Saturday, July 21, 2007


Korean Father had his birthday while away in Namhae, but as soon as he got back it was our obligation to take him and Korean Mother out for a nice meal at their favourite Chinese restaurant. Somehow, we ended up arriving there later than them and he'd already started drinking tea, but after my recent introduction to the world of manly Korean handshakes, I was not thrown off when he immediately thrust out his hand towards me, and more importantly, I remembered to place my left hand a little below my right elbow as we shook in the way a junior should to a senior. Points scored I think, if he noticed. I immediately went for a high score record by noticing his cup was empty and picking up the kettle to pour him more, as is the responsibility of the son-in-law in these circumstances. I'd been in the restaurant less than twenty seconds by this point so there was no way my performance was going to be maintained at this high standard, and as he began to talk to me and I struggled to comprehend and find the words to reply I felt an all-too-familiar slump settling in. About a minute later as the frustration grew too much later he made the all too familiar noise I call his 'grunt-sigh', and I took it as my cue to settle into my usual background position while the meal unfolded. It wasn't long before he was pouring his own drinks.

I don't recall the handshaking happening between us before, but in reality I haven't seen that much of Korean Father since we came to Busan. His parents' ill-health, followed by the death of his mother, has resulted in him spending time away fulfilling his own obligations as a son. Beyond that, we went through a period when he used to arrive unannounced at our apartment slightly worse for wear after evenings out with his friends, in experiences I can best describe as surreal, although I don't think this is a particularly unusual in Korea. When he doesn't want me to climb mountains with him, he's expressed a wish for us to go out drinking together as a father and son-in-law, but this is complicated by the almost complete lack of communication with each other, and the fact that I basically had to give up drinking alcohol after developing Meniere's Disease (most days of late it feels like I've had a few glasses of wine from the moment I've got out of bed so there's no point adding to it). We bought a couple of bottles of soju over Christmas - if you can call Korea in late December Christmas - but they're still unopened - and I had my first drink in about a year up in Seoul because I got really depressed out the Embassy and the extent to the homeless problem I saw. In any case, it's a long time since I went through my brief vodka phase at university and even without Meniere's to content with Korean Father could drink me under a table in a matter of minutes. He's Korean and has therefore had a great deal of practice. Incidentally, when he saw our still unopened bottles of soju he quickly found the alcohol content and snorted in the international drinkers' gesture translated as 'what is this... water?!'

As it happens, he really took a liking to the alcohol he was served with in the restaurant, but sadly because it was Chinese he couldn't figure out the name. When he asked one of the waitresses if she could read it he was in for a bit of culture shock of his own, not only are all the waitresses Chinese but their Korean is often limited to food related conversations. After a couple of minutes of trying to understand various text on the bottle, he gave up. At least for once I wasn't the source of his cultural frustrations.

After the meal he rediscovered my presence as we walked home and insisted on holding my hand as he led me down the street. This is not uncommon in Korea but this never, ever, happens back home. The fact that I let him this time though may indicate some progress on my part because the first time it happened shortly after I'd arrived I snatched my hand away in much the same way one does from a crocodile and shot him my best horrified 'what the frak do you think you're doing?!' look. No-one had warned me. Apart from anything else it doesn't stop me feeling about five years old though - another part of Korean culture I don't think I'll ever get used to.

With his daughter married to a foreigner, Korean Father is missing out on the bonding activities that he'd been expecting to do with any future son-in-law, and this clearly saddens him. But it goes further, because another aspect of a normal Korean marriage they are missing out on is the connection that would develop between them and the family to which their offspring would marry into, as they find common activities to share in. In a country where the family is regarded with the highest importance, much is lost when these links can not be fostered.

Korean keywords: 가족, 아버지, , 악수하다,


Carlien said...

I just came across your blog while looking up things in Busan, and it's really interesting to read about your experiences with the culture!
I wish I had found this earlier actually.
I work on an international book ship and we've been in Busan for the past three weeks but are leaving tomorrow.. for more Korean ports further up on the east coast. It would have been great to have you visit, but maybe you did already? Anyway, all the best for the rest of your stay over here!

daeguowl said...

Do you really think that Korean in-laws do much together. One of the things my mother-in-law likes about her daughter being married to a foreigner is that she doesn't feel she's lost her and she can still see her at every other holiday. Noe of our female friends ever seem to really see their parents as they are always visting the husband's family and I'm not aware of the in-laws seeing each other except at the wedding.

Mike said...

Thanks - I'm afraid I wasn't aware of your international book ship's visit to Busan. Intrigued by exactly what such a ship did, I spent some time reading through its website though:

I hope the rest of your visit to Korea in enjoyable.

Mike said...

Daeguowl - perhaps it depends on backgrounds? And certainly, marrying a foreigner has advantages as well.

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