Lessons from a Korean mother-in-law (by Jennifer Burton)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

When I first met Sung Hyun (승현), my Korean husband—then boyfriend, now ex-husband—in 2006, I was already living in Seoul, South Korea, teaching English as a Foreign Language for eight months. At that time, I spoke limited Korean: hello, thank-you, good-bye, this food tastes good, how much is this? was pretty much the extent of my Korean language abilities. Sung Hyun’s English proficiency paralleled my Korean proficiency, which, as you could imagine, made for an interesting first date!

I could hardly string together a sentence in Korean, yet I found myself constantly being praised for my efforts. Whether it was the old lady at the local food shop, strangers on the bus, or my Korean co-workers and friends, “한국말 잘하시네요!” (You speak Korean so well) they would say. My level-two Korean language teacher at Sogang University in Seoul reminded me on the first day of class, when she told us that while strangers on the street might compliment us for our Korean, we were, in fact, only beginners, and that we did not speak Korean so well. She was right.

It wasn’t until Sung Hyun and I moved into my then mother-in-law’s 250-square foot apartment that I took my relationship with Korean seriously. It was important to me to have a relationship with my mother-in-law, so I quit my full-time English language teaching job and enrolled in Korean language classes. This marked the beginning of our heartfelt (and rather comedic) relationship. I have a collection of fond memories of our time together. In this post, I’d like to share a few stories.  

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Story One: It’s what’s for breakfast

The boiling water bubbled on the stove early morning. “Hmm, breakfast,” I thought to myself. Steam covered my glasses as I leaned over the pot to see what we’d be eating. Sitting on the floor a few feet away, my Korean mother-in-law looked up but remained silent. I gasped. MY UNDERWEAR. She was boiling my underwear!!! As my eyes met hers, all I could think of to say in my limited Korean was, “Mmm, looks delicious.”

She smiled.

Story Two: On NEVER wasting food

I pulled out the blue Gatorade bottle that got pushed to the back of the fridge. The few sips that were left were hardly worth saving, but I knew the rules of the house: eat everything on your plate and don’t throw away any food. Mom grew up during the Korean war and food was scarce.

“Mom, do you want to drink this?” I asked holding the nearly empty bottle of blue Gatorade towards her.

She barely took her eyes off the T.V. to see what I was referring to. “No,” she replied.

I opened the lid of the bottle and proceeded to pour the blue liquid down the sink. But first, I turned to look at mom. I grinned because I knew what would follow next.

She bolted up from the floor and beelined it to the kitchen sink. “DON’T DO THAAAAT!” Holding the bottle with two hands she gulped the blue liquid as if she hadn’t had anything to drink for weeks.

Her face squinched up in reaction to her first experience drinking Gatorade, “KAHHH!” Handing the bottle back to me with one hand and with the closed fist of her other hand, she whacked me across my upper arm, “Don’t throw it out!”

I had only pretended to pour the Gatorade down the sink.

Story Three: I’m Resting

I’m in the only room in the house watching T.V. This is the room where the three of us eat and sleep on the floor. I hear mom leave the house. I chase after her out the door, “Mom, don’t go out today”.

There’s a typhoon warning in Seoul that day and work and school are cancelled. Everyone is advised to stay indoors.

“I need to take out the garbage, I’m fine, I’m fine,” she replies.

I take mom’s arm and bring her back inside. “You can take out the garbage tomorrow. Today, you can take a rest.”

Mom sits down for five minutes. “Mom, please don’t go outside today, it’s dangerous,” I say in Korean.

“Uhhh,” she replies, in recognition, not frustration.

Mom gets up and since there are no other rooms in the apartment, I ask her where she’s doing. “I’m going to rest,” she answers. She’s recently been sleeping in the hallway. It’s cooler there. A few minutes later Sung Hyun gets up to go to the bathroom. “Mom’s gone!” he calls to me.

She snuck out of the house to take out the garbage. When she returns, she opens the front door ever so quietly, thinking she’s tricked us.

“Mom, what did you do outside?” I call from the main room.

Silence.

“Mom, I told you not to go out…” I pause. “Mom. Moooooom.”

“Stop saying Moooom,” she calls back. “I’m resting, like you told me.”

Story Four: Mom’s Way

Mom delicately pressed the ends of my towel together, matching the corners just right. Her precision and attention to detail was admirable. Things had to be done a certain way in her house.

“It’s mom’s way,” Sung Hyun would often joke.

I knew what he meant. My mother is the same way.

I watched my Korean mom fold my towel in half like she was piecing together a puzzle. Then, with a needle and thread she began to sew it together.

“MOM! What are you doing?” I exclaimed in Korean.

“Your towel is too big,” she replied.  Mom mumbled something else in Korean and I looked to Sung Hyun for translation: “The towel gets tangled when you wash it with other clothes.”

I looked back at mom, still trying to process what was happening.

“So, mom is going to sew my towel together every time she does laundry?” I jokingly ask Sung Hyun.

“I dunno, it’s mom’s way!” he said.

Mom did exactly that. For the entire duration of the time we lived with her, she sewed my towel together just so it wouldn’t tangle up the other clothes. I often thought it would have just been faster to untangle the clothes rather than sew up the towel each time.

But, then, it wouldn’t have been “mom’s way!”

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Six months of living with my mother-in-law was a gift; the times she’d jokingly hit me for not obeying her rules, or when she’d barge into the bathroom pulling back the shower curtain to tell me my phone was ringing, or when she’d go off on a tangent about how so and so was cheating on so and so in her most recent Korean afternoon television drama. I didn’t always understand her, but I didn’t need to. I learned more in our six months together than I did in the Korean language classroom. Beyond her tough and stubborn exterior was a woman with a gentle heart and a sense of wonder for life.

The moments we shared together had a profound impact on me. I had deep admiration for the woman she was and the life she endured. Single-handedly raising her six children after the passing of her husband, she was fiercely independent. Surviving during the time of the Korean war meant she didn’t have an opportunity at a formal education. I quickly realized that she was only half entertaining my attempts to teach her to read and write in Korean—after all, she had survived 75 years of her life without knowing how to read and write in Korean, she didn’t need to suddenly learn now. I respected that.

The one pre-requisite for anyone deciding to live with their Korean mother-in-law would be to do so with an open heart and open mind. Of course, a sense of humour is certainly helpful. Sadly, this year I found out that my former mother-in-law passed away, so I’d like to dedicate this post to her: a woman I dearly love and deeply miss.

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