m a r k a n d e y a

My Girlfriend’s Family

Posted by Brian on February 11, 2006

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with my girlfriend and her mother at some Italian restaurant. Being a gentleman, I naturally scooped up the bill and ran to the register to pay before her mother could do anything about it. Grateful, she invited me up to her family’s neighborhood in Dobong the following week for some galbi. “Sure,” I said.

So I head up there the following week (it’s about an hour on the subway), and on the way my girlfriend calls me and tells me that her sister and her family happened to be in the neighborhood then and would be joining us along with her parents. I’m OK with this, as I have met her sister and her family and like them.

So we eat dinner… a lot of dinner. Too much dinner, in fact, as I think I nearly overdosed on galbi. I ate a lot, but her father said I wasn’t eating much so her mother ordered some more galbi for me. I kept eating and eating and eating till I was about to explode like the fat guy in that one Monty Python movie.

Three cows later, we finish. It’s now about 9:00, and I’m very full and tired. Her family mentions going back to their house for some dessert, but I do my best to politely explain that it’s late and with the hour-long trip back I should probably be going. They say OK, thank you’s are made, and I say goodbye. My girlfriend walked me back to the subway station and told me that I did a fine job.

However, she’s singing a different tune the next day. She said her family thought I was a tad rude for not going over. You see, her sister’s family did not just happen to be in the neighborhood that night. Expecting me to visit their home after dinner, her sister saw it as the “official” introduction of me into their family as a potential marriage partner for the youngest daughter in the family and wanted to be there. They showed up because they expected me to visit their parents’ home, and when I didn’t, they felt snubbed.

Now, I wasn’t too happy about this little revelation. I was never told of their true intentions behind joining us; in fact, the whole scheme was introduced to me in a less than honest manner. If I had known that their entire reason for going was to see me at their parents’ home, then I probably would have gone. And had I known and still not have gone, then I’d at least be aware of the consequences of my actions. I feel like I was blindsided a bit by this.

I’m well aware of the importance of scoring points with the family when you are in love with a Korean person. Much more than in America, the opinions of siblings and parents really matters when it comes to a family member getting married. But as I try to do the right thing without pandering too much, I feel like I’m playing a game of chess without knowing all the rules. The next time her sister’s family “drops by,” what’s the real meaning? Is it casual? Calculated? Should I stay? Go? I need a playbook to figure things out.

Don’t get me wrong, her family is great. I just feel like there’s this whole level of family politics going on in the background regardin our relationship that I have no hope of understanding.


10 Responses to “My Girlfriend’s Family”

  1. angus said


    from a korean’s point of view, you should have gone to the future in-laws for strawberries or whatever. however, since you are a barbarian and not a korean, i have to dump all the blame on your girlfriend for not explaining the significance of that plate of fruit. i know something about this now after dealing with my in-laws for the past few years but in the beginning i made similar mistakes. sometimes my girlfriend/wife pointed out the culture minefield, sometimes she didn’t. that said, you do need a playbook and until the time comes when you feel comfortable running your own plays, your g-f had better step up and interpret. i had to demand it from my wife that she tell me these things and not expect me to know it, barbarian that i am.

  2. Charles said

    I suppose it’s all in the way you look at it. You may have felt that “the whole scheme was introduced to (you) in a less than honest manner,” while they might have thought that by pretending that everything happened by chance they were taking some of the pressure off of you. Of course, this backfired when you didn’t take the hint.

    Not that it’s your fault, of course. I agree with angus that your girlfriend should have explained things to you in advance, or at least tried to signal to you that it would be a good idea to go.

    You don’t need a playbook, though. If you want to be on the safe side, simply try to be as accommodating as possible. Don’t worry about any hidden meanings, but realize that, until you become more familiar with the family, nothing is casual. That’s just the way it is. But when you get past this initial stage, you’ll have a better handle on what’s going on.

