Saturday, May 4, 2013

Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws


Those of you who read one of my first articles on this site, ‘My Korean Family’, will know that I definitely do not fit the description of the perfect son in-law in a Korean family.  I don’t give gifts (except at birthdays, Chuseok, and Seollal), I will refuse an invitation to go and see them if I have made other plans, and generally I don’t automatically respect what they have to say, and do what they wish of me.  I think they must know all of this by now, but to their credit I think they are basically content in the fact that I treat their daughter well.  There are, however, still a few problems I have with the culture at large, which manifests itself in their expectations of me.
I’ll be honest, I tend to try and avoid the Korean in-laws if at all possible.  I will visit them as often as I need to and no more than that because it simply is not a comfortable atmosphere.  The problem is that I soon as I step foot in their house or meet them in a restaurant or any other place, I am to follow their instructions without argument.  This means they dictate what I do, how I should behave, where I go, for how long I stay, and even to some degree how I should feel about it all.  They are not nasty about it, they are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but their cultural expectations create something of a benign dictatorship in relations between us.  It is simply unthinkable for me to excuse myself and go home after a long day in their company, for example, or in fact to have any polite disagreement with them at all.  So a bit like a North Korean defector, I slink away under the fence to get away and avoid an argument or any conflict whatsoever.  

My wife and I do this by lying, inventing little stories so that it is easier for me to get away.  It sounds terrible doesn't it, but it is the only way, and I have commented before that in my experience many older Koreans would rather be transparently lied to than have their children or younger family members tell the truth in direct confrontation with them.  I think many underestimate just how much of a factor this kind of cultural thinking plays in the creation of an Orwellian state such as North Korea.  It sounds almost offensive for me to compare my in-laws to Kim Jong Un, but the cultural mindset is the same and along with it the attitude that your parents are owed your 100% compliance and are not to be ever disagreed with, which I am sure is not really the case, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
I see the lack of conflict within Korean families, the workplace, and in Korean society in general to be an aspect of the culture that is flawed and could do with some changing.  Honest discussion - and the intellectual and verbal conflict that arises from it - is how we all move forward because, after all, there is no light without heat.  No light (quite literally if you look at the satellite image of the country at night) has been created in North Korea because there is no healthy disagreement with how things are being done.  Everyone just does what they are told, nothing moves forward, and North Korea is famously stuck in the past because of it.
The fact of the importance of conflict is something that is also lost on an ever-increasingly overly-liberalised Western culture, where many think we just have to accept and respect everyone else’s point of view as equally valid, especially those of a different society, or shout ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’ as a conversation finisher at anyone with a controversial opinion about the behaviour of any group of people other than the particular one that we belong to.  There is also a rather odd attitude present within our own societies (and especially in mine) of bending over backwards to accommodate and understand other cultures, but at the same time – when we travel to other countries – we should always ‘do as the Romans do’ and do our best to conform to others.  With particular attention to Korea and native English teachers, I think part of their role is to give students and their co-workers a true experience of working with people of Western culture.  We would all help Koreans much more if we stuck to our principles and conformed less, because they could learn so much more from it.  But we don’t, we just tend to do what we are told most of the time or try and weasel out of difficult situations like I do with my in-laws.  We all do this in order not to offend, and perhaps also keep our jobs and not get into trouble, although I really believe we shouldn’t, and I readily admit that I find it extremely difficult myself.
Back to my in-laws, and I am often confounded by the reaction I receive when I talk ill of my in-laws by saying I dislike spending too much time with them.  I usually get a range of responses depending on who I’m talking to and how much someone knows about me.  If I am talking to a Western person (who is married or in a long-term relationship) who does not know I am married to a Korean, I am usually met with a reaction along the lines of this, ‘yeah, I know, the in-laws are a pain in the neck sometimes aren’t they.’  If I am talking to a Korean friend or acquaintance and complaining about my in-laws, I also – pretty much 100% of the time – get the same kind of sympathetic response and also complaints about their own in-laws in return.  This is no surprise really as many Koreans – especially women – really do bear a significant burden from their in-laws.  But also, when you think about it, is it really that much of a controversial thing to say that you don’t like spending time with your in-laws?  Is this a rare feeling in people generally around the world?  I think not.  However, you wouldn’t know this if you could hear the criticism I receive sometimes from Western liberal-minded people, who know I am married to a Korean woman.  If I complain about my in-laws then, it is common to receive a barrage of comments saying that I should have known what the culture was like and I need to adapt to it and accept it and that I am simply not trying hard enough.  That is not how it should work, I should compromise on some things because of politeness and custom, but I will not bow down to everything they say because I need to accept their culture.  When it comes to respecting someone to the degree that you cannot engage in honest debate and disagreement with them, no respect shall be given and I say this from a logical, reasonable, and moral stand-point, the difference in culture is irrelevant.
To not be able to speak openly and honestly with someone without fear of reprisal and dire consequences is something that I cannot respect, accept, adapt to, or feel comfortable with.  This is the position I find I am forced into in relations with my in-laws.  The best I can do is tolerate it, I’m afraid.  I love my wife and I put myself through it all because of her, fortunately I do not have to meet her parents all that often and my attitude of trying not to feel guilty about having these feelings means that I can avoid meeting them more than is absolutely necessary.  The horrible thing about it all is that I actually like my in-laws, they are nice, caring, and kind people, it is simply this one aspect of their culture that makes dealings with them much more difficult than it should be.
In Korea, I am uncomfortable that the right to disagree, argue, and debate honestly seems to be taken away from many people.  It is not enshrined in law or indeed in principle, but it is in practice.  The frustrating thing is that to notice this and complain about it in writing or even to friends is often seen as something worthy of shame, stubbornness, laziness, and sometimes even bigotry and racism.  It appears that the West is engaging in restricting debate and freedom of speech as well.  We talk a good game, and freedom to express ourselves may even be written in our constitutions, but again in practice we still try to silence and smear others to end arguments and stop the controversy to avoid a conflict.  Disagreements in opinions and ideas leads to a better understanding of each other, a greater knowledge of your own subject and position, an ability to change and move forward, the acknowledgement of problems and their possible solutions, and – perhaps the most importantly of all – the avoidance of violent conflict or other disastrous consequences in the future.
With me personally, my relationship with my Korean in-laws will always be a difficult and somewhat of an awkward one, which teeters on a knife edge, perhaps prone to a fatal collapse one day.  It is all because we really don’t know each other, in over three years we have never talked openly and honestly about anything, every situation being mired in courtesy, custom, and fear of saying the wrong thing.  At best we tolerate each other, we don’t genuinely respect each other and this situation can be translated to many thorny situations around the world and especially within multi-cultural nations.
To hell with ‘tolerance’ and to hell with causing ‘offence’, I want to truly understand and respect people, not just pretend to.  This is an up-swelling of frustration that has afflicted me since living in South Korea, the feeling that every day I am too much of a coward to really get to know people and that I am valued as a person for holding back on my principles in this regard and cowering away from confrontation.  The fact is though, I should stop beating myself up because at this time the straitjacket would be applied everywhere, not just in Korea.  Most of us are cowards, we need to be and I will settle back into the routine after writing this article of being nice to and conforming to the wishes of others who I really have no respect for whatsoever because, out of a fear of offending them (and vice versa), I have never really known them and they have never really known me.  No wonder we cannot truly respect and understand one another.
Note: This post was first written by me for asiapundits.com but I thought I would re-post it on my own blog as well.

