Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

Those of you who read one of my first articles on this site, ‘My Korean Family’, will know that I definitely do not fit the description of the perfect son in-law in a Korean family.  I don’t give gifts (except at birthdays, Chuseok, and Seollal), I will refuse an invitation to go and see them if I have made other plans, and generally I don’t automatically respect what they have to say, and do what they wish of me.  I think they must know all of this by now, but to their credit I think they are basically content in the fact that I treat their daughter well.  There are, however, still a few problems I have with the culture at large, which manifests itself in their expectations of me.
I’ll be honest, I tend to try and avoid the Korean in-laws if at all possible.  I will visit them as often as I need to and no more than that because it simply is not a comfortable atmosphere.  The problem is that I soon as I step foot in their house or meet them in a restaurant or any other place, I am to follow their instructions without argument.  This means they dictate what I do, how I should behave, where I go, for how long I stay, and even to some degree how I should feel about it all.  They are not nasty about it, they are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but their cultural expectations create something of a benign dictatorship in relations between us.  It is simply unthinkable for me to excuse myself and go home after a long day in their company, for example, or in fact to have any polite disagreement with them at all.  So a bit like a North Korean defector, I slink away under the fence to get away and avoid an argument or any conflict whatsoever.  

My wife and I do this by lying, inventing little stories so that it is easier for me to get away.  It sounds terrible doesn't it, but it is the only way, and I have commented before that in my experience many older Koreans would rather be transparently lied to than have their children or younger family members tell the truth in direct confrontation with them.  I think many underestimate just how much of a factor this kind of cultural thinking plays in the creation of an Orwellian state such as North Korea.  It sounds almost offensive for me to compare my in-laws to Kim Jong Un, but the cultural mindset is the same and along with it the attitude that your parents are owed your 100% compliance and are not to be ever disagreed with, which I am sure is not really the case, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
denialI see the lack of conflict within Korean families, the workplace, and in Korean society in general to be an aspect of the culture that is flawed and could do with some changing.  Honest discussion - and the intellectual and verbal conflict that arises from it - is how we all move forward because, after all, there is no light without heat.  No light (quite literally if you look at the satellite image of the country at night) has been created in North Korea because there is no healthy disagreement with how things are being done.  Everyone just does what they are told, nothing moves forward, and North Korea is famously stuck in the past because of it.
The fact of the importance of conflict is something that is also lost on an ever-increasingly overly-liberalised Western culture, where many think we just have to accept and respect everyone else’s point of view as equally valid, especially those of a different society, or shout ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’ as a conversation finisher at anyone with a controversial opinion about the behaviour of any group of people other than the particular one that we belong to.  There is also a rather odd attitude present within our own societies (and especially in mine) of bending over backwards to accommodate and understand other cultures, but at the same time – when we travel to other countries – we should always ‘do as the Romans do’ and do our best to conform to others.  With particular attention to Korea and native English teachers, I think part of their role is to give students and their co-workers a true experience of working with people of Western culture.  We would all help Koreans much more if we stuck to our principles and conformed less, because they could learn so much more from it.  But we don’t, we just tend to do what we are told most of the time or try and weasel out of difficult situations like I do with my in-laws.  We all do this in order not to offend, and perhaps also keep our jobs and not get into trouble, although I really believe we shouldn’t, and I readily admit that I find it extremely difficult myself.
Back to my in-laws, and I am often confounded by the reaction I receive when I talk ill of my in-laws by saying I dislike spending too much time with them.  I usually get a range of responses depending on who I’m talking to and how much someone knows about me.  If I am talking to a Western person (who is married or in a long-term relationship) who does not know I am married to a Korean, I am usually met with a reaction along the lines of this, ‘yeah, I know, the in-laws are a pain in the neck sometimes aren’t they.’  If I am talking to a Korean friend or acquaintance and complaining about my in-laws, I also – pretty much 100% of the time – get the same kind of sympathetic response and also complaints about their own in-laws in return.  This is no surprise really as many Koreans – especially women – really do bear a significant burden from their in-laws.  But also, when you think about it, is it really that much of a controversial thing to say that you don’t like spending time with your in-laws?  Is this a rare feeling in people generally around the world?  I think not.  However, you wouldn’t know this if you could hear the criticism I receive sometimes from Western liberal-minded people, who know I am married to a Korean woman.  If I complain about my in-laws then, it is common to receive a barrage of comments saying that I should have known what the culture was like and I need to adapt to it and accept it and that I am simply not trying hard enough.  That is not how it should work, I should compromise on some things because of politeness and custom, but I will not bow down to everything they say because I need to accept their culture.  When it comes to respecting someone to the degree that you cannot engage in honest debate and disagreement with them, no respect shall be given and I say this from a logical, reasonable, and moral stand-point, the difference in culture is irrelevant.
Conflict-ResolutionTo not be able to speak openly and honestly with someone without fear of reprisal and dire consequences is something that I cannot respect, accept, adapt to, or feel comfortable with.  This is the position I find I am forced into in relations with my in-laws.  The best I can do is tolerate it, I’m afraid.  I love my wife and I put myself through it all because of her, fortunately I do not have to meet her parents all that often and my attitude of trying not to feel guilty about having these feelings means that I can avoid meeting them more than is absolutely necessary.  The horrible thing about it all is that I actually like my in-laws, they are nice, caring, and kind people, it is simply this one aspect of their culture that makes dealings with them much more difficult than it should be.
In Korea, I am uncomfortable that the right to disagree, argue, and debate honestly seems to be taken away from many people.  It is not enshrined in law or indeed in principle, but it is in practice.  The frustrating thing is that to notice this and complain about it in writing or even to friends is often seen as something worthy of shame, stubbornness, laziness, and sometimes even bigotry and racism.  It appears that the West is engaging in restricting debate and freedom of speech as well.  We talk a good game, and freedom to express ourselves may even be written in our constitutions, but again in practice we still try to silence and smear others to end arguments and stop the controversy to avoid a conflict.  Disagreements in opinions and ideas leads to a better understanding of each other, a greater knowledge of your own subject and position, an ability to change and move forward, the acknowledgement of problems and their possible solutions, and – perhaps the most importantly of all – the avoidance of violent conflict or other disastrous consequences in the future.
With me personally, my relationship with my Korean in-laws will always be a difficult and somewhat of an awkward one, which teeters on a knife edge, perhaps prone to a fatal collapse one day.  It is all because we really don’t know each other, in over three years we have never talked openly and honestly about anything, every situation being mired in courtesy, custom, and fear of saying the wrong thing.  At best we tolerate each other, we don’t genuinely respect each other and this situation can be translated to many thorny situations around the world and especially within multi-cultural nations.
To hell with ‘tolerance’ and to hell with causing ‘offence’, I want to truly understand and respect people, not just pretend to.  This is an up-swelling of frustration that has afflicted me since living in South Korea, the feeling that every day I am too much of a coward to really get to know people and that I am valued as a person for holding back on my principles in this regard and cowering away from confrontation.  The fact is though, I should stop beating myself up because at this time the straitjacket would be applied everywhere, not just in Korea.  Most of us are cowards, we need to be and I will settle back into the routine after writing this article of being nice to and conforming to the wishes of others who I really have no respect for whatsoever because, out of a fear of offending them (and vice versa), I have never really known them and they have never really known me.  No wonder we cannot truly respect and understand one another.
Note: This post was first written by me for asiapundits.com but I thought I would re-post it on my own blog as well.


Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

What will you do once you guys plan on having kids? How will you tolerate the in-laws at that point? I have seen Korean grandparents. They wait on kids hand and feet. Will you be able to accept that? Will you allow it with your kids? Such an interesting topic. Thank you for reposting!

Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

Many thanks for the comment.

I don't plan to live in Korea for very much longer, my wife and I are trying to go and live in Australia, but yes your questions are important and I'll be honest, I haven't thought about it much yet.  I don't think I'd mind them spending lots of time with my kids (they might even want to spend less time with me), they are certainly not bad people and I don't forsee them teaching my kids anything I wouldn't want.  I could, however, see a problem when they are a little older, when principles of personal identity and freedom really come into effect.  But geez, that's a long way off, even a baby is a few years away yet!

Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

3 years married, and much of the family feel that we should just get on with it and have a baby as soon as possible.  But it will be at least 3 more years yet.  Yes, it will be interesting to see, smothering love and attention is my prediction.

Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

It must have been awful times for you and it seems to me that you are going to be seeing same situations in few years to come. I think the most difficult part of it is that you are trying to hold on, on your principle which is the representation of your whole "self" in order to satisfy the needs of others. In my point of view, that is too generous on your part.

I too had Korean in-laws. I subjected "myself "to all of all them for over 2 years, not only my former parents-in-law but also to all of their relatives in the hope to understand them better before I would get them understand me which unfortunately never happened.

 My ex-husband was working in other city and I was left living with his parents among with the rest of his relatives in the village for over a year. And what I mean relatives are his uncles, aunts, cousins, and even friends of the rest of his families.

I documented every experience I had with them, the burning rebellion inside my head when my mother -in-law dictated me everything I had to do, such as what I would say to greet everyone who visits their house, what I should prepare for them, seat with them for hours, arrange the table, prepare Korean dishes and so on and so forth. The worst part is "what I must do and what I must not do, what to say and what not to say, who to talk with and who not to talk with, even what time to wake up in the morning" according to their likeness...for over a year, I got fed up for this phrase” Jarhetta / job well done".

I called it as a prison without government license wardens.

