10 Habits From My Korean Mother That I'm Only Now Realizing Are a Little Strange

When I went off to college and had a roommate, I realized that most people took portions from the main dish and put it on their plate. They didn’t share and dip in and out of the serving dish.

Dec 6, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

Growing up with a mom who isn’t from this country provided me with an interesting childhood. She couldn’t read English very well, so I ended up reading myself bedtime stories. She couldn’t write well either, so she preferred for me to sign any school papers. My teachers had no clue that I had perfected her signature.

My mom never had time to come to my softball games or to make me and my brother lunch because she was always off early to work for her first job and then out late on the weekend working her second job. Her free time was spent taking us to the Laundromat, grocery shopping or playing cards with her Korean friends.

I didn’t realize how many habits I had picked up from her until I began living with roommates, boyfriends and eventually, my husband. They all started pointing out specific things that seemed normal to me, but I later realized were a product of my mom’s Korean ways.

Here are 10 of those habits:

1. Putting hot sauce on everything.

As you probably already know, Koreans love to eat spicy food, especially kimchi. I was raised to eat kimchi with pretty much everything, including ramen noodles, sandwiches, pasta and hot dogs. In addition to eating kimchi, my mom put hot sauce on just about every meal. She put it in our chicken noodle soup, spaghetti, pizza, fried chicken and salads. So of course, I adopted the same habit, and still drench everything in hot sauce to this day.

I have been told multiple times that I need to lay off the hot sauce so I can actually taste the ingredients. I choose to ignore the hot sauce haters.

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Variety in hot sauce is literally the spice of my life.



2. Buying bootleg.

Throughout my middle school years, when my mom wasn’t working at her day job manufacturing projector parts, she had a small shop at the nearby flea market. This particular flea market was full of other Korean women who all sold the same things: hair weaves, Starter jackets, Cross Colours jeans, movies, CDs, press on nails, fake gold jewelry and sports hats.

About 99% of the “name brand” products were actually knockoffs, like my Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, and many of the music and VHS tapes were bootleg copies. According to my mom, the bootleg copy of "The Lion King" that she brought home (which included the voices of children talking in the background) was just as good as the original, so I needed to stop complaining about the quality and get over it.

Lesson learned from my mom: Bootleg is cheaper, so it is a keeper. Now I bootleg all of my music.

3. Double dipping.

I ate a lot of Korean food growing up, which meant that the pot of fish head soup was put directly on the table and everyone just dipped their spoons into to it and ate. The same goes for all the side dishes of kimchi, bean sprouts and whatever else was around. We’d all dip into the dishes with our chopsticks without a care in the world. It was a big happy double dipping food family.

Later, when I went off to college and had a roommate, I realized that most people took portions from the main dish and put it on their plate. They didn’t share and dip in and out of the serving dish. I still think it’s annoying to keep putting more food on your plate when you can dig directly into the dish, but I’ll follow this thing called etiquette to appear normal.

4. Not using a knife.

When I started living with my then boyfriend (now husband), and I would set the table for dinner, he pointed out that I never put out knives, unless we had steak. It never occurred to me that we needed to use them. My mom would always set the table with spoons, forks and chopsticks. We learned how to tear our meat apart with chopsticks, our fingers or food scissors. That’s just how it was.

Once he pointed it out to me, I was curious to see if it was a crazy thing my mom did, or if it was customary in Korean culture. Turns out, it was the latter. Koreans prefer to use their fingers first, and then scissors second, to cut through everything, including meat, noodles and kimchi.

Now I always set out knives with dinner, but I usually end up putting my untouched knife back into the drawer.

5. Sitting on the floor.

About 70% of the time that we ate meals together, we would sit on the floor around a big wooden table. Whenever I had birthday parties, my friends would usually sit on the couch while I sat on the floor, hunched over the cake to blow out the candles. The nights that my mom’s Korean friends would come over to play cards, they would sit crossed legged on the floor, and I would do the same, laughing at their intense card-playing faces.

