I am an Englishman that is currently living in Korea and married to a Korean woman. This has given me first-hand experience of a fairly typical Korean family. This is an experience that has not always been plain sailing and is interesting because the nature of the family here in Korea is completely different to that in Western countries, and a million miles away from that of my own.
To give you some idea of the differences I will need to briefly tell you about my own family in England. My own family is a little broken up. My parents are divorced and I have two half-sisters and a half-brother. I have five (I think) half nephews that I have never met, and two others that I see now and then, and I rather ashamedly admit, I have not much interest in; maybe I will have more interest when they are older, as I am not generally a fan of young children. It sounds horrible, but that is just my family. We are all so self-reliant that it seems as though there is not much closeness. Of course this is not the case and I love my family as much as other people love theirs (the core of it anyway). I can quite happily go six months without calling my mother or father from Korea, and if I don’t they are not seemingly that concerned either. We don’t really worry about each other. I also have Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins that I haven’t seen in many, many years. I am not saying that this is typical of all Western families, but I am guessing it is not all that unusual either.
Contrast this with my wife’s family. All relatives meet each other fairly regularly and even distant relatives meet up at least once a year. Before I was married to my wife she was on a strict curfew of about midnight until she had to go home. This was often trimmed down to about 7 o’clock when she was with me (she was about 22 at the time). Indeed it was not until our relationship was about 8 or 9 months in that her father knew about us at all. He just assumed that she was out with her friends all the time. She was not ever allowed to stay the night at my place even when he did eventually know, and her mother didn’t allow it before then. This really is only culturally permissible when the couple is married. They usually pestered their daughter with phone calls all the time, and worried about her incessantly. All this was before I had ever really met them.
When I eventually did meet them (under the guise of a boyfriend and not just a friend), the reception was frosty at best. I can remember our first dinner. Her father did not speak to me apart from asking why my parents were divorced and how he thought that this behaviour was bad and ran in families. He did not walk with me to and from the restaurant, and looked thoroughly disgruntled the whole time. We then came back to their house where he walked straight into his bedroom closed the door and started watching the TV.
I wasn’t intimidated actually, I was angry. I thought that he was being extremely arrogant and rude, (and I was supposed to be bowing to him) and my wife and I had a little argument about this afterwards. She told me to be patient, and that Korean parents usually never like their daughters boyfriends and will ‘test’ them for a bit.
This continued for a couple of months until my wife fell into a comatose state after drinking too much at a staff dinner one night. I ended up carrying her to her parents’ house, and after my wife’s friends told her father that I had come from my own night out with friends to rescue her, he seemed a lot happier with me.
Although the cultural problems and misunderstandings were numerous at this stage in our relationship, I can only remember one situation that caused a major argument. One of my wife’s uncles was down in our city for the weekend, and I met them after work one night. Unfortunately, I missed the dinner because of work, but they wanted to talk with me so we went to a bar for one drink. I was told by my wife that they liked me and wanted to invite me for dinner the next day. Great, I thought. The next day, just before going out, my wife informed me that they wanted me to pay for dinner. This would have been a bit irritating if there were 2 or 3 people, but there were 10 people! I knew them a day, they invited me for dinner, and they wanted me to pay (I am also a famously tight person).
‘A bit cheeky’ I thought. And I said as much to my wife. She understood but said that she would pay instead and say that it was me that paid, which I was even less happy with. It was my Western principle of fairness against Korean culture and I was not budging an inch. I refused the invitation and didn’t go, but then was pestered for the rest of the night by her cousin calling. After much arguing I was persuaded out by my wife to just have some drinks and some pizza with her cousin and her boyfriend. Her cousin tried to say that it was a joke (about them asking for me to pay), which was obviously not true, and if it was a joke, maybe be the worst one ever recorded. She then proceeded to pay for everything in secret, which made me feel terribly guilty and that all I cared about was the money. It doesn’t help that I can’t stand her cousin, as she may be the least sincere person I have ever met.
A few cultural problems later and after a fairly short period of time, my wife and I decided to get married, after just 10 months. Some might think that this decision was too fast (and I’d be among them at the time). But the situation made this the only option if we really wanted to be together. At the time I had a really bad job and was having a hard time in Korea and desperately wanted to go home. The problem was that I was deeply in love with my wife, I couldn’t stay in Korea but I didn’t want to leave her. We had an idea to go to England but she couldn’t stay unless we married, so we married. It seems an unromantic reason, and it was a British Embassy marriage, no ceremony, just a form signing and a stamp in Seoul. It seems crazy what we did, but it’s nearly two years later now and we are very happy together. We plan on having a proper marriage ceremony at some stage, though.
