Letter from Korea, December 2012


Suwon, South Korea
December, 2012

Dear Ireland

There are moments when I completely forget that I’m a father now, and I lapse into my old routine, desperate for something which I used to think was enjoying. Things are a little different now. It’s not that those things which I used to be entertained by are no longer entertaining, as they are somewhat, it’s just that these moments where I forget don’t last long. I’m either jolted from a daydream into activity by a gurgle or yelp, a call from Herself (who seems perpetually busy), or I just remember.  It’s a nice realisation to have over and over again.

The change has been swift. Even the difference between when Herself was heavily pregnant and since we’ve brought little cute +1 home (yes I’m still calling her +1 here) is stark. But to anyone who has spent any amount of time with people with new-born babies, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. I won’t deny that I was far from adequately prepared, especially from a psychological perspective. I think I’m doing better now.

Thankfully, Korea makes things easy on us new fathers and mothers. We had a week in what’s known as a jorriwon (조리원), which is an after-care centre for those who have just had a baby. While there were some who complained about the standard of care given in the place we stayed, I couldn’t actually see what their problem was.

Here is a place where you go to stay which has a number of programmes for mothers to help the recuperate, as well as cooking your meals, doing your laundry, and most importantly, helping you get used to your new responsibility, which is of course raising a child. And where these people helped out mostly was allowing you the opportunity to try and fail a few times at trying to feed and placate your child, and if you couldn’t hack it they’d take it off your hands and deal with the child while you got some much required sleep. This allowed us to ease ourselves into the whole new parent thing.

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I spoke with a few Irish people, and even when I mentioned the price, they sounded enthusiastic in their ‘fuck that’ exclamations, in the sense that the price was incidental and that a service like this is what Ireland could do with. Sure it’s a bit elitist, and for us it was certainly expensive, but it was just another item on the increasingly long balance sheet of payments.

We only stayed a week in this place as we considered it pointless to drag the process of getting settled into a routine at home. We both were certain that the longer we stayed there the more difficult it would be to get out of that level of comfort. More than anything though, we were also very eager to bring +1 home, which is where we’ve been for the past couple of weeks.

Up until Friday however, we had the help of the mother-in-law, who as I’ve said before, is some woman. She arrived and immediately began to clean, cook, and attempt to feed +1. Which was great as it took the pressure off us. I was in work up until recently (now on winter hols) so she would stay in the room with Herself and help with the night feed, while I was banished to the couch. Every so often I would join Herself and get myself eased steadily into the night process.

Being in work made my life easier, I can honestly say, as I was away for the day I missed out on five hour long marathons of feeding, dozing, peeing, shiting, changing, rocking, feeding, dozing, sleeping for ten minutes, and so on. I’d return home to find Herself and the mother-in-law in tatters with exhaustion. However this didn’t stop another table full of kimchi and seaweed soup being served up with regimental efficiency every evening.

The thing about the seaweed soup is, and don’t get me wrong I know it’s very healthy, my own mother had five sons and never touched a drop of the stuff and she never experienced anything adversely negative from the lack of it. Although, the obvious refutation to that is how would you know if you’ve never had it? I do know that Herself has probably had more of it that she has had in her life to date, and whether she’s doing better than if she hadn’t had any is irrelevant. She’s happy and getting stronger every day and that’s what matters.

But now I can hear +1 waking up so I will have to close. Herself will have to be woken up to feed her and I will have to be the dutiful go-for as we do our best to make this process as easy on everyone as possible.

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That is how things are going in Korea now.

The sun is going down outside. The snow was melted by the rain over the past few days. It’s chilly but more like a December chilly as opposed to the -15 freeze we were engulfed in last week. I have two months of holidays ahead of me. There’s a presidential election on Wednesday but what do I care, it won’t change much I suppose. Christmas is around the corner. Family will arrive to see the new arrival in February. I’m a father. A proud one. Life is good, I suppose.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.