Mother-In-Laws

My childhood memory starts when I was maybe three or four years old. After my maternal grandmother and her daughters moved to the U.S. and stopped living with our family, my paternal grandparents moved in. According to my mother, my grandfather was a kind and gentle man, although he had a bit of a weakness for alcohol. But he was apparently still relatively a gentleman when he was drunk. He apparently loved my mother and through his influence softened his wife’s sharpness toward my mom. 

It’s strange how so many Korean mother-in-laws are nasty to their daughter-in-laws. You’d think they’d swear to be nice to their own daughter-in-laws after experiencing mistreatment from their mother-in-law. But instead of not repeating the mistake, they equally mistreat their own daughter-in-laws. And the cycle continues. Perhaps they are taking revenge for the time they were miserable as a daughter-in-law. Perhaps they don’t know how else to behave, since that’s all they learned.

Thankfully, my paternal grandmother couldn’t treat my mother too badly. My mother was a highly educated woman from a good family and she was also as much of a bread earner as my father was, especially since most of his salary went to supporting his family of origin and my mother’s salary went to pay for supporting our family. Still, my grandmother wasn’t a very kind woman and, at least for the first few years they lived with us, my paternal grandfather was a soft influence on her.

In contrast to what most people would think, my mother was not happy when I got married. I think she was worried about me experiencing so many difficulties she’d faced as a married woman. I can’t count in my two hands how many times my mother packed her bags and grabbed us from school, with the intention of never coming back. Of course, that would never have worked in Korea since women had absolutely no rights then, even a working woman. I sometimes wonder if my mother would have broken the cycle of mother-in-law abuse if one of her children had been born as a man and had gotten married.

Concubine or two

I’ve written about my great grandmother, who was a bit of a child bride. As often it was with arranged marriages, their marriage was… shall I say, the typical marriage of a rich man? Perhaps it’s because the choice was taken away from him, or perhaps he was just a rich man of his time.

My great grandmother did have three children by her husband, including the last child, a boy, who’d died. But my great grandfather was never content with the marriage. I’m told he was rich, tall, handsome, and an incredible singer. Obviously, there would be tons of women following him? And in those days, it was a common practice to have a concubine or two. So that’s what he did. He spent a lot of time with his second wife/concubine and had children with her. Of course, my grandmother knew all about it as she sometimes fetched him home from various concubines’ houses.

Then what happens when there are no sons by the first wife? You adopt the sons of the other wife to be the sons of the first wife. And that’s what happened. Essentially, these sons sort of became the sons of my great grandmother, on paper, of course. And well, that’s where inheritance (if there had been any left after the war) would have gone as well.

And both my grandmother and my mother’s generation all knew of this as they were well acquainted with who my mother called her “uncles”. I suppose in modern times this type of practice would be possibly unthinkable? Boys at any cost? But that was quite common in the olden times. So common that an exorbitant amount of money was spent in bringing back these uncles from the North when the border was nearly closed.

In the end, they were the inheritors of the family legacy, whatever was left of it. Thankfully, they were nice people and exceptionally smart, taking after my great grandfather. I vaguely remember meeting one of them and I always wondered why I had great uncles when my great grandmother didn’t have any sons.

Seaweed Soup

Seaweed soup is a must-have dish. It’s not fancy and easily made so we used to eat it ‌often. All you need is good 미역 (seaweed) and meat broth – and there is plenty of stale seaweed that will make you believe seaweed soup is not good, so beware.

Not sure how much people’s eating habits have changed in Korea these days with westernization, but when I was young, we still had rice, soup and side dishes three meals ago. Obviously, as a child, I often preferred something different. Did I tell you I didn’t even like Gimchee when I was young? That obviously changed now. Now, I crave Gimchee, just not always able to get it.

Although it was a typical dish, the seaweed soup was very important. Usually you must have some on your birthday and after giving birth. Why? Well, the explanation given to me was that it was good for our body, cleanses blood, clears skin, etc. So traditionally when a woman gave birth, it was a must-give. But I suppose not always? That was the case for my maternal grandmother.

She’d given birth to a third daughter, my mother, that is. And her parents-in-law decided to neglect her. Apparently, it was her fault that she didn’t end up having a male child. You probably can’t tell from my writing, but this type of treatment upsets me. And it apparently upset my maternal great grandmother too. Beware of the wrath of mothers! 

