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.

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.

신사임당 (Sin Saimdang), A Woman Who Defied Her Time

As Korea has been for many generations, a patriarchal society, one does not encounter too many notable ladies of noble descent. There are a number of common class ladies who were Gisengs that defied their time, but defying the traditional role as a noble lady was difficult. With transmission of Confucianism, a philosophical idea that holds appeal as a pure form, but one that I have hard time liking due to its often misogynistic nature, a life of respected noble ladies in Korea was confined to being a wife and a head of the inner household. Even if some noble ladies were well educated and accomplished through the aid of their fathers, once they were married, their life had to take a back seat to their husband’s. 

신사임당 is one lady who defied that, partly with help of her father who chose a husband for her who would let her flourish, although at the end, he also became jealous and did not act as a supportive husband. She was considered an ideal lady by Confucian standards, yet she did defy the custom of being overshadowed by her husband and male-oriented society. Her extremely accomplished poems and paintings still remain to this day.

Historical Women of Art and Poetry (Giseng/Kiseng, 기생)

Hwang Jin Yi

Historically in Korea, only two types of women danced professionally, 기생 (Giseng or Kiseng in old way of transliterating), and 무당 (Moodang). Moodangs were like shamans. Gisengs were like Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, except even more legitimized. They were not part of the noble class, rather, they were part of the lowest class in Korea, yet they were women of power. They were women of intellect and poise who could compose poetry better than any poet, know politics better than any politician, danced, played instruments, sang, and participated in diplomatic relations. 

One very famous Giseng named Hwang Jin Yi, often portrayed in various dramas, was so desired that one noble man who visited her when she was very old apparently fell in love with her with her beauty, which perhaps came from her intellect and poise since she by then probably had lost all her bodily beauty.

It is true that not all so-called Giseng were of this caliber. There were several tiers of Giseng and the lower tier Giseng were more like the modern-day call girls. The top tier Gisengs, however, were registered as part of government and not even high level nobility could easily touch. Gisengs started their education early in their life. Not all Giseng are born from a mother who was also Giseng, but some chose that life because perhaps they craved freedom or they had no choice because their family, even if noble, was too poor. 

Despite having much more freedom and power compared to other Korean ladies, Gisengs were still women of that era. Those who were born to Giseng could not be anything else. They were not allowed to marry a man of a noble class. And they were forever relegated to a life of a caged bird who sang for their life. There were many poems that survive from the famous Gisengs throughout history. Their poems are often poignant and sad.

More on the poetry of Giseng on my next post…

Personally I wonder what I might have done if I were born in that era. I am from a noble family root, and even though I would have had a life of privilege, my life would have been one of gilded cage. Would I have consented to life of being another’s life, life hidden away into a household? Or would I have chosen to be free and found a life of Giseng more preferable…?

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