Ever since reading a story about a woman named Park So Nyo who goes missing at a train station I can’t stop thinking about another woman named Nam Pib Han.
You could say she is one of the many “real life” versions of So Nyo, living her life quietly the way she always has out in the countryside while her children and grandchildren head to the city. Luckily her existence is not cold or thankless like So Nyo’s. But she does face the same cultural, generation gap that many other elderly Korean people today face.
Nam Pib Han, by the way, is my husband’s grandma.
When I tell Korean people that I married a Korean man, one of the things they are most anxious to know is how I get along with my mother-in-law. Not unlike neighboring “tiger moms” in China, Korean matriarchs are a force to be reckoned with. So when I cheerily report that not only is my mother-in-law a very kind and laid back sort of person, but that she and my father-in-law are entrepreneurs living in Salt Lake City you can imagine the wide-eyed reactions I sometimes get.
But on the other hand, I silently add, my grandmother-in-law is not someone you want to mess with anytime soon!
The first time I met Grandma Yun Ho and I were still dating. It was during Chuseok – the full moon harvest holiday. Breakfast was at 6 AM in the morning, and the ceremony right afterwards. I woke up a few minutes too late, and right after slumping onto the toilet I heard a banging at the door. Not wanting to seem rude by shouting at an old woman (especially while sitting on the toilet), I awkwardly sat frozen while she continued to hammer away for a good minute or so. The banging finally stopped, and Grandma had no choice but to give up and clamber onto her scooter and drive off to Aunt and Uncle’s up the road.
The rest of the time went a bit more smoothly – I appeased both Aunt and Grandma by stuffing myself at the table and did my best to help clear dishes. Grandma was a tad ruffled that I couldn’t be of more use in the kitchen, but she acknowledged that my limited Korean language skills made it difficult. My last memory of that trip was standing outside her front porch and eating steamed corn on the cob that she had insisted on giving me. She grinned as I ate it – that small reassurance was enough to keep me chomping away in spite of my bursting stomach seams.
A year and a half later, two months after our wedding Yun and I returned to Grandma’s to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This time around I was actual family, so I did my best to make myself useful. I already knew Grandma (and to some extent, Aunt) expected it. Yun and I gave them gift money and did the “full bow”, once to Grandma and Grandpa, and once also to Aunt and Uncle. I tried to use Korean phrases whenever the opportunity arose. But in spite of efforts on both sides to be gracious, there was a definite strain this time around. Tensions were taut. Grandma was irritable unless all the women were in the kitchen helping, in spite of the limited amount of work to be done. Both Aunt and Grandma almost never smiled. Long silent meals were followed by longer periods of time idling in front of a TV playing at low volume, until each family member wandered off one by one to take a nap. Whenever we took our leave, Grandma would bark, “Be sure you come back for dinner!”
In my stressed and hypersensitive state I tried to “figure out what had gone wrong.” I was well aware that filial piety was a crucial aspect of Korean culture – was I not “pious” enough? Or was the “filial” part the issue, since I was a foreigner?
That night I had what one might describe as “an inevitable mini meltdown.” I experienced the strange, distinct sensation of suddenly being in someone else’s life – of feeling like I was in some sort of cross-cultural drama. I recall sitting in Grandma’s humble, dusty little guestroom, staring at Yun and thinking, “How did I get here?” The man who I was in love with and whom I had married was also the very reason I was there, and thus the reason I was having this spectacularly suffocating experience. That very thought made me feel a pang of guilt, and redoubled my annoyance with myself. Why couldn’t I just shake it off? It was at that point that Yun confessed to me that he, too, was not “having fun.”
“It’s no one’s fault,” he began.
“You and I aren’t happy right now because we don’t know what else to do. Aunt isn’t happy because she isn’t sure what to do. And Grandma herself isn’t happy because she probably doesn’t know what to do, either. We’re all family, but we’re not close. We live apart. We have totally different lives. And then there’s the language barrier. Grandma and Aunt probably never expected their kids and grandkids to end up so differently from them.”
I have to admit, I can understand why the characters in Kyung Sook Shin’s “Please Take Care of Mom” were so frustrated all the time. So Nyo, like Grandma, wanted what was best for her children – even if that meant their lives went in opposite directions from her own. But could even So Nyo and Grandma have anticipated just how different that would be? Did So Nyo realize that her literate daughter would turn into a famous writer and travel the world? Did Grandma consider that five of her seven children would move to other countries, and three of her grandsons would marry foreign women? Did either woman ever manage to make peace with these events while they themselves stayed at home, tending to their farm, feeding the chickens, making banchan, and taking care of the ancestral rites?