29 comments:

  1. I love your blog! It's awesome! s2s2s2s2 (from brazil lol)

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  2. Hiya,

    Its sad to read this. It seems my Korean in-laws are quite different from yours. Apart from having to sit on the floor with them when we eat, I feel that I am well respected. I often disagree with my mother in-law's point of views and I am usually quite honest with her. I can see that it does make her frown some of the time, but I do manage to change how she thinks some of the time.

    I wonder what other "westerners" married to Koreans think as well. It'd be interesting to carry out a large scale survey to see what most of us think.

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    1. Yes, I have heard from others who have more lenient and forward thinking in-laws in Korea, but also a few others that have things much worse than me. Things aren't so bad with me, but I do feel somewhat trapped regarding freedom of expression with them and this hinders me enjoying their company that much.

      I too would be interested to see the results of such a survey.

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  3. I totally agree with you. My Korean in-laws who have lived in England and America long time make me so confused with so much responsibility as a family member and without any openness or respect as a person. I might have less understanding or freedom than you as a Korean woman who grew up in Korea. They live in America but have double standards to me and their white son in laws. They are hard to understand and just force whatever they think and want with age and family status. I just gave up to know them personally or try to understand each other...I just try to avoid them day by day with little lies as much as possible..so sad...

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    1. Yes, it is a real shame and they are shooting themselves in the foot, much like my in-laws.

      I really like my in-laws as they are nice people, but they simply will not be flexible enough to try and understand me as a person and I cannot share any frustrations and troubles with them. There is only so far a relationship can go if you can't have an honest dialogue and truly listen and empathise with each other.

      Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Geez, you are indeed a terrible son in law, I mean seriously, only bring your in laws gifts 3 times a year? how stingy is that? I mean would it kill you to just bring something like a bag of apples each time you go see them, I mean seriously, how much could a damn bag apples cost?

    but this problem with you westerners, your damn principles.

    ie I will not bring my in laws even a lousy bag of apples that probably cost less than the amount I spend on a lousy toothbrush.

    Seriously, do yo have to be like this.

    you really came across like a jerk to me.

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    1. Perhaps what you don't understand is that I am funding their daughter through nursing college and have generally paid for most things since we met. This is not unusual in Eastern culture and I have accepted this responsibility because being an English teacher in Korea is a relatively easy, well-paid job compared to being a nurse (which is what my wife was). It would have been unfair for my wife to pay equally because she was paid less and worked about 100 times harder than me.

      To be fair, I think her parents appreciate this and don't think I am that much of a jerk for not bringing them a few apples occasionally.

      I think it is important to find some compromise between cultures. In my country, men and women usually pay equally in a relationship, unless they have child and the women is looking after it. We also don't tend to spend very much money on our in laws. I'm trying to meet them halfway and it is the principle as much as anything, as you said because Korean in-laws can be quite demanding and usually run the show.

      I am prepared to give up some of the freedoms I might enjoy in my own culture with respect to my in laws, but not all of them, and subtle shows of non-compliance like not adhering to Korean gift buying culture is a better option than direct confrontation because, like I said in the post, that really isn't an option.

      You are entitled to think I am a jerk though, I probably am.

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    2. glad to see you think yourself as a jerk too.

      just like so many western women these days considers being called a " bitch" is something that should be wore around as a badge of honor.

      I wonder what is going come next? would western women considers being a whore as a compliment next?

      because as far I can see, that is already start to happening a bit.

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    3. Take it easy. I don't know, I was trying to extend an olive branch and be a bit humble, but you sure didn't take that invitation.

      You now sound more like a person with a chip on their shoulder than someone who honestly read my post and just thought I was being unreasonable. I could be wrong, but you are not giving a very good impression of yourself.

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    4. sorry my mistake.

      this is the only post of yours I have read. And I don't know anything about you.

      I honestly thought you were being smart.

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    5. No worries, pretty easy to misunderstand in writing when you have no tone of voice to the words. I guess that could have come across as me trying to be a smart ass.

      I find an apology on this blog is a rare thing in the comments section, so thanks, I take back what I said about you.

      I can be a bit bluntly honest when I write and I can understand how this might make me seem like a bit of an ass. My in laws are really nice, but our differences culturally are huge and not just because of our nationalities, but how I have been brought-up. I have a very split and independent family in England, which is really terrible preparation for my Korean in-laws. A lot of things that seem simple courtesy to some, don't come very easy for me, just as there are things I expect from my in laws that don't come very easy for them either.

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    6. I'm a Korean woman that was born and raised in Australia married to a Korean born man who has been living here since he began highschool. I find the comments by the Anonymous poster on October 13, 2013 rude.
      To be honest, my parents brought me up to be quite generous with my in-laws so we give them money on their birthdays, Christmas, New Years and whenever they go to Korea. And we give them alot considering we don't have alot. My in-laws give us nothing on our birthdays, Christmas, New Years or when we go on a holiday whereas my parents do. It's not because my parents are rich - they are not - it's because my in-laws expect everything from us - even though they never were generous with their own parents in Korea. Whether or not the blogger takes a bag of apples to visit his in-laws or not - do you think it will make his in-laws any less expectant or stubborn? Hahahaha.... obviously you don't have Korean in-laws. The more you give to your in-laws, the more they expect of you. At the beginning, my father-in-law asked for 1k each time we gave money, my mother-in-law asked for a Louis Vuitton bag and monthly allowance. We did neither and now they are fine with our $100 or $200 gifts. We think the best gift we can give them is not asking THEM for money unlike what my in-laws did to their parents. They have always gone to Korea to get money from their parents to help pay for failed businesses, buying brand new cars on debt, going bankrupt, buying a house.

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  5. I know this is a rather late comment to your post, but it really hit home to me.
    I am not married yet, but my boyfriend is Korean and I have gone to visit his family in Seoul 3 times now.
    His family is really nice, and as far as I can tell, they at least approve of me. However, they are completely set in their way of thinking. His aunt (who is like his surrogate mother) gets offended when I say no to anything, even if it more food when I am full. She has chastised me for my clothing choices before and when she has tried to get me to "cover up" and I decline, she gets extremely angry. Because I sometimes say "no," she concluded that I do not like her, which is not the case.
    I want to be friends with her. As soon as I learn Korean, I want to be able to talk with her, have fun with her, just like I would with one of my aunts or my mother over here. However, because of that great wall of Korean social expectations, I feel like that cannot happen, with any of his family.
    I cannot be myself around them, and how can you be a family if you do not open yourself up to each other?
    I want to meet halfway, but it seems like they are unwilling to move from their spot. The problem is that my boyfriend (the only child) wants to live with his aunt and father, possibly forever. This is not a good idea, for both my sake, and his and his family's.
    Have you had any success asking your in-laws to meet you halfway?

