Posts Tagged ‘International marriage’

One day, my Canadian friend came home after a 14 hour work day to find his Korean Mother-in-law playing with his infant son’s penis. He blew up at his Mother-in-law. Neither his wife nor his live in Korean family members understood why he was so upset. To my friend, any kind of penile touching except using a wipe or wash cloth to clean the area when necessary was tantamount to sexual abuse. Had his MIL been doing this the whole time? Did his wife harbour some sexual trauma in her past that she had not divulged to him after being raised in such a family? Was his son safe at home? He was suddenly terrified. On the other hand, to his Korean family it was just a bit of light gochu nudging by a doting grandmother excited about the existence of her first grandson. Nobody thinks of squeezing a cheek or oooing over a tiny fingertip or admiring the mop of hair. Why should the baby’s penis be the only body part off limits…especially when it signified his all important boyness? Needless to say, the outburst that followed observing this practise didn’t help to bridge the culture gap.

We’ve all heard again and again that the key to a successful marriage is communication. Before you ever get married you are supposed to talk about goals and finances and expectations and roles and boundaries and all that good stuff. And these days many people have lived together before marriage or have spent enough time playing some semblance of house that they’ve seen the potential issues ahead of time and fight/work them out before the ceremony is completed and marriage papers signed. But parenthood is a very different thing. There’s very little that can prepare you for the changes a baby brings to your life, and as little ones change so fast, there’s a constant stream of issues to deal with that were not previously necessary to think about even a few weeks before. So yes, you should probably talk about how to discipline your kids or vaguely outline your parenting philosophies pre-baby, but in all honesty, you won’t really know how interacting with this tiny being is going to go until you personally experience it’s individual personality, quirks, and the reality of parenting.

But then throw in parents raised in different cultures and you have an added bit of fun. Before seeing your MIL poking your son’s penis, how would you know that you even needed to have a conversation about the appropriateness of said action? How do you begin communicating about a difference of opinion if you don’t even know such a practise exists before you are confronted with it? And when you are surprised so suddenly by something you feel you should abhor or should just be common sense to everyone else because it is common sense to you, how do you react reasonably and rationally to avoid a massive family dispute?

Between forums and friends, I’ve been able to learn about some cultural differences and deal with them before we’ve encountered them. Different beliefs in the essential coldness of babies or postpartum practises for mothers have been on my radar for some time, and while I’ve had problems with strangers or people on the periphery of my life when it comes to these issues, Mr. Lee and I have negotiated these differences pretty easily because we knew about them and discussed them before they became an issue. I also remember one girl I used to work with telling me that the final nail in the coffin to her American mother’s desire to raise her children in Korea with her Korean husband, came when my co worker’s teacher cut off her hair in class. Since then I’ve also heard about in laws feeling no qualms about shaving or cutting their grandchildrens’ hair without getting permission from the parents first. Within a Korean context, the teacher of the 1980s or the in laws of the present day have a position of power and authority that is somewhat different from a Western concept. And boundaries about the body and who gets to make decisions about the child’s body are a little bit different here. I was amused today when a friend I’ve known for years asked if it was okay to take a picture of my child. I’m so used to strangers feeling Dragon is public property that I forgot that some people and even some legal systems have different ideas about babies. 

But back to the head shaving, knowing this practise existed, I was able to formulate an opinion about infant head shaving and approach the issue rationally with Mr. Lee before anyone shaved him without my permission. And I had years to think about baby penis touching before I ever saw it done myself and had already come to a few conclusions about under what circumstances it might be tolerable. Pre emptive discussions about cultural differences and knowing about these differences has been key to negotiating cultural differences, but the problem is…you don’t always know.

Early in my years here, I had noticed toddlers running around the 24 hr Home Plus past midnight or had experienced friends keeping their kids out way past my idea of a child’s bedtime when we were out at restaurant-bar type places. I had also worked at a place where 12 year olds were studying until 10 pm and seen job ads for (illegal but still publicly posting) hagwans which ran until 1 or 2 am. And that’s not to mention the adult students who would commute 4 hours a day, starting out at 4 am, working all day, taking an English class til 10pm, arriving home at midnight, and getting up at 4 the next morning to start the daily grind. I did know that there were different concepts of sleep in Korea.

