Hello, friends! After reading a number of posts on this very blog, I noticed one that is particularly popular, titled “5 Tips on Meeting Your Korean Boyfriend’s Parents,” by a friend of mine, Tina Hsu. After reading this article, which is really quite interesting, I remembered that I have experience in this department as well, only from the guy’s side. In one of Tina’s other articles, “What to Expect When Dating a Korean Guy,” she mentioned that she had been in two long-term relationships with Korean men. This mirrors my experience, and I thought it might be interesting to write a complementary article speaking from the point of view of a non-Korean male who has had serious long-term relationships with two Korean women and has met the parents of both. Perhaps my girlfriends put in a good word or maybe I was just lucky, but my experiences meeting their parents and extended family were mostly very positive. I suspect this was in part due to my following these five steps. Meeting your significant other’s parents is a big deal in Korea, and the popular idea is that marriage will eventually follow.
I’d like to point out that I am touching on my experiences meeting the parents of first-generation Korean women in Korea, not the first-generation parents of Korean-Canadians in Canada, which I would imagine is likely a rather different experience. As in Tina’s “What to Expect. . .” article, here is a summary of my experience:
• I dated two Korean women, one originally from Namhae, living in Gyeongido (2 years) and the other from Gwangju, living in Seoul (1.5 years).
• I met each girlfriend’s parents, grandparents, and extended family (aunts, uncles, and cousins) in each hometown.
1. When speaking to your girlfriend’s parents, use Korean as much as possible.
Chances are, if you’re dating a woman from Korea you are probably interested in Korea to some degree and might know some Korean already. If your Korean girlfriend is your first brush with the culture and you guys are serious, then I think you owe it to her and yourself to learn at least something about her country of origin. When I met my first Korean girlfriend’s parents, I spoke only very rudimentary Korean and could read Hangul only phonetically. I had to use her as a translator most of the time, but even that seemed to leave a good impression on them. Naturally, speaking Korean helps for general communication, but it also shows that you are interested in their culture and that you are trying to engage with it. I feel that for my girlfriend’s parents, whose experience with foreigners outside of television and film was limited, the prospect of not being able to have even the most basic conversation with their potential son-in-law without a translator would be quite daunting. Indeed, my girlfriend at the time told me that at one point her father actually asked her, “If you two get married, how can I talk with him?” This was obviously a big issue for him. Family does tend to be a very big part of Korean tradition; I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Also, as Tina says, don’t forget to use the words 어머님 (eomeonim, respectful “mum”) and 아버님 (abeonim, respectful “dad”) when addressing them—it’s a sign of both respect and familiarity.
2. Bring gifts!
In Tina’s article she said, “don’t show up empty-handed,” and this goes for guys as well. It is my understanding that, traditionally, first-time guests to a household in Korea are usually expected to bring something as an offering to the hosts—in many cases a food or drink item. If you are visiting from your home country, you may want to bring some staple food or product that travels well and is either more expensive or difficult to obtain in Korea. Some examples of Canadian things that I’ve offered to my Korean friends and girlfriends’ families are a large bottle of Crown Royal whisky, bottles of Icewine, omega-3 and calcium supplements (which are apparently more expensive over there), and . . . yes, maple syrup. Again, adhering to this tradition reflects well on your cultural savvy as well as the fact that, generally speaking, people like getting stuff!
3. Try to relate to them.
I’d say this goes for meeting any girlfriend’s parents, regardless of culture. The important thing to remember here is that your girlfriend’s parents and relatives are people, not immovable stone guardians of her chastity. Treating them as anything other than potentially pleasant human individuals could be quite alienating, I’d imagine. If you treat them as the former, it may be hard for them to see you as a good and relatable person as well. Be respectful, of course, and train up on the proper etiquette (there are numerous guides online), but at the same time don’t be afraid to be friendly. Can’t speak Korean? Use actions! If you’re served Eomeonim’s home cooking, eat heartily and offer to help clean up. They probably won’t let you but it’s the gesture that counts.
