A Lesson in Perseverance


In 2008 I was on the brink of getting married, and I was busy contemplating what to do afterwards. There were plenty of options, easy and less easy, but none painted in any way a clear picture of the future.

At the time I was working in a relatively big language school on the south side of Seoul and I was nearing the end of my third year. I didn’t have any teaching qualifications, but much like today I talked a good fight and fancied my chances regardless of what happened.

Of course marriage was going to change everything. There was the obvious and easier option and then there was the riskier and more exciting option that you don’t hear of many newly-weds taking, at least not in Korea anyway.

As a couple we’d been pretty straight forward. We would travel around the country and take as many breaks as possible, we spent money as liberally as our bank balances would allow in restaurants and shops, and me in bars. We were having fun in that situation and that was what mattered. But I don’t think we took any major risks.

Seoul, 2008

Seoul, 2008

Just before my contract was ending I was applying around for university teaching jobs in Korea, because we had decided that we would work a little, save, and then travel together to study in Ireland or the UK. I was mostly unsuccessful until I got offered a job at a small enough university in Daegu. We were both quite intrigued and curious about the possibilities this new opportunity would deliver.

Now, let me let you in on a few things. I didn’t have anything higher than a BA degree at the time, and I had no formal qualifications as well as fairly limited experience. The job I had been offered presented little in the way of a pay rise, and it would also involve a big move down to an unfamiliar city where neither of us knew anyone.

We bit the bullet.

I applied for a few masters courses in the UK, extended my contract until a month before our wedding day, and sat down to wait. Before long I had received a letter of acceptance (and a couple of rejections too I might add) to the University of Southampton.

Now let’s not be naïve, Southampton on England’s south coast was an even a bigger risk than Daegu; we knew hardly anyone in the UK with the exception of my brother and his girlfriend and a scattering of friends in London, we’d never lived in the UK, and I’d only been there twice before and both times briefly. Despite this, we went for it because it was the payoff that we were aiming for.

So we headed back to Ireland once I finished working, then came back to Korea, via a long weekend in Hong Kong, and got married with my parents and all four of my brothers in attendance, then lumped a pile of bags on them as they flew back to Ireland, and we packed our bags for two weeks in Turkey for our honeymoon. We then moved on to Ireland where my parents threw a huge party in the back garden with a marquee and gallons of booze, and then we went down to Kerry in the south of Ireland and proceeded to travel up the west coast through Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and into Donegal, which took us about two weeks. A second honeymoon if you will.

Bozcaada, Turkey

Bozcaada, Turkey

While this road trip was taking place, I got a phone call and got accepted onto an English language teaching certificate course in Dublin, which I accepted, and cut our road trip short.

After finishing the course, we began to prepare for the move to Southampton. This involved a very demotivating visit to the town where we found that another university in the town had made a mess of their halls allocation, leaving half the students without previously promised accommodation. This left the vast majority of cheap accommodation close to the campus to be already occupied before we even got off the plane. In a whirlwind visit we eventually settled on a small two bedroomed place on the ground floor on the opposite side of town to the university. This wasn’t an issue as I only had a few classes a week; most of the time I would spend would be doing my own reading and research, and I could easily walk into the university as it was a brisk 45 minute walk away.

I won’t lie, but aside from the course the year in Southampton was almost a disaster. Hiccup after hiccup befell us. Herself struggled to find any form of work, and she felt genuinely discriminated against. I couldn’t find any teaching work – I later learned that nearby Bournemouth was a hub for English language schools but was still too awkward to get to regularly – and ended up working in a supermarket on minimum wage. Our apartment turned out to have little to no heat, and the place soon got enveloped in damp and mould. We were lonely and we were broke.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

I remember one incident in particular when we were walking back from the college where I had classes and Herself directed me towards the supermarket because we needed to pick up some things for dinner. I was terrified the whole time because sooner or later I was going to have to tell her we had only 25 pounds left in the bank. When I did tell her it is her face and reaction that I can remember and will forever.

She paused and faced me, stiff as an old iron rod, her eyes dropping, sucked of life and close to tears, as sad as I’ve ever seen them. Her mouth dropped half open, and her fists clenched tightly in desperation around the little piece of yellow paper with the small list of household basics we needed for dinner.

In the end I placated her, and we went into the supermarket and picked up the absolute necessities on the list. I should add that the supermarket was ASDA, so there was no shortage of cheap things, but still it was the first time, and only time, we’ve felt so vulnerable.