I suppose some might think it all stupid and not how they want to get married, but it was just pure love, not a marriage of convenience, not to make other people happy, not for money and not for fear of loneliness or insecurity. We just loved each other and did not want to be apart. Seems like the best reason to get married to me.
All of this was achieved with the semi-knowledge of her parents, who were a little in denial about it all. We told them of our plans to go to England and they reluctantly agreed to it all, as they had no choice (my wife would have gone anyway). Not being a family man myself, I never really feel like part of their family and never really dreamed they would see me as part of theirs, as an outsider and a foreigner. To their credit though, this really is not how they think. Once they had accepted the idea, I was made to feel part of their family, sometimes nicely so, and sometimes uncomfortably so.
There was one moment that I clearly came to realize that I had a Korean family and that was when we had our picture taken together before we left for England. I thought they wanted a little picture on the mantelpiece of us all, which is understandable. The next time I entered their house, however, I was greeted by an almost person-sized picture on the wall in the middle of the room with me and her immediate family in it. It was a little overwhelming, in a scary way, for a person with a very different kind of family. I think this was the moment that it hit home just what I was getting myself in for.
It was time to go to England, which in retrospect was a poorly planned move at the time. A couple of weeks before, I saw her family frequently as they wanted to see us both a little more before we went. I have to admit to being a bit of a selfish man and not really enjoying spending a lot of time with any of my own family, let alone a family from a different culture and language. It’s not that I don’t like family but, a couple of hours over dinner are about all I can handle before boredom sets in. In these weeks before I left I would be subjected to their company all day, and it was getting tiring.
I don’t think I would be the first to feel extreme tiredness when spending the whole day listening and speaking in a language that is not my own. Again 2 hours is alright but all day is not, and I was never very good at hiding my boredom and tiredness (much to my wife’s annoyance). I still have days like this with my Korean family, I am dreading Chuseok (like Korean Thanksgiving) this year for this very reason.
It sounds as though I really dislike my Korean family, but I don’t, it is just my upbringing and culture that makes me unable to tolerate what they see as normal family behaviour. In fact they are often very sweet to me, and have welcomed me into their family with amazing warmth. I am slightly ashamed to say that I just cannot reciprocate this warmth, there is a wall in my personality for things like that, but it is appreciated nonetheless. My mother in-law is especially sweet, and regularly makes food for me when I come to their house and cooks food and puts it in our fridge in my house too (she cooks it extra spicy too, which is great).
I genuinely feel that if I had any problem at all, my Korean family would jump through hoops to help me and not just because I am married to their daughter, but because I am part of the family now. That is a nice feeling and they show great affection towards me despite the fact that I don’t show great affection towards them. I am also ashamed of the fact that I have made rather a piddling amount of progress in learning the Korean language; I wish I could speak to them a lot more.
There are some annoyances, however, which particularly grate on me and leave me thinking that it is just as well that I don’t speak Korean very well. My mouth might just get me into trouble.
You see, as sweet as my parents in-law are, highly enlightened they are not. This is not their fault; they just have that old-style way of Korean thinking, mired in tradition and inflexibility to new ideas. The amount of advice they try to give to my wife and I is staggering and I don’t agree with any of it. It is all fossilized rubbish that irritates me to listen to.
Anyone that knows me would know that I enjoy a good argument, on almost any topic. I don’t argue to upset people and generally I stay pretty unemotional, but I have been known to upset people by simply having a rather blunt and aloof different opinion. If I argued with my parents in-law in my accustomed style, it would upset them and I am sure if they really knew what I thought on a myriad of different subjects they would probably string me up by my testicles, or at least call for a divorce. So maybe my poor Korean speaking is a blessing in disguise, because I don’t think I could resist the urge to argue with them, if I could, and arguing with the in-laws is just not done in Korea (I think this fact would make me want to argue even more).
