uncomfortable,” I said.

“No, no, you can bow.”

I listened to the women talk (except for Cousin’s Wife, who said nothing the whole time) and understood, oh, about 5% of what they were saying. When lunch was finally over, I found Good Man in one of the bedrooms. He was with Eldest Cousin, eating a huge tray of 귤 (Korean oranges). Eldest Cousin was talking and talking. When he finally stopped and left, I turned to Good Man.

“Why weren’t you eating?” I asked him.

“I don’t like that food.”

“I thought you liked fish.”

“Yeah, but not that fish. That is rotten fish,” he said.

“Rotten? I had to eat it.”

He looked surprised, “But you hate fish!” A moment later, “Yeah, rotten like kimchi. I don’t like it.”

“I know, but your mother wanted me to try it so I choked it down,” I said.

He smiled. “You are so Korean.”

“I was rude, and it was a misunderstanding!” I cried out. I explained to him that I wasn’t trying to ask for permission to bow before the alter to honor Grandfather because it wasn’t my place. I was trying to ask if Gomo was allowed to bow because even though she isn’t a man, she is a direct descendant. “You have to tell your mother I wasn’t speaking well, because the women are going to think I’m rude,” I said. “I know I’m a woman and an in-law, so it’s not my place at all to bow. I was just trying to figure out if Gomo could bow!”

I started crying because I was stressed out and tired. I was curled up on the floor, resting my head on Good Man’s leg. He stroked my hair. “Why are you such a nice person?” he said.

“Because I try not to be a rude person and I was misunderstood because my Korean is not good, even though I’ve been studying.”

“OK, OK, I will tell my mom,” he promised.

When Mother eventually came in the room to check on us, Good Man told her. She said (truth or face saving, I’m not sure), “No, no, they don’t think she’s rude. They are happy that she is so interested in Korean culture.”

Again, there was that balance. My interest in Korean culture excused my mistake.

Patriarch

Good Man and I ended up falling asleep on the floor. When we finally got up (around 9:30) I wanted to take photos. I wasn’t going to take photos of the ceremony itself, but I wanted to take photos of the preparation. We came out of the bedroom. Mother found me, whirled me around back into the bedroom and told me to put the camera away because I had to meet Father’s Uncle.

I didn’t argue.

I realized that this was the family patriarch, and was the politest I could be. I bowed the lowest, used two hands, the highest level of speech. I let him take the lead. He didn’t let go of my hand so I let him hold it. He looked at me and said, in a thick accent, “Hello! How you?”

I smiled and said, “Good. Thank you.”

Still holding my hand, he started talking about his work with the Korean and US Air Forces during the war. Father interpreted for me.

When Patriarch was finished, I said, as well as I could, “My grandfather flew airplanes in 1952 and 1953.”

Patriarch nodded understanding and said some kind words about the US and the US military.

When he finally let go of my hand, I retired to the kitchen. Patriarch was going on and on about how well I speak Korean. He asked Father what my job was and Father told him I was a teacher. He nodded and said that was a good job. Meanwhile, in the kitchen all of us were listening to him and I was standing there, sort of blushing, because I could understand, oh, 15% of what was going on and that was good enough.

제사

The memorial service finally started. The alter was set up in one of the bedrooms and the men were all in the larger living room area in front of it. The men lined up in order by age, oldest on the far right. They bowed twice before the room where the memorial was set up. Then some random man (usually one of the younger cousins) would run into the kitchen and the women would pile some more of something (it was different each time) onto a plate, which they’d bring back to the room.

Then they’d bow again (twice), and a few men would go into the room and do something. This was repeated multiple times. I lost count after 5 bowing sessions.

I was standing in the kitchen with the six other women and Gomobu (Gomo’s Husband). I was watching but trying not to be too nosy. Although I really wanted to take photos, I didn’t. I am considered family now and the family members don’t take photos. I know that there were times that I felt like a monkey in a zoo living in Korea, and I didn’t want my in-laws to feel the same way.

