Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Remember to bow and control your bladder

Each of us has a stereotype associated with who we are and what we do. Some of us recognize those images and seek to overcome them, while others deny any fault of their own.

One of the most austere stereotypes of them all is that of the mother-in-law. For young men, especially, the female who brought the female we love into the world is particularly troubling in that she tends to be such an expert on stereotypes herself.

For example, those of us whose education was rooted in the liberal arts must prove to the arch-female that we are not all bereft of pragmatism and are quite capable of making a living. Depending on the mother-in-law, the prospective husband who has, say, won the Nobel Prize for Literature might still have to articulate his career objectives in a way that satisfies her.

In Korea the most oppressive of all stereotypes is that of the middle-aged woman, particularly the one who lived through the years when most of her countrymen were impoverished and the only Americans they ever saw were soldiers. They contrast heavily with those their 30s and younger, who see foreigners all the time, not only in the mass media, but in their schools, teaching them the language which they believe is their best chance for success in the 21st century marketplace.

Unlike the young people who actively seek the company of foreigners to practice speaking with and who regularly come to us and say, “Your face is very good,” the older women eye us suspiciously, especially if we get too close to their daughters.

The older Korean women have heard stories about foreigners who didn’t have the purest of motives when they entered into relationships with native women. These women also guard the Korean bloodline as if it were their torso.

For the foreigner who has decided that he wants a certain young Korean woman to be part of his life, imagine the stereotypes that must be overcome.

Because of the impure motives of certain foreigners who came before (and probably after) me, Catherine, my Korean girlfriend chose not to trouble her mother’s mind by letting her know of our relationship for several months. Because of her views regarding the Korean bloodline, Catherine declined to inform her even when we started throwing around the m-word (and I don’t mean “marsupial”).

However, the mother, as they are prone to do, eventually found out about us. This winter a meeting was finally demanded and preparations were made. I would have lunch with Catherine’s mother and other members of her family.

Open-minded guy that I am, I assumed that the meeting would be important, but that my sincerity would be enough to ensure successful meeting. I felt that my goal, to be welcomed warmly into the family, was completely within my means. How often do stereotypes really, in real life, turn out to be true?

More often than you might think, actually. The problem with stereotypes, much as Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem might protest, is that they are usually rooted in truth.

I arrived at the home of my future mother-in-law to find her and her older sister wearing hanboks, the traditional Korean formal wear, which they’d had made specifically for this occasion. Catherine’s mother speaks basically no English, so she had enlisted the services of her nephew, who I’d never met before, to translate her dictations to me. She could’ve asked Catherine to do so, but figured that her daughter might not provide unbiased information.

“She wants you to bow,” the nephew said to me.

I sank to me knees and bent until my nose touched the floor, just I’d seen people do when honoring elders during national holidays.

“She wants you to try again and hold your hands correctly as you bow,” he said to me.

At this point, I decided to lower my stated ambition of being welcomed warmly into the family to simply not propagating an unforgivable cultural offense during this meeting. If I could accomplish that, I could then adjust my objectives upward.

“She wants you to greet her now,” the nephew said.

With the pressure on, I was unable to think of anything eloquent to say in Korean. So I stuck to the bare essentials: “Hello. I am Rob. It is nice to meet you.”

Had I included “Thank you” and “Where is the restroom?” I would have covered everything I learned in my first six months in this country.

“First impressions are very important, so she would like you to say it again, but correctly,” the nephew told me.

A grimace settled over my face, but fortunately my dark shirt obscured the salt-water oceans of sweat forming under my arms.

You see, in the Korean language there are multiple levels of verbal discourse, including the use of the phrase, “Nice to meet you.” There are ways of saying it to friends, to people you’ve never met before, and to your elders. I had chosen the latter of the three, but was told that I had omitted a single syllable no one had ever told me about before.

I don’t know whether or not this level of verbal discourse is used on anyone other than prospective mothers-in-law who seek to test their aspiring son-in-law’s bladder control. All I know is that I had to lower my aspirations yet again: my goal was simply to get through this meeting without soiling myself.

“She wants to know what your plan is,” the nephew said.

My plan … to what? I thought. Go home after eating lunch? Topple America’s two-party system? Win the Noble Prize for Literature?

He said that she wanted to know what Catherine and I want to do after our wedding. I explained that we would probably live together in Korea for two years before going to America for graduate school.

“She wants to know what your major will be,” the nephew said.

“Maybe Korean history,” I said.

This was, evidently, the correct answer. She wiped her moist eyes and extended her hand to mine. I took it, and she began to dictate something to personal translator.

“She said that she can feel your character and wants to welcome you into our family,” he said.

I’m still not sure what that means, but I was willing to accept anything that sounded like progress. During that afternoon, I also found that I was also willing to eat a rather large helping of Korean food, pour drinks for my mother-in-law and her sister, and offer to tutor both her nephew and his sister in English.

“She said that your face is good,” Catherine said to me later.

That, along with sincerity, may be all you really need to overcome stereotypes. However, a strong bladder is certainly a plus.

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