That was over 20 years ago, and even today I always wind up going from the comfortable couch to the hard, filthy floor. Whenever I go to parties, I give up my chair so that I can purposely sit on the floor. When I have to wait too long to get into a concert, I simply sit on the ground. (I may also be just lazy.)

6. Not being able to bake.

My mom never baked anything from scratch. Most Koreans serve slices of fruit as the dessert at the end of the meal, so we ate a lot of apples, oranges and grapes. Yes, it’s healthier, but, dammit, my childhood was deprived of real chocolate chip cookies, banana nut bread, cheesecake and pecan pie!

Luckily, I had multiple roommates, and eventually a husband, who knew how to bake, so I never fully learned. It still makes me sad to visit my mom and see burnt Pillsbury oatmeal raisin cookies sitting in her James Dean cookie jar.

7. Singing karaoke.

My mom doesn’t drink much at all, but give her two glasses of wine and a Korean karaoke track and she’s singing like it’s her job (or one of her many jobs). Give a room full of old Korean women some alcohol and a karaoke machine and you have the beginnings of an interesting and outdated K-Pop band.

I grew up with a Korean/American karaoke machine in the house. Karaoke is what we did after every holiday meal, once we were full of food and all kinds of alcohol. The ratio of Korean to American songs was 10:1, and I didn’t have much to choose from, so I learned how to sing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Madonna’s “Crazy for You” in multiple voices and with varying dance moves. I’m not complaining at all.

I ended up singing karaoke a few weeks ago at my post-wedding Korean dinner. I don’t think most of the Koreans there understood the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” but they clapped their hands to the beat like they were at his concert. I felt loved.

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I actually did the moonwalk before this photo was taken.



8. Collecting free calendars.

I have this odd obsession with calendars. I have one hanging up by my desk, there’s a huge one on my desk and I constantly look at the calendar in my GroupWise email. I usually also have a day-to-day calendar sitting by my phone, but for some reason, I didn’t buy one this year. I guess I substituted that with the calendar on my iPhone.

I blame this obsessive habit on my mom. We always had calendars hanging up in our kitchen, living room and dining room growing up. They weren’t even cool calendars. They were free calendars that my mom picked up from the Asian market or at a Korean restaurant. The images of fake plastic flowers or young Korean women advertising face cream weren’t the prettiest, but the fact that we were informed of the current date was of utmost importance.

It takes everything in me to not pick up a free calendar when I visit the dentist or get my oil changed. My husband does not approve.

9. Wearing a fanny pack.

If there’s one fashion trend from the 80s that I absolutely love (besides bandanas, leggings, jean jackets and jelly shoes), it’s the fanny pack. I started wearing fanny packs after watching my mom snap them ever-so-easily onto her waist and walk around like she was the bee’s knees.

I had every color of fanny pack, but the bright pink one was my favorite. I couldn't care less that it didn’t match any of my outfits. It was the perfect accessory to wear to Busch Gardens when I rode the Loch Ness Monster, and I could easily access my money from it when I was shopping at the thrift store.

Although I have destroyed any photographic evidence that I ever owned one, I desperately wish I could wear one whenever I go grocery shopping or to a concert.

10. Hand washing dishes.

In my entire 18 years of living at home, we never owned a functional dishwasher. My mom taught us that hand washing dishes was the only way to go because it guaranteed the cleanest results. We were never to trust a machine that cycles dishes through their own filth and then breaks down in your time of need. Our hands are just as good, and since we have two of them, we should be able to do double the work.

Even when I started living in apartments with working dishwashers, it took me a long time to completely trust them. I still prefer to hand wash dishes, and I have a weird obsessive-compulsive thing about having to wash any dishes that are sitting in a sink.

Although some of these habits may seem odd, or unconventional, or just plain embarrassing, I’m proud of the fact that I was raised by a strong single mother who didn’t care what other people thought. She stayed true to herself, and her Korean ways, in a country that wasn’t her own, and I have gladly inherited that no-nonsense attitude. Thanks, mom!

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