From Korea with Love

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Things You Should Never Ever Say or Do When Your Korean Parents-in-law Are Around

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7The other night, I got scolded by my father-in-law for using the word “Ya!” (Hey!) with my husband. If he had reprimanded me for such a simple reason back when I was still a novice myeonuri (daughter-in-law), I might not have taken it lightly and would have spent the wee hours of the night crying or complaining to my husband about how unreasonably strict his father is. Yup, I’ve been there… too long, in fact, that, I got used to the draconian ways of Korean parents-in-law when it comes to dealing with their daughters-in-law. Now, I usually just let my FIL’s words pass me by like the wind. It’s not like he scolds me every single day, but when he does, it can be pretty daunting, even when sometimes he means well. 

What is it about “Ya!” that ticked him off, you may ask? In Korea, using that expression to someone older is extremely rude. To Abonim (FIL), using it with my husband is a mortal sin. I have never used that word with anyone other than my husband. It has become sort of a joke between us. He calls me “Ya!” when I am annoying him, and I say “Ya!” to him when he is not paying attention to me. My mistake, however, was that I hollered “Ya!” to him when I knew that Abonim could hear me from the other room. You see, my father-in-law has ESP (extrasensory perception). I’m kidding of course, but in our little abode, he can be everywhere!

6My mother in-law heard me when I used that term. She was in the kitchen with me, but she didn’t make a big deal out of it. She smiled instead, because after I said “Ya!”, she saw my husband run away from me with a can of Coke in his hand which I mistook for a can of beer. She understood what was going on, and even sided with me, reminding her son to avoid alcohol. My Omonim (MIL) rarely gives me a talking to. There was one incident, though, when she reprimanded me in front of my husband’s other relatives for spending too much time getting my hair and make-up done for my brother-in-law’s wedding. I was mortified! I almost cried in front of all the people who witnessed my humiliation, but thank God, I was able to hold back the tears. I knew that Omonim was sorry for embarrassing me, because when I got in my room to change into my hanbok, she followed me inside and helped me get dressed.

As a myeonuri, there are things you should NEVER EVER say or do when your in-laws are around. I will enumerate some of them. Most of these are based on my own experiences and personal observations. Some have been shared with me by other myeonuris.

When your Korean parents-in-law are around, never ever…

  • call your husband by his first name (Using terms of endearment are common among Koreans.)

  • talk to your husband using banmal (informal or casual speech in Korean, the kind of speech that does not use honorifics) (My sister-in-law is a few years older than her husband, but she rarely uses banmal when she talks to him, especially when she is in front of our parents-in-law.)

  • sit with your legs straight out in front of you or cross your legs, especially when talking to your in-laws

  • speak in English or in your native tongue (They’d rather hear you speak bad Korean than hear you talk in a language they can barely understand.)

  • do aegyo (talk and act like a child to appear charming or cute) (Seriously, this can be annoying even to other people.)

  • get lovey-dovey with your husband

  • argue with your husband

  • kid around your husband’s male relatives or friends even in an uncoquettish way

  • let your mother-in-law work alone in the kitchen (no matter how busy, tired or sick you are) (My MIL is very considerate. She doesn’t pressure me to help with the chores when I’m not feeling well. Some myeonuris, however, are forced to do housework even when they are ill. I know a fellow Filipina who was tasked to do farm work even when she was pregnant. Her MIL would bang the door of her bedroom everytime she didn’t wake up early and would nag at her relentlessly when she failed to prepare breakfast.)

  • try to get even by saying something negative about Korea after they make an unpleasant comment about your country

  • contradict anything they say (even when you know more about something they believe they are experts at)

  • disregard their suggestions  (You don’t have to follow everything they tell you, but spare yourself the grudge by pretending that you appreciate their advice. Remember, the in-laws know everything! At least that’s what they think.)

  • give excuses for your mistakes

  • talk or laugh too loud

  • brush or dry your hair in front of them

  • wear anything that exposes your shoulders or legs like shorts or tank tops (even in summer when it’s freaking hot!)