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Yep, it's a tricky one. The family in Korea is full of duties and expectations and they can be pretty inflexible.

      In my experience, actually talking directly about almost anything is difficult. I don't think I could actually have a conversation with them about 'meeting halfway', it just kinda happens. As I said in the post though, it is easier for me as a man, unfortunately that is just a fact of Korean culture. I don't know your situation and what your in laws expect of you, so it is difficult to give any advice, but my guess is that you are right and that it might be a bad idea to live with his family. When you live with anyone, you have to be able to be yourself and have the ability to communicate honestly with them, and that might be difficult.

      Hopefully, as a non-Korean you may just be able to stick to your guns and your own principles still be accepted. There are many things that my in-laws just now accept, and are less bothered about, now about me which I don't think they would have tolerated in the beginning.

      Anyway, hope that's useful, and good luck with the family!

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    2. "..International marriages between foreigners and citizens of our country [Korea] have tripled in the past ten years. With the surging number of marriages there has naturally been an increase in divorces as the number of broken families from international marriages has tripled in the past seven years..."

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    3. Where did you get that quote from? I'd be curious to read the whole article.

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  6. Refreshing to hear someone speak honestly about my experience. This sentence summarized my life: "They are not nasty about it, they are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but their cultural expectations create something of a benign dictatorship in relations between us." I married the only son of non-English speaking Korean immigrants. I can handle the bossing around, and the gift giving, and the unrealistic expectations, and the judgement; however, it really bothers me that they do not care to get to know me or accommodate my life at all. They require me to spend EVERY holiday with them (not at my house because of the drive), and then I sit there the entire time and no one tries to talk to me. I then get up and try to guess which dishes I am allowed to wash and where I am supposed to put the food. Even his English speaking older sisters show no interest in my life: they give me plenty of advice, but never inquire about (my day/my research/my work/my hobbies/my opinion about anything). I then wait a few nights for my husband to get a phone call about all of the things I should have done better while I stare at the photos my family posted on facebook about all the fun they had doing my favorite traditions.

    I'm very good at a lot of things, but none of the things I am good fall under the "wife of the firstborn son" role expectations, so they don't care about them (beside, perhaps, my career).

    It feels so good to vent openly and anonymously. It is nice that you can talk openly with your wife. I am very judicious about what I say to my husband because I know how hard it is for him to have the people he loves so much not enjoy each other. When I tell my friends real stories I tear up a bit, feel like a jerk, and they respond with the pity/scolding you talked about. It is either 1) "I feel so bad for you, your life is terrible", 2) "you should try ___(insert suggestion that failed months ago)", 2) you knew what you were signing up for, be more respectful (like you mentioned); or "don't change for them, just be yourself: you are WONDERFUL just how you are."

    Would I do it again?

    A thousand times.

    Every marriage is a collision of cultures that requires courtesy and work. I come from a privileged and outgoing family that values fun, tolerance, Jesus, more fun, more tolerance, and "doing what you love". I am happy that our family gets to benefit from the best of both worlds. I there is certainly value in respecting your elders, making decisions that honor your family's name, striving to be as successful as possible, and having standard expectations. I saw that his values balance my inherited extremes well. There is also value in knowing an individual, encouraging them to grow into their strengths, supporting them if they fail, and doing "fun" activities/trips/events. He saw that my values balance his inherited extremes well. We admire each other so much. We challenge each other. We adapt to and for each other. Our future children have the benefit of observing how two cultures impact life in good and bad ways at the same time.

    So I have a vision, a simple but meaningful picture in my head, I cling to every time I get discouraged (every time I interact with my inlaws): Sitting on their blue couch, talking in Korean, and knowing that they are finally proud to have me as a daughter-in-law. The realize how many things I am doing in the community and what a good wife and mom I am and we just sit and drink coffee together. That is it. I haven't seen any improvement yet, but I know that as we (they don't love the situation either) keep showing up to the awkward situations things will slowly improve.