What are Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han’s ultimate feelings on the matter, anyway? In “Please Take Care of Mom” we never get So Nyo’s exact sentiment. Even in her death she is more concerned about her family members and their welfare than she is about her own, and seems almost resigned to her less than ideal life. The most revealing passage in the novel, perhaps, is one in which So Nyo’s daughter Chi Hon asks her, “Mom, do you like being in the kitchen?”
So Nyo is utterly nonplussed by her daughter’s question. “I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to.”
So perhaps Grandma is simply doing what she has to do, in her own gruff way, neither liking nor disliking it, and I am misinterpreting it as personal resentment. I can see that being the case. Yet at the same time, there still obviously is some sort of expectation on her end. And that expectation goes back to the matter of filial piety.
This begs the question: what exactly is filial piety and how does it apply in an ever-changing and modernizing world?
How is it that we can we honor our elders and make everyone happy in spite of long distance, technological distractions, intermarriage, shifting values and a bigger generation gap than ever? Is it even possible – or is filial piety a concept of yesteryear that the old merely reminisce over and the young only know about through watching Korean dramas?
In seeking to answer this question I now begin to see the obvious differences between the lives of Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han.
While Park So Nyo’s family had evolved and urbanized so dramatically that they literally lost their own mother at a train station and had no clue where to find her, Nam Pib Han aka Grandma is blessed to live next door to her oldest son and daughter-in law who never let her out of sight. The other kids, although they live further away, come and pay their respects whenever they can, and the grandkids haven’t turned out too badly, either. Yun Ho, in his seven years of living in Korea as an adult has managed to make it out to the family farm every year for important holidays, as well as special occasions like weddings and funerals (I accompany him whenever I can). So much for Kyung Sook Shin’s scathing description of Korean people who board a jet plane during the traditional holidays and exclaim, “Ancestors, I’ll be back!”
Also unlike So Nyo, Grandma can read and write (actually, most in her generation can) and her husband was always loyal and even cooked her seaweed soup once in a while. Perhaps the fact she outlived him meant he didn’t have a painful lesson to learn, the way So Nyo’s husband did.
So Nyo was never able to leave Korea, and rarely even went to Seoul. Grandma, on the other hand, has traveled to Canada and the US to visit her children, and even saw the Vegas Strip. You might not imagine it from your first assessment of her – she is as crumpled and careworn as the other women of her generation – but she has seen more of the world than many of her peers. During her youth she fled with her family to China to escape North Korean soldiers. I’m sure she would be full of fascinating stories, if only she were prompted to share them. (In fact, perhaps I should make that a project for the next time we visit her!).
So while there is awkwardness and compromise, while there are disappointed expectations and undeniable distance, I feel that Yun Ho and his family (and hopefully me, by extension) have found our own 21st century way to observe filial piety, the best way we can. Doubtless a few more phone calls wouldn’t hurt. But I would like to think if we were walking with Grandma in a train station, she wouldn’t slip away from our notice and get lost in the crowd. I would like to think that when she passes away we aren’t consumed with regret at what we should have done but did not.
Real life is never perfect, but there’s often a lot that’s good to it, and that is why I prefer Nam Pib Han’s story to Park So Nyo’s. And I’m glad that it’s the story that also happens to be true.
The Korean Lunar New Year is less than a week away. This year my parents will be visiting Korea – there will be no chance during the holiday to visit Grandma.
“That’s a phone call I don’t want to make,” Yun confessed to me the other night. I admit that I felt a twinge of guilt: would Grandma understand? Or were we disappointing her expectations, yet again? In her culture you don’t simply invite over your grandson’s wife’s American relatives for the New Year, otherwise that might strike some people as an obvious solution.
It then occurred to me that we could always create a plan B. There’s no rule written in stone that says we can’t visit Grandma and Aunt and Uncle at another “normal” time of the year to bear gifts and pay respects. Perhaps setting up a “rain check” with Grandma would appease her for the time being. I’ve already begun considering which sorts of goodies or household items she might most enjoy. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it is the next best thing possible – and that is precisely what I mean by “filial piety in the 21st century.”
I’ll send a text message to my mom tonight to see if she has any extra space to pack a carton of Sees’ mini pops. And perhaps I should write a reminder note to go on my closet door as well: “Please look after Grandma.”