But I thought it was common sense that you don’t wake a sleeping baby. Take that baby out to the fried chicken joint at 11 pm and have her fall asleep in your arms. Have your child running around the meat aisle at all hours of the night if he’s awake. Keep your middle school student up studying til all hours of the night to get the test results needed to get into a good high school. But why in the world would you wake an already sleeping infant? And in my experience pre-100 days, the baby was considered by Koreans around us as a fragile being. And doesn’t something so fragile need something as important as sleep?

So anyway, Dragon doesn’t always do well in his car seat. But on this one day he did! And he fell asleep! And he stayed asleep between the car and the elevator and the building! And then the door opened and it was all this yelling – ‘Dragon! Dragon! Dragon!’ along with poking, prodding, blanket stealing, cheek pinching. The works. I tried to shush. I tried to ask for quiet for just.a.few.more.minutes. The baby was SLEEPING. Yes I KNOW you want to see him, and I’m GLAD you want to see him, and you WILL get to hold him when he wakes up. And I know you are older and the baby is younger, and the baby should learn nice Confucian values early…but does that need to extend to a sleeping baby? Apparently it does. Over and over again. And according to the experiences of many other Westerners I’ve talked to, they have had equally aggravating experiences between their concept of sleep and babies and Korean family/friends’ concept of sleep. It seems like such a small thing, but when you have a child with as many sleep issues as Dragon, you really really really value the peace that comes with the baby falling asleep by himself and staying asleep for longer than 5 minutes.

Anyway, I regretably reacted badly because it never occurred to me that not everyone shared my cultural assumption in the sacredness of a sleeping baby. And I regret that I didn’t keep my temper because in the grand scheme of things, it really was a very small thing done without bad intentions. But I wasn’t expecting it. And so I flipped out not so much in anger but in shock.

There are areas now that we realise are cultural chasms. Baby eating is one where my ideas are often shocking to Koreans – breast milk, formula, how much, how often, until when, solids, which solids, when, what order, water, barley tea…these are areas where we have some differences of opinion and differences in cultural expectations. So we now try to start those conversations with a ‘in your culture….what do you do about this?’ and only then, after learning about the other’s opinion do we give our individual or cultural view. It helps to hear the other person out first before you go asserting your ideas. But of course…we already know that food is going to be a flash point and proceed accordingly. I’m sure there are many more surprises in intercultural parenting to come along in the next few years….

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This weekend we had a very busy and a very hard parenting weekend. It was full of obligations and errands and obstacles. And yet, it was the weekend where we really clicked – not just as individual parents but as a parenting team. We were on the same parenting page without having to discuss how to get there. We both contributed equally in our own ways and passed baby between us as we went about all the chores we needed to do. And it was, overall, a seamless transition between roles and jobs and obligations. It seemed like we really found our stride and found it together.

Then we ended the night with a difficult but wonderful conversation about our failings as parents and our successes. And we talked about how we are, in his attempt to put it into words, trying to be a ‘Western family in Korea’ – or a family with a father who leans more toward his family and equal parenting than being married to his work. And how not only are we on this steep learning curve as new parents, but Mr. Lee simply has no model from which to see how to be the father and partner he wants to be. It’s not that they don’t exist at all – but they don’t exist in his salaryman circle. And so we are muddling through creating our own model. And we talked about how marriage and parenthood has blown the concept of what it is to love and how to love wide open, and how these experiences have taken us to places we didn’t know existed. These are good places.

And at the end of the night I said to myself, ‘Take a mental picture of this weekend. Of this night. Of this conversation. Because juggling all of our responsibilities is going to get harder in the next few months and when that happens, remember this moment and how you are both making progress as people and parents. And that you are doing it together in love.’

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[My continuing series of letters to Dragon]

Dear Dragon,

‘Hey you, kid!’ said the elderly man on the subway in a jovial way, ‘this is not your country.’ I smiled at him and politely told him that yes, this is your country. He became very confused and then there was light in his eyes. ‘Oh!’ he said. ‘He’s a half half!’

