When my Korean family comes over it’s a big deal.
They warn us a few days in advance, but we don’t really know when they’re arriving until they call us from outside our diminutive apartment building (a four story “beella”) and ask us to bring up the enormous amount of supplies they’ve brought from Gyeongju, which is about an hour and a half from Busan by car. I run down and help my mother-in-law (henceforth “mom”) and my brother-in-law (henceforth “my brother”), and make two trips back and forth getting all their boxes and bags.
“Aigo!” mom cries, hauling a steel pot in from the rainy gray light. Upstairs, surrounded by enough food and packages to keep our bellies full for an epic journey on the Silk Road all the way to the palm trees of Persia, she opens the steel pot and reveals a piled mound of pickled cabbage slathered in red sauce—kimchi, and not just any kimchi, but the spectacular kind she makes herself from scratch. I tell her later (through my wife) that she has magic hands, and that whatever she touches becomes delicious; my brother makes a mispronounced reference to King Midas, and then says “eesanghan hangook saram” (strange Korean people), a running joke we have after I saw him eating what I thought were insects (turns out it was just seaweed) several months ago and exclaimed the same undiplomatic outburst in his own language, no less.
So they come in and settle down. In the course of about fifteen minutes mom proceeds to cook us a spectacular dinner that rivals nearly every meal I’ve devoured here in Korea, and what’s more, she uses a pair of heavy duty scissors to cut through onions (yangpa), cucumbers (oi!), radishes (moo!), and slathers the mix with ground garlic (manul), and adds fermented soybean paste (doenjang), together with plenty of chili peppers (goe-choo), and not too much water, into a heavy ceramic bowl that’s placed on the electric burner until it boils.
When it’s finished it looks like something Yoda would eat, but the taste is so powerful that I’ll probably have to write a fierce twenty-volume autobiography when I accidentally lap up a spoonful of that wonderful stew as a tired old man lying recumbent in bed and suddenly flash back, as if divinely inspired, to that blaze of weird days I lived through in Korea. I want to make a cooking show called “Mom’s Kitchen” about her life and food, and while I think she would be able to run a successful restaurant my wife tells me that Koreans won’t shell out the cash for decent doenjang stew, and prefer the cheap chemical stuff you can get for about three dollars at most places here.
In the course of this dinner we consume dried squid, which is a common rubbery junk food featured in “The Host”; small anchovies dipped in a thick chili pepper paste, cucumbers slathered in kimchi sauce, the spectacular kimchi itself, soggy mushrooms, and rice. We eat right on the floor because the table’s too small for us, and despite all the people sitting on chairs and eating at tables in Korean soap operas, real Koreans, I think, prefer the floor, and usually eat there, although my family eats with a small sort of coffee table that they fold up and lean against the wall during those rare times in the day when they are not devouring—with a savage and delightful glee—endless piles of spicy pickled vegetables.
I have to put the Turkish rug away; “carpet” is the same word in English as it is in Korean, to show how foreign the concept is to these bare floor-oriented people. Beyond my apartment I don’t think I’ve ever seen a carpet anywhere in Korea, which is a sad state of affairs indeed, at least in a culturally imperialistic way. The apartments I’ve visited do not really have any furniture at all, and the huge furniture outlets you see wherever you go are always completely devoid of customers yet forever miraculously still in business. One of the signs that you are eating at a good restaurant is the fact that you are seated on the floor with little more than a thin cushion, usually dyed a bright gaudy shade of pink, keeping in tune with the bright plastic colors of ajumma hanbok and the annoying cuteness of every single sign and cellphone ringtone, to keep your asscheeks from asphyxiating to death.
Dad sits on the bed. He has a serious limp and a very thin left leg he can barely walk on, which comes from a polio infection he got when Korea was still a third world country. The infuriating thing about it is that the disease was curable at the time, but this cure was out of the financial reach of his destitute family. If I have the details right my wife is descended from a line of kings and queens on her mom’s side going back about two thousand years, and, a bit more recently, my dad’s side owned a prosperous shoe factory in Busan that burned down under circumstances I don’t quite understand about sixty years ago, rendering them penniless. I made a point of mentioning my wife’s nobility (which she claims quite erroneously to be commonplace) to almost everyone we met when we went to America, calling her a Korean princess as often as possible, mostly because she looked extremely cute when she blushed and modestly denied any relationship to the historical personages of a faraway and really unknown kingdom to the east, as though she was not exotic and fascinating enough to begin with. Our marriage was recently announced in a local Maine newspaper, but unfortunately my parents neglected this important detail.
