About a month after my brother got married, I saw a side of my mother I had never seen before.
It started with my brother and his new wife's second visit to our house after returning from their honeymoon. During the visit, everything seemed fine. We hung out, had dinner with the requisite fruit and coffee afterwards, and watched a little tv. Then my brother and his wife left with bags full of leftovers and other dishes my mother made especially for the newlyweds.
But after they left, the grumbling started. Why did she sit on the couch all evening, Why didn't she do the dishes, Why am I serving her, Why can't she get her own cream and sugar, Who does she think she is, a guest?, Is she going to keep coming over demanding service?
Whoa. What happened to my usually reasonable and generous mother?
As I recall the evening, Mom gave no indication at any point in the evening that she wanted my sister-in-law (let's call her Ann) to help out. If anything, there was barely a chance for Ann to help since my sister and I, as our mother's lifelong sous chefs, were flanking our mother pretty much the whole time we were cooking. To Ann's credit, she did seem to hover a bit initially, as if she wanted to help, but my guess was that she wasn't really sure how to help and she wasn't necessarily very comfortable in the kitchen to begin with.
I listened to my mom complain for a while and then asked her why she didn't ask Ann to help? She responded, I shouldn't have to ask.
Hmmm. It didn't sound very reasonable to me. What if Ann and my mom had different notions of what was expected of Ann, especially since we lived in the US? And what if Ann really wanted to help but didn't really know how? I asked if it wouldn't be easier to ask Ann to help rather than waiting for help that may or may not be coming and then complaining about it afterwards.
She first voiced some skepticism that Ann would not know how to help and didn't know that she should, given that she lived in Korea until she was in high school and was raised by Korean parents. But then, she asked, "Really, you think I should say something?"
I assured my mother that it would be a whole lot more merciful to direct Ann how to help out in the kitchen than to wait for her to figure out how to inject herself into the chaos of the Oh family kitchen.
The next time they came over was more or less the same - with more complaining afterwards. To my mother's credit, she did try to ask Ann to help out here and there. While Ann complied with the letter of the request by chopping that one carrot, she whisked herself away immediately after completing her one task, showing that she really wasn't into the spirit of the occasion. After a couple of tries, my mother gave up and stopped asking. Again this time, the couple left after the meal with bags full of leftovers and other dishes.
When the complaining started, I encouraged my mom. "Mom, if you want her to help, you should just take charge and direct!"
She responded, "But she's not my daughter. I don't want to tell her what to do. Besides, how am I supposed to do my part if she doesn't do hers?"
And then I understood. My mother, with her big heart, wanted to be a generous mother and mother-in-law. She went out of her way to prepare multiple dishes for my brother and his new wife, not just for this one meal, but for the many following meals to come. But in the framework of the usual Korean hierarchy, where mothers were relegated to the role of a household cook, my mom wanted it to be clear - for all to see - that she wasn't doing it because she had to (as she often did with my father), but because she wanted to.
And she needed Ann's help to do that. She wanted Ann to do what she could to make clear that she understood that my mother was not serving her. As my mother saw it, Ann was failing to do her part in this delicate dance, the one dance my mother believed was their role to assume.
For the next few years, I watched my mother struggle with her part, veering between trying tentatively to live up to the role of the dominant Korean mother-in-law she often saw played out on the Korean dramas and then reverting to her role of playing the magnanimous mother-in-law, only to rebuke herself for being overly generous whenever she felt slighted. She often called to ask for my input on how she should handle this or that situation. She was struggling to interpret her social role in our American context. She often ended our calls by saying, "I'm going to try to be a better mother-in-law from now on."
From watching her, I begin to appreciate how short the short end of the stick is for Korean women of my mom's generation. How suppressed must their social power be that it finds its clearest expression in the trivialities of the kitchen? It reminds me of stories I read about the many wives of Fundamentalist Mormons fighting over the pecking order in using the laundry machine.
Whenever I read stories about mean Korean mother-in-laws, I feel a little pained. I sometimes mention it to my (non-Korean) husband, and he always responds, "Yup, it seems like Korean mother-in-laws have a pretty bad rep." I know how some Korean mothers can be because I've met quite a few (like my high school friend's mom who demanded to know our SAT scores and grades everytime we visited). But I would hate for them to become another stereotype. I recognize that there are usually reasons behind the stereotypes, but turning our mothers into caricatures of themselves seems to shorten their already short end of the stick.
I'm not talking about harmless little jokes or funny banter. When I hear harsh rebukes, I wish I could sit down both parties and try to mediate. I wish I could help both parties understand the social and cultural context of what the other is trying to communicate, what often isn't reduced to words. I want them to understand that recognizing superficial differences gets them nowhere close to understanding the depth of cultural differences. But who's to say that I necessarily have the means?
So I just tell myself that not every Korean mother is my mom, and their actions don't have to reflect on her. The truth is, nothing pisses me off more than hearing some guy tell me how Korean women are. I really don't want to be hearing about it if I ever become a Korean mother-in-law.