I’ve had the discussion about what to label our kids with many people. Some say ‘mixed race’, some say ‘biracial’, others ‘multicultural,’ and for those in certain parts of the States, it’s ‘happa.’ ‘Multicultural’ sits best with me, but then there’s the issue of if you are ‘half half,’ ‘Korean-Canadian,’ ‘Canadian-Korean’ or something else. Personally, I prefer to think of you as Korean AND Canadian. It’s not a 1/2 + 1/2 = whole equation for me. I don’t think that you are denied a whole half of each culture because only one parent is from each. I don’t think you are lacking in anything because your gene pool is more diversified or because we celebrate double the holidays or have two hometowns or use two languages. Instead, in this new math of the globalized world, I think whole + whole = whole. It’s just a new kind of whole.

Of course, we’re not living in an English speaking society, and thus we need to put semantics aside to a certain extent. Whether we use – or 1/2 or AND or create a new word, much of the soul searching about what it means to be you at this time in Korea or this time in the world is lost in a passing conversation on the subway. But it’s still something I think about for you because I want you to have the best of what your identity has to offer you.

In my vision for your future, you are comfortable in both identities equally. You interact with Koreans as a Korean and with Canadians as a Canadian (whatever that means in the future). And by the time you become fully cognitive of how to do this, being Korean AND something else will be a normative ‘Korean’ identity. Yeah, I know. Silly mummy and her dreaming.

But it is my sincere wish that you will never feel like ‘only half’ – you will never feel an emptiness in your identity – you will never feel you are lacking in wholeness because you are in one place at a time and not two. And if you cannot find a way to make whole + whole = whole, then I hope you feel comfortable in your in between place. I hope you don’t feel the need to reject one part of yourself or hide a part or feel ashamed of a part. I hope, that even when people point at your mother and make assumptions about you based on her, that you will not hate the attention my existence gives you here. And I hope you will not be ashamed of your mother’s accented Korean or your father’s accented English, and I sincerely hope that you will not face discrimination in either place for your dual roots. Yeah, I know. Silly mummy and her dreaming.

But at the very least, if you are taunted or discriminated against or constantly held up as an outsider, I hope you yourself are proud of your heritage, and I know it is our job to help you feel comfortable in both. There is comfort in fitting perfectly in a group, but there are few people who can go through life always, in every situation, being a perfect fit. And so you will just learn a little earlier how to negotiate an abundance, not a lack of identity, and this skill will serve you well in the world. It’s a skill most people need to learn even if they don’t have to worry about choosing what label to put on their liminality.

You are whole as a person Dragon, and that’s not a dream, that’s a fact.

Love Mummy

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Oegukeen over at Loving Korean asked me to do a joint post answering a reader’s question about speaking Korean and raising children. Click on over to read our responses.

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A while ago I created a new tag called ‘adventures in feminist parenting.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded good. I’ve been wondering if anyone was going to ask me what it meant. Thankfully none of you have.

Last week, Australian feminist mommy blogger blue milk reminded readers of her 10 questions about feminist parenting. It seemed like a good time to finally put in words what my tag might mean.

Above all else, this blog is about becoming. It started off about becoming a wife. Later, it morphed into what it means to become a naturalized Korean (maybe someday?), or a part of Korea, or a Korean family member, or a Seoulite if I will never be accepted or desire to be accepted as “Korean”. Lately it’s about becoming a mother. Despite having the legal paperwork to prove my marriage, the visa allowing me residence here, the family register with my name added to a Korean family, and a three month old kid, I don’t think I fully grasp what it means to be a wife, Korean, or mother….let alone being a good wife, good Korean, or good mother…or a feminist wife, feminist Korean, or feminist mother. I’m in the process of learning and becoming. I will always be in the process of learning and becoming.

My definition of feminism is at its very core an action. It is the work of helping people to become the best people they can be with the gifts and talents they have been given so that they are not constrained by boxes or hierarchies or artificially constructed limitations. And I suppose that I also have a core belief that the way to achieve this goal is ever changing – ever shifting. The reason is that patriarchal privilege, burden, and oppression are all intricately and artfully woven into every aspect of society. And even if we manage to define or pin down or explore one aspect of what we think is this privilege, burden, and oppression, it is challenged in the next minute by a new perspective provided by a different culture, practice, or concept. In my opinion, feminism is the opposite of rigidity, hierarchy, set expectations, and limitations. Feminism should be about flexibility, movement, fluidity, and the ability to become the person you have the ability to become instead of being constrained by roles and categories which are constructed not innate. You may have a different definition, but this is mine.

