Sunday, April 03, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 3: Living with Korean Parents

About 'Open Mike in Busan'
Listen to the segment on Koreabridge


In the four years since I first met my future Korean parents-in-law, there have been plenty of ups and downs in our relationship. A lot of this is down to me and the cultural difference – I’m sure Koreans just see these things as normal, and of course, they don’t have the language barrier to struggle with. Well, hopefully not anyway.

The first negative experience

My first negative experience was probably before I came to Korea for the first time. My wife started stressing the importance of making a good impression with her parents, and the problem was – my future father-in-law sounded rather frightening.

He was in the police, where he actually investigated murder cases. And from the photos I saw of him, well what can I say? He certainly looked the part – he was a Korean Marine before he joined the police.

Different backgrounds

My background was a little different. I’d been President of my Students’ Union at university a few years before, and like in Korea, it’s a really serious thing in the UK, and it probably means you’re quite left-wing politically. So it sounded like one of those bad American buddy movies, you know - “He’s a right-wing ex-marine homicide cop, and he’s a left-wing political activist – who’s marrying his daughter”. Actually, if you ever saw that movie, Meet the Parents, that was pretty much my situation. If I’d been Korean, a few years earlier, we could have been throwing rocks and tear-gas at each other in the street.

But he doesn’t know about my background yet. That’s actually a serious issue – you know, the language barrier turns you into this kind of non-person here, like a blank slate, in a way you could be anyone. Even someone that agrees with them. What happens when my Korean language is good enough for him to understand how I think, and what I believe? Right now, he seems to think I’m Comedy Mike, but once the language barrier is gone, it might not seem so funny then. Sometimes language barriers can be a good thing.

Comedy Mike

There’s a story to the Comedy Mike title, but honestly, it’s not one I’m really proud of looking back. In my early days here he had a lot of advice for me – you know “this is the way we do things in Korea”. It’s like shaving. Some mornings I didn’t shave and he’d grab my face with his hand and rub it to highlight the stubble.

So after a couple of days of this I noticed he needed a shave, and I grabbed my face the way he did and then pointed to the stubble on his face. Now I’ve been in Korea much longer, I can see how that could have been hugely insulting, because it was basically saying “hey, how come there’s one rule for me, and a different one for you?” I don’t think that’s something a Korean guy would do with his future father-in-law – especially a scary one. Well anyway, when I did that, he let out a huge laugh and said “Ma-ih-keul – koh meh dee” and after that, every time he said something which I kind of didn’t really appreciate, I found some way of getting back at him in return. Most of what I said just seemed to make him laugh, and so he really began to grow on me. And maybe I stopped being so difficult.

A better father/son-in-law relationship

But in some ways I’m not sure we have a better relationship now. Sometimes he asks me when we’re going to go out for a drink alone together, or climb a mountain alone together – you know, all the things I guess his son-in-law is supposed to do with him. And it’s just really hard because of the language barrier – it’s not like we talk alone together.

I do feel sorry for him – I really mean it. I know that because his daughter has married a foreigner, he’s lost something he might otherwise have had. And the truth is, I really want to get to know him as well. So much has happened in Korea during his life, especially considering his job, that I’m sure he has a lot of interesting stories to tell.

The mother-in-law relationship

The relationship with my mother-in-law has been easier; she was always really kind. I thought we were going to have problems at first though because she’s quite a devout Buddhist and I was raised as a Catholic. I didn’t think about that so much before I came here. Fortunately I’d brought a book over from England with me – it was by the Dalai Lama. It wasn’t planned, it was just what I happened to be reading at the time. So I showed it to her and I think she was a lot happier. I told her I was open-minded – my wife’s Buddhist anyway of course, and I don’t really go to church any more.

In some ways it was easier living with her once we got over the religious differences, but in another way it wasn’t. When my wife and I lived here at first we had our own apartment, but then we moved into her mother’s place after her father had to move away to Namhae. So the experience of living in an apartment with Korean parents-in-law is so much different than living in your own place.

I know a lot of foreigners are appalled by the idea – we don’t have so much of a culture of living with parents-in-law in our own countries. We can be a lot more distant with our parents – and yes, you lose some of your privacy and freedom living with other people. But on the other hand, it can give you a much better insight into how Koreans really live, and of course, my wife’s just had a baby so her mother is absolutely invaluable to us now.

It can be unnerving though; it gets loud in the apartment sometimes. I think Busan people can have a conversation about the weather and make it sound like a huge argument. In fact – that example actually happened a couple of weeks ago.


The loss of privacy which comes from living with my mother-in-law is not a positive thing, but I think that language is the biggest problem. Even though my Korean vocabulary has reached around 800 words, most of the time I can’t understand what on Earth she’s saying. But you know, it’s that Busan dialect problem – except of course, with her it’s a Busan-Namhae fusion dialect which, right now, I just don’t think I have a hope of ever understanding. That’s tough when you’re living with someone – there’s a lot of language pressure – every day.

I do understand some of what she’s saying – I think enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. I sort of understand bits here and there so, well, what can you do? I started saying “yes” to her when she said things, more in hope than anything else. “네, 네, 네” - see how good I am at that? That’s practice that is. But of course, it meant odd things happened sometimes. Strange food would suddenly turn up on my desk that I didn’t think I’d asked for, and once or twice she was waiting by the door looking at me saying “Are we going then?” when I didn’t realise I’d agreed to go out somewhere with her.

But then my wife told her one day “You know – he always says “네” to you just to have a quiet life – he doesn’t really understand what you’re saying.” So the secret was out, and she was a bit upset – but she got over it. And I am still talking with her, even if it’s just to say “네”.

The future of living with a Korean parent

I thought that living with my mother-in-law was just how things were going to be forever. As a foreigner, I had really mixed feelings about the responsibility, because honestly, sometimes it does feel more of a responsibility than a completely free choice. But then a few days ago I found out that she wants to retire back to Namhae, which is where she’s from. So maybe we’ll end up getting our own place again one day. It might be better, but in some ways I’ll probably miss my time living with a Korean family – it’s certainly... an interesting experience.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan
Koreabridge - Open Mike in Busan audio (MP3)

Air date: 2010-11-10 @ ~19:30

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