Recently, however, due to the absence of my wife - who is studying in Australia, where I will follow in a few months time - some of the advantages of Korean culture are starting to show their face, which is causing a greater level of mutual understanding between my in-laws and I.
My in-laws truly dote on their daughter, especially my father in-law, who really treats her like his little princess and becomes quite down and depressed sometimes when she is away. He is a tough-looking, thick-set, older Korean man with a very vulnerable sweet and gooey centre. He and my mother in-law treat me like family, but obviously their love for their daughter is unmatched. As wonderful and understandable as this is, it can create some tiresome situations for me, because when they want to see their daughter, I am usually obligated to tag along.
Because my wife doesn't live with them anymore, they try to take full advantage of her coming to see them. This usually means an all-day marathon of sitting on the floor and drinking (both are not exactly my favourite things to do). As the day wears on my body gets stiffer and more uncomfortable and my mind becomes weary of trying to understand Korean all day. At the same time they tend to get more drunk and the Korean comes thicker and faster and is more difficult to understand. Not having the option to go home, I usually start looking pretty miserable and bored, which as a result, makes me feel a little guilty. I also start to feel guilty about perhaps encouraging them to think about saying we should leave earlier, especially, as we will be living away from Korea and they won't see her as often as they would like.
|A Skype call to my wife from Korea|
And it is not just what they can do for me, but now when I visit them, I actually look forward to doing so. They feel like a family in a place where I technically have none; it is nice to be useful and chop some wood or move rocks with my father in-law at their house in the countryside and then eat together after. This is often only for a few hours, instead of all day, as it was when my wife was in Korea.
In the presence of my wife, I also found speaking Korean difficult. Because I had a ready-made translator beside me all the time, I didn't try as hard as I could to get my message across and my in-laws used to immediately turn to my wife if they originally didn't understand me. Without my wife, there is no hiding place for me or my in-laws, we have to make conversation with each other. While I am getting a little better at making myself understood, they are also making themselves easier to understand by speaking more slowly and using more basic Korean. It is all coming together to help us build a better relationship with each other.
With the better understanding of each other, so to have I begun to have a greater appreciation of Korean culture when it comes to family. I always knew of a kind of unsigned contract (duties) between family members; parents look after their children and their son in-law (let's leave daughters in-law aside, not sure about that one) and then they look after them when they are older (both monetarily, and more directly). They look after sons in-law well because they traditionally pay and care for their daughters. To begin with this can seem a little calculated and even selfish to Western eyes, I think I saw it this way at first. Parents have children, it is their decision, and there should be no debt to pay (see the first post I ever wrote on this subject), but obviously people often choose to care for their parents when they are older. That's approximately how I thought about the situation and essentially I still do, but perhaps that is over-simplifying things a little.
I get the strong feeling that my in-law's patience and extra-special kindness towards me is due to the fact I treat their daughter well, period, and I think this is a really nice attitude and makes me feel rather proud of myself.
My wife was a bit of a tear-away teenager who caused her parents a fair amount of strife at middle school, but then settled into the idea of learning English, to pursue a dream of becoming a nurse and living abroad, specifically in Australia. I think when she became focused on achieving this goal, she started to quell the fears her parents had for her future at the same time. Perhaps they also thought that she might be a bit of a challenge for a man to marry due to her rebellious nature (just theorising, honey!).
With the nursing profession in Korea being almost unbearably stressful, poorly paid, prone to sexual harassment, and in my view hazardous, and England making it increasingly difficult for us to live together there (as well as being a place of increasing social problems these days), Australia became the logical choice (it is also somewhere I have wanted to live for a long time). I am having to make sacrifices and to use quite a lot of saved money to help my wife study and my in-laws see this and do, quite literally, all they possibly can to help me while I am staying in Korea on my own.
Yes, they are being kind to me for a reason, they also might expect their daughter and I to help them out financially when they are older, because of the care they have given their daughter throughout her life and me for a shorter amount of time, but that unsigned debt that I have to pay them and the care for their daughter feels less like a weight on my shoulders, but something I would pay gladly (from a famous old miser, this may shock some of my friends).
Now, let's not get too soppy, priority number one is me, then my wife and my own family and then my in-laws. I have no guarantee of success in the future and I'm not going to break my back to fund my in-law's sometimes slightly irresponsible (in my view) attitude to money (they, like many Koreans spend far too much on unnecessary status symbols and gifts, as well as drinking too much soju). However, if I am able and I am sure that my own parents are well looked-after and happy first, some portion of the fruits of my labours will gladly be spent on making sure my Korean family are happy and comfortable in their old age. They deserve to have their kindness repaid back to them and for the happy fact that I am lucky to have in-laws that I like, which is not always something that can be said in any marriage, whether it is cross-cultural or not.