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March 24, 2011

Meeting Korean Parents

I was recently trying to explain to The Husband about the cultural differences between parents and in-laws between our cultures and was having a hard time. While I could explain something to a Korean friend and they would just nod their head in agreement, putting into words the various mannerisms Koreans use and then trying to explain why, was very difficult. How do i explain something that I just know and is second nature to me?

So i did a google search "meeting a Korean parents for the first time" and stumbled upon this great blog called Ask a Korean Blog. It's basically a dude that gets random questions and tries to answer them in the most honest and straightforward way, whether through research or his own experiences. And while it is collectively a generalized response, b/c when you ask about a ethnic group or culture, we can only speak very generally - i think his blog is pretty spot on.  Of course this does not mean it speaks to each and every Korean out there, but the general Korean population, i think it hits the bulls eye on...

The Korean had a post called Meet the Koreans. I am cutting and pasting some text from his site that I thought were particular spot on or relevant to me, so i definitely urge you to visit his blog and that post for the FULL context of the post.

What are Korean parents like? Again, the Korean urges all of you to not fixate on the parents’ Koreanness, but on the fact that they are parents. Parents worry about their children, and they care about with whom their children are spending the rest of their lives. Every parent in the world would be like this, except only in differing degrees. Some parents care deeply, and some not so much. Likewise, some Korean parents care deeply, and some not so much.

However, on average, you can expect Korean parents to be more protective about their children than American parents, for largely two reasons. First, Korean parents on average tend to invest more into their children. (Doesn’t placenta injection say it all?) So naturally there is more resistance when some random dude/hussy swoops in to snatch their children away. This is more the case if the child is the only child, or is wildly successful. (= doctors, lawyers, professors.) A lot of time and money went into raising that doctorlawyerIndianchief son/daughter.

Second, on the flip side, Korean children tend to be more dependent on their parents for longer period of time. In the U.S., there is (arguably) a clean break between high school and college through which young people step into adulthood. They go away for college or get a job. But since Korea has inadequate college tuition assistance/work study programs compared to the U.S., Korean students must rely on their parents for the college tuition. Also, because everything – people, good schools, good jobs – is concentrated in Seoul, there is no place for young people to go away to. Instead they usually live with their parents into mid-20s, only moving out when they get married. Therefore, marriage is often the first time the parents are separated from their children.

The protectiveness is compounded if a Korean child is marrying a non-Korean. Average Korean parent is concerned about their children being taken away when they are marrying another Korean. Imagine how they would feel when their children are marrying a non-Korean; they react like Martians are abducting their children. On top of that, many Koreans are racists, and generally hate everyone who is not Korean – particularly if darker. The prospect of having mongrel grandchildren (from a racist Korean’s perspective) is not very appealing either.

Herein lies the clue about what to do with Korean parents. All the taboos and do’s-and-don’t’s are secondary to this most paramount concern: you must convince the parents that their child is not going anywhere. Show your willingness to visit them often, and your willingness to do things the Korean way without challenging the parents’ authority. That includes learning basic Korean, eating all Korean food well, celebrating Korean holidays, vowing to teach children Korean language and culture, learning Korean etiquettes, and so on.

With that grand aim in mind, here are some basic pointers.

- Dress well. Collared shirt and slacks for men; wearing a suit and tie is not overdoing it. For women, very conservative dress - absolutely no pants or cleavage. Pretend you are going to meet the President and you would have it about right.

- Learn a lot of Korean. You have to be able to talk with the parents. Call them eomeonim (mother) and abeonim (father), as married people are supposed to consider in-law parents as their own.
- This may be too obvious, but the Korean has seen it happen: DO NOT CALL THEM BY THEIR NAMES. You NEVER address your elder/superior by their names – slapping them in the face would be less rude than that.
- Do not show any affection to your boyfriend/girlfriend. Any display of affection is considered crass; it’s definitely not something you do before your elders. Keep your significant other at an arm’s length without drifting away from him/her. Do not look at him/her, and definitely do not touch him/her. Try not to talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend unless absolutely necessary. Holding hands might be ok.
- If you happen to sit on the floor instead of on a chair, kneel until you are told otherwise. This won’t be comfortable, but your comfort should be the last one of your concerns. By making yourself uncomfortable, you are signaling respect.
- When eating, dare to eat the most exotic looking thing on the table. Finish your food, and look happy as you eat – if you don’t like Korean food, you have no chance.
- Do not touch anything on the table (including utensils) until the eldest person (usually the father) begins eating. Do not leave the table until the eldest person leaves. Say thank you before and after the meal.
- If you are a man, drink. You are not a man if you do not drink. Pour drinks with two hands, and receive drinks with two hands. Never pour yourself. For your first sip, turn your head away as you drink.
- If you are a woman, help out in the kitchen. Help setting up and cleaning. Knowing how to cook Korean food is a plus. (Are these things sexist? You bet they are, but your aim is to please sexist people. Koreans are about 70 percent likely to be racist, but 95 percent likely to be sexist.)
- Bring gifts. 
Read more at the Ask a Korean Blog. 

