After all these years of being in this skin, I have learned that I have acquired a certain amount of grace floating back and forth between the American world and the Foreign (Korean) world. I know that I am a bit unusual in that my Korean language skills are better than most adoptees, which makes living with my Umma a bit easier but inside, I am foremost American. The little things that drive me nuts are quintessentially not Korean – personal space, privacy, open blunt observations (ie. you are big, this does not taste good…). I try to take these in stride knowing that I can turn it off when I want and not spend a blessed day with another Korean person for as long as I possible need. But while my Umma was living with me, that was on hold and all the things that bothered me about being in Korea was in my house, my space. I learned to say “stop talking about me” in Korean. What I had trouble with saying in English or Korea was “stop hovering over me while I am cooking, stop making running commentary of what I use, what I waste, how I baste, how long I cook something and ultimately how it tastes.” Oh! I need to add, “stop commenting on what I eat, what I drink, what I don’t eat, what I should eat more of, how often I do the laundry, how many quarters I use up and how much that means in Korean money (a crapload).”
A perk to so having Korean Koreans in the home was all the wonderful spicy food I don’t typically cook for myself. To buy a jar of red pepper paste would be wasteful :) And so having two other people in the house who live to eat spicy food was nice. To see the red splashed onto our table was a beautiful thing. The best part was that it was homemade. I think I had a major break through on two fronts. First, my Umma finally cooked something. Second, my mother-in-law and I got a whole lot closer.
First the background, kim-chee is an item in a Korean household that is unique to each home, every woman makes it her own special way to the particular liking of her family. Some like it saltier, spicier, with fish as a base, with nothing as a base, freshly made, more fermented and even more fermented, downright rotten. Having said all this, George has grown up with a fabulous cook as a mother who makes awesome fresh kimchee. It is literally marveled at when eaten. So, when George likes something Korean someone else cooks, high praise indeed. My Umma and her cucumber kimchee was just that, delicious. She was downright proud as a peacock and then went on to tell us how she made it and why she thinks it might be so good – like a person telling a joke and then explaining the punchline again and again….it was cute. She later made spinach her way, and I am pleased to report I continue to make it the same way. My boys will not eat it any other way. What a lovely generational legacy.
From the first day of their arrival, my mother-in-law has been worried about the food situation. She was worried that my limited repetoire of Korean cooking will not suffice. She remarked that food is the one comfort a person has to remind her of home and proceeded to send food over regularly especially her marvelous kim-chee. A perk indeed!
I didn’t know how my Korean in-laws would receive my Umma. I didn’t know what they thought of her, her situation and more importantly, how this will effect me later on. It has not been a smooth road to understanding and acceptance with me and them. I learned the hard way to keep my mouth shut and swallow my words. I have ridden the crazy roller coaster of figuring out just what is traditional Korean custom and when is it just THIS family’s traditional custom. I don’t know if I will ever master that. For them too, it has been a weird ride. They see me as a Korean woman and can even slip in and out of Korean with relative ease, but get confused or hurt when I don’t act accordingly. They are involved in our day to day lives a LOT and so I knew it would be an adjustment for them as I had to figure out how much to continue doing with them while my Umma was here. I think there was plenty of surprise all around for all three of us. My Umma was surprised as to how much I catered to my in-laws and how much I allowed in. My mother-in-law was surprised as to how hard I was trying to make my Umma fit in and mildly amused as to all the cultural impasses we were having. And I was most surprised of all.
Of all the mothers in my life, it was my mother-in-law who got me. She was understanding, patient and calm. BUT, she was true to her tiger sign and made it very clear that she was looking out for me, my health and my little family. The changes were subtle, but the reverberations of this visit have held on even today. I felt like I became her daughter during this time. A “Joy Luck Club” moment – she saw me suffering and with that I earned her respect. I joke. but it was more like I was so frazzled and pre-occupied that I stoppped trying to be too Korean. And in the process, my mother-in-law saw me and she seemed to like me a whole lot better.
I continue to try and balance being Korean and Korean American. It continues to be a negotiation. But it seems that the more I know of my past, and why I am the way I am, the more I like being both.
With every moment that is brought to clarity, I keep thinking about my brother and what this all means to him. For most of his life he never knew about me, never knew he had another sister who was such a strong presence in his mother’s mind. I am a part of a past he never had to even entertain. He has sort of been raised as the “surviving” child, a replacement in a way to a lost child. I began to see just how dependent my Umma was on him and how different his “normal” was compared to others. He wears this burden beautifully and I am indeed looking for the effects it has had on him, notwithstanding the fact that he is not married and still willing to live with his mother. They are friends, my Umma and brother, and have a connection that will always feel like I am the third wheel. Two is a couple, three a crowd. She goes to him first, even if it is something that has to do with me. She looks to him to be her sounding board, her punching bag, her comfort. I began to wonder what this visit will do to the nature of their relationship when they return to Korea. Will he want to branch out on his own or feel burdened by this permanent responsibility? Will he want to even stay in Korea? Do I owe HIM?