In the following interview we hear from a woman who had a difficult time with her mother in-law, a problem Valerie mentioned. In late 1988 when we did this interview, Shirley was a petite, dark-haired, vivacious woman in her early thirties. She had reached the end of her patience with her husband’s mother. It was difficult for me to avoid the conclusion, with both Shirley and Valerie that what they had found in Korea was a lot of hassles and a lot of heartache.
I should add that many of my female Korean students have told me they would never consider marrying an oldest son. Since 1988 there have been a lot of changes in habits and social mores, like how a woman sits.
My husband is very soft-hearted. He’s not your typical hard-driving Korean, but we’ve had some interesting experiences because of the cultural differences. When we were first married, he had never been overseas. I was not a Korean woman–also not so extremely different that I upset people–but I still did things that caused problems. For example, my husband’s family was particularly traditional, so there was very little furniture in their apartment. You sat on the floor. At that time I wore short skirts. I soon learned why Koreans don’t wear short skirts very often. Long skirts are much more comfortable if you’re sitting on the floor, even if you’re sitting with your legs together and curled around. You don’t have to keep tugging on your skirt. I started wearing pants and sitting cross-legged. [Korean women often sit in what the Japanese call the “women’s position,” with the feet tucked under the buttocks. If her skirt is a little too short, a woman sitting in this position will take out a large cloth handkerchief and spread it over her lap, which I’ve seen Saudi women do as well.] My husband would get very angry with me for days at a time because of the way I sat on the floor when his mother came over. He would often get angry at me because I did something wrong.
We started out at my mother-in-law’s apartment before we got married. She let us live together. The summer I met my husband I was living with a very nice Korean family. As Jin-seon and I got to know each other, I would go to his apartment, and he would talk me into spending the night with him. Then he would have to call up the family I rented from and make an excuse—I fell asleep or something. It was always okay with them because I was at his mother’s apartment. [Usually young foreign women staying with Koreans are expected to conform to the Korean standards of coming home early and—often—not receiving any phone calls from men.]
At Christmas time, about the time we decided to get married, I went back to the States. I was only out of the country for two weeks, but when I came back I went to his place and I didn’t go back to my room until March. I decided at that point that this was getting a little ridiculous, and I should move out. My husband suggested I move into his apartment, but he had to ask his mother. Well, she said “fine.”
But you know, Korean apartments are typically one big room, one medium-sized room, and one really small room. She gave us the very small room, which was a maid’s room. My husband had a big, office-size desk which went the length of one of the walls. There was just room for the bedding—we used a yo [a futon on the floor], not a bed—so we slept with our feet under the desk. That’s the way we lived. She had this big, huge room, and she was never there.
I was studying Korean very diligently at the time, but I often couldn’t study because this guy’s sister stayed up until two o’clock in the morning having a party. His mother was always coming into our room because the living room was not heated in the winter. Our room was our bedroom, our kitchen, our living room. It was everything. The floor was heated so we always sat on the floor. With all these people in the room all the time I wasn’t getting any work done. I couldn’t study, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do anything because it was just too crazy. Too many people coming in and out, never any privacy. We were living in a room where we couldn’t even stretch out. And this is where his mother put us.
We decided to move out, but we didn’t have any money. His mother wasn’t going to give us any money because we still weren’t married. She had agreed to let us live together, but she was embarrassed. So we got a room which wasn’t much bigger, in an apartment with a Korean couple, and we lived there for a while. But we felt uncomfortable. So we begged his mother to lend us three million won for the key money [a $4,360 deposit] for an apartment. She agreed to lend us the money provided we got married. So we got married.
The apartment was a big room, a medium-sized room and an unfinished, all-cement kitchen. We wanted to use one room as a study and one room as a bedroom. His mother wouldn’t go for that. Since it was her three million won, we had to rent out the other room. So we were back to one room, although it was bigger.
Still his family was coming into our room. They were coming their apartment over to our house and into our room. We were still crowded with his family. Once I was very sick after being exposed to a lot of tear gas at the university where I was teaching. [This would be from riot police fighting demonstrators.] I couldn’t even get out of bed, and his family was all over my room, sitting there and talking. I remember I couldn’t even sit up, and I kept thinking, “What the hell are all these people doing here? I’m sick! Get them out of here!” He couldn’t understand. He was too Korean.