We pulled together and learned to adapt fast. In my supermarket job I had the pick of the food about to expire which was always sold at cut prices. I picked up bread, chickens, bacon, sausages, vegetables, ham, cheese, and every other variety of product and often for less than 50p – about 1000 KRW. This in the end probably saved us. Things began to eventually work themselves out and everything got a lot easier in the end, fortunately.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

After a long year we moved back to Ireland where I finished my dissertation and Jin Won eventually found work in customer service to Korean customers on an international website that was based in Dublin. And in the Autumn, after I’d received my final grade for my masters – a grade I was simply happy to get but I should have been disappointed with considering the work I put in – I returned to the job market in Korea, where I eventually found work. That was in January of 2010, and by March I was back at work in Korea hoping on a semblance of normality.

It’s a long story but it’s worth putting across the trials we put ourselves through. Not only was it hard work, it was an amazing experience learning to grow with Herself, because when all is said and done, after all the difficulties of empty bank accounts, old food, the damp apartment, the lack of work, and all those other things, myself and Herself really just had a great time together. If anyone got us through that period it was both of us.

We persevered for the sake of getting a better deal. We took an unconventional route for newlyweds, and we opened ourselves to the possibility of doing things the other way. We haven’t looked back from the experiences. I think we’ve kind of trained ourselves to be irresponsible, as these days we’re always looking for where we can travel to next, as opposed to saving up money and looking towards the distant future. But while that lesson may be a bad one, we are no longer afraid of making the necessary change to get ahead in life, and that’s more important than anything if you ask me.

Sometimes you have to get out and find what it is that’s looking for you. This sounds like one of those silly overly idealistic quotes you see popping up on your twitter or Facebook feed, but you know it’s true. The problem is taking the bait and being hooked in. Our conscience says that the outcome could be of great benefit but it could all go belly up in the end.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

I think though, for me, what made me realise all this and suddenly appreciate it more all of a sudden was a conversation I had in work the other day. I was talking to a Phd student in our department, and American I believe, who worked in the university that I turned down five years ago before I got married.

I learned that I made the right decision, as I now worked in a department with four other foreign faculty members, with little or no interference from management (they have their own classes to worry about) and a minimum amount of paperwork. The job relies on me to honestly and professionally teach my students. What I had avoided was a faculty of over 100 foreign teachers strictly regimented with many aspects of their classes and courses dictated for them (why schools do this I can never understand).

I walked away from that conversation relieved, knowing that while the previous years had been difficult, I had gained from them. I had strengthened my relationship with my wife, found a better understanding of the necessity of knowing what you want to do, learned the importance of enjoying yourself even during tough times, and found out five years later that a decision I made paid off. It is something I should do well to take into account when making decisions in the future.

The Mother in Law


That woman, she’s pure country straight through to the bone and out the other side twice over. She is pure Korean in everything she does, and I don’t mean by her blood line or anything ridiculous like that.

20120805-133030.jpg

She works hard, struggles to eat anything without rice and kimchi, goes abroad with tour groups, avoids the sun like the plague, is not really sure how to whisper if she is aware of the concept at all, and of course, is full of all the jingoistic fairytale knowledge that makes this country thrive, among other complaints. She is a wonderful woman. She is a little younger than my own mother, and for a woman on the shady side of her fifties in Korea, she’s looking well. She hasn’t resorted to botox and, as I said, she doesn’t have her hair permed like the rest of the herd. She talks loudly in hushed places, and is obsessed with eating. If I have one complaint against her full fledged ajjumma creditentials, it is that she has never, as long as I have known her, had her hair permed in the fashion many of us know and love. This woman is my mother-in-law.

20120805-133403.jpg

Having a mother-in-law who is Korean is, I suppose, a unique experience that not many Irish people have shared. For starters, I should add that we both get on well together, and we would get on better if I could speak the language more, then I could slag her when she does stuff worth slagging about, and vice versa. However, there are conflicts, nice human conflicts that are what make people special because we’re all so bloody different, and we’re all so bloody stuburn that we refuse to accept the differences in others.

20120805-133219.jpg

As far as I know, most foreginers who I know who are married with Koreans get on pretty well with their mother-in-law. I can only say this, really, from the perspective that I haven’t heard them complain that much about their mother-in-law, and if she does come into the conversation there’s a certain tone of fondness in their voice when they refer to her.

I also know that several of my friends who have had children here in Korea, they wouldn’t have been able to survive without the dedicated support of their mother-in-law during the first few months after the arrival of the baby. I imagine that as soon as +1 arrives on the scene, I will be seeing a lot more of my mother-in-law in the morning. If anything though, we who are lucky enough to be married to Korean people have nothing but praise for our mother-in-laws when we turn up at the door over Chuseok and are filled to the brim and then some with galbijim!

