Those of you who read one of my first articles on this site, ‘My Korean Family’, will know that I definitely do not fit the description of the perfect son in-law in a Korean family. I don’t give gifts (except at birthdays, Chuseok, and Seollal), I will refuse an invitation to go and see them if I have made other plans, and generally I don’t automatically respect what they have to say, and do what they wish of me. I think they must know all of this by now, but to their credit I think they are basically content in the fact that I treat their daughter well. There are, however, still a few problems I have with the culture at large, which manifests itself in their expectations of me.
I’ll be honest, I tend to try and avoid the Korean in-laws if at all possible. I will visit them as often as I need to and no more than that because it simply is not a comfortable atmosphere. The problem is that I soon as I step foot in their house or meet them in a restaurant or any other place, I am to follow their instructions without argument. This means they dictate what I do, how I should behave, where I go, for how long I stay, and even to some degree how I should feel about it all. They are not nasty about it, they are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but their cultural expectations create something of a benign dictatorship in relations between us. It is simply unthinkable for me to excuse myself and go home after a long day in their company, for example, or in fact to have any polite disagreement with them at all. So a bit like a North Korean defector, I slink away under the fence to get away and avoid an argument or any conflict whatsoever.
My wife and I do this by lying, inventing little stories so that it is easier for me to get away. It sounds terrible doesn't it, but it is the only way, and I have commented before that in my experience many older Koreans would rather be transparently lied to than have their children or younger family members tell the truth in direct confrontation with them. I think many underestimate just how much of a factor this kind of cultural thinking plays in the creation of an Orwellian state such as North Korea. It sounds almost offensive for me to compare my in-laws to Kim Jong Un, but the cultural mindset is the same and along with it the attitude that your parents are owed your 100% compliance and are not to be ever disagreed with, which I am sure is not really the case, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
I see the lack of conflict within Korean families, the workplace, and in Korean society in general to be an aspect of the culture that is flawed and could do with some changing. Honest discussion - and the intellectual and verbal conflict that arises from it - is how we all move forward because, after all, there is no light without heat. No light (quite literally if you look at the satellite image of the country at night) has been created in North Korea because there is no healthy disagreement with how things are being done. Everyone just does what they are told, nothing moves forward, and North Korea is famously stuck in the past because of it.
The fact of the importance of conflict is something that is also lost on an ever-increasingly overly-liberalised Western culture, where many think we just have to accept and respect everyone else’s point of view as equally valid, especially those of a different society, or shout ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’ as a conversation finisher at anyone with a controversial opinion about the behaviour of any group of people other than the particular one that we belong to. There is also a rather odd attitude present within our own societies (and especially in mine) of bending over backwards to accommodate and understand other cultures, but at the same time – when we travel to other countries – we should always ‘do as the Romans do’ and do our best to conform to others. With particular attention to Korea and native English teachers, I think part of their role is to give students and their co-workers a true experience of working with people of Western culture. We would all help Koreans much more if we stuck to our principles and conformed less, because they could learn so much more from it. But we don’t, we just tend to do what we are told most of the time or try and weasel out of difficult situations like I do with my in-laws. We all do this in order not to offend, and perhaps also keep our jobs and not get into trouble, although I really believe we shouldn’t, and I readily admit that I find it extremely difficult myself.
Back to my in-laws, and I am often confounded by the reaction I receive when I talk ill of my in-laws by saying I dislike spending too much time with them. I usually get a range of responses depending on who I’m talking to and how much someone knows about me. If I am talking to a Western person (who is married or in a long-term relationship) who does not know I am married to a Korean, I am usually met with a reaction along the lines of this, ‘yeah, I know, the in-laws are a pain in the neck sometimes aren’t they.’ If I am talking to a Korean friend or acquaintance and complaining about my in-laws, I also – pretty much 100% of the time – get the same kind of sympathetic response and also complaints about their own in-laws in return. This is no surprise really as many Koreans – especially women – really do bear a significant burden from their in-laws. But also, when you think about it, is it really that much of a controversial thing to say that you don’t like spending time with your in-laws? Is this a rare feeling in people generally around the world? I think not. However, you wouldn’t know this if you could hear the criticism I receive sometimes from Western liberal-minded people, who know I am married to a Korean woman. If I complain about my in-laws then, it is common to receive a barrage of comments saying that I should have known what the culture was like and I need to adapt to it and accept it and that I am simply not trying hard enough. That is not how it should work, I should compromise on some things because of politeness and custom, but I will not bow down to everything they say because I need to accept their culture. When it comes to respecting someone to the degree that you cannot engage in honest debate and disagreement with them, no respect shall be given and I say this from a logical, reasonable, and moral stand-point, the difference in culture is irrelevant.
To not be able to speak openly and honestly with someone without fear of reprisal and dire consequences is something that I cannot respect, accept, adapt to, or feel comfortable with. This is the position I find I am forced into in relations with my in-laws. The best I can do is tolerate it, I’m afraid. I love my wife and I put myself through it all because of her, fortunately I do not have to meet her parents all that often and my attitude of trying not to feel guilty about having these feelings means that I can avoid meeting them more than is absolutely necessary. The horrible thing about it all is that I actually like my in-laws, they are nice, caring, and kind people, it is simply this one aspect of their culture that makes dealings with them much more difficult than it should be.
In Korea, I am uncomfortable that the right to disagree, argue, and debate honestly seems to be taken away from many people. It is not enshrined in law or indeed in principle, but it is in practice. The frustrating thing is that to notice this and complain about it in writing or even to friends is often seen as something worthy of shame, stubbornness, laziness, and sometimes even bigotry and racism. It appears that the West is engaging in restricting debate and freedom of speech as well. We talk a good game, and freedom to express ourselves may even be written in our constitutions, but again in practice we still try to silence and smear others to end arguments and stop the controversy to avoid a conflict. Disagreements in opinions and ideas leads to a better understanding of each other, a greater knowledge of your own subject and position, an ability to change and move forward, the acknowledgement of problems and their possible solutions, and – perhaps the most importantly of all – the avoidance of violent conflict or other disastrous consequences in the future.
With me personally, my relationship with my Korean in-laws will always be a difficult and somewhat of an awkward one, which teeters on a knife edge, perhaps prone to a fatal collapse one day. It is all because we really don’t know each other, in over three years we have never talked openly and honestly about anything, every situation being mired in courtesy, custom, and fear of saying the wrong thing. At best we tolerate each other, we don’t genuinely respect each other and this situation can be translated to many thorny situations around the world and especially within multi-cultural nations.
To hell with ‘tolerance’ and to hell with causing ‘offence’, I want to truly understand and respect people, not just pretend to. This is an up-swelling of frustration that has afflicted me since living in South Korea, the feeling that every day I am too much of a coward to really get to know people and that I am valued as a person for holding back on my principles in this regard and cowering away from confrontation. The fact is though, I should stop beating myself up because at this time the straitjacket would be applied everywhere, not just in Korea. Most of us are cowards, we need to be and I will settle back into the routine after writing this article of being nice to and conforming to the wishes of others who I really have no respect for whatsoever because, out of a fear of offending them (and vice versa), I have never really known them and they have never really known me. No wonder we cannot truly respect and understand one another.
Note: This post was first written by me for asiapundits.com but I thought I would re-post it on my own blog as well.