Taking a much needed break from studying tonight to talk about something personal. As everyone knows, Chuseok is just around the corner, and I've been holding my tongue and not-so-secretly hoping to put Busan on a train to his family, wave goodbye, and go about my business on the long weekend, hanging out with my friends.
Today, at a coffee shop while Busan was helping me practice Korean by speaking nothing but, he suddenly switched back to English. "I decided I'm going to ask my mom if you can come to Chuseok."
We sort of went through this last year, when we had been together for only about ten months. He had, without my permission, asked his mom if I could attend. Her answer had been a frank, "Are you engaged? Then no, she cannot come to Chuseok." Busan attempted to argue that I was a foreigner in another country without family on a holiday, and how I should be able to attend under those conditions. There was more behind his mother's reasoning for why I shouldn't be there, but I didn't find any of that out until today.
Busan, learning from my frustration with the situation last year (me, embarrassed that he had suggested and pushed for something improper on my behalf, without talking it over with me first), did think to run the idea past me first. We're still not engaged. But we've been together nearly two years. Lately, our plans together have started to move further and further into the future and I'm not saying we will wind up married, but it's safe to say this isn't exactly a joke or a fling. Still, I'm not entirely sure if this is quite the right time.
I told Busan that he can ask his mother once, so long as he makes it clear that it's not coming from me, and so long as he doesn't argue with her answer. The worst possible case scenario I can imagine meeting his parents under would be one of duress. There's going to be enough pressure as it is.
Busan agreed to these terms and then his face clouded over a bit. The conversation that followed showed me that although we know each other well, by now, there are still things he doesn't quite understand about me yet.
"The thing is," he said, "My mom said that if you come, you have to help prepare 차례. She said it's the proper way."
"What? Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, I know what that means. There is no way in fuck I would ever dream of turning up at your parents' house on Chuseok and not helping your mother prepare 차례. She'll obviously have to be patient with me -- I won't know what I'm doing, but if she's willing to give me directions, I'll do whatever she tells me."
"But you know.... it's kind of a sexist thing. Only women in the kitchen, doing all the work. Men, in the room, sleeping. That doesn't make you angry?"
At that point, I explained the way that things work at my house on Thanksgiving. And introduced him to the phrase, "out from under foot," which is a favorite of my grandmother's, directed toward the men of the family during the preparation of the meal. How I remember being up before dawn to sit in the kitchen and watch my grandmother put the turkey in the oven, how the women of the house move around in the dark to start preparing the food for the day.
"I can't believe America is like that."
I explained to him that a lot of America is not like that, but that part of the reason my best friend here and I get along so well is that we both come from backgrounds that are not altogether common in our generation. Her's comes from the Japanese influence on her background, mine from the Southern Baptist.
Given that he ranks this friend amongst the strongest and most notoriously feminist of my acquaintances, he was a little taken aback.
But I spoke to that friend just now about this situation, and we talked for a long time about how we don't see the conflict. To us, it's a part of tradition. And tradition is a part of being a strong family. To me, it's comforting to know that those are his mother's expectations, on some level. There's a small connection in the midst of everything that is so different between our families' respective backgrounds. I may not know what most of the food is, or how to make it, and I may struggle to understand her directions to me in Korean, but the one thing I would understand would be the two of us alone in that kitchen to begin with.
And to me, being in that kitchen is a part of being accepted by his family. It's a chance to prove that whatever else I may struggle to do, I am at least willing. And that's an important part of the impression that I want to make when I meet his parents for the first time.
In the conversation with my friend, I recounted how I had told Busan that if we get married, when we make our own family traditions, that is the time for men to enter the kitchen. There is a time and a place for generational change, and meeting his parents for the first time is not it.
My friend said, "But really? Let's be honest here: ten years down the line, when we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our families, are we really going to want the men in the kitchen, getting in our way? Is [Busan] the one you want cooking your Thanksgiving turkey?"
I quickly flashed back to this morning, when Busan and I started to get hungry. Two weeks ago, he brought me some of his mother's kimchi, so he decided to make kimchijeon for brunch. As I sat and watched him struggle getting the flour-to-water ratio correct and muttering out loud about what he should do about it, something inside of me flared up, and before I knew it, I had taken the bowl out of his hands. He objected: "This is Korean food! You've never made this before!"
But I dumped his mess out, and quickly remixed the concoction to my own satisfaction. After I had poured the mix into the frying pan, I stepped away for a moment and Busan haphazardly moved toward the pan, spatula in hand: "You don't touch that! It's not ready to be turned yet!"
Maybe it's alright for some traditions to remain.