In practice, feminism is not always like this. Sometimes feminism and those who identify with it seek to make rigid boxes and theories and try to fit people into them. In this way, I think feminism is in the process of becoming feminist. Sometimes my feminism needs to become feminist.

And so when it comes to ‘adventures in feminist parenting,’ I think these posts are also about the never ending process of becoming. We are learning to parent. We are learning how our cultural limitations and each other’s cultural limitations have been ingrained in us. We are learning how to use our talents and strengths to parent and how to support each other’s talents and strengths. We are learning how to fail and re-group. We are learning from our child. We are in constant flux in an attempt to be fulfilled as parents and partners, and we are learning how to build a fulfilling family. We have not arrived fully formed as parents. We are just beginning the journey. And therein lies the adventure.

Update: See here for a portion of this post on blue milk

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Reader Rei Rei asked a question which I thought deserved a post-length response.

Hi Mrs. Lee! Quick question, I know that Mr. Lee is older than you (was it 6? 5 years?) and I’ve been reading and coming along to try to understand the importance of age and the Confucian hierarchy of Korea. I have read a comment from a woman regarding her friendship with a man, saying that he said if they were in Korea it would be difficult for them to be friends due to their age difference. What I’m curious about is, is it true that it’s harder to become friends (or more) with a person who’s is older than you? How would you go about pursing a romantic relationship in Korea with someone who is older than you?

Let’s tackle the question of the Korean definition of friendship first. In one of my first months in Korea, I came into a low level class on the first day of class and saw two university aged students interacting with each other in a rather familiar and boisterous way. I said to them, ‘Oh, you two already know each other? Are you friends?’ The one student quickly replied in horror, ‘Oh no! We’re not FRIENDS!’ I was rather confused and taken aback. Not only did the students appear to be interacting like friends, I was surprised to hear someone proclaim so readily in front of another that they were NOT friends. It seemed rather rude in English as ‘friend’ is sort of a catch-all phrase. Sure we sometimes use acquaintance, or co-worker, or classmate to describe our relationship with another person, but if someone were to ask us directly in front of another person if we were friends, we would probably reply in the affirmative because that word is broad enough to encompass a wide range of relationships in its general form.

Of course, later as I was learning Korean, I realized that ‘chingu,’ or the Korean word for friend has a very specific meaning in Korean – namely that two people are the same age and at the same level. All other relationships require different relationship titles – older brother, grandmother, aunt, father’s eldest brother (eldest paternal uncle) etc. And each combination of titles requires a specific relationship although for the most part, these relationships boil down to age and sometimes gender. In the ideal, the older person in the relationship is ‘responsible’ for the younger person. This might mean the older person helps the younger with their career in the workplace, or pays for their meal, or makes the decisions of where to hang out, or gives advice etc. In return, the younger person ‘defers to’ or ‘respects’ the older person (I put these in quotation marks because I think the concept of defer or respect is might be changing.)

I saw the ideal of this relationship close up once with another class which included a middle age homemaker and several younger university students and workers. The younger classmates looked to the homemaker for direction, but even in her position she showed a great deal of care and concern for the individual personalities and needs of the younger members, and they in turn looked up to her and seemed to thrive under her direction. If I had to characterize the group dynamics, I would say that they were a harmonious class. It was a great example of how even when there is a hierarchical relationship, there can be a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship for everyone.

Of course, the hierarchy can also produce very dysfunctional relationships if the eldest person is corrupt, means-spirited, power hungry, inappropriate etc. In such cases, the Confucian relationship can lead to abuse, bribery, and all other manner of social ills. Likewise, nowadays there also seems to be a gap between what younger people agree to or pretend to follow in the presence of the older person and what they do in reality. Therefore, like all kinds of relationship, the Confucian ‘friendship’ does not always work. On the other hand, there are times when people have such chemistry as friends that the age gap does not really matter for all intents and purposes. My closest Korean friend is younger than me, and while she sometimes jokes, ‘Ok, we’ll do X because you want to, and you are my older sister,’ we really have a very equal relationship based on give and take. We speak very freely with each other and age is never an issue in making decisions. My husband also has a few female friends from his movie club days in university who are more English ‘friends’ than Korean juniors in that they are very English friendly in terms of how they interact with him. So like all aspects of culture, there are some unique situations where personality, chemistry, or shared experiences alter the expected norms of society.

