“Hurry up!” I call to Aiden, although I have promised myself I would try not to tell him to hurry all the time. It is almost 2 and my in-laws will be here any minute. Aiden, in his usual fashion, has taken the most indirect route possible from the bedroom to the door, hurdling over various toys, stepping on more toys, knocking some papers off my desk, scattering his pajamas and dropping his socks along the way. Is it impossible for a 5-year old to do anything efficiently?
I am getting stressed out, even though we aren’t really late for anything important -- but I know how much my in-laws hate it when we’re not ready on time. Old people. They don’t have anything to do, and yet they are so attached to their schedules. My mom says that old people are just like toddlers, except no one wants to kidnap them. I am frantically throwing toys in their boxes and shoving dirty dishes out of sight. When my in-laws come, I need to keep of the appearance of being at least somewhat neat, although this is next to impossible with two kids. They are like little monkeys, scattering lego pieces all over the floor and hiding food in odd places. I find caches of important documents and spoons and overdue DVDs hidden in the nooks and crannies of our apartment. I know my in-laws know how messy we are although they pretend to ignore the fact.
I remember my first meetings with my in-laws: decked out in my finest clothes, new heels, and stockings, with what I hoped was a happy, friendly smile plastered on my face, back straight as a ruler, knees firmly pressed together. We bowed and smiled and gestured at each other, trying to make the best of things, me trying to convince them and myself that having Korean in-laws would be just fine, and that I could win them over; they, probably trying to convince themselves that this American girl would not be a complete disaster. I think they’re reasoning went something like this: She’s not really American, her parents are Chinese, so she’s really Chinese. And Chinese is close to Korean, so she’ll be able to understand us... right?
I finally manage to get my kids ready, and my in-laws show up, right on time, of course. I see my mother in-law scan the messy floor (didn’t have time to vacuum and mop) and my wrinkled shirt, but she doesn’t say anything. I make the kids bow and greet them, though it takes Aiden several tries because he’s determined to be silly and use his duck voice, and then he keeps dramatically falling down at the end of the bow. Anything Max does is cute, so my in-laws eat up his greeting even though he barely looks at them and is playing with his penis the whole time. My father-in-law chides Aiden for not doing his bow properly, “Aiden. Do it straight! Look me in the eye and don’t wiggle! Why can’t you do it right?” Having worked his way out of the bare rubble of the Korean War to feed and clothe his brothers and sisters, then his own children, winning them a better life, he can’t let any opportunity go to teach us all something. At 5, Aiden has now grown tall and mature enough to be the newest target of his grandfather’s improvement projects. So every encounter with him is now a teaching moment -- a chance for his grandfather to point out how Aiden could be more polite, know more math, exercise more, save money, and conserve electricity. Aiden has quickly learned to ignore what his grandfather says, which makes his bowing sloppier than ever, which unfortunately reflects poorly on my skills as a mother, making this simple, daily greeting scene even more stressful for me. I’m shooting threatening faces at Aiden behind my father-in-law’s back, but he gleefully ignores those too, caught up in some invisible light saber battle, spit shooting out of his mouth as he “ppeww chang zhhjjjj arghs” his way across the room, escaping from his enemies.
I greet them with a bow and ask them if they’ve eaten, and if they want any coffee. My father-in-law seems annoyed at the question (of course they’ve eaten), but he would also be annoyed if I didn’t ask it -- it’s the polite thing to say. My mother-in-law is kinder, tells me that they’re fine and fusses over me a little, telling me I look tired and worrying that the kids are wearing me out. I tell her not to worry; I’m fine. This is the script we run through to show concern for each other: I ask them about their meals and their health, they fuss over me, I reassure them. My father-in-law’s grumpiness is part of the script too, he wants to believe it is his role to take care of us and not vice-versa. And yet he wants me to act out my role of the daughter-in-law. This script that we follow is so laden with expectations on both sides, sometimes it exhausts me, unraveling the nuances of each action, each question asked or not asked, and weighing the correct response.
In the beginning, we started with grand gestures. I was over the moon, and prepared to adapt to their world, to learn Korean and act as Korean as I could. I listened with sympathy to KC’s stories of his father’s life, which emerged slowly, one by one, as we cuddled and grew closer night after night. These were family matters, family tragedies, not to be shared with just anyone. When the Korean War began in 1950, KC’s father was only 18, and he and his younger siblings were stuck on one side of the bridge while his parents were on the other. His family was split not only physically but ideologically: KC’s grandfather had been a prominant landowner and member of the aristocracy, making the family an enemy of the Communists; KC’s father’s second brother was a general in the Communist army, making the Nationalists suspicious of the family. KC’s father, suddenly forced to care for his four younger siblings (his youngest brother was just a baby) with no money, went to friends for help, but most were too afraid to help him. He was thrown in an internment camp and sentenced to death, but escaped that punishment at the last minute through some technicality. He briefly saw his mother in the internment camp, but never found out what happened to her, or his father. After the war KC’s father worked odd jobs to survive and raise his siblings. He married, but still under suspicion by the then dictatorial “democratic” regime because of his brother’s Communism, he was under surveillance by the KIA (Korean CIA). His wife died of breast cancer when KC was 11, and lost KC’s sister several years later. Only in recent years, since the government has become less repressive, do KC’s father and aunts and uncles gather carefully together to celebrate holidays and birthday. And that’s just some of it... How much more can one family deal with? It was easy to feel sympathy from afar, for my heart to go out to a person with such a hard life, whose life has brought little happiness and much struggle. I understand where his annoying idiosyncrasies come from, and to some extent admired the strength and determination which allowed him to survive so much. I intended to be a balm for them in their old age, to serve them and make their lives easy, to be the daughter-in-law they had hoped for. It was too late to change them, I thought. It is not my place to try to convert them to feminism. I could be a feminist and still be a good daughter-in-law, I thought. I understood that I was not just a daughter-in-law, I was KC’s wife.
