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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What I Have Learned from Marrying a Korean

The other night, I was asking my husband if he remembers “our song”. He said he remembers it, but he doesn’t know the lyrics, so I sang it to him. When I was singing the chorus, he remembered some lines and sang some parts, though most of the time he was humming. We were singing “our song” in the car, sometimes chuckling when one of us was out of tune.

The next morning, when he woke up, instead of saying “Good morning”, he sang our song while gently stroking my face: “With you right by my side, everything else will work out just fine. How did you know… I don’t know (the) next.” I was supposed to laugh, because he couldn’t get the rest of the lyrics right, but I didn’t… because right there and then, I felt what he was really trying to say. We have come a long way since we first met. In 10 years of long-distance relationship and five years of marriage, my husband and I have gone through a lot. Sure, all marriages go through fire and water, but ours had begun even before we decided to tie the knot!

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GETTING PERMISSION TO MARRY (THE KOREAN WAY)

My family would say that our love story is more like an episode from a drama anthology. My husband’s father didn’t approve of our marriage at first. His view of marriage is quite traditional. He didn’t want his son to marry a foreigner. In Korea, it is imperative to ask for parental blessing before someone gets married. If the parents don’t approve of the person their child is planning to marry, it is more likely that the wedding will not take place. Although parental blessing before marriage is also very important in my country, Filipino parents don’t have much control over who their child chooses to spend the rest of his life with, especially when the one asking for the parents’ blessing is of marriageable age. My husband was 33 when he proposed to me. When I told my family that I was going to marry a Korean, they were reluctant. Koreans don’t have a good reputation in my country, and a lot of things had happened in the past between me and my husband that my family didn’t want me to go through again. Love, however, always finds a way. My husband was able to gain my family’s trust, and despite his father’s disapproval, he came back for me. Perhaps it was his determination that changed his father’s mind in the end.

Finally, in February 2010, my husband and I said our “I do’s”. His parents and my family were all there to witness our exchange of vows. When his father gave a speech, he said that we are proof of how truly powerful love is that despite our differences and being far apart for years, we found a way to be together and finally get married.

(Source: listverse.com)

(Source: listverse.com)

DEALING WITH PREJUDICE

My husband had always been honest about what my life might be like as a foreign wife in Korea. We both knew that we would have to deal with cultural conflicts and prejudice at some point. Asian women outside of Korea who marry Korean men are stereotyped as mail-order brides or women who were introduced to their husbands by marriage brokers. This misconception stems from a common practice of Korean men who can’t have Korean wives. These men sometimes seek the services of matchmakers who find wives for them in neighboring countries. Matchmakers usually select younger women who come from impoverished families, so that they can be easily swayed to marry a man they barely know in exchange for the promise of a better life in Korea.   What some Koreans fail to recognize is that there are MANY foreign wives in Korea who weren’t picked by marriage brokers, women who are no different than any other wives who married their husbands because of love and the desire to have their own family, women who had no hidden agenda when they decided to leave their home countries to be in Korea with their husbands. Before I left my country to live in Korea, one of my husband’s relatives who was staying in the Philippines told me, “You are very lucky you will go (to) Korea. Many Filipina(s) want (to) go (to) Korea, but (they) cannot.” Some Koreans think that when a Filipina marries a Korean, she is after financial gain. NOT ALL Filipinas marry for money. NOT ALL Filipinas are dying to step foot on Korean soil. NOT ALL Filipinas are after the visa.

As for those who marry for convenience, is this still an issue these days? Marriages of convenience have been done for centuries, not only by Filipinos, but by people of different ethnicities. Even monarchs marry to save their crown. People can be such hypocrites, judging others because of their choices in life. I have much respect for women who marry for convenience, and yet turn out to have a more successful life and unselfishly dedicate their time to becoming good wives and responsible mothers. These women DO exist, but are overshadowed by the wrong perception of bigoted people.