  • wear too much make-up

  • wear piercings (A former collegue told me that everytime she meets her boyfriend’s parents, she has to remove her cartilage piercings, because she’s afraid her future parents-in-law might see them.) 

  • give them a hint that you’ve gone shopping (Hide all those shopping bags before they see them!)

  • serve food with only two or three banchan (side dishes) (They might assume that you are not feeding their son well.)

  • come home late (but it’s totally all right with them if your husband comes home late, tipsy)

  • kick your husband out of the room for being drunk

Although these may happen to myeonuris with strict parents-in-law, it doesn’t mean that they are encountered by all daughters-in-law in Korea.  Some myeonuris are fortunate to have in-laws who are more open-minded. My father-in-law may be a bit of a dictator, but he isn’t mean all the time. Today, while I was working in the kitchen, he called me to eat before I finish the chores, because the food was getting cold. The truth is, I am headstrong, but living with the in-laws has taught me a lot about humility. In Korea, you can’t be a good myeonuri if pride is more valuable to you than establishing a good relationship with your husband’s parents. Get rid of your pride and obey first to win their respect and approval. You can keep a little of that pride, because you will need it to maintain your self-esteem, but know when to use it, and never ever use it as a weapon against your parents-in-law.

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27 thoughts on “Things You Should Never Ever Say or Do When Your Korean Parents-in-law Are Around

  1. LOL *To

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  2. Too be honest this seems normal to me because my own country is like this. In-laws can be annoying and mean sometimes but this is pretty normal. Look at the dramas for my country and although stuff can be exaggerated, it shows what families are like.

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  3. Sure I come from a different country where the ideas of respect are a bit different, but most of this sounds completely ridiculous to me, and if I were to ever marry a Korean, he would definitely know that most of this is not ever going to happen. (And I assume his family would know that too. I will either be on good (familiar) terms with his family, or we will not be seeing much of each other–there’s no in-between.) The concessions you give them are huge, and honestly you sound like you have Stockholm syndrome–like you’ve been conditioned to think things are normal that are definitely not normal. Why are you not allowed to speak informally to your husband?? Because he is a man? Eff that. Also, I’ll sit exactly how I please, and it certainly won’t be cramped up on my legs. I wear too much/not enough makeup? Literally nobody’s business but mine. Talk too much?? Not enough side dishes?? If someone wants to complain about what they get as a guest in my house, they can GTF out. Totally ridiculous. I realize this is how these old people grew up, but they need to get a grip. I’m not saying you need to be rude with them, but I hope you intend to stop the buck here. Being treated like an inferior being in my own home would not fly with me. I feel sorry for you. :/

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  4. Oh no, I’m not being treated badly. This is quite common in Korea. My in-laws are good to me despite their being traditional.

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  5. Wow this sounds horrible! I would move out in a second! Did you know what you were getting into when you got married? I hope your husband sticks up for you, no one should be treated so badly.

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  6. Yep. Even if my FIL doesn’t call me out for something, one of the other samchon will. I try to let it roll off too, but sometimes I get fiesty back. It’s improved since my Korean has improved. Now when a samchon says something to me, usually my hyeongnim will pipe up in my defense. Us women gotta stick together. 😉

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  7. You’ll be surprised to know that you’re the first myeonuri to say this article is biased.

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  8. As someone who lives with their in-law in a very rural area that is deep in traditions, I find your post completely biased. As a forgein wife we are not expected to become Korean brides. Speaking my native tongue has never been a problem, as long as I show that I’m willing to try to speak some Korean. Yes, using the proper titles is important when addressing my parent in law(s), I am completely allowed to use informal language with my husband who is technically older than me. I’m not going to go point by point because you make a lot of points but I find absolutely untrue in most of the multi cultural relationships within Korea that I have run into, including my own. Yes, there are some families who take advantage of their daughter-in-law’s, but that is by no means the regular order of the day. I think Label of your post is misleading, because this is not what over half of the people who marry into a traditional Korean family or a moderately traditional family will encounter.