KC -- the pride and joy of his father’s life -- the fruit of all his pain -- the one who went to the U.S., the one who got his PhD from Stanford, the one who got married and had two sons. I know how much KC’s successes mean to him. I understand that he can’t normally express happiness or live in the moment because his whole life has been one back-stabbing after another, a constant struggle to prepare for the next blow. He has survived because he has trained himself to look gift-horses in the mouth, to prepare for the worst-case scenario, to be wary of the powerful and always, always, to push and prepare his son.
But his son lives in a different world. KC’s father was only able to finish high school because of the war. KC has a PhD. KC has lived in the US for 18 years, apart from his family.
KC has come back to Korea now, an act which excites and disturbs his father to no end. To have lived 18 years without your own children, with few relatives in this world -- how does that feel? To be alone as you grow old, seeing your friends with their own grandchildren, having nothing to fill the time. But, for KC’s father, the U.S. represented freedom, safety, and success. Freedom from the government of Korea (which he still doesn’t trust) and the burden of the family history; safety from war; success in education and business.
Although I didn’t cook and didn’t do much cleaning, my in-laws treated me as they felt a daughter-in-law should be treated. My mother-in-law bought me nice clothes and suits, and put make-up on my face as she would a little doll. She used her savings to buy me a Cartier watch and three sets of jewelry (diamond, sapphire, and ruby) as wedding gifts. I was shocked by this generosity: this may be common in Korea, but I don’t even wear jewelry. What was I to do with such gifts? They were beyond my style of living and incomprehensible to me.
This unexpected generosity caused the first of many subtle negotiations between our parents. My in-laws assumed that such gift-giving was traditional in China as well, as indeed I believe it is. But my parents, though raised in China, had very practical American wedding expectations. The gave us some money and one of their old cars to use, but of what use is jewelry? I had to diplomatically suggest to my mother that she buy KC a similar watch, so the families could consider themselves even. These things are not logical: even though both families think of themselves as open-minded and generous, in the back of their minds the demon of “are they looking down upon us?” lurks. Each gesture, each word is interpreted differently, so even though we think we’re on the same page, often we’re not.
Our parents’ first meeting, two days before the wedding, illustrates this perfectly. We chose a steakhouse as a “neutral” location. My mother wore a nice suit; KC’s mother wore a dress and shiny jewelry. Our waiter, who looked like a Iowa farmboy, broke the ice; he had spent 4 years teaching English in Korea and spoke Korean quite well. “What, you don’t speak Chinese?” joked my father. Turns out he spoke some Chinese too. Both sets of parents smiled woodenly, eyes wandering, wondering where to look, fiddling with their silverware. KC hurriedly ordered some wine.
Wine glass in hand, KC’s father gave the first toast. “gombei!” (“cheers”). Unfortunately, in Chinese, “ganbei” means you have to drain your glass. My father, in surprise, drained his glass; my father-in-law, seeing this, quickly followed suit. Glasses were refilled, my father-in-law offering another “gombei”; miscommunication again draining both glasses and ushering in drunkeness. My father-in-law’s English suddenly improved and soon he and my father were crudely communicating by writing Chinese characters on a napkin. My father refilled my father-in-law’s glass, suggesting “no ganbei this time.” Finally the varying meaning of “ganbei” in the two languages is discovered and everyone had a good sloshy laugh.
We gotten beyond the formulaic greetings and are now heading out the door to the car. My father-in-law, hating any waste of time, has already taken off down the hall taking some recycling with him. I hate taking out the garbage but I know, or at least believe, one of the reasons he so ostentatiously takes out some of our garbage every time he visits is to make a point about a.) how efficiently he uses his time and b.) how slovenly we are. The boys and my mother-in-law follow slowly behind him, Max stopping to try out all the neighbors’ bikes in the hall, Aiden having to return to the apartment because he realizes he has to pee, even though I asked him not 5 minutes ago and he said he didn’t have to go.
In the car I am nervous; I am still not used to driving in Seoul, and having my in-laws in the car makes me more nervous. My father-in-law is the worse kind of backseat driver, suddenly yelling, “stop stop!” or dramatically drawing in his breath; otherwise offering helpful advice, “you don’t have your hands at 10:00 and 2:00 -- that’s why you turn so clumsily.”
The conversation turns to Aiden’s taekwondo. I used to take him to class, but after Max’s birth, KC’s father took over that job. I was grateful to them for their help, though I missed seeing for myself what was going on. The things that I would see as important were not the same things that KC’s father would see. Aiden had been unhappy at taekwondo recently, and I had finally found out that his instructor had changed, and that he didn’t like the new instructor as much as the old one. I am annoyed that KC’s father didn’t mention this to me. I ask KC’s father, “Why didn’t you mention me that his instructor changed?” This is not a rude question in English, but unfortunately I translate it directly into Korean, not realizing that this particular phrasing sound rude and accusatory. KC’s father explodes at me. “What am I, your servant boy?” He recovers quickly, realizing by my face that I had not intentionally meant to be rude. He tries to cover up by giving me a lecture on my tone and phrasing. But I am shocked by his anger, and angry myself. I WAS annoyed, and was not trying to be really polite, but I wasn’t trying to be rude either. I’m doing my best here. I don’t HAVE to speak Korean. Of course I will make mistakes. His lecture only makes me angrier. I’m not Korean, why should I bow and smile and mimic subserviance? How Korean do you want me to be?
In a few moments our years of small eruptions, of assumptions and miscommunications and good intentions, of small pricks and simmering frustrations has emerged like lava from a volcano, rushing towards the surface, filling the car with its suffocating smoke.