Friday, August 5, 2011


"When you choose to be friends with a foreigner, you have to be brave.  They will hurt you again and again, and you won't understand why.  But you have to forgive and try again."

My first living-in-Korea Korean friend told me that, and I'm so certain that she is right. 

It has been twelve years last week since I first arrived in Korea.  I thought I knew a fair bit about the place.  I had Korean friends, had taken Korean lessons, had read Korean books, had watched documentaries on the place.

The difference between living some place and reading about it is like the difference between becoming a parent and babysitting a newborn for an hour.

My husband and I once spoke about his family and some different issues during which, he turned to me and blurted, "You think you're nice, but you're not.  You think you're patient, but you're not trying to understand at all."

Perhaps he is right.  I have learned that there are different rules for being nice.  I may not always follow them, and, to be honest, there may be times I may not really care to.

I listened to a sometimes inspiring talk on the Golden Rule last night only to come to the conclusion that it is not exactly universal.  Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you assumes that others share your tastes and desires.  Of course, there is the underlying principle that perhaps doing unto others includes listening to their own desires and attributing to those desires an equal worth to your own, but that sometimes gets lost in the literal translation.

This struck home with me the other week when I met a friend.  I brought a couple small gifts with me, a homemade wind-doo-dad and a mess of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.  As I was preparing to head out the door, my mother-in-law looked at the gifts I had and said, "Are you giving her that?

"Yes.  She will like that."

"Let's cut some watermelon."

"It's okay.  We don't need it."

"I'll go buy it.  Quickly."

"It's okay.  She likes this."

The phone rang.  My friend had arrived.  No time for watermelon.  My mother-in-law was beside herself with worry.  She was being nice.  She was doing her very best.  And we were surprisingly uncooperative, and I'm hoping that we didn't seem ungrateful.

Later, alone, I gave my friend the candy and wind-doohickey. 

"Oh. My. God," my friend said.  "Are these really Reeses Cups?"

"Would you rather have watermelon?" I asked, now slightly paranoid that perhaps I had miscalculated my friend's tastes.

She rolled her eyes.  "Please. I will hoard these in the refrigerator for years.  Seriously."

"My mother-in-law was very insistent."

She laughed.  "Yeah, I know."

We weren't laughing at my mother-in-law.  In fact, in some ways, we weren't really laughing at all.  This is one of those times that you choose to either laugh or cry.  And the truth is that if we chose to cry then, we would be crying all our lives.  So we chose to laugh.

But the sadness doesn't exactly go away.  It stays there uncomfortably because at the core of our being there are people who are very important to us whom we simply cannot understand. And it's not about the words.   We get those.  It's about vague expectations of love that we seem to have missed the lessons on.

Take the other day. 

I have a tendency to think of cultures as the five love languages.  The US is a country in which we show love through affirming, appreciative speech.  Korea is a gift-giving country.  That's just how it is.  I get that part.  What I apparently didn't get was a difference in how gifts are generally received.

We were staying at my sister-in-law's, and she was doing us some favors.  I had been visiting a friend and was coming back, so I picked up some fruit as a typical thank you gift.  I know that I would never give fruit or juice as a thank you gift in the US, but that's just how it's done here. And to be honest, it might be better than the plethora of "Best Teacher" pencils and "# 1 Mom" mugs that float around in the US. 

But back to the story.  When I gave the fruit to my SIL, she said, "Why don't you take some back for our in-laws?"

I quickly responded, "Oh, no.  I'll stop at a bread store and get some bread for FIL."

"But MIL doesn't like bread.  She likes fruit."

"I know, but I can't pick Korean fruit well.  Every time I buy fruit, she says it tastes yucky.  So I don't buy it any more."  I realized that I don't buy her anything any more because she never seems to like it.  In fact, she has ended up giving most of what I have bought for her back to me a few years later.  I have felt a little guilty because I'm obviously such a bad gift-chooser.

My SIL smiled as she ate a piece of the fruit.  "It's sweet.  You picked well.  Just take it."

So, about two hours later, the two of us walked up the steps to my in-laws' house, my SIL carrying the fruit because I was too much of a wimp.

Sure enough, my MIL appeared at the door and exclaimed, "Why did you buy melons?  They taste terrible at this time of year!"

But, undaunted, my SIL carried them in and said, "She (me) bought them for FIL."

Now, before you think SIL is just shifting blame onto me, I need to explain that I had an epiphany at that moment.  I had often heard my MIL berate my SIL for various gifts that she had bought in the past, but once SIL was gone, MIL would brag about them to her friends.

Apparently, this show of dissatisfaction is simply, at least for my MIL, an expected behavior.  Now she may really not like what I give her (as evidenced by regifting it back to me), but that doesn't mean that she didn't appreciate it in the first place.

I was simply too wrapped up in my own feelings of not fitting in to recognize that she was treating me just like the rest of the family.

And of course, this is the predicament of loving others as you love yourself.  They may not love the same way, but they still love.  You have to be brave and carry the melons up the steps.  You have to do it again next time. 

But most of all--and this is important too--you don't have to do it alone.  Perhaps the most important part about being brave and trying to fit in is expressing those "not-fitting-in" moments to someone else.  Even if I would have bought the wrong melons, I at least learned that my SIL was brave enough to not-fit-in beside me, and sometimes that is even more important than getting it right.

1 comment:

  1. You have me fairly convinced that I could never make it in a foreign culture. I feel gauche enough trying to get things right in my native U.S.! But a lovely post, and lovely lesson, as always.