Then Good Man and I were asked to do something special in the room. I whispered to Good Man that I thought he’d told his mom I didn’t want to bow but he said that it was because I’d never met him. It was sort of a way for us to do the 인사 (greeting) that Grandfather didn’t get at the wedding.

We went into the smaller room and I got a clear view of the alter (for lack of a better word) set up. Tons of fruit and fish were laid out on a table. A special screen made of hanji (Korean paper) was set up. There was a smaller table in front with a bottle of alcohol and some incense.

Good Man poured the liquor into the cup I held. Then I passed the cup over the incense in a circle three times. Then I placed the cup and its stand on the alter and Eldest Cousin used chopsticks to hit the bottom of a metal rice bowl three times.

Then we left the room and stood in the living room area. We bowed twice. I made a mistake and tried to stand back up too fast after the first time. Father caught me and told me to stay down for a few more seconds. The second time, I did it better.

After the ceremony, the adults split up into three rooms. The women were mostly in the kitchen. The older men were in the living room. Good Man, most of the cousins, and I were in another bedroom. We ate all of the food that had been on the alter.

Realization

When we sat down to eat, one of the cousins asked if I could eat Korean food.

One of the things that drives many ex-pats in Korea crazy is the stupid questions they get asked. “Can you use chopsticks?” “Can you eat kimchi?” “Can you drink soju?” Yeah, it’s not too hard to do anything of those things. It’s not like any of it is rocket science.

But something about the way he said it—I realized that the way it gets translated with a “can” is wrong. It’s not a matter of ability, it’s a matter of comfort. Mother doesn’t give me a fork instead of chopsticks because she thinks I can’t use chopsticks. It’s that she thinks I’d be more comfortable with a fork. (She’s learned though…I get chopsticks; Good Man gets the fork.) It’s no different than how I’d offer to make Korean food for a Korean family in America. It’s not that I think they couldn’t eat American food, it’s that I think they’d prefer Korean food.

And frankly, Cousin was on to something because at this point in the day (around 11 pm), I was tired of rice. We’d had rice at breakfast, rice at lunch, rice at late lunch, and now rice at dinner. And in three of those forms, it was a bibimbap sort of rice. I love bibimbap, but I was getting sick of it. I’d also been inhaling the scent of fish for far too long and we’d been eating 귤 nonstop so that my tongue was orange.

Party Talk

While we were eating, the cousins were chatting a bit. I understood them when they were asking Good Man about Virginia. I even understood loosely what they were talking about when dual-citizenship. I understood when they spoke in halting English about seeing Avatar and their “when will you have baby?” questions.

Everything else was a wash. It was really hard to keep track of what was being talked about. I was facing accents I’m not used to, very quiet speaking levels, multiple conversations happening at one time, and background noise from the men in the living room and the women in the kitchen.

The party talk was overwhelming. I was relieved when everyone left, frankly.

Sunday: Graveside Meetings

This morning we woke up (to more rice) and I took some photos around the family house while Father told me about stoking the fire when he was a child, as well as the pigs, chickens, and cows they used to raise. Interestingly, a lot of the things he talked about were new to Good Man.

Then we headed out to Father’s grave site with one of the uncles and his wife. We parked on a small road on a mountain owned by the city. We climbed up a large hill, past several graves, before arriving at Grandfather’s grave.

Graves in South Korea are not flat like in America. They’re mounds that come out of the ground. In front of the mound there is something like a headstone. It’s usually shaped much like a table.

Father laid a large persimmon, a large apple, and a paper cup full of soju on the head stone. We stood in a line in front of the grave and bowed twice. This time I was sure to hold myself down long enough.

Afterward, Father picked up the soju and told us to come closer to the grave. Good Man and I did. Father spoke to Grandfather. “Father, [Good Man] is here. He’s in America now. He’s brought our American daughter-in-law, Amanda. We miss you.” As he spoke, he sprinkled the soju over the grave.

