Saturday, July 7, 2012

Death Anniversaries in Korea - 기제

This month I had the pleasure (or the misfortune) of experiencing a traditional death anniversary with my wife's family here in Korea.  Basically what happens is this: every year on the death of a close family member the family comes together to remember them and make offerings to their spirit in the form of lots of food and drink.

Usually, the women do all the preparing of food, set it up, and clean everything up at the end while the men just sit around eating the food and drinking alcohol around one table.  On another table, food and drink is presented artistically around a picture of the dead family member, or if there is no picture a possession of theirs or a note.  Once everything is in place, relatives of the deceased then take turns in bowing three times at regular intervals to the table, alcohol is poured into a bowl and spoons are placed inside bowls of rice and other dishes so that the spirit can eat if they choose to.

These are the sorts of occasions that some might say I am privileged to be a part of as I receive a true window into Korean culture, and most visitors to Korea would be excited by the thought of sitting in on all this 'culture'.  It is great that I am seen as part of the family and expected to be at these occasions, but I have to say I do not really share the enthusiasm of many for such things and, in fact, it is these occasions that I really dread with my Korean family.

I feel (and must sound) very selfish when I write and say such things and after all I actually do nothing at these gatherings except sit and eat lots of delicious food and do the occasional bit of bowing.  These are also important days for my Korean family so I should just stop complaining and get on with it, right?  Well, here is my problem; there do seem to be a lot of important family days in Korea, with Korean New Year (설날) and Korean Thanksgiving (추석) each lasting three days each and most bank holidays demanding that families spend time together.  On top of this there are the funeral days, wedding anniversaries, and birthdays.  

My problem with it all is the demand, indeed, the command to be present and be present until the oldest in the family think it is alright for you to leave.  This is where my culture's important value of freedom and Korean culture's value of duty clash head on.  Even though I am essentially not doing anything but consuming food that has been made for me while everyone around me is being almost overly kind and courteous to me, I am anything but comfortable.  The care everyone else is showing to me is actually making me doubly uncomfortable with each comment about how I'm feeling, if I am comfortable, if I'd like to stretch my legs, if I would like to eat anymore, if I want water, do I want a lie down, etc.  I feel like they are poking me with a stick, cajoling me into an ever smaller cage as they are asking these questions with an air of advice giving, in effect saying that I should do this and I should eat or drink that.

I want the freedom to choose; a) whether to go in the first place, b) how long I will be staying, c) to be able to make myself comfortable with out being told what position I should sit in or where I should sit, d) to decide what to eat without being told that I should eat this because it is 'good for a man' or whatever other quality the food has or its importance or history in Korea, e) to be able to get my own glass of water, and f) to generally have some control over the situation I find myself in.  The reality is that when it comes to 'f)' I have absolutely no control whatsoever, despite all the pleasantries all I am is a lowly private being ordered to peel potatoes by his superior.  Why?  Because he said so, and I don't have any choice in the matter unless I want to get in big trouble.

It is the benign nature of the situation that makes the time pass even more slowly and also makes me at the same time feel ungrateful for the care and concern that everyone is showing.  They are, almost literally, killing me with kindness, or at least killing my spirit anyway.  Added to this is the inability to relax at any time as I am constantly harassed about how I am feeling or ordered to bow or something else.  It really is the strangest feeling to have to be completely compliant to a group of people while at the same time have them being relentlessly caring about you.  I can assure everyone that in my case, it is not the wonderful experience of genuine culture that it might look like from the outside.  Genuine culture it certainly is, wonderful is certainly is not.

As I mentioned above, it is the killing of the spirit, the feeling that my mind, my freedom, and resistance are being broken that most troubles me about such meetings with my Korean family.  My brother in-law's spirit does seem almost completely broken when he is with his family, which is pretty much the only time I ever see him.  He does not appear to enjoy the company of his family, but he is always there for them.  It is an admirable but ultimately sad feeling I have for him as he is so duty-bound to his parents at all times.  I am gradually learning that what is valued by much of the older generation in Korea generally, is compliance and doing what you are told and/or expected seems never more important when you are with family.

For a good example of this, I shall retell what happened in my second death anniversary gathering just a few weeks ago.  My wife, who is a surgery room nurse, was on emergency surgery all week and she had to stay late at the hospital on the same day as the anniversary of her grandfather's death. This was good news for me as come nearly 9 o'clock she was still working and it looked like I would not have to go.  But, despite my wife having worked for over 12 hours solid that day without a lunchtime they still wanted her to take the 30 minute drive to her uncle's house and stay there for a couple of hours to do the usual things they do.  I was tired too and a little annoyed to be going out at 9pm on a weekday when I usually go to bed at 10pm anyway.  

I was not happy and to cap things off as well as placing food and drink for an offering to her grandfather her family also lit a cigarette for him and place it at the table.  Having a severe hatred for the smell of smoke and already tired and a bit irked at being ordered out at this time, I decided to move to another room and just sleep on the floor.  Being very unsocial I layed there for about two hours not talking to anyone.  I thought I had been quite rude, but when it was time for me to leave they could not have been more thankful to me for just showing up.  I was being part of the family and doing what they had told me to do and they were happy with that all they expected of me was to be there.

