I have always loved learning about other cultures. The cuisine, social customs, smells, attire, traditions and history of all countries and heritages intrigue me. World history and geography were my favorite subjects in school and my closest friends have ranged anywhere from Haitian to Indian to Persian. Similar to my own DNA, my social circle is a giant melting pot and I would not have it any other way.
That is why, almost six years ago, I was so caught off guard at the challenges that I faced when I started dating into a Korean family.
I am an agnostic, half white, quarter black, quarter Asian, Southern California girl who dropped out of college at 19-years-old. If you know anything about the Korean culture — you would know immediately that my rap sheet is not exactly ideal. Especially for dating the only son in the family. I’m not a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or a dentist. I didn’t go to Berkeley. I can’t cut fruit without slicing my fingertips. My skin isn’t perfect. My wardrobe doesn’t look like it is straight out of J.crew. I don’t go to church (ever) and I don’t speak Korean.
It was difficult, to say the least, for my better half’s parents to wrap their head around my being his girlfriend — especially when they realized that I would be sticking around for quite a bit. In return, I could not wrap my own head around being judged by these “qualifications” rather than my kindness or the way I felt and treated their son. I had always been close to, or at the very least — approved of — by the parents of the people I had dated in the past. This was new to me and the resistance created a lot of not-so-pretty emotions that I found difficult to work through. It took years for me to break through the walls instilled by thousands of years of Korean cultural expectations. But I finally did it and I truly believe it was worth it.
Here are some lessons I learned during those first few (very frustrating) years:
Be yourself. Easier said than done when you are feeling rejected for reasons behind your control — I get it. However, good intentions and authenticity always prevail. It is important to never let anyone stray you away from your own North Star just because they themselves can’t see your light. There were many times when I felt bitter and discouraged enough that I wanted to permanently shut down, throw my hands up, and cease all efforts. But I didn’t — thanks mostly in part to the constant love and encouragement from my boyfriend. Sometimes that just meant offering to help with dishes or just simply showing up and smiling.
Empathize. Cultural barriers are often based on misunderstandings and the assumption that “different” means bad. My “in-laws” are genuinely good people who want what everyone else wants in the world — love and acceptance. Both of my parents were as American as can be. I have very little understanding of what it must be like to leave your home country with little to no English skills and start over with nothing. Not only did they do that, but my “in-laws” raised their three children in a culture that was foreign and strange to them. When I put myself in their shoes — I understand why the idea of welcoming me into their family must have been daunting. I can’t imagine trying to make it in a country where I know no one with three kids to raise in a culture that doesn’t necessarily coincide with my own. After spending 5 weeks in SE Asia, I nearly cried when I sat down, alone and exhausted, in a Burger King and inhaled an order of French fries. I don’t even like fast food. But the comfort of its Americanness in a faraway land was everything to me in that moment– and that was just me backpacking for six weeks — not moving away there indefinitely.
Show curiosity. One of my favorite parts about dating a first generation Korean is learning about the culture. His umma and I have spent hours talking about her country and the traditions that matter to her. I have been introduced to the most delicious cuisine and officially live for her kimchi and seaweed soup (which I know pleases her deeply!). I make sure to ask questions about their culture and attempt to show them respect in ways that matter to them. My son has a Korean middle name (lovingly chosen by his grandparents) and I will continue to encourage him to learn about his heritage as he grows older. I’ve attended Korean church out of support, tried just about every Korean dish offered to me, learned some useful phrases here and there, and plan to visit the motherland in the near future. I love learning about Korea and I believe that this brings me much closer to my “in-laws”.
Things have come a long way since those first few years. I finally can say that I feel like an integral part of my boyfriend’s family. That I have gained an umma, an appa, and two beautiful and extraordinary sisters. It is a precious thing to see two cultures collide and enjoy each other’s company and even — differences. This, to me, is what not only modern society is all about, but AMERICA, in general.
If you are experiencing a difficult time integrating into your significant others culture, whether they be Korean or Bengali or Italian — take a deep breath. It’s going to be a long ride but the view in the end is worth it.