Sunday, June 22, 2008


Overattentive Mothers Breed Kitchen-Chicken Champions

Before I switched jobs, I was most apprehensive about my new living conditions. I would be living with my mother-in-law and her son in their small apartment until my fiancée could move to Seoul and we could live together.

Since that bright, blessed day will apparently take place some time well after our August wedding, I anticipated many, many months of treading carefully around my wife-to-be’s mother. The bright sport, I believed, would be found in my brother-in-law, Dong-ho. Unlike his non-English speaking mother, Dong-ho can communicate with me a little.

Unlike his mother’s aggressively traditional Korean ways, Dong-ho has traveled extensively, speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese, and even had a long-term relationship with a Japanese woman.

Also, while his mother may have been content to master home economics, he works in management at a computer company. My only fear was that his duties, which frequently take him on business trips abroad, would leave me with no backup against his mother and her startling, incomprehensible shouting. Before I ever understood a word she said, I feared that my hearing, if not my heart, would likely fail.

However, since I started living there, I have actually had an unfamiliar peace of mind regarding some things. Since I moved in, I have never in my life had so few questions about what I would eat for dinner or how it would be prepared. I’ve never wondered as to whether or not I’d have clean, ironed clothes ready for work or for the gym. Also, unlike the times when I lived with other guys, there haven’t been any standoffs over who will do the dishes.

Men who share apartments will often play a kind of “kitchen-chicken” game, piling dirty dish upon used cup upon nasty pot, washing no more than two-three items of kitchenware at a time whenever they need to eat. Silently, they dare the other to be the one who gives in and decides to wash the whole lot of dishes. After many years, I eventually transcended such petty displays of misspent masculinity, and learned to wash my dishes upon using them.

With such tendencies acquired, I have offered to help my mother-in-law with the dishes, or at least take them to the sink for her. However, when the opportunity I arises, I can scarcely rise from my seat and lift my plate before she swoops upon me, shouts“It’s okay!” in Korean, and spirits them away for a thorough scrubbing.

How convenient it must be to live with her, I would think. Of course, I amend those thoughts to say that it must indeed be convenient for those who cannot fully comprehend what she says, thus capping the amount of yelling she will do. Her children must have been well taken care of. Maybe she got no higher on the career ladder than housewife, but one could never accuse her of not playing to her strengths! Then she left for a week to visit her sister in another city, and I saw how being so well-taken care of affects one’s progeny.

I was also out of town for the first two days of her absence. Upon my return, I noticed something I’d never seen in her house: dirty dishes. A stack of dirty dishes, in fact. Dong-ho has spent his 36 years on this earth constructively, in terms of his professional life, language acquisition, and in his knowledge of the world’s finest literature and cinema. He’s also, I’ve find, turned out to be a highly formidable competitor at kitchen-chicken, not to mention “laundry-chicken,” and “who-will-be-the-first-to-break-down-and-buy-toilet-paper-chicken.”

Like a marathon runner who doesn’t need water or a swimmer who doesn’t breathe, Dong-ho not only doesn’t play by the same rules as other competitors, he’s not even aware those rules exist. On the third night of his mother’s absence I came home from work and promptly slept for nearly 12 hours. On the fourth night, I had a mild case of food poisoning, but still managed to get a load of laundry done before turning in early.

On the fifth night, I spent an hour cleaning every dish Dong-ho had used since his mother left town. During that time, he never left his computer or even looked my way, despite the running sink, the furious scrubbing, or the times when I looked back at him and attempted to set him on fire with my eyes.

At least by the next night he had decided to wash his own clothes (which he’ll have to do, because dishes are one thing; I’m not handling another man’s dirty undergarments unless he’s a) my son and/or b) paying for graduate school tuition). However, three days after washing his clothes, they still lay packed in the washing machine, clinging post-spin cycle to the outer ring or that cold, neglected appliance.

Eight days after her departure, my mother-in-law returned to the home we share. Every time she looked into a room, she began yelling a new set of incriminations at Dong-ho, none of which I may ever understand (which is fine with me, as long as they’re not being yelled in my direction).

Her authoritative voice accomplished something I’d only imagined seeing: it got Dong-ho to move from him computer and help around the house. An impressive feat, no doubt, but I can’t help wondering if she should’ve started yelling when he was younger.

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