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Marrying Korean: And Other Attempts To Impress, Communicate, And Fight My Way Into An Exotic Culture

Marrying Korean: And Other Attempts To Impress, Communicate, And Fight My Way Into An Exotic Culture

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Marrying Korean: And Other Attempts To Impress, Communicate, And Fight My Way Into An Exotic Culture

179 pages
3 hours
Oct 28, 2019


Book Description

Marrying Korean follows Stefano, an MIT graduate, as he meets the Korean woman who would become his wife and wonders to himself if he could even locate her country on a map. From his first tastes of soju, his first Korean drama addiction, and his first time getting naked with his girlfriend’s father to taekwondo sparring, interviewing at Samsung, and visiting an abalone-farming family on the remote island of Nowha-do, the author chronicles a decade worth of attempts to impress his new Korean family, communicate in the Korean language, and wrestle with the more difficult parts of Korean culture.

About the Author

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 —
but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “saranghaeyo,” and embarked on a journey of more than a decade to study Korean language and culture. He has appeared on Korean news channels KBS and YTN while studying the language in Los Angeles and contributed a six-part series to the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog recounting his ever-deepening experiences with his Korean family and Korean culture. He has also published Busan dialect lessons for Korean learners. Before writing about Korea, Stefano received his PhD in Optical Sciences and worked in radiology research, publishing in top peer-reviewed academic journals such as Medical Physics and IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their three-year-old daughter.
Oct 28, 2019

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Marrying Korean - Stefano Young



I stood up from my aisle seat in the darkness and made my way towards the bathroom at the rear of the plane. There was someone waiting there in the galley, a white guy who looked about my age, maybe younger, with scraggly brown hair. Since we were two of the only non-Asians on the flight, we fell into conversation effortlessly: I learned that he attended Cal Berkeley and, like me, was also dating a Korean girl, but they were not traveling together.

He had been to Korea before and was returning solo to pay her a visit there, so I had to pick his brain for advice, confessing that it was my first time visiting Korea with my own girlfriend. "You have to try the bingsu," he replied. I had no idea what bingsu was, and he explained that it was a kind of dessert. One bathroom door opened and he slipped inside, then another opened up for me. I never saw my American friend again.

We landed at Incheon International Airport and walked down a long corridor with the other passengers in jet-lagged silence. I felt self-conscious not only because I was one of the only foreigners around, but also because it was a little too quiet. I scanned my surroundings, suspecting that the green carpets must be made from some special material or that there must be some kind of sound insulation in the walls. I made my way through the efficient Foreign Passport line and on to baggage claim, where luggage carts were thoughtfully provided free of charge. The whole arrival experience, in fact, was quiet, orderly, and even rather pleasant.

We exited into the arrivals hall without any fanfare because Garam’s parents were on the other side of the country in Busan, another five hours by bus from the airport. Garam offered to buy me some food from the convenience store in the arrivals hall, and while she did so, I sat on one of the rows of benches arranged to face an enormous TV with SAMSUNG emblazoned on the side. Two older gentlemen sat nearby, bundled up in their winter jackets, legs crossed, and staring blankly at the screen.

Garam returned with a triangular seaweed-wrapped rice ball and a short, chubby beverage container full of banana-flavored milk. She handed me the rice ball first. The triangle was not a shape I typically associated with food, but I accepted it anyway, and she explained how to open it: you were supposed to pull the tab marked 1 on the back of the plastic wrapper, bisecting the triangle. Then you gently tugged on the corner marked 2 to remove half of the plastic wrapper, pulling finally on the corner marked 3 to remove the rest. Exhausted from the thirteen-hour flight, all I could think was: Hey Koreans, make it easier. I followed the instructions, but some of the seaweed ripped during step two, and I lost another chunk of it in step three. Garam laughed at my ineptitude, gently intervening with her slender fingers when seaweed got caught in the wrapper. The rice ball itself stayed intact and it was delicious. The beef bulgogi filling in the middle made me wonder how they stuffed it in there without leaving any trace of an incision on the outside. I imagined a high-tech robotic arm in a conveyor belt system, injecting rice balls with the marinated meat.