So hearing that her daughter was being neglected by her husband’s family – at that time, my grandmother had gone to give birth at her husband’s main family’s house), my great grandmother decided to intervene. She bought expensive seaweed and hired a man on a motorcycle. My grandmother’s husband’s family was extremely well-off and mighty, which meant they had their large main house situated away from the city with large land, and her husband had been studying in the city. On the motorcycle my great grandmother went, and essentially barged into her son-in-law’s house. Then she took charge of the kitchen – trust me, this is not something you do as a woman’s family in those times.

But my grandmother got her seaweed soup, finally after several days.

Which hair dye do you use?

My parents run a small neighborhood pharmacy in a residential neighborhood of Seoul. The neighborhood pharmacies in Korea when I was young were not like the pharmacies in America. It primarily served as the first line of defense against the illness for the neighborhood. Hospitals were only places you went if you were truly sick. This was the time before nationalized healthcare, before the battle between pharmacists and doctors (an outcome which you could have guessed, pharmacists lost).

But I digress. I was trying to say, although the pharmacies were primarily where pharmacists prescribed medicine, they did sell some of the other items you might think to find in normal pharmacies in America, like hair dye.

Why do I mention hair dye? Well, I was just reading an article about how Korean women’s hair transformed economy through wigs (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-hair-wigs-south-korea), and it reminded me of how when I was young, my mother was frequently asked by a customer, “What color hair dye do you use? Give me that one.”

My mother has never used a hair dye so you ask why would someone ask that? Because instead of jet black hair that most Koreans are known for, my mother has naturally dark brown hair, which is just slightly wavy, and lots of it. My grandmother on my maternal side was the same way. Long, long dark brown, slightly wavy hair. Both me and my sister have that too. I guess we won the hair lottery since it is heavy, never stops growing (my grandmother had at one point grown it down to her ankle and turned it into a hair ornament for her mother).

I digress again. My mom would sort of smile and recommend a brown hair dye we had on the shelf. I mean, when she first started helping my father out at the pharmacy, she’d tried to explain that it was her natural color, but no one would believe it. So later she’s like, why not? Might as well sell the hair dye.

Why do I bother with this story at all?

First to point out, Korea has always been a society that, as nice as people are, has had a hard time accepting people who are ‌different. And to show how, over the years, we become inured to this push to conform to societal norms, at least outwardly.

Chamberpot

It’s been a while since I blogged. Life… what can I say? And unfortunately, some stories I write in my blog sit a little heavy within me and I sometimes avoid writing. Love and hate relationship, remember? But today, I wanted to write a funny and maybe crass story of my childhood. If you don’t like a bit of bathroom humor, please stop reading now.

So when I was young, despite living in a two-story house with a flushing toilet upstairs (which really was constantly broken), our whole family mostly lived downstairs during the winter. I mean, heating was expensive and, well, families usually slept together in those days. My parents would sleep in another room on the first floor, but grandma, me and my sister would sleep in the slightly bigger room. 

Downstairs rooms did not have a flushing toilet, nor even an attached toilet. Basically, we had 뒷간 (meaning back house, but really means an outhouse with a hole in the ground). So if you wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you’d have to put on some extra clothes, shoes, take a little flashlight and go to this separate structure/room you’d call bathroom. Then you wash your hands as you come back, since the sink is near your room and nowhere near the outhouse.

As a child, I was terrified of falling into the said bathroom, as it was really a giant hole you squat on top of. Especially in the dark, it was even more terrifying since there were many stories of ghosts hanging about in the outhouses. And if you add freezing (-15 C) weather to that, you really didn’t want to go to the bathroom at night. Unfortunately, I always had a tiny bladder.

One evening, my dad was sleeping with us. This is rare since he was a very light sleeper and hated sleeping with others. We were all terrified of waking him up since he got really irritable and angry. Let’s say my bladder was not listening to my fears. It decided that it needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what to do. If I were to try to go outside, which I didn’t want to, I’d wake up my dad who’d get angry, etc.

So my grandmother came to the rescue… Because the bathroom situation was impossible, she always had this thing called Yo-gang (essentially a chamberpot, but it’s shaped like a round pot made of stainless steel). She said I should use Yo-gang quietly since that would be less likely to wake up dad. Since I was also terrified of going outside in the cold and dark, I was quite happy with her solution.

Dad wouldn’t wake up and I wouldn’t have to go outside.

Let me just say I hadn’t considered one problem…
The sound of pee hitting the stainless steel container.

You can probably guess the ending to the story. My dad jumped up from the loud noise, got angry anyway. Then, he got angrier because grandma had me use the chamberpot which, well, modern people wouldn’t use. 