Ask your girlfriend what her parents are into; you might share a common interest that could fuel conversation, even if you have to use your girlfriend as a translator. Just remember, just because they speak a different language and were born into a different culture, it doesn’t mean they’re not human. It’s probably also a good idea to read up on some Korean history so you know your facts and can see where your girlfriend’s parents might be coming from. Korea’s modern history has been quite eventful and chances are they’ve seen a lot; they might appreciate being asked about it. As Tina mentioned, it would probably also help to learn a trot song or two; most boomer-generation Koreans listen to trot and would likely be quite pleasantly surprised if you belted one out in karaoke (I actually did end up going to karaoke with one of my ex’s parents). Koreans, especially the older generations, tend to be quite group minded—if you can prove to them you belong in their group, they will likely welcome you with open arms, but this process can take a while, depending on their personalities. Take it step by step. Remember, they probably had to do the same thing with their future in-laws at one point or another.
4. Be a gentleman—emphasis on the man part.
While ideas of gender roles are gradually changing in South Korea, especially with the younger generations, I think it’s safe to say that for the most part, the boomer generation still tends to be pretty old school in their ideas about gender roles. That is, many older Koreans (let’s say in their fifties and sixties) seem to prefer their daughters to be with a man who at least seems as if he could put food on the table, regardless of whether or not their daughter is entirely capable of doing so on her own terms. This is, of course, not to mention that parents generally prefer their children to be happy and comfortable. Basically the important thing is to present yourself as an “ideal man”—be responsible, assertive, outgoing, and kind while following etiquette as much as possible:
• Maintain eye contact (within reason) when talking with Mum or Dad.
• Bow and be modest (but don’t overdo it).
• Don’t drink unless Dad, Mum, Uncle, or Auntie tells you.
• Stand up when an older person enters the room.
• If you’re going to shake hands, use both hands.
• When offered food or drink, try to say yes as much as possible, and accept it with both hands.
There are lots more rules, but follow these and you’ll certainly leave a good impression. If your girlfriend’s parents are particularly easygoing, they may tell you to stop being so formal, and if they do that is usually a good sign. At that point just follow their lead. In any case, the idea is to show them that their daughter is in good hands–even if it’s actually more so the other way around!
5. Impress Dad.
Generally speaking, I’ve found that women tend to be more open-minded and progressive than men, and that this extends to parents as well—especially if you’re a man who is dating a woman from another culture. This might be because Mum can relate a bit more to her daughter’s experiences in the realm of love, while Dad probably remembers what was going through his mind every time he saw an attractive woman and doesn’t want his little girl to be sullied. Perhaps because of this, in my experience, meeting Dad has always been a bit more nerve-wracking than meeting Mum. The two Korean mums I met were outgoing and joked with me a lot, laughed heartily, and gave me things to eat at regular intervals while reminding me how handsome they thought I was. On the other hand, Dad would often sit stoically, unsmiling except in rare circumstances, and eye me suspiciously . . . or maybe that was all in my head. In any case, older Korean men tend to be much more aloof than their young counterparts (just look at some Korean family photos to see what I mean). Sharing a drink with them (usually soju) is a good way to get them to open up and talk about themselves a bit, and they’ll probably start asking you questions as well. Again, your girlfriend may have to play translator if your Korean is not up to snuff (especially if Mum and Dad speak a dialect). Simply talking to them and asking them good questions is a great way to impress Dad; again, foreknowledge of Dad’s interests and of Korea at large are good things to use here. One of the ways I got one dad to talk to me was by asking to see the book of family records, which I had heard most Korea families possess. He was quite surprised that I knew about it, and after showing me he began to talk about his family’s background, so that worked out well.
Meeting your girlfriend’s parents is nerve-wracking in any culture. Your success at leaving a good impression on your Korean girlfriend’s parents will depend heavily on her parents’ personalities and open-mindedness—everyone’s different, after all. However if you follow the five steps I’ve posted here, I think your chances will definitively improve. Now go forth and be likable, for your girlfriend and yourself!