My Korean Mother-in-Law

I’ve almost been married 2 years now, but before we got married, Junkyu and I were long distance dating for a year and then engaged for almost a year. So, we’ve been together almost 4 years! All that time, I’ve also had a relationship with his mother, and it hasn’t always been easy being a foreign daughter-in-law.

Junkyu is a very funny, intelligent, and relaxed guy. He never freaks out about anything. He’s calm and rational and optimistic and creative. He likes cooking and fixing things and he likes to enjoy his free time.

His mom, on the other hand, is very prone to stress. For reference, she’s older than my mom and slightly younger than my grandmother. She only has a 2nd grade education, as back when she was younger, Korea was much less developed and parents thought it a waste of time for girls to go to school. She married and had two daughters but her husband died, so she remarried and had Junkyu. Junkyu’s father also died, when he was only a few months old. She worked alone to support three children, sewing blankets and selling them or selling street food.

Because of this, she doesn’t know how to relax. She’s always running around, fussing over things, and she nags about tiny things that we think are unimportant but doesn’t care about things that I think ARE important. She’s also very superstitious in the way that many older Korean women are.

She believes in fan death (the Korean phenomenon in which people believe having a fan on in a closed room will kill you) so whenever I slept over at Junkyu’s mom’s house when we were dating, she’d always come in and open the door or window if we had a fan on in the room.

She also thinks that the burnt part of food gives you cancer and refuses to let anyone eat anything that’s even a little charred. I come from a family of barbecuers and we like our hamburgers and hot dogs charred a little on the grill. So whenever I go to eat a piece of pork at a Korean restaurant with my mother-in-law, she always tells me not to eat the black ones. Or she cuts the black parts off. Now, I know there is some truth to the whole ‘burnt food causes cancer’ but the risks are still pretty minor.

My mother-in-law can’t read, so she has to get Junkyu or his sisters to read text messages for her. She’s a Christian but mostly memorizes bible verses or hymns, and whenever we go over to her house around Junkyu’s father’s death anniversary, she makes us read from the bible and do a prayer, but she can’t read the verses that well. She also says the names of things incorrectly, since she can’t read product labels or advertisements well. To be fair, she can make out parts of words, but not all of them.

At the beginning, my Korean wasn’t the best, and I was also very nervous to talk to her. I still don’t know what to say around her really, since we are so different and have different opinions on so many things. So she takes my silence to mean that I still don’t know Korean. She’ll often tell Junkyu to translate what she said to me and he’ll say, “She knows what you said.”

She also nagged me about getting rid of my cats for a long time. She kept calling me, trying to convince me to swap them for puppies. She thinks cats are bad for babies and thinks once we have kids, they will be allergic to the cats. We’ve both explained many times to my mother-in-law and my sisters-in-law that having a pet actually decreases the risk of developing pet allergies, but none of them believe us (or science).

Korean mothers are notorious for cooking tons of food for their kids, and since Junkyu is the only son, he has a special priority and is given tons of food whenever he goes to visit his mom. Korean men are not expected to cook or clean. They are catered to by their moms, usually, and it can be stressful as a foreign wife (whose parents never taught her to cook) to be expected to take over the role of main cook in the house. I have slowly learned how to make Korean food (kimchi jjigae, kimchi pancakes, samgyetang – chicken and ginger stew – etc.) but at first it was overwhelming for me.

First of all, I’m a picky eater. Until I was about 14 I probably only ate chicken tenders and honey mustard. I also eat like a bird (unless it’s pizza or brownies, as my husband so lovingly pointed out) but Koreans eat a wide variety of food at every meal, and lots of it. They usually have a soup or stew, rice, meat, veggies, kimchi, and other side dishes. I can usually only eat the meat and rice, and sometimes the soup. When I first visited his house, his mom made this kind of food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

It was difficult being in a small, unfamiliar house, eating ribs for breakfast. I was grateful that she was so sweet and wanted me to be full, but I couldn’t eat all my rice and mostly picked at the other side dishes. She could tell I wasn’t eating like Junkyu was, so she started to complain about it. “Why doesn’t Monica eat these? Why didn’t she finish her rice?” But even the water she drinks is different from me. She drinks that brown tea-like water that many older Koreans drink, so even when I just asked for water, I’d be presented with something I’d never seen before.

I’d had decent practice getting used to living in a stranger’s house, eating strange food when I lived as a host student in Japan. In Japan, I learned how to eat a lot of things I’d never tried, but this was complete culture shock all over again. To top it off, Koreans love spicy food and they love sesame seeds and sesame oil, anchovies, fish, purple rice, pickles, and seaweed. I love Korean food but I stay away from most of those things if I can. I’ve gotten used to kimchi and I’ve been slowly more adventurous, but as a sensitive person, I have a very easily triggered gag reflex and the texture of many foods makes it go off. I’d rather just stay away from food I know I won’t be able to swallow.

My mother-in-law still nags me about what I eat. I guess I have to get over it because I know it’s out of love. I have to accept her even though it’s been harder for her to understand me. However, she knows that I like fruit like apples and strawberries, and usually has some in the house for me to eat if I don’t want what she’s prepared for Junkyu. She also smiles and praises me a lot, so I’m lucky in that regard. I just feel that our interactions are awkward and I’m not sure they’ll get better any time soon.

She cooks a lot and I end up washing some of her dishes (as most Korean daughters-in-law are expected to do) and a while back I discovered that one of her spatulas was completely falling apart. The glue keeping it together was  dried and old and I knew washing it would never make it 100% clean again. I told Junkyu to throw it away and we got her some new utensils. He actually put it in the trash can, but recently we found it back on its rack.

I finally confronted her about it, telling her that I didn’t feel comfortable eating her food if she had old, dirty cooking utensils like that. Junkyu helped back me up and she understood but said the spatula we gave her wasn’t like this one, and she wanted one that was flat. So I promised to buy her a new one, and she looked excited.

It’s been challenging to have a Korean mother-in-law who’s old enough to almost be my grandmother. I didn’t imagine having a MIL who’d nag me about having cats, or one who’d comment on how grateful I should be for my double eyelids. I’m really wondering how she’ll be around our future kids, because I’ve heard some horror stories.

Junkyu is a great mediator and he gets just as frustrated as I do with her, so we are in the same boat. She loves both of us and we’re grateful to have a loving mother-figure in our lives, but we’re glad we don’t live TOO close to her, otherwise I think we’d both be a bit crazy.

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2 thoughts to “My Korean Mother-in-Law”

  1. I hear you on the picky eater/ gag reflex issue. My Chinese-American husband will eat ANYTHING, and it took a while for him to realize that, no, the cold jellyfish was never going to make it down my throat. Now he helps me out by eating all the food I can’t stomach off my plate when his parents aren’t looking.

    Win-win?

    1. Same! My husband eats whatever I don’t! He’s more understanding now, but at first he was very confused. “Why can’t you eat fish?? Just try it!” but now he tells people not to bother me about it. For a picky eater, I’ve tried a lot of things, though!

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