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A Mother Wedded to Korean Tradition

October 18, 1998|REGINA HONG | Regina Hong is a reporter for Times Community News

The phone rings. I hear the artificial nonchalance in my mother's voice.

"Your aunt knows this nice lawyer," she says in Korean. "Can I tell her you'll see him?"


"What's the matter?" she asks, sounding flustered. "All you have to do is talk to him."

"I've promised some friends I'd go out to dinner and a movie," I tell her.

"Can't you do it another time?" she asks.


"Fine," she snaps and hangs up without saying goodbye.

Since my boyfriend broke up with me last year--he was going through a mid-20s crisis--my mother has been trying to find me another man. She is upset that I'm not married at 27. In Korea, where she grew up, single women older than 25 are sometimes referred to as "old miss."

Not too long ago, my mother tried to persuade me to go out with the son of one of her friends at church.

When I told her I wasn't interested, she responded, "Well what makes you think he wants to go out with you anyway."

Now I don't despise the institution of marriage. But this campaign to find me a spouse is not only frustrating, it is driving a wedge between my mother and me. She, the first-generation immigrant, and me, the hybrid-American daughter, are confronting together the cultural imperatives of a land thousands of miles away, but which manages to exert a powerful influence on both of us.

When I was growing up, my mother never stuffed my head with Cinderella-like stories. She never urged her daughter to attend the best college just to meet a guy.

She believed women should be independent, able to stand on their own two feet.

When I was in second grade, I remember sitting at the dinner table while she told me there were no limits to what I could achieve in this country.

"You'll grow up and speak English, and you can accomplish anything," she said. Anything short of the presidency, given that I wasn't born in America.

Her encouragement was critical to my self-confidence. Her perseverance taught me to fight for my place in the world. Guided by her words, I've traveled all over Europe, to Latin America and to my family's home in Korea. I've learned to paint and I've become a journalist. I believe I've become the strong, independent woman she wanted me to be. Or thought she did.

It seems that my accomplishments are worth less in her eyes because I have not become a wife. I try to understand what she is feeling. I want to repay my parents for their love. I want to show my appreciation for the thousands of hours they spent working inside a small, stuffy grocery store on L.A.'s skid row to give me a good start in life.

My mother fears that the child she and my father brought to the U.S. at the age of 3 has grown too American. She is undoubtedly hurt when I talk back to her.

A friend tried to make sense of it for me.

"It's clear why your mother is upset," she said. "You're out of compliance.

"You've gone to college like your parents wanted you to. You've got a good job. They consider the next step to be marriage and you're not doing it," she said.

I've tried to explain to my mother that I don't just want to latch on to some guy she tosses my way.

Then she complains, "You won't even let me be a mother."

But it doesn't stop there. "Try hard to find a Korean boy," my dad says. "That way I can at least feel comfortable talking to him in my language."

Other relatives have picked up the drumbeat. The campaign has even crossed oceans. When I visited Korea awhile back, my eldest uncle suggested there was no need for me to return to graduate school in the United States.

"You're supposed to be married now and raising a family," he said.

My cousin recently came to the United States to study. He said he wouldn't get married until I crossed the threshold, making me responsible for his life, as well as mine.

All this leaves me wishing that dealing with cultural differences were as easy as attending diversity fairs at schools and parks, where you chew on a few enchiladas, watch a powwow and listen to Japanese drummers.

No one's tolerance is strained watching people dance in colorful costumes. For me, the test has been more uncomfortable, and personal. I was born in a country that values sacrificing the personal for the group, but raised in a nation that treasures individualism.

We struggle to understand one another, my family and I, but it's not easy finding a middle ground when the issue is not learning to like different music and exotic foods, but who you are.

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