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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My Korean Husband Drinks… Should I Be Bothered?

The other night, my husband went out with his best buddy and another friend from Busan, whom I haven’t met yet. In Korea, when a husband says he’s going out with his buddies, most likely, it’s not going to be a sport spectacle or an activity that is done when one is sober, it means he’s going out “to drink” with his friends, and “drinking with friends” means “getting drunk”.

My husband is not an alcoholic, and I’m not saying that all Korean men are, but it’s an undeniable truth that majority of Koreans love to drink. In fact, there is a drinking culture in Korea that I have discussed in a previous post, and every foreigner who has been to Korea knows that drinking is something you can’t escape from in this country.

During the first year of our marriage, I couldn’t understand why my husband had to go out to drink almost every week, or sometimes in our house with his father or his brothers. Although he would sometimes take me with him in those late-night drinking sessions, I didn’t like his drinking at all. When he’s drunk, he just sleeps like a baby and never gives me any trouble, but gosh… the snoring! If I’d put him on loud speaker while he snores, our neighbors would think South Korea is being bombed by the North!

I used to nag at him every time he came home late from a company dinner. (Company dinners and business meetings in Korea are usually accompanied with soju.) There was even a time I kicked him out of our bedroom for arriving home late and wasted. My Abonim found him sleeping in the living room and he wasn’t pleased to see his youngest son spread eagle on the cold floor in his underwear looking like a toad ready to be dissected. He was furious that I didn’t care for my drunk husband.  It was explained to me that in Korea, the wife is expected to (always) attend to her husband even when he comes home drunk. (Maybe it was just my father-in-law’s opinion, but according to my Mom, my Abonim was right: it doesn’t make any sense nagging at and kicking your husband out of the bedroom when he’s drunk because he won’t even remember anything. The best way is to talk to him in the morning when he’s sober and you’re not thinking like Hitler.)

What would I do with a mini-screwdriver?

The other night hubby came home late, he was a bit drunk and scared as hell. The moment he walked in and saw me waiting for him by the door, he said, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

From the look on his face, I knew that he was waiting for my first attack, but I smiled and said: “Have you had your dinner?” His face lit up, and he took out a small gift that he got from an arcade crane machine. (Yup, he’s 33 and he still plays arcade machines. Ugh, men!)

“You’re not angry?” he asked.

“I’m not.” (I really wasn’t.)

Now if you’re planning to marry a Korean or a man who likes to drink, or if you’re already married to someone who is having an indecent affair with soju, let me tell you a few things I have learned from experience:

  • No matter how many times you tell your husband to stop drinking, he won’t. It would be just like taking away the Kimchi on the table. First, because at work, drinking with colleagues CAN’T be avoided.  Also, on family occasions, when a family member pours him a drink, he has to accept it and drink (even a little). It is rude to refuse the drink. Second, Korean men work harder and longer, and drinking occasionally is their way to relieve stress from work. (South Korea tops the most hardworking countries of the world according to Forbes magazine.) Third, no one likes to be told what to do, especially Korean men. The more you beleaguer your husband about his drinking, the more he’ll drink.
  • If he drinks  a lot, talk to him about it… when he’s NOT DRUNK. Don’t bring it up all the time. Don’t turn it into an argument. Use the power of persuasion, not the power of a nagging wife. Tell him it’s all right with you if he drinks SOMETIMES and RESPONSIBLY, which means that he would still be able to stand, go home safely, wash (to get rid of the smell of alcohol) and head to the bedroom without knocking off anything by accident.
  • Never ever use the word “curfew” or tell him what time you expect him to come home after going out with his friends or attending a company dinner. I noticed that telling my husband: Come home before 1 or Your curfew’s until 12 doesn’t really work… but when I say: What time are you coming home? Please don’t be too late… he doesn’t give me an exact time, but he arrives home earlier, and very seldom does he come late.
  • Tell him NICELY to ALWAYS inform you where he’s going and with whom he’ll be drinking. Though I never had this problem with my husband since we got married (because he would always keep me informed), I am fully aware of the complaints of some fellow housewives in Korea about “not being informed” of their husbands’ whereabouts when they’re out drinking.
  • If he fails to inform you where he is, call him. Don’t rely on a text message. The hoff or restaurant where he is may be too noisy that he won’t be able to hear his phone beep. (Remember how Koreans like to chat non-stop and loudly when they drink? He may be sitting beside someone who has damaged his eardrums for the time being.)
  • It’s okay to call twice or thrice, if the crowing rooster is about to have tonsillitis from its usual wake-up call and hubby’s not home yet… but calling him every now and then is just crazy and annoying according to hubby and his married friends. (I am guilty of this, but now I don’t call him as often as before. I have learned to trust him with his coming-home time. ^^)
  • Don’t kick him out of the bedroom (like I did). Fix him a cup of tea or coffee to sober him up. Let him sleep it off. As long as he doesn’t beat you up, swear at you or make your life a living hell when he’s tipsy, be a good wife.

Now my husband doesn’t drink often. I challenged him to prove to me that he can say NO to a drinking invitation either from a friend or a colleague, and he has done it many times. In fact, when we went out for dinner last night and my Ajubonim (brother-in-law) ordered a bottle of soju, my husband didn’t even have his soju glass filled up. He didn’t even ask me if he could drink. (If he had asked me, I would have given him permission. ^^)