December 1, 2008

Bridging the Gap

Saturday night we had dinner with friends. The husband, Korean Scientist, and his wife, Gentle Smiles, moved here to raise their son Curious in the States. We've known them since Baltimore.

They've come to our house as part of group events, we've seen them at other parties thrown by people in lab. At most of those occasions, Gentle Smiles and I pulled to the side to talk for a while. We compared notes on Mothers. Me, discussing my MIL, her discussing her own mother. The dread of saying the wrong thing and ending up with the Mother living with us. The pressure to measure up. What it's like for her to raise a child here.

When our Thanksgiving plans changed, this family was my first thought. Jrex called and they already had plans. The irony was, they'd already asked him what we were doing for Thanksgiving, and made their plans after he said we had a guest. So they invited us over Saturday instead.

I went expecting a Korean feast. Instead, when we got there Gentle Smiles was nervously setting out cloth napkins, forks and knives. Telling her husband he should have offered us drinks. I could tell she was trying to do things the American way. She even had a cheese plate with crackers, along with the more Korean fresh fruit. I was very touched by the gesture, but wanted her to be able to relax and have fun. Nothing I said seemed to calm the anxiety.

As she was getting the food on the table for dinner, somehow the subject of chopsticks came up. I laughed about how I'd grown up eating with chopsticks, but had to learn a new technique when I got married; metal chopsticks require a more efficient method than the child's skills I'd had. Her eyes grew round, "You can eat with metal chopsticks? Show me." She'd been using a pair of wooden chopsticks to mix some of the food. I used them to grab a piece of kimchi and put it on my plate.

I laughed, "It would feel strange to eat kimchi with a fork".

She beamed and bustled to the kitchen, "I'll get chopsticks then."

As we all grabbed food with metal chopsticks, she smiled more and stopped trying to make sure everything was ok. Her husband seemed to relax back into his chair. Conversation flowed more readily. She asked what foods I knew how to make and was impressed (bulgoghi, kalbi, stew, jae jang myun, odicha). I told her about the first time I went to Jrex's Mom's house. She had me help make the jae jang myun. (It's a black bean paste sauce that covers noodles and any ingredients one chooses to include.)

"She plopped a huge pile of squid in front of me, with tentacles. They were the little, red squid, but they still had tentacles. I had to shut down the Midwestern girl in my head who was grossed out and cut them into small pieces. Everything I ate, I just shut that girl down and tried it. I loved all the food."

We ended up staying until 10:30 pm. Unfortunately, I did play the ignorant American and didn't stay to clean the whole kitchen with her . . . but, I think they needed to get Curious to bed and he'd have never settled down if we were there.

I thought it was interesting that after all our previous conversations about Korean culture, she'd assumed she had to do things 'my' way. Perhaps next time, she'll just do a Korean feast! Or, perhaps I will.


Beloved said...

That was so interesting to read. It reminded me of how new Koreans I meet never really seem to believe I can cook Korean food until I make something and bring it to a potluck. Then they rant and rave and act as if I just saved a life. Like it is just that amazing that I can season cucumbers properly. ;P
It actually took me awhile to master metal chopsticks. I avoided side dishes for awhile when I first moved to Korea because I always dropped food all over the place. As for tentacles, I could never handle the really big ones until I shared a bowl of jamppong with a Canadian friend of mine who was incredulous that I was avoiding them. I tried so hard not to look like an ignorant, intolerant American that before I knew it I'd eaten lots of squid legs and realized they were actually very good!

Aimee said...

Thanks for sharing! I would love to do something like this. It sounds like so much fun.

We never have friends over for dinner. I've talked to Hubby about it, recently actually, and want to change that.

Mama Nabi said...

mmmm squid legs... or live octopus legs...

My mom is the opposite - whenever we had non-Koreans over at our house, she'd go all out with Korean food. She'd say, "They eat western food all the time so how boring it would be to be served that."

Asianmommy said...

That's so great that you can make a Korean feast! I need to ask my mom to share some of her Taiwanese recipes with me.

Melissa said...

:) Love this post. If you feel comfortable around each other, and if you have time, you could suggest that you cook something togther. That'd be low-stress, low-expectation also.