(Source: seoulsync.com)

Mean mother-in-law as portrayed in Korean drama (Source: seoulsync.com)

LIVING WITH THE IN-LAWS

My husband and I have lived with his parents for almost five years now, and mind you, this hasn’t been easy for me. My parents-in-law are NOT horrible people. They are probably kinder than the type of in-laws pictured in the minds of a typical myeonuri (daughter-in-law)… but who wants to live with the in-laws? I bet no myeonuri will wholeheartedly say, “Me!” Let me tell you why. Korean society places a high value on family and seniority, most of the time, disregarding individual needs. A daughter-in-law in Korea is expected to be loyal and obedient to her husband’s family at all times. She should learn to put her own concerns aside to fulfill her myeonuri duties. The burden of fulfilling these duties become more onerous when she has to live with the in-laws as she is often under scrutiny. A myeonuri is usually powerless against her parents-in-law, because Korean tradition dictates that elders always be treated with the utmost respect… even when they are being unreasonable and demanding. In my husband’s household, my father-in-law is the most powerful member of the family. He makes most of the decisions and has to be consulted about almost everything, from my husband’s business plans to the color of curtains to use in the house!

Before coming to Korea, I used to make my own decisions. My family was always there to give advice, but they never dictated my choices in life. I was a confident and independent woman, but I had to change to fit my parents-in-law’s standards. There are times when I don’t have power over the simplest choices I ought to make on my own because I live with the in-laws. I can’t wear what I want or dye my hair, because they will surely disapprove of my fashion choices. Two years ago, after a trip from the Philippines, I came back to Korea with hair highlights which my father-in-law didn’t like, so I had to get my hair back to its natural color. The first time I wanted to study Korean Language in Seoul, my father-in-law objected. I knew he was worried for my safety, but for Pete’s sake, I am an adult who can remember directions and which transport to take. I get upset whenever I have to do something against my will, but I just try to do what I can to avoid conflicts with the in-laws. I realized, after crying a river countless times, that there is really nothing I can do. A little bit of patience won’t kill me. After all, I’ve seen and heard worse from other foreigners married to Koreans. Also, I try not to bombard my husband with complaints about his parents, because we end up arguing. The best solution is to NOT get under the in-laws’ skin by NOT doing the things that they don’t like. My parents-in-law may be strict and closed-minded, but they are not that bad. My mother-in-law is kind to me. She never nags. My father-in-law, despite his authoritarian ways, is thoughtful and generous. Whenever I feel like they are being unfair, I think about their goodness, so I don’t develop a negative feeling towards them. It was my mom who taught me this strategy. She told me that defiance will lead to more misunderstandings, so as long as I am under my parents-in-law’s roof, I should learn how to live by their rules. Ugh, I hate rules, but what can I do but to keep an open mind and wait for the day my husband and I move to a home of our own?

My number one advice for those who are going to marry a Korean, DON’T LIVE WITH THE IN-LAWS, period. ^^

COMMUNICATION

My husband and I have always communicated better in English. Sometimes I use Korean when I talk to him, and he uses Filipino, but we end up laughing at each other’s pronunciation and grammatical mistakes, so using our native languages to communicate is exclusively for “kidding around”. ^^

When we have serious things to discuss, I make sure I have my English-Korean dictionary ready, so if he has a hard time grasping unfamiliar terms, I could easily type in the word for him. (Yes, just like having a one-on-one ESL class. ^^) He also does the same for me when he is having a hard time expressing himself in English. My husband’s English is all right, but language will always be a bit of a problem when a couple doesn’t speak the same tongue. No wonder Korea now requires foreign spouses to take a Korean Language exam before they are given a visa. I often misunderstood my husband everytime he used his normal Korean voice with me. I would think he was waging war against me. Later on, he explained that it is common for Koreans to talk with a loud voice. He has learned to speak more softly except when he is over-excited to tell me something.