There’s really no moral to the story except to tell you what honestly happened. The Korea of my childhood was not like the Korea of now. Even living in the middle of the capital city of Seoul, our two story modern house still had an outhouse. We had constant shut off of water so had to install a pump system. Our electricity went out rather often. There was really no hot water to speak of. And well, there was that one chamberpot.

Memory of licorice flavored jelly

Several years ago, I asked my dad what he’d like me to bring from the US. It’s a typical thing, when I visit Korea, I typically try to bring items from the US that my parents want. Initially it was because there were many things here that didn’t exist in Korea, but later, it became more for my parents to be able to tell their friends and acquaintances that their daughter brought something. They are very happy when they can pass out small pieces of dark chocolate, candy or coffee direct from the US.

So when he asked me to bring back black jelly that has something like the fragrance of 5 spices, I was thinking…what is that about? My dad tells me often he doesn’t like sweets (even though he does), but I had no idea what black jelly was. Well…I figured out that it is licorice flavored jelly. 

It seemed like a strange request since I think flavors like licorice or root beer are a bit of an acquired taste. If you aren’t exposed to it when you’re a child, you don’t tend to like it. I personally haven’t been so I don’t like either of them. Licorice flavor isn’t a common thing in Korea (at least up until my childhood) so I was wondering how my dad got exposed and was wanting this? So I bought the best licorice flavored jelly, the more high end kind that’s all natural, etc. When I brought this, he looked at it funny, took a bite and said this is not what he’d asked for. 

At this point, I’m perplexed. Was there some other kind of licorice?

He explained why he wanted this jelly. The memory goes back to post war time. After the war, there really wasn’t much to eat, which means dessert or sweets were not even part of the picture. But my dad remembers the American soldiers he’d met. They’d have these small packages of round flat disk fruit jellies (ones that come in different colors and covered with sugar) that come with their food packages. And the soldiers would often hand these out to the kids they meet. These candies were untold treasures to children and they’d savor them. The reason licorice flavor was what my dad wanted most was that it was not a common one in these packages. So it was like a treasure when he’d get one. 

And even now after so many decades past, my dad is still seeking a little piece of sweet memory, which he could only find in the fake licorice fruit jelly, not the real licorice jelly.

Mother’s Poem

My mother has always been a poet. Constantly scribbling, yet unable to spread her wings most of her life due to life’s obligations. I’d love to introduce you to one of her creations here. I only hope I was able to do justice in translating it.

비내리는 날의 일기 ㅡ 소귀골(牛耳洞)을 걸으며…  
– 수목원

옛목간통으로 가는 
골목길은 
멀고도 가깝다는 
표현이 맞겠습니다

돌아오는 소귀골
(牛耳洞)엔
장맛비가 억수로 
골목 어귀를 채우고,

비에 젖어 즐거운 듯
가지를 흔들어대던
굵은둥치 호두나무가 
나를 보고 반가워
가을을 기다린다고
얘기를 나누잡니다.

나의 로망은
기다리는 작은 기쁨, 
기다리고 있는 소망,
가을 기다림으로 해
여름더위를 이겨내는
작은 열매를 보는 거,

그렇게 소소해서도
마음이 충만해짐을
갖는 순간입니다..

Diary on a rainy day – Walking Soguigol street
– Soo Mok Won

So close yet so far
Is how I would describe the twisted backstreets
that leads to the old bath house

As I walk through Soguigol street,
torrential rain fills the mouth of its alley

The thick old walnut tree waves its arms
with the joy of soaking summer rain
It is delighted to see me
And urges me to chat about the coming of the fall

My inner romance is in
A tiny joy of waiting
A tiny hope of longing
And seeing the tiny seed of overcoming the summer heat
Through waiting for the fallAlthough perhaps it might be trifling,
The moment fills my heart with fullness.

Parachute Undergarment

As I am a totally lazy information consumer, I do information consumption via email, basically in the form of email digests of news, science, history, medicine…whatever I can subscribe to. Well, mostly you can guess that the news is about nowadays. But occasionally, I do find some snippets of interesting factoids of history, science, etc. that I have never known and sometimes it connects with my Korean background.

And that’s what I found a few days ago…

It was a story about how World War II soldiers carried hidden silk maps so they could aid in escape as scraps of cloth could be easily hidden.

So here’s a related story about my grandmother. Unfortunately now that I’m starting to tell the story, the silk map for escaping is not at all related to what I’m about to tell you, but it still reminded me of the story my grandmother told me so you’ll just have to bear with me.