But back to my dad’s limp—I used to think it was ridiculous how every twentieth man in Korea over the age of forty has some kind of absurd limp, straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks, and my snide laughter was really just one of many outgrowths of my general Korea-related frustration, a way of striking back at the seeming presumptuousness of this place—if you’re such a great country, how come so many of you assholes are walking around like circus clowns?—but the limps these guys have to deal with are reminders and leftovers of the poverty and the war that came to this country within the living memory of many (and perhaps even most) of its citizens (my great uncle told me he was six when the war started, and said nothing more), so I don’t chuckle any more now that I see how this disability has affected my father-in-law. His fierce strength has produced a tough, successful family that most would envy, but his mobility is severely restricted, and when my own parents visited us here in Korea he was largely unable to join us when we visited some of the incredible tourist sites in Gyeongju.
He has to throw this thin leg forward to move himself, and made it up four flights of stairs on his own, as he always does, shunning even the thought of assistance, before settling down on the bed to check through my wife’s hideous gigantic bulky black Samsung laptop, which he does with the most noble and serious sort of look; helps unwrap the bounty of presents—some nice brown bowls and coffee cups scrawled over with white lines of wriggling Konglish—sent to us by my brother’s girlfriend, an English teacher who is terrified of speaking with me, and a typically attractive young Korean woman who is called ugly in this country though I think she would have piles of slobbering men tearing each other’s arms off to get to her in America, which is the case of nearly every young woman I see here; nags my mom and wife with exasperated sighs and head shakes and squints in a way that is so warmly and comfortably and uniquely and delightfully Korean; repeatedly calls my brother a bastard, probably in an affectionate way born out of a strictly macho culture that frowns on too much warmth and friendship between people who occupy different levels of status and respect (i.e, anyone); speaks thickly-accented English to me that is far beneath my own pathetic level of Korean (“Gyeongju go!” “Sheet down!”); and eats what is very possibly some of the best food in all of Korea without the speechless ecstasy of the gluttonous foreigner.
I have to address them both with the Korean terms for “mother-in-law” and “father-in-law”, chang-bo-neem and chang-een-aw-loon, respectively, and as Koreans have yet another a strange habit of speaking in the third person, they often say “mother-in-law thinks…” or “father-in-law wants…” instead of “I think…” or “he wants…” when speaking to me. My own thought, as the world’s most amateur anthropologist, is that these are forms of politeness characteristic of a people who have some difficulty with speaking as relentlessly plainly and informally as Americans do under almost every circumstance.
They give us so much and I’m never sure how to repay them. Beyond handing them cups of Costa Rican coffee (which they deluge with sugar) I have no idea how to be hospitable to them. I hate to ask them for anything because I feel like such a helpless recipient of their unlimited generosity, and after the meal ends I feel bad about not having given them any gifts, after they’ve packed our apartment and our refrigerator with presents, and so rack my brains for some interesting gewgaw I’ve picked up from my travels, that I might give away to show how much I appreciate their endless kindness. A little bronze Garuda and Ganesh do not impress dad, though I think mom appreciates the thought; their interest shifts to a booklight I have mounted on the bed, one which I have used perhaps five times during my stay here; dad thinks he could use it at work; it’s his. My brother points to my $700 camera and says “I want this”, but he doesn’t get it.
I have to say something Americans almost never say—I’m crazy about my in-laws. I enjoy their company. I hadn’t seen them in weeks and I missed them. I want to be conversant in Korean so we can actually talk to each other. Getting to know them even a little has widened my perspective of this place, and humanity in general, to a far greater extent than I think I ever could have known had my girlfriend and I never gotten hitched.
As dad leaves he says goodbye to me in affectionate banmal (“peace!”) and waves; mom wants to hug me and I want to hug her but she just shakes my hand and leaves it at that.