I have five months until my wedding in May. The major logistical items and vendors have all been booked, and my friends often tell me how incredibly organized I am. “You make it look so easy!” they say (which it wasn’t). But by far the hardest and most horrible tasks, as we all know, are the emotional ones. And one of those tasks was to get my mother to meet my partner, when she hated the very idea of him.
My family immigrated to Australia from South Korea when I was four years old, and although my home life was quite Asian, my external social life and education has been Western. I am incredibly proud of my heritage and also very appreciative of my adopted nationality. I was the eldest daughter growing up, ever reminded that I was the “majeh” (head of my family’s generation), as my father, who was the first born son in his family, had no sons of his own.
As an early first immigrant, there were high parental expectations of me—to act as a majeh would, to prove to our relatives that my parents’ decision to emigrate was a good one, to be a role model to my sister and the other Korean kids in the small but growing community in our town (I was one of the oldest kids in it). In addition, although I didn’t know it at the time, I had what could now be described as a “Tiger Mother.”
I am thankful to my Tiger Mother for much that I’ve achieved and learnt in my youth. But letting go of her control to let me make decisions that she doesn’t agree with in my adulthood has been hugely traumatic. One of those is my apparently unacceptable choice of life partner. It has involved screaming matches that ended up in her driving from my home to her home three hundred kilometers away, nonstop, probably speeding, at midnight. It involved threats to leave the entire extended family and disappear alone indefinitely somewhere in Korea, as the shame would be so fierce that it could not be faced. The peak ended up in me breaking up with my boyfriend. The production of tears and raised voices throughout this time shocked those who knew me as a calm, strong person who never cried or got aggressive.
Her largest objection was not specifically cultural. She felt that as a doctor, I would be most well suited to marrying another doctor, and he was not. The problem was, traditionally Korean elders’ opinions are greatly respected to the point of personal sacrifice (there are many Korean TV dramas whose story lines are based on a couple who have parental/majeh objections, and cannot live happily ever after unless they “earn” their blessing). She firmly believed that my life was doomed to be horrible because I had chosen a partner who probably earned less than me (he doesn’t), who was not ambitious because he wasn’t in an “academic” field (he is), and was in a risky career (that may be so in the business sector, but medical jobs are not guaranteed, either). She didn’t want to give any encouragement on her part by talking about him or meeting him, so there was never adequate opportunity to change her beliefs of him. (My father, who is a gentle Zen soul, tried a few times but generally supported me quietly.) On my part, my own beliefs made me push too hard for her approval. Marriage to me was a joining of two families, not two people and I thought if I couldn’t get her to acquiesce, I couldn’t marry this man. So I tried, over and over, causing family rifts and conflict as I went. At the same time I was dealing with my own concerns, which included cultural elements such as the fear that I might “lose” some of my Koreanness. I wondered how I would raise my children to know and love their Korean heritage, how we were going to approach my mostly non-English speaking relatives when we went to visit them, and whether they would accept us as I was the first in the extended family to marry a non-Korean.
When I got back together with my boyfriend, it was tentative but with more clarity. I had had months to decide that this particular sacrifice “for my family” was not worth it to me, and he had realized that he would prefer to tackle the issues with me rather than give me up. We made a plan. I liaised with a therapist. We took it step by step, and dialed back on the expectations. I was grateful for any progress we made, and accepting of the things I could not get now, but hopeful that they may come in the future.
It has taken a lot of courage and patience, but these are the incredible things that have happened so far, that I never thought would happen when I got engaged seven months ago, when only my dad quietly congratulated me when I told them. My parents agreed to be at my wedding! I’m even going to have some relatives there! My mother bought me a hairpiece, and shopped with me for jewelry. We went to Korea (she insisted I go before I get married) and bought a hanbok (traditional dress) for her and myself to wear at my wedding.
What we won’t have is a paebaek (Korean ceremony) or a full rehearsal meal, because my mother’s not keen to come to anything other than the wedding. I have organized most of it without her. I’ve been sending her wedding requests and information in small chunks and carefully controlled my responses. Sometimes it’s stifling because I can’t be as excited with her as I’d like, and I have to monitor my side of the conversation to limit mentioning my fiancé. But what I have gained so far is completely worth my efforts. And I still have hope. I hope that she will meet my soon-to-be-husband and that his reality will one day overcome some of her fears.