After five hours on the road, we finally pull up to the small farmhouse. April’s mother is sitting on the porch, arms crossed and stone faced. She’s not happy to see me. This is going to be a weekend from hell!
April is my Korean girlfriend. I almost had to coerce her to allow me to come, and only with great difficultly had her mother grudgingly allowed it. Boyfriends only meet parents to announce a wedding engagement, but we’re not engaged. Now, seeing her Mother’s stern face, I wonder if it’s be worth it.
We get out of the car, and April goes over to greet her mother. Then I am introduced. I do my best to charm her. I speak a formal Korean greeting with great respect, smile broadly, and even bow, all to no avail. Mother only nervously replies “yes” then shies away.
April warned me that Mother was nervous about my being there. She had never met a foreigner in her life, and she was frightened of the looming, round eyed, big nosed cretins that reportedly cause all sorts of mayhem in Korea. Plus, if the neighbors saw me and April together, Mother would have to deal with the gossip. There is one simple rule – April and I can’t go outside alone.
We’re here for the “kim-chi jang”, an annual event where the family gets together to make kim-chi, a tangy, spicy fermented cabbage condiment that Koreans eat with every meal. After preparing it, it’s buried in the ground or stored in a fridge for some months. One batch usually lasts the whole year.
I take a look around. The house is located in a beautiful valley. The hills are lined with trees, the flatter areas full of crops. Two other houses are visible, yet they’re far away. Like farmhouses the world over, rusting pieces of equipment is scattered about. A plow here, a wheelbarrow there. I’m amused to find an old TV thrown into a clump of bushes along the road.
The house is small but clean. April tells me that when she was small, the house was made of mud walls and a dirt floor covered by linoleum. They got electricity when she was 8, TV when she was 11. The house was modernized after she moved away, complete with cement floors, concrete walls, and a bathroom.
Lunch is about to be served. Low tables get moved outside onto a linoleum mat, and are filled up with all sorts of delicacies in little dishes. Sesame oil anchovies, bean paste soup, pickled garlic stems, stewed fish, and of course, kim-chi.
I look at those low tables warily. I can’t sit cross-legged for more than five minutes. So I squirm and shift uncomfortably, constantly bumping knees with whoever’s beside me. But everyone is so nice, they just scoot aside making more room for me.
Mother seems to frown unapprovingly.
I have my own bowl of rice, but everything else is communal. Lots of reaching with chopsticks and dropping food onto my own lap. I get dizzy from constantly scanning the table for what I’m going to eat next.
I’m getting full, but there’s still so much food. I ask April, “How do you know when to stop eating?” Normally I eat what’s on my plate, then I’m done. But I don’t have a plate. She replies, “When your rice is gone, you’re done.” Simple as that! I look down to see half of my rice remaining. Oops. Uneaten rice is considered an insult. So I stuff it in, not wanting to offend Mother. Thankfully April takes some and I’m able to walk away without bursting.
Later we go to visit April’s father’s grave. I think its going to be a depressing occasion. I am an outsider at an intimate family affair. But they assure me it’s okay. After a short walk up the hill we come to the grave. Its a small mound of earth with a tombstone in front. We solemnly gather round. The oldest brother pours a shot of soju and spills it onto the mound. The sister sets down a plate of food next to the stone. We get down on hand and knees and bow three times. Then we leave. It’s surprisingly short, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
It’s dinner time. The tables are brought out again, so I do some exercises to loosen my legs. I’d give my right arm for a chair!
This time, they bring out a Korean barbecue grill. It looks like a wide metal hat mounted on a small fire barrel. On it they cook the most popular Korean dish, “sam gyup sal”. It’s thick cut bacon strips without the smokey flavor. I take a bite-sized piece, wrap it in lettuce with onions, garlic and sauce, then stuff it into my mouth. Oh, it’s so delicious! But it’s very fatty. I’ll have trouble pooping tomorrow!
Mother is still not warming up to me. I’ve given up trying. Everyone’s a little uncomfortable because of it. The oldest sister has an idea. She hands me a shot glass and fills it with soju. Then she gestures for me to give it to Mother. I don’t think she’ll take it, let alone drink it, but I hold it out to her with two hands. To my surprise, she takes it and downs it in one gulp. Then, for the first time since I arrived, she smiles!
I don’t understand what just happened. I guess Mother decided I’m a decent fellow after all. The tension evaporated, and not a moment too soon. A radio is brought out onto the porch, and the party begins!
Soju is brought out, and oysters are put on the grill. Soju tastes a lot like vodka, but much stronger. The oysters are pretty disgusting, but I eat them. It seems to please the brothers. They claim it helps with male stamina. We eat and drink and have a good time. April and I show them some salsa moves, much to their delight. The oldest brother-in-law, the dignified leader of the family, loosens up and starts dancing with us.
I feel so happy. I’ve had some really good food, my soju cup is full, and Mother has warmed up to me. It’s turning out to be a good visit after all.
It’s bedtime. The house is small, just three little rooms. It will accommodate all eight of us, but we’ll be squeezed in like sardines. I sleep on the floor with the other men, Korean style. They give me a mat, a pillow and a blanket. It’s so hard and uncomfortable. After lights out, I steal three more mats and an extra pillow.
It’s Sunday, almost time to go back to Seoul. A few of us are in Mom’s room talking. April and I are sitting on the hard bed. The others leave the room for just a moment, so I sneak a quick kiss. As I pull away, I see some old man staring at us through the window. He smiles at me then scurries away. Mom will probably hear about that and never invite me back.
We all pile up in the car, say our goodbyes, and roll away. It turned out to be a really fun weekend. It’s rare for a foreigner like myself to take part in Korean family events, and I feel fortunate for having experienced them.