Though pleased with my triangular snack, I tried the banana milk more skeptically. The very first sip made me question my life choices and ask myself why it had taken me 24 years to discover such a taste, halfway around the world from my native country. It came with a straw to puncture its foil lid, hearkening back to the Capri Sun juice packs of my American childhood. "These were how much? I asked Garam, and she replied, Icheon won" (2000 won). The conversion rate was about 1,000 won to the dollar, so I made a habit of just shifting the decimal point to the left three places in my head. Edible convenience-mart fare for two bucks? I thought. I think I’m gonna like it here. When we finished eating, we wheeled our overloaded luggage cart into the frigid winter evening air, looking for the Busan-bound bus stop.

The long bus ride was comfortable, thanks in part to the big black leather seats that reclined even farther than the plane seats. A TV mounted in the front of the bus showed Korean dramas, the actors’ exotic faces distracting me from my mission to get some more sleep, as did the nighttime cityscape through the windows. I knew I should sleep while I had the chance, but I wanted to absorb everything. With my elementary knowledge of hangeul, the Korean alphabet, I could read the passing signs phonetically but had no idea what they meant. "Seu-ta-beok-seu…What’s that?" I asked Garam.

Really? I’m sure you know what that is, she replied. Try saying it faster.

"Seutabeokseu?" I repeated, still puzzled.

Starbucks, she said.

Ahh… Yay, globalization! I thought.

After reading a certain number of signs, my head started to hurt, so I stared instead through the front window at the long line of traffic ahead, taillights snaking all the way to the horizon like a bright red neon river through the dark. Out the side window, another red light caught my eye: that of a brightly glowing cross protruding from the top of one of the many utilitarian buildings alongside the highway. I asked Garam if the red cross meant a branch of the Red Cross, but she said the symbol was used by Protestant churches in Korea. As I kept watching out the window, they dotted the cityscape with surprising regularity. I found them tacky, not much better than a billboard for the neighborhood fitness club. I liked my crosses the way I liked my religion: understated. I knew that Garam was raised Catholic, but I assumed a Korean Christian was a rarity. I didn’t imagine Korea as a whole country with Christ fever.

I slept through most of the ride, except for a short stopover we made at a colorful highway rest area displaying an array of mysterious food items. The highway bathroom presented nothing out of the ordinary, except for a bar of soap impaled on a spit like a rotisserie chicken. It took a moment, in my bleary-eyed state, to deduce that you were supposed to get some soap by stroking the bar like an udder.


The bus pulled into Busan Station well after midnight. All the shops lining the arrivals corridor were closed, but we did find Garam’s parents there, waiting anxiously for us. They greeted us warmly. They were definitely short, especially Garam’s mother. But what they lacked in height, they made up with exuberance. They were both handsomely dressed. Her father was particularly energized and looked younger than I felt after the 24-hour journey. Not a single gray hair showed on either of their heads (I later learned her father had dyed his, but still). I had asked Garam how to address her parents in Korean, and she told me to just call them eo-meo-nim and a-beo-nim, the respectful versions of Mother and Father. I asked if I could do that even though we weren’t married, and she assured me that it would be much weirder to address them as Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so or—gasp — by their first names.

We walked to the car, and Father quickly loaded our luggage into the trunk, taking the bags right from my hands. ("It’s OK, I can handle . . . ah, thank you—gamsa hamnida.") During the ride, Mother offered us snacks: a two-pack of delicious chapssal tteok, sticky rice cakes filled with red-bean paste, made fresh that day at the local bakery, each one in its own cupcake-style silver liner. The chapssal tteok had the most amazing texture: a microscopic layer of potato starch sprinkled on top of a thin, flexible rice membrane made the little ball want to gently slip out of my hands without being the least bit slimy. When I took a bite, the feeling was perfect: starch coated my lips without getting all over my face, the elasticity of the rice gluten was just right, and when my teeth pierced the chewy membrane, the unfamiliar sweetness of red-bean paste left me craving more.

We pulled up to the front door of Hyundai Apartments, a massive complex perched on a hillside. Seeing the name Hyundai reminded me of one of the first satisfying discoveries I had made while studying the Korean language: it’s not pronounced like Sunday. The y in Hyundai is there for a reason. We unloaded our baggage, then took the elevator to the sixteenth floor. Mother slid open a plastic cover on the apartment’s entrance door and entered a PIN number into a blue keypad, producing a pleasant series of door-opening beeps. Fancy, I thought.

