Monday, June 09, 2008


Better Perspectives Come with Bigger Stomachs

A curious thing happened to me recently: I moved in with my Korean mother-in-law. Now, some might say that she’s not my mother-in-law yet, because my fiancée and I haven’t walked down any symbolic aisles together, but then again, I could say that my bride-to-be and I registered our union with the government on the grounds that it would make it easier for me to get a new visa.

Not having that new visa would’ve made it a lot harder for me to change jobs without getting deported, and getting deported would’ve made it a lot harder for me to make it to work by 10 a.m. every morning.

Having acquired this necessary visa, I started my new work in Seoul and needed a place to stay, so her mother took me in. I am bonded to her daughter by law, but not by living conditions, as she continues her work in a smaller city two hours from Seoul.

Thus, I may have become the first man in recorded history to have a mother-in-law before he really has a wife.

My job change was an improvement in every notable way except housing conditions, since, unlike my last occupation, living arrangements are not provided by the company. For this reason, no one I’ve talked to about my current arrangement has questioned its necessity. What they have done, however, is openly question its chances of success.

There are, after all, plenty of documented cases in which the institution known as the mother-in-law has been a detriment toward her son/daughter-in-law’s marriage/happiness/will to live.

Furthermore, I have, in the past, made comments that probably weren’t the best predicator of good relations: statements after our first meeting like, “Only the first 10 minutes were terrifying,” and observations in later meetings like “There’s something about the volume and manner in which she talks that makes me want to hack open my own jugular vein in order to escape into sweet, blessed quiet” haven’t been good portents of things to come.

But now I have lived with her for a week, and in that space of time, one could probably find something good to say about, say, Mao Zedong (who knows, maybe he had really good grooming habits).

The fact that I speak minimal Korean and she speaks even less English certainly hasn’t changed. That she wants to do things her own way and her own way only is just as I remembered. That she often discusses her plans with those in the same room as her in much the same tone of voice that you or I would with someone a football field’s distance away is much the same.

On the other hand, there’s the food. Having not been recognized as a culinary expert by any notable person or group, I’d have little credibility if I touted the quality of her cooking. What I can do, on the other hand, is croon the commendations of its quantity.

Every night I come home from work hungry. When I enter the door, I usually find her waiting for me, usually with a side of beef and assortment of vegetables.

These she prepares for me, cutting, baking and mixing until my stomach is past the yardstick of satisfaction and nearer to the site of splitting open. At this point I must gesture to her that I cannot eat anymore and am getting ready for bed. Her smile reveals all her teeth and she asks me, in two of the Korean words I’ve grown to grasp, if I ate well. With two more Korean words I’m usually able to say that, yes, of course I did.

Then I retreat to my room, which, during my working hours, has gotten as clean as I could possibly imagine it being without great quantities of my possessions disappearing. It will remain like this until the next evening, when it will, despite all odds, be even cleaner.

The room I use in her home is approximately six feet wide by seven feet long, leaving me with space that just long enough for my bed, which is just long enough my legs. It’s hardly ideal, but due to the sheer volume of dinner I usually consume, I’m typically unable to do much moving and thus tend to sleep quite well.

Eight-and-a-half to nine hours later I awake to prepare for work. By this point, my mother-in-law, after her usual five-six hours of sleep, has already prepared a breakfast consisting of fruit, eggs, toast and cereal (the one Western concession I’ve been able wrangle in our food bargaining).

Since my food from the night before is usually only digested in part, I typically reach the bursting point much sooner at this meal. I tell her I must leave.

“Did you eat well?” she asks.

“Of course,” I tell her in Korean. I can’t yet tell her that, by the time I find a new place to live, I’ll be twice the man I once was, but I’m working on it.

I came to Korea to gain a bigger perspective. Maybe doing so comes with a bigger stomach.

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