What this means in terms of how to be friends with Koreans is that Koreans are friends in the general English meaning of the word, but they are much less likely to be chingu. This means that Korean relationships are a little more complex than Canadian ones because you need to know your relation to the person you are interacting with, and each relationship will be different based on your age and status (something Koreans try to avoid for instance in companies, is promoting a younger person to a higher position as this can cause some resentment and confusion). A non Korean coming to Korea for the first time might have some difficulty at first understanding the different dynamics of what it means to be friendly with Koreans because of the hierarchy. However, close relationships are not difficult to develop in Korea once you understand how to situate yourself with others, and being an outsider, it sometimes makes things a little easier because you don’t exist in the hierarchy in the first place and thus have a bit more freedom and flexibility.

Now, how does this relate to romantic relationships? Well of course that Koreans have romantic relationships within the hierarchy or maybe despite the hierarchy, or maybe because of the hierarchy. The question for me though would be how to have an equal partnership in dating or marriage in light of the hierarchy. First, there’s still somewhat the ideal of an older male-younger female relationship just as in the mindset of more ‘traditional’ Westerners. This relationship plays well along age and gender lines. The older male is more established and takes care of the younger female who looks up to and takes direction from him. It’s really the ideal relationship in many cultures that happens to also fit beautifully within the Confucian hierarchy in Korea. In Korea, a woman dating an older man MIGHT mean that she waits for him to make the moves,  she follows his direction, and she accepts his unilateral decisions. It sounds unequal, and it may be unequal in some circumstances (anecdotally, it seems to be so for the older generation). However, it can also be balanced out by other factors like wanting to please or impress your partner: for instance, while the older male might be planning and deciding the dates, he has to also think about what his partner really wants and how to impress her. In other words, just like my ‘harmonious’ class, if both partners are considerate of each other, a relationship following the ideal Confucian hierarchy could be quite balanced.

It also seems that every so often there is an article about how women are looking for younger partners, and in an online group I’m in, we had a discussion about the age, and it seemed that a number of women had married men who were the same age or younger than themselves. Therefore, I think in some cases marrying a younger man is a way to balance out the hierarchy and the patriarchy because the man has power based on his gender, but the woman has power based on her age. The other interesting thing is that several women were their husband’s teacher before they started dating. This was my case. My husband is seven years older than me (eight really because of our birthdays), but we met when he was my student. For months while we were obviously dating but saying that we were just hanging out together, he introduced me as his ‘English teacher,’ and I was his ‘English teacher friend’ (English word ‘friend’) to his parents before he told them about our relationship. Now, my husband doesn’t get too excited about age, status, and such outside of his work life, so mostly the dynamics of our relationship are based on his willingness to share decision making and power as well as my assertions that we have a balanced relationship. However, I’ve often wondered if those many months of at least identifying me to others as ‘his teacher’ didn’t also lay a foundation for power dynamics in our relationship. Because of course, Confucianism isn’t just about age and gender but also status, and the teacher is above the student and commands respect.

What this all boils down to is this. Koreans are ‘friends’ with each other and non Koreans, but often ‘friendship’ is a bit more complex and requires individuals to know their place and expectations in relation to others. And romantic relationships are just as easy or hard (depending on your feelings about love!) as in other countries. And most importantly, while the hierarchy exists and has very real implications for interactions with others, the hierarchy is complicated and nuanced and can even be subverted in a way to balance out the power dynamics between individuals. Specifically with regard to Western women married to Korean men, it seems that the happiest couples have subverted the ideal hierarchy in some way which both makes the men, who have been raised with the hierarchy in mind, more open to a little bit different kind of relationship.

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Last week on Feminist Mormon Housewives’ Ask Mormon Girl column, there was a question that really resonated with me. A reader asked how she could get her convert fiancé, who had never celebrated Christmas – let alone her family’s all embracing Christmas celebrations – to integrate into a family that does “matching pajamas and rhyming, multi-stage treasure hunts and nativity re-enactments and Danish aebleskivers from my great-grandmother’s recipe and grandkids bolting to bed after sighting Rudolph’s nose in the sky and a laundry list of other traditions.” At the same time, from a discussion on a wives forum I am on, I realized that I am not the only Western wife who has radically different ideas about holidays and celebrations than her Korean husband.

