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☞ Issue 120
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (3)

Kimchi is Love

Melissa Hahn (2008/09/17 23:40)  

One of life’s most delicate challenges is the melding of two families under one marriage. This road can be treacherous enough when each family originates from the same culture; when the marriage bridges two societies, the couple can become over-stretched across the chasm of misunderstanding.

Mike and his mother, 1983

My husband’s Korean American parents would never have been introduced to my own by a matchmaker, so exceedingly little do they have in common. In retrospect, we would have been hard-pressed to select two couples more different from each other. His house was small, and his parents owned one vehicle. Mine was large, and we had three. Our house burst to the seams with clutter, the scattered mementos of a life hectically lived. His proudly bore white walls with knee-high black-lacquered furniture, the elegant Asian starkness of order and regimentation.

Mike celebrates his third birthday with his mother and father, 1984

He was an only child; I had a brother and sister. He was raised Catholic laced with graceful Buddhist and superstitious shamanistic undertones; I was a German protestant rationalist. My father was young and his was old; mine a pacifist and his- a retired military civil servant. I grew up surrounded by boisterous and cantankerous family; his holidays were joined only by his maternal aunt and grandmother. Our family proudly displayed every drop of our emotion; his emphasized reticence and brevity.

When my husband and I joined our hands in marriage, we knew of these differences. We even embraced them. His life could have been a little more exciting, he thought. What it had in tranquility, it lacked in pizzazz. Mine, I reflected, could have incorporated a little bit more solace, a greater emphasis on health and on daily routine. Perhaps his parents’ narrow focus had blinded him to the wide array of life paths he had opened with his excellent grades. Perhaps I should have rested more with a bowl of fresh chicken soup instead of popping cold pills as I lived at warp speed. Together, we thought, we will achieve a perfect balance. Our two families will come to represent the yin and yang of Korean American harmony.

The author with her mother in 1983

Between the two of us, this balance has more or less been achieved. The trouble is explaining both our new selves and our adopted families to our own parents. Neither set has been as keen as we were to create a new and more perfect balance of wisdom.

My dear mother-in-law, for whom I have a deep fondness and tremendous respect, is positively befuddled by my own mother. The perplexed question to any number of scenarios involving my mom’s decisions is always, “But she’s an educated woman!” For my husband’s mother, it is utterly unthinkable that my own mother, a woman with both a jurist doctorate and a Masters degree in bioethics, could be so completely foolish as to neglect daily exercise, to drink soda, to eat processed foods, and to stay up too late. It amazes her that anyone would spend their hard-earned money to hire a cleaning lady, to pay a handyman to repair the washing machine, and to hem our pants. For my husband’s mother, my own seems to flail upon the crashing waves of life. To not know how to live in peace.

For my mother’s part, she wants to embrace Korean culture but can’t seem to find an entry point. The food is too spicy and pungent, the pace of life too slow, the house too claustrophobic and hollow.

She tried to send holiday cards to my husband’s aunt and grandmother, only to be told by the aunt (through me) that she shouldn’t send them anymore, because she’s never going to send one in return. Emo was trying to be considerate because she lacks the English skills to send what she believes would be a proper letter. For my mother, though, this was the epitome of bad taste and rudeness.

The author (oldest child) with her family at her father's doctoral graduation ceremony, 1988

It had been bad enough for her Emily Post etiquette sensibilities when my husband could not tell me his aunt and grandmother’s real names because they had never been mentioned in his presence. She couldn’t process the idea that nobody spoke during the Thanksgiving meal, or that Mike’s mother would try to bribe him to stay near her (instead of following me to college) with a gold watch or a set of wedding rings. That my mother-in-law would now worry herself with my twenty-seven year old husband’s fruit intake, his hair style, his ironing and his sleep schedule was simply not a reality that my own mother could translate into her own world.

My husband’s mother believes that mine is lazy; my mother sees his as oppressed by traditional values. I explain to my mother-in-law that my mother has a career in an evolving field, that she works sixty hours a week and answers a hospital pager in the wee hours of the morning. I beg my own mother to understand that my husband’s mother is not nearly oppressed at all but rules the household with an iron rolling pin, which she uses to pulverize the garlic and remind us of our place in the family hierarchy.

Some days, I feel discouraged and think that our two families are incapable of ever seeing the world through each other’s eyes. More often, though, I think that they simply do not try very hard. Both certain that their own lifestyle will win out in their son or daughter’s future family, they sit back in confidence that they are the ones who are right. Their lifestyle is correct, and it is the other’s that does not make sense. Perhaps to make the leap from hamburgers to bean sprout soup is indeed long; perhaps the gap between One Life to Live and Dae Jang Geum too great.

But one needn’t make the entire leap to take a single step towards understanding and harmony.

The author and her husband celebrate their wedding with his family, 2003

As I search for small ways every day to bring our two families closer, I think about the possible reunification of the divided Korean peninsula. I think of the adopted Korean children who have spent their entire lives severed from their birth families and culture. I think of the mixed families formed by the American soldiers based in Korea, like my husband’s. And I think of the still-simmering hate towards the Japanese occupation by those who remember the suffering of their loved ones. In all anger, there is a rejection of peace; and in the rejection of peace, there is a denial of the hope and love required to move forward.

This evening, as I sat at the table, I said a silent thank you for the bounty of the deep purple high- mountain vegetables, the green onion pancake and the fish-cake soup in front of me. As we began to eat, my husband’s mother suddenly returned to the kitchen. She had forgotten to put out the kimchi, and asked anxiously if we would still like some. Looking immensely relieved as we gave her a hearty “yes”, she scooted over to the table and deftly placed it among the other little dishes.

As she snuck back out of the kitchen, I caught my husband’s eye. Both of ours gleamed with the emotion of a touched heart. “Kimchi is her love, isn’t it?” I mused aloud. My husband’s gentle grin answered my question, and made me think that perhaps our families were not destined to be so distant after all.

Mothers everywhere love their children, whether through kimchi or gelatin fruit salads. Having that love in common, perhaps our respective mother-in-laws are closer than they think. And perhaps there is yet hope for us all.
Author's career and profile

I was born in 1982 and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, I had a strong interest in learning about the many cultures of the world as a very young child. One of my prize possessions was my very first globe, and I would practice the names of these places as I fell asleep at night. In high school, I studied French, and through a special distinguished scholar program I designed an honors project which enabled elementary school children to participate in several festivals from around the world. I received a B.A. in Russian Area Studies from St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and have completed graduate coursework at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland towards an M.A. in Central European Studies. I have also written numerous articles for the political website,, on topics covering Central Europe and Asia. I am currently involved in children's literature and photography projects, with the aim of writing meaningful books to engage children with the world around them in hopes of promoting peace and understanding. I have backpacked across Europe three times, covering twenty countries. I hope to visit Korea very soon!

  reference news
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (2) Melissa Hahn [07.13]
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes (4) Melissa Hahn [11.15]

U.S.-DPRK Relation

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