After escaping Seoul, my grandmother and her children (my mother and her sisters) landed in Busan, the last stop on the train (for how they got there, read my blog entry on Last Train out of Seoul). As you can imagine, all they had were whatever it was they carried with them, some clothes, paper money (which was useless by this time), and numerous gold and silver rings that traveled with my grandmother. My maternal grandmother’s household was rather rich so she had thought to bring all jewelry she had with her. And in those days, many people collected gold and silver rings as preserving wealth.

Jumeok-bap by CCkorea Seoul

My grandmother tells me that for a while, she literally exchanged a silver or gold ring, an item of great value for a single roll of Gim-bap (Rice with vegetable and maybe some meat wrapped with seaweed) or Jumeok-bap (Just seasoned rice shaped into a ball). She had been lucky since most people who had escaped from Seoul were not even able to get that much.

Gim-bap by ayustety (a flickr user)

As my grandmother was quite enterprising, she soon started the business of selling whatever she could so she could support her children. One of the items that she sold happens to be women’s undergarments made out of parachute cloth. I never thought about it, but I suppose numerous soldiers during the war time were air dropped into the war zone. I assume the parachutes were discarded and the soldier went toward wherever they needed to. My grandmother harvested many of these parachutes. They were made out of extremely durable Nylon fabric that apparently made several lovely undergarments she could sell for a great profit.

I sometimes wonder how she thought to do that…considering when she first got married, she couldn’t even properly make clothes for her husband and mother-in-law, which was custom in those days. But that is another snippet for another time.

Sadness of Having a Third Daughter

Despite all her brilliance, my grandmother initially had two daughters. Not having a son was of course a woman’s issue in those days. The science now shows it is really a man that is crucial to determination of sex, but in those days, people just assumed it was woman’s fault if she could not have a son. When my grandmother was about to have her third child, she was called to her husband’s household to have the child there. Everyone had wanted a son and thought the third child must be a son and therefore should be properly birthed at the family house. Although my grandparents lived in the capital, my grandmother traveled to my grandfather’s rural family holding.

Unfortunately, the third child also ended up being a daughter, my mother to be exact. Having birthed another daughter, my grandmother was not exactly treated well. Normally after birth, if it was the birth of a son I suppose, women are given seaweed soup (helps with blood loss, etc.) and taken care of. None of that happened for my grandmother. She was essentially ignored at my grandfather’s household out in the middle of nowhere. He was not there obviously since he was still studying in the capital. I can just imagine what my grandmother had felt. especially after growing up in a rich household with more freedom than other women and having studied medicine abroad.

Thankfully, my great grandmother came to the rescue. My great grandmother (everyone called her 진진 할머니) bought a very expensive dried seaweed, a package that was about half her body size, and other food items. Then she literally hired a motorcycle man out of nowhere to motorcycle her way into the mountain top household. Entering her daughter’s husband’s household, she took over the kitchen, made the seaweed soup and proceeded to feed her daughter. Normally this would be unthinkable. Usually the mother of the married daughter should act humble so that her daughter does not get mistreated. My great grandmother, although she is the most womanly and motherly person, defied such custom. Needless to say, no one dared oppose her as she stayed with her daughter for a while to take care of her after the childbirth.

Go great grandmother! Maybe I take after both of these great ladies…one can only hope.

Poet Revisited

My mother is a poet and an intellectual, but she spent many years not actively writing because as a married woman in Korea, she did not have as much freedom to do so. As a person who feels the urge to write constantly, I can imagine how it feels to have to block out that feeling. Living in the U.S., I am not as limited by the role of a woman, but the reality regardless intrudes and I am forever pushing my writing behind the day-to-day life. Writing poetry only feeds one’s soul, no? And the reality wins out…

I initially started writing poetry when I was a teenager, but abandoned it because…I am not sure why. Perhaps I felt poetry came too easily to me, which meant I was not good? My reasoning for stopping is very convoluted. Instead of poetry, I spent most of what little writing time I had on writing stories. The result is that I have not written a single poem for many years. Now full of nostalgia, I start again…like my mother who picked up her pen again as she got older.

Below is a short poem written in English, translated to Korean as best as I could.

When I close my eyes,
What do I see?
Faded memories,
Grey and melancholic.
And I hear a song
that I had forgotten.
My heart sings to me,
Of love and sadness.
When I open my eyes,
That song fades away,
And my heart is forgotten.

눈을 감 으면
저에게 무엇이 보일까요?
색이 바랜 추억들,
회색의 향수.
그리고 내가 잊었던
노래가 들려 옵니다.
내 마음이 제게
사랑과 슬픔에 대한
노래를 한답니다.
하지만 눈을 뜨면
그 노래는 사라져 버리고
내 마음은 잊혀집니다.

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