On the 2nd year, it was time for me to say no if I don’t like and say what I think about things. I no longer wake up according to their preferred time. I cooked what I wanted to eat. In the end, I insisted to leave them and to actually live with my husband. After weeks of arguments of whether they let me go or not, I told them I have no more patience to live with them and if they don’t like it, I will go back to my home country whether they like it or not. They took it so hardly and felt so insulted about my statements.

Right then I realized something. They felt insulted when I said no for the first time and how could they not understand that I also is deeply hurt for so long time when they have never said yes to what I wanted. Do they think they are the only human and I am not?

So I thought and thought for few weeks…” these things must be cleared out”.

I called someone who can translate everything that I would say since I could not speak fluent Korean by then. This was my statement “I basically respect you and I am culturally nurtured to respect my parents and old people. I am oriented to love my grandparents. But from where I come from, we don’t dictate what other people should and should not do even to your own child. In my culture, it is a shameful act for parents-in-law to command or force their daughter-in-law or any in-laws to do things for them or even expect her to serve them. If you are hurt because I no longer agrees to everything that you say, you must know that I have been deeply hurt for over a year that you have been telling me that I must do this and I must not do, where I should go or where I should not go, who to talk with or who not to talk with, what to say and what not to say, when to wake up, what to eat and what not to eat, and even how I eat, how to serve my husband when he arrives etc. If you think that I am no longer a favorite or lovable or even acceptable daughter-in-law you would rather let me go or we will end up literally killing each other.

 Finally, they set me free. I quit my job in that village and found a new Hagwon in the other city. It came to the point that I couldn’t get my husband meet me in between to patch up our cultural differences. Months of living together barely seeing each other…I asked for divorce. I was willing to give up our house and leave him everything without any expectation for child support…

My husband with his entire family didn’t like it. I couldn’t get their logic at all. They well know that I and my husband are not happy being together, we barely talk for half year, he never helped me out pay any bills but just waited to be served at home , and here are his parents trying to stop me divorcing him.

Again in my thought, would these people ever see things on the other side? Why would I go on suffering for them while I may still have chances to talk to interesting people on earth whom I can freely express myself and my beliefs?

It took me five years to finally got divorced. And now back to good life again, here I am free, happy, and seeing the world as a beautiful place to live.


Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws


             Laying down rules and boundaries is a two-way street. I think that, the sooner, the better. If they don't want to be flexible, why should you cave in? This is a classic excuse her for avoiding problems, so Parents always get their own way. My parents are excellent , but, there are parents everywhere here. 

Re: Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

Plaese do share, and thank you for commenting.

I think if I ever have to live my parents in-law (what a nightmare) it would be a similar story, but thankfully, I average seeing them about once every 3 weeks or so, more regularaly around special days.  I totally understand all your frustrations, the feeling I get from what you wrote is a complete crushing of freedom and that's how I feel with my in-laws.  It is precisely like a prison.  I feel like my brain gets dulled in passivity when I am in their company.  However, I think I do have things much easier as a son in-law.  Daughters in-law have a much harder time with in-laws generally in Korea, much more is expected of them.  I really feel for what you must have gone through for those 2 years and for a long time I have had the same sympathy for Korean women in the same situation.  They are more adjusted culturally and know what to expect from their in-laws but I know they still hate it.

As a son in-law, I don't really have any duties as such and I have done quite well at wriggling out of them when they come along.  I am made to feel very guilty about things though as my in-laws do look after me well, but in a very Korean way, which often involves a complete lack of freedom on my part.  They are so nice, really genuinely lovely people, but their culture has just put on a pair of blinkers to any other way of understanding things.  I feel like I am constantly understanding and accomodating their thinking and their culture and they are just incapable of doing the same in reverse.

It is interesting that your Korean speaking was not that good either.  I am capable of conveying pretty much anything I want to say, but clumsily and I am not quick or fluent enough to have proper conversations.  A couple of weeks ago I was resolved to study hard and really improve my Korean, then I had a 12-hour slog with the in-laws and I felt so frustrated, so dulled in that weird feeling of passivity, I have not been able to study since.  My in-laws really kill the enthusiasm for the culture and that includes the language.  Sounds like an excuse, I know, but I really think this is what happens.  I wonder whether it was the same for you?  When people don't really want to listen to your honest thoughts and feelings there is not much motivation to talk with them, and when it requires learning a new language to do so, it makes matters worse.

Thanks again for commenting; it is nice to know I am not just being unreasonable or stubborn (which is often how I am made to feel by my in-laws) and that others have had similar problems.  Your situation sounded far worse than mine, just goes to show the importance of freedom of expression and speech.  If you can't be free and honest with your family and the people you live with, how on earth can you be happy?  I don't really understand how some Korean in-laws don't understand this.  Maybe they don't care if their son or daughter in-law are unhappy as long as duties are fulfilled.  Sounds horrible but that is what it feels like.