Posts Tagged ‘International marriage’

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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Two quick questions:

1. If you saw a white woman and a Korean man buying a couch, kitchen table and chairs, and a home entertainment centre, would you think they were ‘business partners’ or a married couple?

2. If an eight and a half month pregnant white woman were helping a Korean man pick out a style for his tailor-made suit, would you imagine they were friends or a married couple?

Because we always seem to have to clarify for people: ‘we are married.’ And then those people seem all shocked and say ‘oh, I had no idea!!!’ I suppose the ‘business partners’ comment might have been a euphemism for living together…but then again, would a Korean furniture store owner usually jump to that assumption about a Korean-Korean couple searching for furniture…especially when they were dropping a lot of money on enough new furniture to fill an apartment and not just buying a lamp or something. (And this in a country where most people don’t want to publically acknowledge cohabiation and where people of a certain age … Mr. Lee is definitely that age!…are just assumed to be married).

Even in very multicultural parts of Canada, we have to tell customs officials ‘we are married, can we please go through the same line together?’ as they are waving us into different lines. And on our honeymoon, the hotel concierge, an Asian-Canadian, asked my husband who was standing directly beside me, to wait to be served as he answered the question I posed to him…and then was confounded when I said we were married.

But then there was a time when I ran into my white male friend and his daughter at Starbucks, and a group of newly hired salaryworkers misidentified us as a family despite our protestations (they needed a picture of themselves with foreigners as part of their first day hazing – which is just ‘lovely’ in another way).

Mr. Lee thinks we’ll be seen as married once Dragon comes because he’ll ‘obviously’ be biracial. He might be…but he might have my ghostly pale skin and blonde-when-not-dyed-black-hair (a lot of white-Korean kids I know have very light hair). Or he might have single eyelids, yellow toned skin, and prominent North Korean cheekbones like his dad. Or, what seems more likely based on the experiences of other biracial parents, white people will think he looks very Korean, and Korean people will imagine him to be more white. So I wonder if while wearing our baby and walking through a department store with my husband, people will assume a Korean man is ‘helping’ a foreign mother pick out bed linen just for fun.

Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe I’m just being pissy. Maybe we are just a strange couple to others although friends tell me we look ‘very alike’…in the way that couples tend to sort of take on each other’s characteristics after being together for a long time. But I do think that ‘unlikely couples’ – defined as ‘unlikely’ by whatever context they are living in – are first seen as anything but couples because it is hard for others to imagine that such a pair could exist.

What are the experiences of other ‘unlikely couples?’

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While creating a resource document for an online wives group today, I stumbled upon ‘A Guidebook for Marriage Migrants’ put out by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Pyeongtaek University. Even though it is obviously meant as a resource for marriage migrants from non Western countries, I wish someone would have given it to me earlier because it does have a lot of good information with regard to the process to obtain an F5, programs and services available for multicultural families, and contact information for resource centres.

What was interesting, however, was the section on postpartum care. There is a list of orders for postpartum women.

Do not get exposed to cold wind

Do not touch cold water

Do not carry heavy loads

Do not stand for long periods of time

Do not do laundry by hand

Do not watch TV or read the newspaper for long periods of time

Of course, women are also told, “A light shower is possible after leaving the hospital but it is recommended that you wait 4 to 6 weeks after delivery before taking baths.” To be perfectly honest, I was shocked to see that a light shower is even possible. Women in Korea are generally told not to bathe or shower for at least a month after giving birth. My friend’s baby was born on September 1st in the middle of a heat wave, and after getting the okay from her doctor, she took a shower to the horror of the nurses who were convinced she was going to get hypothermia. My coworker told me today that when his Korean wife had a shower after birth, her mother told her that she was going to kill the baby. The baby was of course not in the shower with her.

The funny thing is, just today there was an article in the Korea Times about childbirth classes for migrant women, and the article included the quote, “Even Korean women have trouble with their mothers-in-law when a baby is born as the latter has old-fashioned childcare methods.” It seems that the manual above was written by a whole lot of old fashioned Korean Mother-in-laws!

In addition to these admonishments, women are also supposed to crank up the floor heating, bundle up while sitting on the floor heating (regardless of the weather or season), eat vats of seaweed soup, not eat apples (my husband’s specific direction to me), and above all, not go out if there is even a hint of chill – or better yet – not leave the house for the first 100 days after birth except for doctors visits. Some people I know have not had to abide by these cultural rules, but others (even non Koreans married to non Koreans with no Korean family members in Korea) have had a very difficult time trying to avoid the wrath of nurses, relatives, and perfect strangers for daring to wash, eat other types of nutritious food, or go grocery shopping in April with a healthy newborn.

