[Previously posted on Kimchi Mamas.]
In my early 20s, I used to think it was important to marry a Korean. Not that I was particularly attracted to Korean men. I wasn't. And even though their incessant harping weighed down on me, it wasn't only because my parents wanted me to bring home a Korean boy with an advanced degree and the perfect Korean family.
Mainly, it was because I couldn't see how a non-Korean could fit into our family.
For decades, our family of five had lived as if we were stranded on an island. We had no relatives in the US. My parents had very few friends. We no longer attended church. The time they didn’t spend at our dry cleaners was passed snoozing in front of a TV. We didn't have family activities apart from eating. We hadn't taken a family vacation since the mid-80s.
In our relative isolation, we had our own way of doing things. On Thanksgiving, we didn't carve the turkey. After tearing off the drumsticks and the wings, my mom piled random chunks of the bird onto a dish. Once we shredded it further with our chopsticks, we chased turkey bites with kimchi and other banchan. For regular meals, we ate things like pressed pigs' ears, oxtails, and various roots that we couldn’t name in English. We often ate the same things day after day. We double dipped with our chopsticks. On birthdays or Christmas, we didn't always exchange gifts in nicely wrapped boxes. Sometimes, we forgot to celebrate each other's birthdays -- or put them off until the timing was more convenient.
There was also the language issue. My mom doesn’t speak English. When we sat down to dinner together, the children spoke English to each other. To our parents, we spoke Korean, the only language they spoke with each other. Often, we ate without speaking at all. Silences were particularly noticeable on the few occasions we ate out. I longed to have engaging conversations about politics and current affairs, books, anything -- rather than the often repeated "eat this, eat that, don't eat too quickly" that came out of our parents' mouths.
I didn't think of us as a normal family. At least not the kind that seemed to exist out there. I didn’t know how a stranger could fit into our fold. Much less a non-Korean stranger who didn’t have parents like mine. What would he think? How would he communicate with my mother? What would he think of our eating habits?
More than anything, I didn’t want an outsider entering our family and judging my parents the way “Americans” often seemed to. It was bad enough when a contractor turned to me for interpretation even when my dad was speaking English. Or when a white couple passed us as we were eating kimbap on one of our infrequent outings to a Long Island beach, and the lady stopped to point her finger at our lunch as she exclaimed, “Look, Bob, they’re eating sushi!” Or when our store customers slowed down their speaking, simplified their vocabulary, and increased the volume when speaking to my mom.
I can’t remember all the incidents that made me clench my teeth and cross my arms. All I remember is the feeling that our family’s small haven should be protected against outsiders who couldn’t possibly understand. Not that I thought of all outsiders as racists or malicious people. We just had different backgrounds, and I couldn’t imagine others understanding us in our own light, against our own backdrop of social and cultural norms, without processing us through the prism of American life.
Most of all, I think I was worried that if I introduced a “foreigner” into our home, I would see my parents more through his eyes. I already caught myself doing it when we dealt with store customers. When my mom spoke to a customer, her accent seemed unusually pronounced. And the three or four layers of shirts and sweaters she usually wore to keep warm appeared mismatched and shabby. Her hair needed touch up and her shoes needed cleaning. My dad’s emphatic English, usually articulated as if he were delivering the Gettysburg Address even during normal conversation, made him sound like a caricature at times. Sure, that’s how they appeared now that we lived in America, but the least I could do was protect them on our side of the threshold.
And I wanted my future husband to be able to see them as they really were. To be able to laugh with us when my mother ran out of the bathroom covering her nose at the stink of her own fart. Or to understand why my father so often repeated his stories about the time he had to give up his valedictorian position for that kid from a rich family. To understand that how they appeared here was a distortion of a kind.
In my late 20’s, I gave up this idea of meeting a Korean man. Maybe because I met more than my share, and I realized that I was scared of becoming that Korean daughter-in-law who cuts fruit symmetrically or plays the piano. Maybe because when I met a Korean-American guy who had an investment bank internship on his resume followed by Harvard and Wharton degrees, I saw a failure of imagination and originality rather than his hard work – something I feared in myself. But more than anything, it was probably because I was no longer living at home and I felt freer to live my life without trying to make everything fit into one big jigsaw puzzle.
When I first introduced Jeff to my parents, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s not Korean and doesn’t speak the language. The conversation was stilted at times, and my mom spent most of the lunch smiling and nodding along. At one point in the car, my mom reached forward, tapped him on the arm, and said, “Jeff, you learn Korean. I’m too old to learn English.” Jeff just smiled and nodded.
A few months later, we visited them for a few days in their Long Island home. After making fun of my second grade school picture, in which I bore a remarkable resemblance to the cartoon character Nancy, Jeff made himself at home. The following morning, he didn’t even flinch when my mom served him a whole fish for breakfast. And even though he hates fighting fish bones, he worked his way through the whole damn thing, telling my mom how delicious it was. And I was ready to give him a thousand kisses.
No one thinks about the love that comes with a whole fish prepared for breakfast. But I do. I thought about it when my mom asked me over the phone a few weeks later why I didn’t prepare some of that fish Jeff liked so much. I think about it when Jeff orders a cod fillet at our favorite Italian restaurant. When I see him make room for us – and for my parents – in our lives, as we plan for our future.
Nowadays, all the cultural hodge-podge that preoccupied me in my 20s no longer seems so confusing. And I am relieved that I wasn't foolish enough to try to force everything to fit together when I didn't know any better.