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.