When I was a student, I would have obsessed over learning about these kinds of traditions and understanding the cultural logic that informed them. I would have reveled in the differences. I was an outsider to everything I studied and tried to keep an open mind and focus my attention on understanding the underlying point of view and cultural assumptions. However, despite the fact that most Koreans would look and me and say that I am not a part of Korean culture, I do become a part of the culture when traditions are being done to my body and directly influencing my life. Of course, I am still interested in the cultural logic. Seaweed soup is full of nutrients. Extreme physical exertion like lifting heavy boxes should be avoided to help in the healing process. Others should share the burden of taking care of baby and house. And in the past, the range of food possibilities was limited, water was not always clean, medicine and health care was not available to all, and life was harder. So yes, there are logical reasons for some of these traditions, and there are reasons from the past which continue to inform the present even if the reality is very different in modern Korea.

But…..there is a vast difference between being a student looking in and being an insider being bombarded by traditions that are not logically logical or culturally appropriate. If Korean women want to follow these traditions because they experience comfort, health, or healing by following what their mothers and grandmothers and ancestors did, then that is wonderful if there are no adverse health effects from engaging in these traditions. However, the flip side is that a woman who did not grow up in this society, or even a Korean woman who does not think these traditions are necessary in the present day, can have her comfort, health, and healing hindered when she is pressured to do things that seem unnecessary, uncomfortable, or restrictive. In such cases, cultural traditions can do much more harm than good.

Personally, I will be avoiding most if not all of these postpartum traditions. I’m Canadian. We go out. We go out when it is cold – although most of the time we don’t think it is cold. Plus, I like showers. And I like lots of other food rich in iron and folic acid. And…I have super strong teeth that have yet to ever have a cavity or a chip. (I also don’t understand this no apple because you bite down hard while pushing rule when something like 40% of Korean women have a cesarean…). But above all, I do not believe that pregnancy is an illness. The other day I had a male student ask me incredulously why I hadn’t already quit my job. No morning sickness? No edema? No diabetes? No medical problems yet detected with me or baby? Not good enough reasons I guess. I should have quit my job at the first pregnancy test you see. I’m weak. The baby is weak. I shouldn’t be on my feet at all or exercise. I should sit at home and protect the baby and get my husband to do everything for me. Despite the fact that in terms of colds, the flu, and sickness of every sort, I’m healthier now than before getting pregnant. Now, if I were to experience medical problems. If the baby was at risk. If I were a high risk mom-to-be, I would definitely take the necessary precautions. And of course, if I have a difficult birth, if the baby experiences problems after birth, or if I have a period of baby blues or postpartum depression, I will follow reasonable medical direction and adjust my life accordingly. But pregnancy is not an illness – it may induce certain medical problems, but the process itself need not be treated as a traumatic event for all, and most importantly, pregnant women do not need to be treated like porcelain dolls. In fact, by not exercising, by not doing anything, by not engaging in personal hygiene, you can cause more problems with pregnancy, birth, and healing.

Thankfully, despite his own cultural conditioning, my husband is flexible enough to realize that one person’s tradition is not another’s. And he is also savvy enough to know that a wrathful wife is a far more terrifying prospect than an angry mother or pushy older people with opinions to share. And I certainly also have a wide community of women both in person and online to consult, complain to, and share experiences and advice with. So I’m not too worried about well meaning but culturally insensitive people pushing practices on my body and my mind. But, I do know that I will have to gird myself for the never ending stream of opinions – especially from strangers on the street – that I am sure to encounter if I dare to venture out with my baby in a snow suit before our three month lay in is up.

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It’s that time of year again – the time of year where Mr. Lee spends hours and days and whole weekends and really, an entire month locked away in his work or home office putting together a mammoth business plan for the new year which will be promptly scrapped and rewritten come January when a new boss comes in and wants to place his own mark on the team.

Mr. Lee has to put something in English in the plan – usually a bunch of catchy marketing phrases or concepts. Now, Confucius only knows why this is a requirement…Mr. Lee is of course the only one in his team or even department who can actually speak English. But goodness – it’s gotta be there for sophistication purposes.

And like every year, the native English speaking wife gets roped into the making and perfecting of this part of the business plan – which starts out fun in a ‘ooo I get to be creative and use my mother tongue abilities to help my husband at work’ sort of way, but quickly turns into sighs.