If a week went by in England without my wife calling her parents, they would be upset. But phone calls via Skype were usually a daily rather than a weekly occurrence, a far cry from my dialogue with my family. I was quite relieved to not be spending so much time with them, but also a little guilty that when they called I could speak only a little to them before passing them over to my wife. The phone calls were often about how much they were missing their daughter and about how difficult things were at home and it usually made my wife feel guilty about leaving them. Her parents were therefore delighted to hear that we would be coming back to Korea after just one year in England.
They were clearly happy to have their daughter back but also to see me. Again, I stress that I really don’t do anything for them or show them any affection at all, but they show much affection for me, it is almost as unconditional as my own family (I know, I am terrible aren’t I!?). I have now been back in Korea for about six months and their treatment of me remains unchanged.
However, their treatment of my wife does perplex me a little sometimes. They smother her with calls and constantly want to spend time with her, which hasn’t changed from before and I understand this as them being normal parents and from a culture where family is of greater importance. It is not this behaviour, but it is what they say to her when she does see them that leave me puzzled. They are constantly pestering her to be a better wife for me, to cook for me and clean the house more, and to make a greater effort to be pretty for me, even when she is just sitting around at home.
Now, I have an easy job, get home earlier than my wife, and work far less hours. Should I expect her to cook and clean for me when she gets home? I think not. I try to do most of the housework if I can (I have to admit to not being very good at cleaning) and this might come as strange news to some people but my wife (although being Asian) does not enjoy cooking or cleaning. She also looks pretty and almost all of the time too (the exception is after a few bottles of soju, a popular Korean spirit), and she does make an effort most of the time. I just can’t understand her parent’s attitude. Their attitude just makes my wife sick of spending time with them and answering their calls. It is caused by over-worrying about her to the point of insanity. I hope I won’t be like that when I am parent, I am 99% sure I won’t be.
I think I understand full well exactly what my parents in-law expect of me and most of these things I am not going to do. I am not an especially good bearer of gifts, but this is a part of the culture in Korea. Each time I go to their house I should bring them a gift. I think I brought them a watermelon once. Son’s in-law are also expected to give their parents in-law money. I have already made sure that my wife and her parents know that this is not going to happen either, unless I become filthy rich. If they are in need of hospital treatment, however, of course I will help. I am there for emergencies only.
If you think I sound like a horrible, ungenerous kind of fellow, I am not, I am nice, kind and friendly, but I do have principles that I like to keep. If I am not going to give my own parents money when they are older, why should I give money to my in-laws? I have also paid rent to my mother whilst growing up which is not done in Korean culture. The parents usually pay for everything sometimes right up to the age of thirty. I don’t wish to treat them to regular gifts as I think it’s unnecessary, a couple of times a year is fine.
When I have children I will teach them the same as my mother taught me, she said to me, ‘We had you because we wanted you; it was for us, we don’t expect anything in return when we are older. It is our responsibility to be able to take care of ourselves when we are older or have the money for others to do so.’ This sort of attitude is one that would encourage me to be more helpful to my family in their old age, than if they were to expect me to help them, and to support them when they are older.
The plain fact is that I respect the way my mother thinks and acts far, far more than my in-laws think and act. Many may say that this is cultural, and that I should have a more understanding attitude to this cultural difference, but I don’t. Children do not owe their parents a damn thing. There is no debt to pay, like an unsigned student loan agreement. Where Korean culture may have a better culture of family togetherness than ours, the attitude of the old towards the young, even when they are in their own family is horribly shallow and unhelpful.
There is a statement that rings through my head when I see and hear about how older people, fathers, mothers, and bosses expect to be treated by those younger than them in Korea and that is this; ‘Respect, whatever your age, has to be earned and it certainly cannot be demanded.’ If respect is demanded you get none, and all you promote is a sense of duty and fear in those younger people that you are supposed to be caring for and love.
My Korean family are good caring people, and I hold them with very fond affection. In fact, their caring goes beyond the normal. It makes me think it is truly cultural, and when you look into the history of Confucianism, there are some explanations for it all. Everyone in Korean culture has a duty and place to fit into. I fit into their family and it is my in-laws duty to take good care of me and educate me. This explains a lot, and the education bit is probably what I could do without. But they care so much it is touching. However, there are so many differences between myself and them that a general understanding and empathy for each other will always be a difficult thing to come by. I can fully appreciate the kindness they have showed me, but we really are like oil and water, we will never mix well.
Writer’s Note: This article was edited from an article I published on my blog smudgem.blogspot.com, and although is not the same, it is similar.