  3. Joel said

    I would go beyond even what Charles has said. Try to be as accommodating as possible until you are both family and more familiar. I have been dating my girlfriend for more than 5 years. Her mom and I have always had a good relationship because I always eat whatever she gives me and do whatever she says. I also try to think of her on all Korean holidays and her birthday. I thought we had reached a point where we were familiar enough to be honest about little things like this. We were eating 김밥 up in Seoul and she offered me some 단무지. I explained to her that I didn’t really like 단무지. I liked 깍두기 and 총각김치 but for some reason 단무지 never sat well with me. I thought nothing of it until a couple days later when my girlfriend explains to me that her mom was hurt when I said I didn’t want any 단무지. It’s not like it was something she made especially for me and I thought we were having a good conversation as I explained why I didn’t like it, but she was hurt that I had refused her. I asked my girlfriend what I should do in that situation. She said I should accept it and eat it even though I hated it or at the very least say I would accept it then just let it sit in front of me. Never reject an offer until they can’t get rid of you. 🙂

  4. It’ll be forgotten in a few days anyways. You can more than make up for it the next time you meet. I don’t know how many times when my wife and I were dating and we would be travelling on the subway and she’d say “Hey guess what? My father just happens to be a few stops away (miles from his home) why don’t we meet him for dinner?” Damn well frustrated me at first but just chalked it up to bbali-bbali culture – something my in-laws seem to live by. Good luck next time!

  5. Nathan B. said

    I’m not sure what to say, except to reiterate to your significant other that she needs to let you know these kinds of things in advance. If your girlfriend is committed to you regardless of her family’s opinion, then the family may just resign themselves to her decision. I think the best thing to do would be to ask your sister to apologize on your behalf, and perhaps add that you weren’t feeling well (which was true–you were “stuffed”). I didn’t have much experience dating Korean women before I met the one I married, so that’s about all I can say. I suspect things will work out all right. Good luck!

  6. Nathan B. said

    Oops, sorry! I meant “…ask your girlfriend to apologize on your behalf…”

  7. Kevin Kim said

    Nothing that can’t be solved with rubber gloves, a bottle of acid, a chain saw, and, if you’re brave, a live chicken.


  8. iheartblueballs said

    “Her mom and I have always had a good relationship because I always eat whatever she gives me and do whatever she says.”

    Step 1. Determine how important the opinion of your girlfriend’s family is to your girlfriend.

    Step 2. If determined to be of high importance, go to step 3. If determined to be of low importance, go to step 4.

    Step 3. Follow Joel’s advice and look forward to a lifetime of biting your tongue and swallowing shitloads of food you dislike.

    Step 4. Refuse to eat what she gives you, and quit doing what she says. In fact, make it a point to eat nothing she gives and do the opposite of everything she says. Rinse. Repeat. After a few weeks, she’ll give up and write it off as whitey being whitey. You and the wife live happily ever after.

    At least until your wife starts acting like her mother and then you’re fucked.

  9. scott said

    I’ve got to go with Blueballs on this one (though I don’t normally agree with advice on women from a person named such). We are given far more leeway than Korean men, I’ve found. Play the ‘well-meaning but dumb foreigner’ and you’ll be able to avoid a lot of crap. Try to impress them with how “Koreanized’ you’ve become, and you’ll have a lot of expectations heaped on you as they’ll assume you know all the ins and outs of Korean customs (which you probably never will).

  10. Brian,

    a couple weeks ago, the usual suspects lined up in the church parking lot to say goodbye, and I asked if we were going to Starbucks (our usual habit) and one of the Korean spouses said “no”… because the family was tired.

    I then gently kidded (I thought) and asked if that meant they were just avoiding me. The Korean thing kicked in and soon we were all sipping our drink of choice at Starbucks.

    It’s an instinct.

    You can use it, as long as you’re subtle; but once you start to hang out with the Koreans, you have to play by their rules.

    Good Hunting!! (and the Shinsegae Dept. Store bakery makes good fruit covered cakes to bring over to the family’s houses as you make your apology tour)

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