You see – this is the only part of his life where my husband turns into ‘that ajosshi.’  You know the one right? The one who commissioned his native English speaking underlings to come up with exciting new KTO come to Korea slogans – then smiled and nodded when they gave their presentations – and once they left the room stroked out their versions and wrote ‘Korea Sparkling,’ ‘Korea Be Inspired’ and ‘Visit Korea Year 2010-2012’. Or ‘that ajosshi’ that brought you the café Sand and Food or……

I know it might not have been an ajosshi – it might have been a truly powerful ajumma…but the point is, there is ‘that person’ in the hierarchy who desperately wants to use English to look super snazzy and chic and also wants to show how globalized or urbane X company / restaurant / conglomerate is by using ‘English’…but also steadfastly holds onto Konglish as the ‘true English.’ And ‘that person’…at least for the last several weeks has been my husband.

Our recent conversations have gone something like this:

Msleetobe: This sentence is …. interesting ….but there is no verb in it.

Mr. Lee: ‘Feedback’ is the verb.

Msleetobe: No – ‘feedback’ in this case is a noun. You can give feedback or provide feedback or receive feedback, but the customer can’t feedback you.

Mr. Lee: But we use feedback as a verb. And Koreans love this word. We HAVE to use it in this business plan.

Msleetobe: ‘Feedback’ is a noun. If you want to use it, just add a verb and you’ll be fine.

Mr. Lee: Okay, what is the verb form of ‘feedback?’

Msleetobe: In this case there is no verb form. You’ll have to add a verb.

Mr. Lee: But that will be too long. Why can’t I just use ‘feedback’ as a verb?

Msleetobe: Because it is a noun. Why don’t you use another word as a verb in place of ‘feedback?’

Mr. Lee: But I have to use ‘feedback.’ Really…l can’t use it as a verb here? Maybe I’ll just use it.

Msleetobe: Look…You have two choices – if you want correct English you have to change it. If you want Konglish, then do whatever you want – but if that’s the case, why am I here?

(Both of us sulk)

And like ‘feedback’ there are always other words in the mix that ‘HAVE’ to be used because they are ‘in’ words in the world of Konglish, and you just aren’t cool if you’re not using them.

Another example:

Mr. Lee: What’s the word for a program or way to solve some specific problem with an existing program?

Msleetobe: If you are talking about technology, people often say ‘fix.’

Mr. Lee: Oh good, so I can call this part ‘ABC Shooting Fix.’

Msleetobe: Just ‘ABC Fix’.

Mr. Lee: Not ‘Shooting Fix’? Like troubleshooting and fix and…’Shooting Fix!!!’

Msleetobe: Nope – just ABC Fix is good.   

Mr. Lee: But we like ‘shooting.’ It makes sense. And we HAVE to use ‘shooting.’

Msleetobe: It sounds like you are shooting…killing the fix you have created.

Mr. Lee: But…’Shooting Fix!’…so cool! Fun!

Msleetobe: Once again…do whatever you want. But…why am I here?

(As I am typing, Mr. Lee just walked in the door from work and one of the first things out of his mouth was ‘My team boss really loved shooting fix! He said it was very easy to understand! But that other section we discussed…the one with the word ‘spearhead?’…my team boss doesn’t understand that. He thinks ‘spear’ sounds too much like ‘appear.’)

Like I say over and over again in these conversations, I really could care less what he chooses to go with. It’s for a team where the Konglish ability is high and the English ability is low. Plus, the business plan will be scrapped in a few months time anyway, and no customer will actually see the business plan although they will experience some differences when/if any part of the plan is actually implemented. But it just continually amazes me why – other than the fact that I am the native English speaking wife – I need to be consulted at all when everything I say will be disregarded in favour of those with a PhD in Konglish. However, it does give me great insight into the inner workings of the ajosshi mind…although I’m not sure why I want to know the inner workings of that mind.

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July 31, 2011

Dear Dragon

I was part of an online discussion today based on a talk about identity, self, and embracing one’s otherness which developed after watching Thandie Newton’s TED talk. The discussion was mostly about how to give our kids a solid foundation in both their Korean and white-Western identities. As for me, this is an expanded version of what I had to say.

The issue for me is balance. How do I give my child balance? I want my kid to be safe and secure in his or her Canadian, Korean, and Canadian-Korean identities. Being part of a group has such benefits and blessings. When you are part of a group, you have a sense of belonging, a set of boundaries which is easier to exist in than boundless and infite possibilities. It is easier to see yourself in others, and it is comforting to know that you share a part of who you
are with others. I want to give you that gift.