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  9. Korean are really difficult in any situation…more strict than we asian in southeast asia tend to have less strict environment.

    Sound so hostile, why dont you back to Fil with hubby?

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  10. Eeeek – I think I was really good about managing the family relations and acting in a good way.. but ever since we moved to living right beside them there are so many things I couldn’t handle anymore. I think it’s better to keep your distance and then you can leave a good impression every time. Just in the past few months, I think I did all of the things in your list… and it’s really going horribly now ㅠㅠㅠㅠㅠㅠ

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  11. Hello! I just wanna ask you regarding the cfo. I hope you can help me. Do we have a cfo seminar here in korea? We just got married here last july 2016. Im looking forward for your reply. Thank you😘

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  12. Love your blog! Thanks for the insight.

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  13. Where do you make questions for you? You see I have a Korean friend who I call oppa because he said we are close enough, but now he calls me by my first name. Does that mean he no longer respects me?

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  14. Di po lahat ng tradition nila ay susundin mo..at first observe po muna kayo sa elders nyo tulad ng asawa ng kuya ng asawa nyo..pero kung kayo po ang first inlaw dapat very strong po kayo dahil kayo ang second responsibility sa familya ng asawa nyo…kung kayo ay second 3rd inlaws hwag na hwag ninyo po sundan lahat yan dahil kawawa lang po kayo.Ang gawin po ninyo obserbahan nyo yung eldest inlaw kc sa kanya ang may responsibility. Kung de active ang eldest inlaw kayo keep distance po kayo dahil ikaw ang gagawin niyang mag aalaga sa parent inlaws nyo.kc karamihan sa korean inlaws pag may foreigner na inlaws sa pamilya nila umiiwas sa responsibity. Peace po.

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  15. Hi, Sasha! Well, I’ve broken some of them myself. 🙂

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  16. I would say…I would prob brake abt 55% of those..I believe in giving respect but not having no freedom at all….Good to know though

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  17. Very helpful, thanks!

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  18. It surely will change but it will take a long time over at least one or two generations

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  19. Haha minsan lang, pag sumobra na haha :p

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  20. Thank you, Kikai. =) God bless you, too, and more power to your blog! ^^

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  21. Haha! This comes as a surprise. ^^ Parang wala naman sa dating mo ang magmaldita, Jackie. =)

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  22. Salamat po, Ms. Emely. The reason why I keep writing about these things is to inform new myeonuris. Minsan po kasi they are clueless kung paano ba talaga ang buhay maybahay sa Korea.

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  23. A lot of expats here complain about Koreans’ strict standards on marriage. Even Koreans complain about it. Although South Korea is a developed country, it still is a patriarchal/more traditional society. I hope this changes soon.

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  24. Unni/Ate, annyeong! 🙂 New subbie here. I’m really glad I stumbled upon your site. I love reading your stories from Korea. They are so fascinating! 🙂 Your patience with your inlaws is so… unconditional so kudos to you indeed. Sending lotsa blessings along your way. Aja aja fighting! 🙂

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  25. The try to get even part is so true! I do it alot with my bil haha kasi naman kung manlait minsan hmph

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  26. Very interesting and very informative. I wish this can be shared to women migrants who are just starting their relationships with their in-laws. Let it be part of their orientation.

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  27. Woah how strict it is! It reads like a story from the middle ages in Europe.
    There were never any troubles with my in-laws/ troubles with my parents and my wife (even though my parents are pretty old fashioned as both were born during WWII!).
    I dont know how I would deal in Korea, it just sounds too strict, too backwards to me that I would consider living there. Okay that is actually wrong.I can see myself living there but if fate had played differetnly in my past I dont think that being together with a Korean would be possible for me. I am pretty opened minded, try to adjust to cultures and other people but I also set borders to certain things.
    So kudos to you that you managed so well and I wish you all the best for the future.

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