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    1. This could be the best comment ever on my blog, thank you :)

      Yes, there are many difficulties, but life is enriched because of it all and I really love my wife. Fortunately, we are super honest with each other, but I to have to hold back my frustrations sometimes, not wanting to hurt her feelings. It is pretty impossible not to like my in-laws because they are so nice, but like you gave some examples of, I think there are some core differences that really do take time to overcome, if they can be overcome at all. It isn't wrong to have frustrations, even to hate some situations and going through them is not all for nothing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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    2. I completely agree! Best comment~ I felt like you took the words right out of my mouth, except I am dealing with a future mother-in-law.

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  7. Thank you for this post. I am a white woman married to a korean man, we have one daughter. So much of what you have written is true for my life, thank you for writing it so I know I am not alone.

    My heart is sad, and holds much resentment for the in laws that can't respect us as adults, parents or people. While I don't have the heart to write about it here, I just want you to know how grateful I am that you wrote this.

    BTW, I like that you are bluntly honest, my husband and I are both that way and it is refreshing. I wish more people understood that disagreement doesn't mean you can't be friends, and that true respect and understanding comes from honesty in who you are.

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  8. I truly cannot stand my Korean mother in law. She sent my husband to live with his aunt when he was born and he called his aunt "mom" and got beatings for it. She sent my husband to Korea to live with his aunt because she couldn't afford him, but she had another kid 2 years alter and then brought my husband back to live with her when he was FIVE years old. So she loves the second child more than she loves my husband. The second child is a drug addict and brings home a woman who has 3 kids with another man, and the mother in law gives overly expensive gifts ($1500 hand bags) to the woman's kid. She has never given my child expensive gifts (her blood granchild). When my husband asks her, she says don't worry, they aren't blood, they mean nothing to me. I still hate her. What can I do? I'm supposed to visit them soon as they live in another state. I can't even stand the thought of her. I don't know know what to do. I agree with you when you say that your in laws are like Kim Jong Un. I totally agree with what you said in this article. I am glad someone feels the way I do, I was starting to think I was crazy.

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    1. It seems like all the MIL wants is money from my husband when she sends all her money to the "needy" families as she calls them. She talks down about them to my husband, but she continues to humor the other kids' families with monetary gifts and she tells my husband that his family is the best child and that's why she doesn't send him things. I don't understand. I am so disgusted by my husband's mom.

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  9. Korean culture is completely fake. The elders are not worthy of respect. They could not defend their people against invasions from Japan and China. They should look at their historical place in society and the World at large and put a mouthful of choyeun mugun kimchi in their esophagus to squelch their dumb need for authoritarian dictatorship.

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  11. I feel like it stinks to be white. I am a mother in law. Readily I admit I do not always understand my daughter in law, who was born here but is of Korean ancestry. Actually her parents, whom I will probably never see a lot of, seem great. They were born in Korea and came here later. My daughter in law is indeed a special, and wonderful young woman. But I feel like she is on the war path with me. I work with people from a lot of cultures on a regular basis. Generally things go well with most everyone I work with. But with my daughter in law, somehow I keep offending her. My only solution is to keep visits short and minimal. My expectation is that I will not see so much of future grandchildren, though I am known for being good with kids. Is my daughter in law a villain? No. But she is so easily worked up, even when I feel as if I am already being careful. I am not out to lunch on current culture. My work world puts me in a place of seeing diversity and change and needing to be very flexible. I feel like my daughter in law cannot bend very far, and sees things very black and white. Increasingly there are things I will not say, do, around her, as I realize she might misunderstand. But even with my efforts, I feel as if she is waiting to find an offense. And I do not think she is doing that consciously, but she is doing it. And it is too bad, because I might have been able to be a helpful grandma some day, since I know they very much want kids. But at this point I know it is important I stay far back and let my son and his wife play things out. My son and I are close, I say nothing negative to him concerning his wife, we talk about other stuff, and I think as he one day becomes busy with family, that will be that. I just do not have the energy to deal with my daughter in law's anger.

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  13. Thanks for this. Newly married to a Korean girl and dealing with her parents is a task to say the least. Put it this way..they didn't even know I existed while we were dating (for 10 years)

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  14. I'm Chinese in Los Angeles, and married to an American born Korean with his parents living in Los Angeles as well. My husband is a very good son. He visits his parents often. My husband and I are very close. I go with him to visit his parents almost every week. Every time we go (not every time but almost every now and then) his parents will ask me "are you paying for the meal?" I make more money than my husband. After we got married, he moved in with me. I share my house, car, savings, investment and everything with him which I don't mind. And we offer to take his parents out for meals as well. It's just whenever my husband take out our joint credit card to pay for the meal his parents will say "no... he has no money". I'm so frustrated. And my husband said he already told his parents we share everything, but they are still happier when I pay. And they always ask me if I'm cooking for him at home as well. I'm so angry and I want to explode to his parents.....

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