This compulsory element to family life leaves me a bit cold and blurs the line of what is genuine kindness and love and what is merely duty.  I have no doubt that there is genuine love and kindness present in my Korean family but what I find difficult to see is exactly when it is showing.  Why are they looking out for me, is it out of genuine worry and love or out of duty?  This leaves me terribly confused sometimes and maybe I regularly mistake kindness for lecturing and family duties and vice-versa. 

The really frustrating element to it all is that I cannot be honest with my parents in law.  Because of this they will never truly understand me and my culture and who I really am.  I think they love and accept me as part of their family and I think I understand them.  However, the truth of the matter is that, in all honesty, I do not love them and they absolutely do not and will not ever understand me as a person.  To love them as family I require them to listen to my honest opinions about matters and respect my freedom and this, quite simply, is not going to happen. 

Due to the respect culture of Korea and the Far East in general a have the strong feeling that parents would prefer to be lied to by their children and be denial about problems or issues but still have the outward show of compliance, respect, and obedience from them.  This is certainly the relationship I see between my brother in-law and his parents and he and I are a mirror of each other when family meets up.  We are both fairly quiet, after all we really have nothing to say, we are just compliant.  This also does nothing to help my Korean speaking.  The problem is I have nothing to say to my in-laws; I have never been one for small talk and like to get quite deep in conversation and this I cannot do.

Sadly, the way I see my Korean family is like a benign dictatorship.  When they want to see me, I have to go, when there are special days I have to be there and for a length of time that they decide, and they are the ones whose advice I should be following.  I can get out of these obligations but I have to lie, or my wife lies for me.  As much as I understand their culture and the reasons they are this way, I value my freedom far too much and for this reason I cannot love them and as time goes by I am increasingly left frustrated by their company.  For this reason, despite the fact that I like them as people, I could not live in Korea for much longer.  One more year is enough.


  1. I found this entry fascinating because I’ve married into a Korean family as well. This is something I’ve been through myself, and I’ve sometimes felt the same way you describe here. What you say about the ‘compulsory nature of family life’ is spot on, and I think you empathize well with the brother-in-law and the rest of the family. It’s the same for them, of course. They are there because I have to be, not because they want to be. Being loved and accepted does not require that people understand who we are, though perhaps we might prefer that.

    What got me past the resentment was when I imagined if things had gone the other way, if they had refused to allow me to attend family events. How would I have felt then? That act of imagination happened when I met a guy whose wife’s family had completely disowned her and cut off all contact after she had committed the crime of marrying a foreigner. Even when his wife, their daughter, developed breast cancer – treatable and she came out fine – no one from her family came to the hospital.

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a topic I’ve been mulling in my mind myself and I’ll be putting some things together one of these days. I don’t think I’ll have the same things to say about it, but the project will be a bit better now for having heard your take.

  2. You're definately right about the other option that my family could have not accepted me, I feel sorry for that other guy and his wife. I am at least grateful for that. I think I struggle mainly because my family is very different and therefore I have always been very self-reliant, I am not used to all the fussing and reliance on others.

    I will definitely remember your tip off imagining things the other way the next time I am getting frustrated with it all.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Yes, there is obligation. And it shows your Americanism in that through it all you are only thinking of how you feel. How uncomfortable they are making you feel. I mean how dare they be concerned with your comfort! How dare they show you respect. Family is important to Koreans to the point that just because someone dies they are not forgotten. There is a comfort in knowing that your life means something and when you die, you will not be forgotten. And you complain of the inconvenience. How painful it must be for you to not be spending time doing something more important like just staying home, playing games on your phone or reading. Not at any point do you mention supporting your wife's grieving relatives. Or learning to be fluent in Korean so you are not just sitting down and eating all the delicious foods. How horrible for you that families expect you to show respect to the elderly and deference. You should have titled this inconvenienced by Korean death anniversaries. I hope they don't see your selfish post because they would be immeasurably hurt.

    1. Well,for starters, I'm not American, and it says so in the title of the blog. That pretty much sums up how well you read the whole post.

      Believe me, I did feel extremely guilty of the selfish nature of the way I was thinking. The blog isn't meant to read as a @poor me' moan about how crappy their culture is, it is supposed to read as an honest account of my experiences and feelings in these situations. That was the whole point to me doing these blogs. It was less for the reader and more for me to gather my thoughts together living in a culture so different to my own.

  4. As someone who is half Korean and half Caucasian, I feel your pain on this. There are various times where I feel like some of my relatives showing they care has nothing to do with what actually makes the individual feel cared for. It's basically like, if you care, you do Action A for the person and if they care, they must accept Action A, regardless of whether or not they want Action A or you want to do Action A for them. Anything else would be considered ungrateful and rude.

    Rigid adherence to certain traditions without examination of whether or not those traditions still work for those involved is one of my frustrations with my family.

    Also, the rigid and blind adherence to subservience to older relatives is a point of contention. As is the strict gender divide of labor.

    Don't get me wrong, I respect my relatives and often I WANT to do things for them, but the assumption that I am obligated to do XYZ and have no choice in the matter is annoying sometimes. I would much rather things happen out of free will and love, instead of demanded obedience.