20120805-133352.jpg

These are nice things to say, as mother-in-laws in Korea have a reputation for being difficult, especially if you are a Korean daughter-in-law. Perhaps it’s because we spouses are not Korean so we do not fall within the prescribed rules of son or daughter in-law and mother-in-law. I can only look at if from my perspective as I’ve never really discussed it in depth with others, but I know that my own mother-in-law likes me a lot because I make her daughther very happy and provide her a good, if not peculiar lifestyle.

20120805-133203.jpg

Even so, on paper what has she got to complain about? When a woman goes eyeing up her future husband in Korea, specs (specifics) are important, and I suppose if you look at mine I’m quite a good catch – although when we first started going out together I required a fair amount of work. But now? Well, for starters I’ve been educated abroad at undergraduate and post-graduate level, I’m a university *ahem* professor (no laughing at the back), I have my own car and an apartment in a well-to-do neighbourhood on the outskirts of Seoul. Oh yeah, I also speak English really well. So, in that regard she should be proud of her son-in-law, just say nothing about the lack of Korean and poor military service record.

20120805-133324.jpg

Still, one thing many people who can’t mind their own business worry about sometimes when they hear that I am happily married for over four years, is how do I get on with my mother-in-law, so I explain the relationship. If I know these people a little better I will tell them some of the gorey details, or if I want to prove a point to a person who seems to think they are entitled to know the intricate details of my life (usually some old, self-proclaimed patriarch), I also give them the details.

The thing is, there is no conflict that does not exist in any other relationship. If anything, the real national characteristics of Koreans are better shown by those who live far from the capitial city in the small towns and villages in the countryside which once thrived but have suffered with the modern demand for jobs and progress which an agricultural society cannot provide. This has changed the way Koreans act courtesy of the intense competition to get by. Now, I know I’m being sentimental by saying this, because what is real is what is present, and the cultural characteristics I’m talking about are being slowly outweighed by those which come from the capital. But still, without our past we cannot have a present.

20120805-133307.jpg

When I spend time with the mother-in-law, I can sometimes see really why they call the Koreans the Irish of the east. It’s nothing to do with the colonial history or the national fondness for drinking beyond the point of excess for no purpouse other than it being good craic. It’s not even the preconcieved sense of entitlement brought about by some innate belief that we truly are just better than everyone else. No. It’s the strong belief that, despite everything going wrong, everything will be grand in the end, and in fact regardless of how good or bad something is, generally speaking we think things are grand. On the odd occasion when we think differently we will tell you otherwise.

20120805-133152.jpg

It’s in this belief, which can be hard to find when you’re trying to catch the bus or train to work in Seoul, that you really find the understanding and the faith in the common decency of all humans*.

Perhaps you could use any ‘conflict’ that I have with my mother-in-law as a reflection on the differences people have with each other, regardless of who they are. Most are based on both of us being stubborn and believing we both knows better than each other. This may be caused by a generation gap, a cultural gap, or just a gap in our teeth, but it is never something worth going to war over (metaphorically speaking of course), because in the end, it’s usually grand.

20120805-133240.jpg

Together, we exist far apart, living on oppostie sides of the country, but we are kept close thanks to the almost daily phonecalls seeking updates on the day’s events – namely how are you and what did you eat. These allow enough fuel for our silent conflicts and disagreements to smolder away unresolved because both of us are too nice to step up and stop each other (we usually just mutter under our breath and complain to Herself). A more significant factor that prevents anything serious ever kindling is buried deep within our relationship, and it is the essential ingredient to our survival together; understanding.

20120805-133130.jpg

Without our own understanding that there are polaric differences between each others cultural backgounds (of which I’m fairly sure both of us are equally as clueless of one anothers), we always seem to reach an accord that, while sometimes mediated over by the diplomacy of Herself, is as simple a solution that only human decency can be responsible for.

Neither of us are particularly amazing, nor have we done anything which allows us to stand out above anyone else more than anyone else can stand out above us. We are faces in the crowd, as much as we are the crowd. This is what makes me think more open-mindedly about a lot of things in Korea that are so foreign to my background in Ireland. Everything is different from where I’m from here, and it’s so different it’s almost unrecognisable, but if you stop, look, wait, and listen to everything that goes on around you, then wherever you are you will see that you are no different than anyone else, regardless of the hairstyle and breakfast they have in the morning.

20120805-133116.jpg

All photos taken during a stroll around Jumunjin in Gangwon-do this morning, August 5 2012. Jumunjin is Herself’s hometown, and it’s where my mother-in-law has lived for over thirty years.

* Never let it be said that there is no such thing as a dyed in the wool arsehole, but they’re a breed which exist everywhere and there’s nothing that can be done about them except a smile and a wave goodbye.