From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."

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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Teacher’s Real Face

1One day, I walked in the classroom and found two of the girls in my elementary class wearing pink eyeliner which they made from clay.

“Wow, you girls look prettier today,” I said, trying so hard not to burst into laughter as the girls gingerly walked to their seats with their heads up, so that their clay eyeliner would not fall.

“Teacher, we wear eyeliner like you,” one of the girls, Mary, who was barely blinking, mouthed.

“I can see that, but mine is black and yours is pink.”

“Pink is pretty. I like pink.”

“I like pink, too, so sometimes I wear pink lipstick, but I have never worn pink eyeliner.”

“Sometimes teacher eyeliner is blue,” the other girl, Tiffany, was now putting back her clay eyeliner that fell as she was speaking. “Yesterday yesterday (the other day), teacher dress is blue, teacher eyeliner is blue.” 

I was flattered that these kids remember.

There is one boy in that class, and I didn’t want him to feel out of place with all the girlie talk, so I began asking the class about the weather and what day and date it was (which they all answered well), but to my surprise, the boy was also interested in eyeliners… not that he wants to wear make up, too, but he was obviously curious. In fact, he was the next one to mention eyeliner again just as we were about to start with our warm-up activity.

“Teacher, you have pink eyeliner?”

“No, Eugene, I don’t have a pink eyeliner. I use only black or blue.”

“Teacher, you buy pink eyeliner and next time wear.”

“Uhm, do you think I will look prettier with pink eyeliner?’

“I don’t know.”

I shouldn’t have asked Eugene that question. ^^

That time, the girls were busy putting back their clay eyeliner, which fell everytime they moved or spoke or giggled. Tiffany gave up, but Mary was persistent… and Eugene just would not let up interrogating me.

“Teacher, why you wear eyeliner?”

“I want to look prettier. Doesn’t your Mommy use eyeliner?”

“Sometimes.”

“I want teacher next time not wear eyeliner.”

“Why?”

“I want see teacher real face.”

Okay, an anvil just dropped on my head.

“But… this is my real face.”

Eugene and the girls took turns in skinning me alive with words.

“Next time teacher come here and wear no make up,” this time it’s Tiffany making the request.

“Sorry, guys, but I can’t do that. I never go to work without make up.”

“We want see teacher real face! Teacher real face! Teacher real face!”

Ugh, the kids were relentless!

“How about I just wear pink eyeliner next time I come to class?”

Of course I was kidding!

“No, teacher… we want see you not wear eyeliner.”

“No make up, teacher.”

“Only real face.”

“I told you, this is my real face. Do you think there is a monster beneath this make up?”

“No.”

“Does teacher wear too much make up?”

“No.”

“Okay, maybe next time I will wear less make up to make you happy. Shall we begin with our activity now?”

“Yes.”

Kids… ^^ (sigh)