I had been dating George for 6 weeks, and we were about to have sex for the first time. I was unbuttoning his shirt when he said he had to tell me something. Oh no, did he have an STD?
He sat there silent for what seemed like forever while I imagined all the horrible things it could be. And then he told me about his parents.
George is first generation Korean-American, and his parents told him since he was a teenager that he was supposed to marry a Korean woman who was an amazing cook. I am not Korean. I am a white girl from Oklahoma who’d never even had Korean food before dating George. And other than an awesome plate of nachos and maybe a grilled cheese, I don’t cook much.
I asked him, “So is this the sort of thing that they are uncomfortable with and learn to accept or is it more of a they-disown-you-as-their-son sort of situation?”
He said, “Somewhere in the middle.”
I really liked this guy. He was proof of the fact that I had finally learned to respect myself enough to date someone who respected me. Someone who didn’t mind waiting 6 weeks to have sex and cared enough to tell me about this possible deal breaker before I took my clothes off.
So I bought Level 1 of Rosetta Stone and started learning some Korean. I also practiced using chopsticks. Those wooden disposable ones you get with takeout. I practiced whenever I could, even on scrambled eggs. I figured, if I can eat scrambled eggs with chopsticks, I’ve got this down.
After a year, I started to feel like an idiot for trying to learn the language of parents that didn’t even know I existed.
When I asked George to tell his parents about me, though, he cited 2 reasons of defense. One, he wanted to be able to tell them I knew more Korean than I did, and two, he couldn’t imagine my using chopsticks in front of them.
The chopsticks bit hurt because I thought I had gotten better. But he had a point about the Korean. The initial I’m-a-cool-white-girl-learning-a-hard-language feeling had faded, and I was barely practicing the Rosetta Stone anymore. I argued that I would feel more inclined to practice if I knew there was a good reason to.
A month later he went home for Christmas, and on the last night of his 10 day trip, he told them about me. They didn’t disown him; they even wanted to meet me. In Vegas. They live in Houston, we live in LA, I’m not really sure why Vegas, but why not Vegas?
As the trip got closer, I started to realize just how big a deal this was. At age 30, George had never told his parents about any of his girlfriends. As far as I could tell, he was terrified of his mother.
My own mother said, “You are just going to have to prepare yourself for the fact that this woman may not like you.” My mom is really great at making sure I don’t get my hopes up.
We met at the Vegas airport. In a word, his dad is quiet, and his mom is fancy. Gorgeous pantsuit, mani-pedi, glitzy shoes, expensive purse. I was just relieved I’d thought to get a pedicure beforehand. I towered over them. I bowed and said like I’d practiced a million times “Ahn young ha say oh.” And then they were off, walking quickly in front of us. I asked George if I did it right. He nodded and told me to keep up.
They spoke very little, which felt awkward for me because in my family, whoever interrupts the loudest gets the floor. My picture of George’s parents had been so strict and scary, but so far they seemed very nice.
I kept scanning my brain for something I could say in Korean. Something to show them I was learning. Something to blow their minds. But the most complicated phrases I knew were “red bicycle” and “policeman and his horse.” They weren’t even complete sentences. Not to mention they weren’t something you could just casually slip into a conversation.
The next day for lunch we went to a Korean restaurant. The chopsticks weren’t wooden; they were silver and flat. Every time I tried to get a mouthful of noodles, they would slip off of the chopsticks and back into the bowl.
George’s mom said something to the waitress in Korean and 2 minutes later she brought me a fork. I’d failed the chopsticks test. But I didn’t use the fork. I wanted to show them how determined I was to do it right even if it meant that none of my lunch actually made it into my mouth.
Next we went to Gucci where George’s mom had found a purse she wanted to buy. I’d never been to Gucci before. I’m more of an Old Navy kinda gal, and I felt way too common to even be in there.
After she showed us the purse she was buying, she said, “Now you pick.” I laughed, but they didn’t. She was serious. Panicked, I pointed to the first purse I saw. The saleslady pulled it down, and I whispered, “How much is it?” She showed me the tag: $2,400. For a purse?! I pulled George to another part of the store.
“What do I do? Everything in here is so expensive!” He suggested a wallet. I had a wallet. It was $20 from Target. He suggested a small purse. A clutch! I actually needed one of those. I pointed to one, the saleslady showed me the tag: $800. Okay, still way more than I’d pay for a purse, but probably the best I was gonna do in this store.
While George’s parents paid for the purses, I sat on a bench, blindsided. Was this their way of buying me off? “You have your fancy purse, now go away.”
But it wasn’t to make me go away. George’s family has been so welcoming, so generous. Not just with things like Gucci purses but with love and kindness. The first time I visited their home, there was a framed picture of his parents and me from that Vegas trip in George’s room. The smiling Korean couple and the awkward white girl towering next to them.
I thought the biggest obstacle would be to impress his mother, to get her to like me. But instead what has been most challenging for me is to accept the love and generosity that she has put toward me always.