I’ve seen big changes over the last seven Chirstmases in Seoul. However, Christmas is above all a dating holiday when couples go to special Christmas concerts, eat ‘Western’ food, and/or go to heavily packed areas like Myeongdong en masse with other dating couples. When I first got here, it was very difficult and highly unusual to find home decorations – because nobody decorated. And if they did, it was just a small tree not the every room + massive outdoor light displays that happen back in Canada. Above all, Christmas is a public friend/couple holiday lasting about two days with a longer Starbucks/Baskin Robbins/Dunkin Donut build up in Korea. Holiday concerts seem to be increasing at nursery schools and Kindergartens if my friends-with-kids’ Facebook status updates are to be believed, but only in the same way that hogwan competition seems to be driving the Halloween party fad among the 2-6 age group. But Christmas is pretty much an outside holiday. It’s something you participate in with the one you love or the kids at school, but it has very little family meaning. And until I came along, my in-laws had never imagined they would do anything remotely Christmas-related at home.

And speaking of family, of course, as you grow older and start your own family, you realize that what you think of as ‘traditions’ are often your own family traditions and not necessarily the traditions of the wider community around you. The Msleetobe family has a lot of traditions. There are certain movies that have to be watched – The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, White Christmas, the 1960’s Rudolph claymation, and now Elf for example (although if you can throw in a few more, that would be best). The times these movies will be shown are carefully noted and schedules may be rearranged in order that everyone can be in their pjs in the family room, each with a bowl of popcorn, so the watching (and singing) can begin on time. When my father was alive, there were always surprise nightly detours on the way home to neighbourhoods never before known so that we could see the outdoor lights of people we had never met as well as trips to well known Christmas display hot spots. There were Christmas baking extravaganzas and cookie exchanges when I was younger, the Christmas concerts my friend L and I used to put on for our families during our elementary school days, and those many many trips to the mall (or malls) to see Santa. There was the White Gift Service, the church Christmas concert, the Toys for Tots and Canadian Tire money drives at school, special breakfast on Christmas morning, Christmas Eve candlelight service, Avon products in our stockings and yearly tool contribution to our individual tool boxes (cause Dad believed in girls using and owning tools yo), and of course, the yearly Christmas gathering traditions with family, friends, neighbours, and social groups. Christmas was a big freaking deal for me growing up – and very little of that big freaking deal had to do with commercialization and presents. Most of it – at least the things that stick out years later – were the memories, the family traditions, and the magical atmosphere. I fully recognize that not everyone in Canada has these experiences or had them growing up, but I do believe that Christmas was and is a magical time for many people far apart from the commercialization.

But why talk about this here? Because my husband did not grow up in this cultural or family environment. And it’s not just Christmas. It’s pretty much all holidays. His family has a low key Chuseok/Seollal which I think is pretty commonplace in Seoul these days. We celebrate his parents’ birthdays. We take some flowers (the standard ones everyone is supposed to take) on Parents’ Day and eat together, and usually we get together with the in-laws for Mr. Lee’s birthday – but not with any of his other siblings. Each occasion is pretty standard – eat a meal or go out to a galbi restaurant, give money or a standard Korean gift set easily purchased out of the gift section of any department store, and … that’s pretty much it. Now, I recognize that this is partly Mr. Lee’s family dynamics and that other families might be more or less traditional, more or less festive, and be more or less creative.. And I also recognize that my family – which has always celebrated major and minor holidays with a flair (I still get St. Patrick’s Day and Ground Hog Day cards from my mum not to mention Valentine’s Day candy and chocolate) is not necessarily the norm, but there does seem to be a cultural difference in addition to a family/individual difference between how people celebrate special events in Korea and Canada.

I had never really thought about this difference until women in my online group started comparing how our Korean husbands understand and celebrate personal milestones and public holidays. A common thread was that most husbands (living in Korea … some living abroad after living in Korea for most of their lives) did not feel the need to mark anniversaries. Birthdays were sort of celebrated…sometimes. But the biggest complaint was Christmas – including the fact that many raised-in-Korea-men did not feel that family Christmas celebrations were attendance-mandatory when living or visiting abroad – or that even spending time as a family was necessary. To your average Western wife…I would say that’s a major gulf.