But at the same time, I never want your identification with your cultural and ethnic heritage to prevent you from seeing yourself as part of the human family, or on a smaller level, to prevent you from seeing other parts of yourself in groups which are supposedly ‘different’ from yourself. I have known so many 1.5 and 2nd generation kids who have grown up hearing their parents say ‘You aren’t Canadian/American, you are __________. Don’t forget it! Don’t forget who you really are!’ They grew up with their Canadian or American peers. They went to school together, they played together, they watched most of the same tv shows together. They share a part of themselves with their peers, but in the back of their heads they hear their’s parents’ voices ‘Don’t forget it!.’ And then those same kids go to the ‘Motherland’ and are told they aren’t ____ enough because they grew up in another culture. There’s a profound disconnect that happens when there are so many different voices telling you what you are…or maybe what you are not.

So what do I, as a mother, do? Over the years I have incorporated many different idenities into myself. And maybe even more importantly, I have no qualms about entering a new room, sitting down as an outsider, and throwing myself into a new world whether I eventually begin to identify with that world or not down the road. I don’t know how I developed that ability, but I did. The problem is how to teach you how to do the same.  How do I teach you to negotiate many identities with grace?

I want you to be able to say. I am Canadian. I am Korean. I am Canadian-Korean-Korean-Canadian. I want you to belong and be accepted. But in nurturing communities for you, I don’t want to prevent you from seeing yourself as part of the great human story and even the wider world of the universe. I don’t want your community bonds to prevent you from embracing additional identities and communities as they are presented to you. After all, your mother went to another country, fell in love with a ‘different person,’ and added an additional identity onto her sense of self, so what is to prevent you from doing the same?

I want you to be able to embrace such possibilities.
But how?
Love Mum

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Well readers, Mr. Lee and I are at the airport in the Naver cafe, and we’ll be on our way to Bali in a little over an hour. Before we left Korean soil, I decided to post one more post, specificallyone of my Dear Dragon letters from June.  See you in a week!

June 26, 2011

Dear Dragon

The year was 1999. I was a 19 year old preparing for the turn of the millennium, the strike of the clock that was going to bring the return of Jesus, a world meltdown based on computer malfunctions, or a whole new era depending on who was directing the conversation.   At the same time, there were a few news segments discussing excitement in East Asian communities because 2000 was not only a new millennium according to the Gregorian calendar, but also the auspicious Year of the Dragon in the Chinese lunar calendar.  Chinese people, these news clips said, wanted to have a child in the year of the dragon because it is such a powerful year.  I watched these segments as an outsider. I didn’t feel the people in the clips were silly. And I didn’t mock the beliefs that the year you are born determines your future or your personality. I was simply a 19 year old who was not in the least contemplating motherhood who was bemused but mostly detached from these cultural customs and beliefs that I had nothing to do with. I knew I was born in the Year of the Monkey – it said so on the paper place mat at the Chinese restaurant where we went to eat sweet and sour chicken balls, and I think I even did a sixth grade speech on how the people born in our year are ‘active, clever, and curious,’ but these were just words not an identity or something I connected myself to. Women planning to have a child in a specific year to emulate specific characteristics was not something I could have ever conceived for myself.  I never in a million years would have dreamed that in preparation for the next Year of the Dragon, that I would be an Asian mother (mother in Asia?) planning and hoping for a dragon baby because having a baby born in this year would mean something to me.

I have all sorts of hopes and dreams for you Dragon, but who knows who you will grow up to be and the people you will meet and the places you will go. I thought I knew myself and where I would end up when I was 19, but  life surprised me by bringing me to Korea and giving me a Korean life. And this life is not over for me yet. I hope there are more pleasant surprises, positive life lessons, and thrilling life detours to come. In 2024, who knows where we might be living, what we might be doing, and who our little dragon will be? I hope you will be open to all that life has to offer. I hope you will be presented with alternative yet joyous routes.  And I hope you will be happy that your mother took her own detour in order to bring you into existence.

Love Mum

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We’re preparing to go on our babymoon to Bali tomorrow, so Mr. Lee decided to get up at 6 am to put a load of whites in the laundry so that they would be dry later in the day. He came back to bed, and when he went back to check on the laundry at 8:30 am, he realized that he had left a cigarette in the pocket of one of his dress shirts. The colour of the clothes is okay, but now all of our stuff has tiny pieces of tobacco attached to it. Now his is going around the house singing ‘My underwear smoked! Your underwear smoked! The washing machine smoked!’

Just a typical day in the Msleetobe-Lee household.

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