Father was mostly doing a good job at holding back his emotions, but he was still showing some, and Good Man picked up on them and started crying. Which set me off, of course. Later he explained that it was very powerful to see his father behave like that, and to be there with me.

Mother and Father showed us the names on the side of the headstone. All of the children’s names were in Chinese characters. All of the grandsons’ (only grandsons) names were written in Hangul.

A minute or two later, we headed down the hill a bit to meet Eldest Uncle, who died in 2001. We did the same thing there, although Father’s speech was a bit shorter. Again, Good Man teared up.

We headed further down the hill to Father’s Cousin’s Son’s Wife’s grave. We did the same thing there, as well.

So the mounds were stacked into the mountainside in Confucian order. Grandfather was above Son who was above Cousin’s Wife. Next to each mound was a much smaller mound. It turns out that those mounds were being “held” for the other spouse. So to the right of Grandfather and Eldest Uncle was a held mound for Grandmother and Eldest Aunt. To the left of Father’s Cousin’s Son’s Wife was a smaller mound for Father’s Cousin’s Son.

Climbing back down to mountainside to the car, I was struck by the view. The graves faced more mountains and overlooked a beautiful pool of green water formed by a dam. When the sun comes up in the morning, it must be especially lovely.

Patriarch’s Wife

After bowing at the graves, we went to Patriarch’s house and I met his wife. She was one of those stooped over Koreans, one of the older Korean women I look at and think, “How did they do it? How do they deal with all of the changes in Korean society?”

We stayed for only a few minutes and she just kept holding my hand, patting my butt, telling me my Korean was good, and calling me beautiful.

Mother’s Parents

Next up was meeting Mother’s Parents. They also live in the house Mother grew up in. We greeted them (인사) with one bow (because they’re still living) and chatted for a few minutes. Maternal Grandmother kept grasping my hand and telling me I was beautiful. Maternal Grandfather complimented my Korean and asked how Good Man was doing in America.

Watching Father and Good Man during this time was interesting. I always scold Good Man because he doesn’t really talk to his parents, he just nods, agrees, and says he understands. But that’s what Father was doing with his father-in-law. And the cousins all seemed to sort of defer to each other in age order.

Although I can read about Confucianism and its impact on Korean society, I feel like this trip taught me more than reading ever could.

Grandmother

Before leaving Jinju, we went back to the hospital to see Grandmother again. Today she was lucid. Today she moved her head and eyes and even spoke a little bit. Mother introduced me as the “yellow-haired daughter-in-law” and I got up close, hoping she could see me through her cataracts. I think she did, because her eyes grew very wide. Mother even noticed and smiled about it.

Grandmother was put into the hospital in September. We didn’t think I’d be able to meet her, frankly. I’m glad that I was.

Grand Total

I met:
Four grandparents (one graveside)
One great-uncle and one great-aunt
Four uncles (one graveside) and three wives
One aunt and her husband
Five cousins

One cousin’s wife
One cousin’s child
Father’s Cousin’s Son’s Wife (graveside)

I learned more about my place in Good Man’s family. If I get the obvious cultural things right—the bowing, handshaking, handing things over correctly—I am forgiven for my mistakes. When I get the obvious things right, I learn more about the subtler cultural traditions—the pecking order amongst the men and women, the correct length of time to bow, how memorial services work.

I learned more about Good Man’s family. I saw where his family comes from, where his parents grew up. It gives me more insight into them and their lives. And seeing as how I was the only foreigner I saw over a two-day period (including the stops at rest stops), it occurs to me that it was really an act of grace for his entire family to embrace me like they did.

I’m so glad I was able to experience this weekend. It was touching. It was powerful. It was something I wouldn’t be able to experience if I weren’t married to a Korean man.

