How to make Korean parents warm to the idea of a white girl who wants to marry their only son?
I am a Singaporean and I have been with my Korean boyfriend for 6 months. I am due to meet his parents next month. I speak no Korean and they speak no English. He has a sister who speaks English. I was wondering if I need to impress her. Are Korean mothers influenced much by what their daughters say? I am wondering what are the potential boo-boos I may commit and how deferential should I be to them? When my boyfriend was in Singapore, he was constantly bowing to my parents. No offense to be extra polite, but I am paranoid that I may come across as rude if I forget to bow or something. Moreover, how should I react at dinner? Can I speak? Can I eat before his parents do? Must I finish all the food? Am I expected to help set the table or clear the table? And how should I dress? Most importantly, what kinds of gifts are suitable for a first time meeting?
I’m getting ready to pop the question to my girl, but want to make sure I do it correct in her families eyes, as well as hers. I am obviously not Korean, but am a white American. I’m in my late thirties, she in her early thirties, so you can just imagine the questions she is hearing from the family whenever she visits. She moved to the US on her own to go to graduate school, and her family soon followed. The rest of her family now lives on the opposite coast of us, so I haven't had the opportunity to meet her family yet. She is the oldest daughter, and would be the first to get married. Anything I should consider before popping the question that would be detrimental to our future if not done correctly? I have a Korean co-workers who could not get married because the families did not get along, and that scares the piss out of me....
I am Swiss and engaged with a Korean girl. But her dad is very conservative and seems to be not happy with the fact that his daughter is going to get married with a non-Korean guy. So I am going to see him for the second time in two weeks, but this time he is going to ask me a lot of questions (my girlfriend said) and I have no idea what is he going to ask me and what is he excepting from me to answer!! Could you help me please? I really want to be in good term with her family as they are going part of my family soon.
I am visiting Korea next month to visit my boyfriend and his family. What type of gifts should I bring his family? On the Internet, it suggests whisky/scotch for the father, a designer type handbag for mother. Any other ideas? I want to be respectful and make a good impression--do you have a list of 'taboos' -things to avoid, as well as things I should be sure to do in order to be accepted?
Dear Korean Fever Sufferers,
Boy, that’s a popular question. After all, the most popular question to this humble blog is about dating Koreans, so it should not be a surprise that the next step of dating is a popular topic as well.
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.
- This is slightly over the top, but it will impress the parents about the knowledge of Korean etiquette: do a deep bow (jeol) for them when you meet. (You can see the example here. Click the picture to make it move.) Deep bow is now rarely used in Korea other than special situations, but accepting two new people as your own parents count as such a situation.
- 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.
- Do not look elders in their eyes. Locking eyes is very rude. When you talk, keep your gaze slightly low. (As an aside, after more than a decade in the U.S., the Korean still cannot look people in their eyes when he talks. He stares at people’s mouths instead.)
- 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.
- Learn to use chopsticks gracefully, not like a freakin' toddler.
- Listen a lot, speak little, agree always. Especially if you are a woman.
- 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. Scotch is a great idea for fathers, and so is a designer bag for mothers, because generally things that are relatively cheap outside of Korea are good. Health products are good as well. But they do not have to be expensive – not at the first meeting anyway. Flowers would often suffice. Do not forget about grandparents or other relatives if they are in the picture.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.