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Family and Joy in Korea

As I near the end of my time in Korea, I can't help but think about how much I lucked out with my homestay. It was a temporary home assigned to me by a homestay company, Homestay Korea, yet for all intents and purposes, they've become like real family to me. 

They live with such joie de vivre. There’s always something to laugh about, something to take joy in. How many dinners so far have ended with parents and children red in the face with laughter? Once eating barbecued meats, in the middle of conversation the father took a spoon full of hot pepper paste and flinged it onto the mother’s meat. She burst into laughter and exclaimed, “Oh, today you wanna die?” before grabbing her own spoon and flinging hot pepper paste onto her husband’s beef. Soon the son and daughter got involved and war broke out. By the end, hot pepper paste was smeared on the table, and our eyes were teary from the spiciness of the meat we then had to eat. Glowing with contentment, the mother declares that it’s time for the tangerines, so someone must go get them. The daughter shouts out, “Kai Bai Bo!” which is the Korean name for Rocks-Paper- Scissors, which we do five-way to decide who will go out onto the porch where the tangerines are kept cool in a basket. Mom loses, to the kids’ delight, but as she’s getting up, the son, Jiyoung, waves for her to sit and fetches them himself.

I think about how rare this is in a family. My parents don’t have the kind of
relationship that these parents do. They don’t go on spontaneous dates, walking hand-in-hand through the neighborhood. Back home in the US, not many adult children come home every day from university to drink alcohol and eat late-night pajeon. This family watches movies together in their living room like teenagers at a slumber party, curled up against each other and falling asleep on
each other’s shoulders. 

 

One day, the mother drove me to the market so that I could buy some groceries. On the way there, I asked her if I was putting Jiyoung out, since he now had to sleep with the parents after I moved into his room. She insisted that I wasn’t, and when I seemed doubtful, she explained that in Korea, it’s very common for children and parents to sleep all together. Even though they have a 4-bedroom apartment, they all slept in the same room until the children were very grown. Heeji, the daughter, apparently didn’t even want to sleep alone until she was 15. Until the children were 13, they even showered together, a thought that was unthinkable to me.


I thought about how radically different their family life was. Here were two children,
both past college-entering age, one 25 and another 19, both of whom were firmly ensconced in their childhood home. Neither had the restlessness of adult American child for whom any number of adult years spent in their parents’ home is a point of shame, almost to the point of becoming a trope. The mother said that Heeji would not leave the house until she was married, maybe another 4 or 5 years. I said her family seems so remarkably close, and she agreed with a smile. Yes they were. It was what she was most proud of.

 

When my homestay mother tells me how her children will live with her until their marriage, I tell her how American children leave the house at 18 and often never live with their parents again. Children feel free to move wherever they may, across country, across the world. She replies, “That too bad. Before your kids turn 18, everything is rebellion and puberty. After they turn 18, they calm down and you can become
close, because you’re both adults. These have been the best years. Americans are missing out, I think.”

 

I leave the homestay thinking a lot about the tension I've always felt growing up between my parents' Koreanness and my own fiercely protected Americanness. I've always closely guarded my independence and freedom like a birthright, pushing against my parents' calls for filial piety and loyalty to family, thinking it antiquated and counter-productive. Yet here in Korea, I find something about it quite envious, the idea of putting family first, of living and becoming closer with one's family well into one's 20s. Of course, I believe there is something truly special and perhaps unrepresentative about my homestay family. But it's a different model for living, and one that will stay with me as I go back to America and try to live with a bit of the joy that I saw here. 

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