In some ways I wonder if part of the problem is that because Christmas is kind of celebrated in Korea. I wrote about this earlier in the year in a post about critical thinking. My students were asked to read an article about Canadian Christmas traditions and then brainstorm the differences with Korean Christmas traditions. However, despite their excellent reading comprehension and very detailed information meant to get students thinking about the differences, many students failed to notice any of the differences. They said ‘we have a Santa and A reindeer and we have Christmas trees…in department stores’ without noticing that the article talked about an in-depth Santa myth that is not present in Korea or a multitude of differences in who the time was celebrated with, and where, and what people ate etc. The idea (widespread across all of my classes) was that Koreans had Christmas, and Canadians had Christmas….so they must be the same right? Of course, anyone who has spent a family Christmas in Canada and a date night on the town in central Seoul knows that what constitutes Christmas in each country is very different not necessarily in symbols but rather in meaning, tradition, and atmosphere.

Of course, when you are a single expat in need of others to hang out with during the holiday or a person involved in the dating scene, this distinction doesn’t matter as much. However, when you get married and start wanting to continue your past traditions or start new ones – or especially when you have children and suddenly realize that the traditions you never gave much thought to are important, there can be a disconnect if your partner considers Christmas to be a night to drink with friends or something only young 20-somethings do.

I feel happy in that I started pushing for a more home-centred Christmas long before we got married so that by the time we got to this stage in our lives, there was less controversy. Christmas Eve is a night for church. The end. Christmas Day is a day to spend with family (blood, marriage, or urban). These have long been my two demands and slowly Mr. Lee has started to see how these two days of Christmas celebrations can be helpful in building traditions. Of course, I have to give something too. Mr. Lee just does not understand the Christmas movie thing (and neither it seems does Korean tv which ran ‘Christmas specials’ such as Cars, Bridget Jones Diary: The Edge of Reason, Toy Story etc as their ‘festive movies’). I think I will always watch Elf and sing to The Muppet’s Christmas Carol while he watches Swedish rock videos in his home office. He is also never going to be okay with me blasting Christmas carols in the house from the end of November – but I can listen on my ipod on the way to work. And he is never going to fill a stocking for me…and after years of trying to do stockings for him, I’ve realized that the stocking tradition really does not work unless it’s reciprocal.

At the same time, there are traditions I cannot give up, and I especially want my son to grow up with. I did a big 10.5 hr Christmas cookie extravaganza this year and shared the dozens of cookies with my neighbours and coworkers. I’ve started insisting that we see his parents during Christmas and bring them a gift. They of course are totally thrilled to be getting a gift, and although we’re eating pat juk or bibimbap and not a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner, I think it’s a good tradition for both me and the family. In addition, we’ve had two years now of Skyping present opening with my mum and sis – not the same as the real thing, but for those times when we are not together during the holidays, I’m happy to embrace technology so that we can hang out together during Christmas. And certainly when Dragon is old enough to form his own memories of Christmas, we will stop doing Christmas dinner at a hotel and start making a meal at home, wrapping presents properly, and putting them under a tree (I would have a big tree now, but the cats would climb it…I’m hoping that my Olympiad cat will have lost some of his prowess by the time Dragon can remember a tree so that we can have a proper one), And last but not least, of course we will always have Korean Christmas cake which thank God is so far superior in taste and style than what most native English speakers think about when they hear ‘Christmas cake).

When we were a bit earlier on in our relationship, I used to really struggle with how non-tradition oriented Mr. Lee was during major events and holidays. Did he not care about me? Did he not care about memories? At that point I tried to start making a point out of celebrating more. If he didn’t want to go out for his birthday with his friends – because none of his friends ever did friend things for their birthdays – that was fine. But I was going to do something to make his birthday special. And now several years later, I do think he looks forward to having a ‘Mr. Lee Day’ even though he did not grow up with that kind of experience. And now, slowly over the years, I think I’ve been able to show him another way of celebrating, and where we are now is somewhere sort of in the middle where I realize that I can’t have everything my way and he recognizes that he married someone from a different family and culture who is going to celebrate a little (lot) differently. I’ve also come to realize that what I thought of as ‘traditions’ did at one time have an origin in our family, and that they only became tradition between my parents, or our church, or school, or my dance teacher, or someone decided to make them a tradition. And thus, if I want my child to grow up with Christmas traditions, then it is really my responsibility – not the culture I am in – or the family I married into – or the people who surround me – but my responsibility to make these memories for this child.

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