And baby makes three, plus one mother-in-law

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And baby makes three, plus one mother-in-law

I used to say that culture is just sauce, and the staples underneath are basically the same no matter where you go. But when my Korean mother-in-law came to stay with us, the sauce thickened.

My wife and I recently had our first baby. Before we became parents, we spent many moments familiar to anyone who’s been in a cross-cultural relationship. We reveled in our sense of objectivity, we complimented each other on our ability to overlook sauce-related complications, and we even allowed ourselves to occasionally dwell on the general attractiveness of mixed-race babies.

There have been many unexpected experiences along the way. I never thought I would sit on the floor and eat a plate of live squid, and she never thought she would sit in a chair and eat a bowl of French fries, gravy and cheese.

After a few years, it felt like we were through the woods when it came to cultural obstacles. But just when you think you’re in the clear, you stumble into an old-growth forest over the next rise.

The first unanticipated side effect of our new child was that my mother-in-law, a delightful woman who I’ve grown to love, has committed herself to helping her daughter at any time of day or night; i.e. she came to stay, without any clear indication of when she may be leaving again. I can now add to my list of surprising cultural experiences waking up in the middle of the night to find my wife being milked by her mother on the floor beside our bed.

For some advice, I called an American friend who lives with his Korean wife, his young daughter - and his mother-in-law. Chris Carpenter is a journalism professor at Ewha Womans University, and one of the most patient people I’ve ever met.

First, he said, there’s the issue of respect. Koreans, with a family bond that many a Western traditionalist has looked on with envy, are used to living with their parents. The stream of advice is absorbed by a thick layer of filial piety that has long been lost in the West. On that side of the Pacific, most young people move out as soon as they can, and aging parents very often spend their last years offering their advice to the nurses at the old folks’ home.

Add the language barrier to the differing degrees of respect for one’s elders and you get a recipe for disaster.

“Even last night,” Chris said, “I came in and was talking to my mother-in-law, asking her how she was doing, and I think I was a little too informal. She didn’t look impressed. But I was just trying to be nice.”

There is also, of course, the issue of control. “Your mother-in-law has ideas about how things should be done,” Chris said. “She wants to run the house in her own way.”

I emphatically sympathized, while feeling not a little guilty complaining about a person who has kept me in clean underpants for the past two weeks. A desire for control is also not a characteristic that is limited to local mothers-in-law.

But Chris and his mother-in-law make it work. You end up rubbing each other’s rough edges off and you learn to live with each other. It’s a long process, but it really is worth it in the end to have somebody who you know and trust taking care of your child.

In the end, the secret to wading through this sticky sauce is the same as in any clash of cultures. You just have to practice that purest form of diplomacy: agreeing to disagree.


By Richard Scott-Ashe [richardscottashe@gmail.com]
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