Seoul, Hello

We made it here last night and in our first full day here we managed to drop about $100 on books (Korean for me… English for Good Man), meet our Jeonju friends, get a handphone hooked up, eat some dalk galbi, drink coffee (twice), chat with my aunt, and fall asleep on the subway.

Dammit, I’ve missed Korea.

Liar, Liar

One of the good/bad things about being an in intercultural/bilingual relationship is that you don’t always have a common language.

For example, Good Man recently taught me:

잘되면 자기 탓, 못되면 조상 탓.

Something goes well, it’s because of me/you. Something goes wrong, blame my/your ancestors.

We also run into childhood sayings…

A few days ago, Good Man yanked up the end of the covers on the bed yelling “아이스케키!”

What?

“It’s what the little boys say when they flip the girls’ skirts up to see their panties.”

“…”

And I accidentally taught him “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” last week when he was obviously lying about something.

Now he won’t quit saying it. Damn me.

I only resorted to pants-on-fire after saying, syllable by syllable, “거. 짓. 말. 쟁. 이. 야.” You are a liar.

Good Man looked at me, mock scared, “You would be such a good Korean mother! You are so Korean! It is scary!”

I practiced. “야! 녀석! 하지마!” Hey! Street urchin! Don’t do that!

Enjoying the Sound of Korean

When I first started reading Pippi, I had to read very slowly and I had to focus on each phrase and occasionally each word. Now that I’m reading 이솝 이야기, I can read a bit faster and I only have to focus on each word rarely and each phrase occassionally. Now I am mostly “getting” the phrases and sentences the first time around.

In fact, I’m even able to find phrases or sentences I like the sound or feel of. It’s a neat feeling, to be reading in a foreign language (a foreign alphabet, even!) and to be able to find interesting, poetic writing.

Some of my recent favorites:

…먹숨을 일었습니다.

…lost life.

토미와 아니카도 배 먹는 것을 잊어버리고 이야기 속에 완전히 빠져들었다.

Tommy and Anika completely forgot about their hunger and entirely fell deeply into the story.

갈대는 대답 대신 바람에 몸은 맡겼습니다. 바람이 오른쪽에서 왼쪽으로 불어도, 그 반대쪽으로 불어도 그대로 몸을 바람에 맡겼습니다.

Instead of responding, the reed entrusted its body to the wind. The wind blew from the right to the left, it blew in the opposite direction, and the reed’s body was entrusted to the wind.

I understood the reed passage without even technically knowing many of the words. The red word, I had to look up to understand the passage. That red word (reed) would’ve blocked understanding. The purple words I had to look up to translate the passage properly. Those words didn’t stop me from understanding the passage, though. I had just substituted other words in my head. The blue words I didn’t really know. I either figured them out from my knowledge of root words or dragged their meaning from my memory. The black words I actually knew.

갈대는 대답 대신 바람에 몸은 맡겼습니다. 바람이 오른쪽에서 왼쪽으로 불어도, 그 반대쪽으로 불어도 그대로 몸을 바람에 맡겼습니다.

Coughing and Sneezing

“Will you please get me a soda?”

Good Man shook his head no.

“Why not?”

“There is none.”

“How many did you drink today?”

“Only one,” he said.

“There is one. On the bottom shelf where I hid it this morning because I wanted to drink a soda when I got home.”

Good Man’s body shook with laughter. “Wow,” he said, “you are so lovely.”

***
I sneezed and Good Man copied me. “A-chooo!”

“Don’t make fun of me,” I complained.

“I am just trying to cough like an American.”

“That was a sneeze,” I corrected him, “not a cough.”

“What’s the difference?”

“A cough comes from the lungs and go through the mouth.” I demonstrated. “A sneeze comes from the nose and goes through the nose and mouth.” I demonstrated.

Good Man stared at me. “It’s all connected up there, nose, mouth, throat…”

“But a sneeze is like a tickle in the nose and a cough is a tickle in a throat.”

He shook his head. “English is too complicated.”