Then a really strange thing happened. His mother was lying on the floor across the doorway watching TV, and I wanted to go to the bathroom. So I stepped over her and left the room. I didn’t know that in Korea when you step over somebody, it means you want them to die. I had no idea. How was I ever supposed to know this? My husband wouldn’t talk to me for two weeks. He had no idea I didn’t know. How would he know I didn’t know? How would I know what I had done was so terrible? So we sat there, and I begged him, “Would you please tell me what I did wrong? I have no idea what I did wrong.” After two weeks he finally told me. That was when we decided we had to go to the States for a while. First, because this misunderstanding proved that he didn’t know a thing about the culture I came from, and second because I was quitting my job at the university because of the tear gas.
Since I’ve been back here, I’ve been dealing with his family without having him here to protect me. When I make mistakes, I find out about them. For example, his mother’s a farmer now. She lives in the countryside. She’s a very rich woman, she has lots of apartments, but she lives like a pauper in the countryside. On Chusǒk, the big Korean holiday, I went down there to help her harvest. It was my only free weekend, the only one I’ve had for months. I had to work like a dog. Well, his mother is incredible. She’s sixty-seven years old. After she had worked in the fields with us all day, she got up to take a fifty-kilo bag of food to market. My two sisters-in-law, my niece and I were all too tired to move. We stayed at the house and ate, and they fell asleep. I stretched out and read a book.
It was the night of the closing ceremony of the Olympics. I was depressed because my apartment had a perfect view of the fireworks, and I wasn’t there, I was exhausted after working my butt off. Well, his mother came home, and I continued reading. That was terrible. I should have gotten up, cooked my mother-in-law dinner and sat with her while she ate. But how was I supposed to know? In America you don’t have to do that. So that was one mistake.
The next day we were leaving, and my mother-in-law gave us each several bags of food. We were two women and a nine-year-old girl going back to Seoul. We were exhausted. I said, “Mother-in-law, we can’t take these bags.” Well, that was a big, big mistake. We had no choice but to lug them back with us.
Then as we were leaving, my mother-in-law offered me 10,000 won [$13.50 at the time]. Here I had worked like a dog all weekend. She’s never bought me anything or given me anything. I have no savings because my husband keeps giving her all this money because she’s old and she’s his mother. She has so much money she doesn’t know what to do with it, but he keeps giving her more. So I have worked all weekend and she gave me 10,000 won. I said, “Don’t give me money. Keep it. I don’t want it.” Being polite. The American way. We don’t want to take your money. We help you out of good will. Well, that was wrong. If your mother-in-law offers you money, you take it, and you bow and say, “Thank you, Mother.”
So that was how I ended my weekend trip to the farmhouse. I called my husband up, I was crying, and I said, “I made so many mistakes and I tried so hard to be nice to your mother. It’s impossible to be nice to your mother.” If I were Korean, my life would be a hundred percent more miserable. Because I’m American, I get away with a lot. But even now my husband sometimes doesn’t understand. He knows that most Americans would not put up with what I put up with. I do it because I understand, and I try to make him happy. Sometimes people tell me that I’m a hypocrite because, although I work hard running this school and I believe in women’s liberation, I still bow to his family, and I cook for his family, and I am a very traditional Korean wife in front of his family. I don’t feel I’m being hypocritical. I’m trying to make the best of my situation because I love my husband.
I can still do what I want to do. I’m still moving along in my career. The other day, I must admit, I got fed up with the whole situation, and I decided I didn’t want to see his mother anymore. My life was too miserable. He told me I was giving up.
“It’s not that I’m giving up, it’s just that it’s too difficult. This job takes up so much of my time.” In Korea, if the mother-in-law calls, you drop everything and run. It doesn’t matter what your job is. I can’t do that and hold down the job I have.
He’s very sensitive about his mother. The mother-son tie in this country, I still cannot understand it. I’m afraid that eventually we’re going to have to bring her back to the States with us. He’s the oldest son, and it’s his job to look after her.