Now i know that after reading such a post and not being Korean, you may think that sounds awful. Or say to yourself "but people, we are in America!!!" but the fact of the matter is, Korean culture is very confucian-rooted as well as very patriarchal. Korea has come a long way, but some things still stay very rooted, while other things don't and most Korean Americans that I know were raised to be very aware of their traditions and cultural mannerisms.

When i hand anything to an elder or someone I don't know, do i always use two hands? Yes. When i greet a fellow Korean on the street, do I bow? Yes! Do I wait for the eldest to be served and start eating before I dive in? In A Korean house, yes! Do I often bite my tongue when speaking with elders? Yes!

I do not do any of these things out of fear or insecurity of who I am, but rather b/c I am a strong American born Korean woman. My willingness to do these mannerisms that some feel are so submissive or not honest to one's own person are in fact the exact opposite. I do these things because I am secure in who I am and because I know that showing respect to others is respecting myself.

The thought that comes to mind is the flack that Obama got in regards to "bowing" when he met some other foreign leaders. They said he was being submissive or showing weakness. In reality, he was showing respect. Respect for himself and respect for the American people by being an example of someone who understand the differences in cultures and how the slightest mannerism can go a VERY long way. Whether you agree with other's cultural views, habits or mannerisms, the fact that you can acknowledge the difference and be respectful is a very big deal.

So back to my point, while I have it easy being married into a White family... my in-laws don't have these huge expectations of what a daughter-in-law should do or be; and I, being raised Korean-American, do as much as i can without stepping on my mother-in-law's feet, (i.e., I help out when I can in the kitchen, but i'd never take over all kitchen duties b/c she'd be offended - unlike some Korean households that expect the DIL to take it over and do it ALL alone) in their eyes, I may seem to do more b/c they had no expectations. So i win... whereas, the Husband being married into a Korean family, needs to learn this culture of Korean mannerisms that is so foreign to him. His willingness to learn and to acknowledge that even the slightest mannerisms can be taken the wrong way even if completely acceptable American mannerisms is a big deal. His desire to want to make sure to please my parents is an even bigger deal. The fact that he loves me despite what seems like hurdles to jump through when I didn't have any real hurdles is a Huge deal and I couldn't love him more for it.

Did you have any cultural differences to work through in your relationship? Were there some things you just could never grasp or accept? How did you deal with it? Were there anything above that The Korean listed as totally a shock or amusing to you?

Make sure to check out the Ask a Korean Blog! :)


  1. Oh goodness where do I begin! Both my husband and I were very nervous about the reception aspect of our wedding namely because he felt it would be a culture shock for his VERY white family.

    With me being hispanic AND coming from a small town....everyone and their mamas came to the wedding. He however only had about a third of the numbers I had. Lots of tejano music was played (his mother didn't really enjoy that) and it made for a few tense moments between us, mostly because this was out of the norm for her and her family/friends.

    We were both raised VERY differently and it's been a learning process that is still being tweaked every so often! Gotta love cultural differences :)

  2. What a great blog that is! My fiancee and I have enough issues with fitting into each others family and we are both from a very similar cultural background so I can't even imagine how challenging it would be for you and your gentleman!

    I send you many wishes of good luck! I am sure it will all work out :)

  3. While I could explain something to a Korean friend and they would just nod their head in agreement, putting into words the various mannerisms Koreans use and then trying to explain why, was very difficult. How do i explain something that I just know and is second nature to me?


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