More than language barrier, it is actually how a couple communicates with each other about their different cultural backgrounds that makes a multicultural marriage even more challenging. My husband and I used to lock horns with each other everytime we talked about “how things are done in my country” and “how they should be done in Korea”, but as years went by, we have learned how to accept our differences. I used to give him the long talk, but he hated that, and referred to it as “nagging” even when I wasn’t talking angrily, so now whenever we need to talk about our differences, I go straight to the point and just tell him how I feel. I don’t compare or use my culture as an excuse. I try not to be defensive. I tell him to listen and after I speak my mind, he can talk and I’ll be all ears.

It also helps to make a compromise. We have agreed that since we live in Korea, we should follow (mostly) the Korean way, but when we are in the Philippines, we do things my way. A woman’s submission to male authority is very important in Korean society, but I am grateful to have a husband who respects my independence and is willing to comply to make our relationship work. 

A scene from Psy's

A scene from Psy’s “Hangover” Featuring Snoop Dogg (Source: acclaimmag.com)

KOREA’S DRINKING CULTURE

In Korea, it is almost impossible to stay away from consuming alcohol because of the country’s drinking culture. It is customary for companies to hold get-togethers which turn into drinking sessions where everyone gets drunk. I didn’t like it every time my husband came home late after a company dinner, especially when he had too much to drink.

At first I thought that he was just using his country’s drinking culture as an excuse for his coming home late, liquored up. In my country, this is unacceptable. It was only after he took me with him to one of their company dinners that I witnessed how unavoidable the whole Korean drinking frenzy is. I was a guest at that dinner, but I was also forced to drink. Thankfully, I managed to elude it. Soju glasses were filled to the brim and constantly passed from one person to another. Everyone was required to drink a full glass of soju, refill it and give it to the person next to him. This cycle was done multiple times, and no one could refuse the drink except me, being a guest and a foreigner who was obviously uncomfortable with what was going on. Some employees tried to refuse, but they were badgered into drinking like there was no tomorrow. It was nearly 3 in the morning, and I wanted to go home, but my husband told me that leaving the group first would be rude, so we stayed until they were all too wasted to have more shots of soju.

It has been 4 months since my husband quit drinking cold turkey. I couldn’t be happier. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he won’t be tempted to drink when he has to attend a company dinner. His friends know about his surgery, so they don’t offer him alcohol when he goes out with them, but bosses, argh… some Korean bosses can be booze bullies!

MONEY MATTERS

My husband and I rarely argue about money, but before we tied the knot, we had already talked about how to manage our finances. We used to combine our finances, but this was stressful for both of us, because we have different approach to money. To solve money issues, we developed a new system: he is in charge of the bills, and I am the one who takes care of our savings.  Saving money is of great importance to Koreans. This is one useful thing that I have learned from my father-in-law. We used to give money to the in-laws which helped pay for the apartment that we all live in, but later, my father-in-law encouraged us to save the money instead. It is not uncommon for a married couple in Korea to give some of their earnings to the husband’s parents. Parents usually save the money for the couple’s future; however, it is best for the couple to save money on their own, as the practice of handing money to the parents causes conflict and distrust in most cases. Some foreign wives complain about giving some or most of their salaries to their parents-in-law. If you come to think about it, they have every right to complain, but in Korean culture, like I said earlier, the husband’s family is often involved in everything the couple has to decide on. That includes money. A friend who is also married to a Korean told me that her husband’s older brother is the one managing her husband’s inheritance from his father, and the husband doesn’t seem to mind.

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From the time I decided to marry a Korean, my life has changed in many ways I didn’t think possible. I have become stronger and more open-minded. I have learned how to be humble and more accepting of others, especially in dealing with my parents-in-law. If you ask my husband, I bet he will tell you that he has changed a lot, too. Some changes are pleasant; some are not, but one thing is for sure, there is now more singing in the car than there had been during the first few years of our marriage,  because this time, we have come to fully accept the reality of being a multicultural couple and understand each other and our culture more. We have learned that there is no easy way to resolve our differences, but as long as we are both willing to work together, just like any other marriages that go through fire and water, we will overcome any difficulty.