As the Koreans stepped one by one into the narrow entryway and quickly removed their slip-on shoes, I labored over my shoelaces. The tune from Final Jeopardy played in my head, as I felt like a culturally inept fool for taking so long. Each pair of shoes was placed neatly on a plastic shoe rack, but only mine were so big that the toes stuck out. That made my shoes look out of place, as did their untied laces since Garam's family preferred to leave theirs tied and simply slide into them using a long plastic shoe horn hung by the door.

The apartment was clean and cozy, with low ceilings and mostly linoleum floors throughout. Garam and her younger sister’s rooms had Western-style twin beds, while the parents slept on a large padded mat on the floor in the master bedroom. A sliding paper window behind their bed opened into a narrow veranda, where a green metal contraption with four clotheslines was suspended from the ceiling. Garam described the Korean ondol heating system, whereby hot water under the floor radiates heat upward. She touted one particular benefit of ondol, the fact that it doesn’t dry out the air like forced-air heating systems in the US. The floor, being the warmest part of the house, was where we would spend much of our time.

I deposited my ugly eighties-style duffel bag into Garam’s childhood room while she and Mother got to work unpacking, although it was well past midnight. Wouldn’t it be easier to do this tomorrow? I wondered, watching Mother and Garam—now in their ankle-length nightgowns—squat down low and roll up their sleeves. Garam had a large rolling suitcase filled with neatly folded clothes, individually wrapped in the thin plastic sheaths used at department stores to prevent items from getting wet or dirty. My packing job, on the other hand, screamed bachelorhood. I actually held an internal debate before we left to decide whether it was worth the effort to fold my clothes at all, concluding that doing so would make a better impression if Garam’s parents happened to inspect my luggage—which Mother did.

Garam had also brought some gifts, foods either unique to America or cheaper than their Korean equivalents: wine, cashews, Nutella, and even tequila, which Mother had developed a taste for in college. While she and Garam squatted around the suitcase unwrapping items from America, Father motioned to me to sit with him on the floral-patterned floor mat in the living room. (There was a couch, but it looked as if it was used only sparingly.) When I accepted the beer he offered, he brought out two ornate glasses of a Korean brew on a plastic tray along with a small bowl of anju, the requisite snacks consumed during all Korean drinking sessions.

The beer was ice cold and refreshing. While American breweries were hard at work increasing their calorie counts to meal-replacement levels, Korean beer seemed to have taken the opposite track: How close can we get this thing to pure water while still calling it beer? It had the flavor of college—too simple for its receptacle, like a McDonald’s hamburger served on fine china. The alcohol reminded me of the long journey I had taken to get here, from mustering up the courage to talk to the beautiful girl in the graduate dorm, to taking her on countless dates, to watching hours of Korean dramas, to enrolling in Korean classes at the local community college: it had all led to this moment, and I was anxious.

When I’d finished my beer, Mother and Father encouraged me to go to bed two or three times before I finally acquiesced and started to wind down. I went to the bathroom, a small space with colored foam tiles on the floor and a foam toilet seat in pink. The sink and tub were old but immaculate. After I finished with the sink, Garam explained to me that Mother kept a small towel, next to the hand towel, for wiping it after each use. Huh, that’s a funny thing to do, I thought, stepping out of the bathroom and finding Garam staring at me expectantly. "Oh, you want me to do it too?"

Uncleanliness bothered Mother. If cleaning were an Olympic sport, she’d have Michael Phelpsian gold weighing down her small neck. Watching her work forced me to relegate certain relatives of mine to the junior varsity, people I previously classified as having OCD. Mother believed in a high-frequency cleaning policy. She wore a loose-fitting gown around the house and crouched for many tasks; I never saw a woman spend so much time working in a crouched position. I thought perhaps, having had Garam at age 24, she was still young and flexible. After the first time I showered in the apartment, I was getting dressed when Garam told me that Mother had already gone in after me and knelt beside the tub to clean all the body hairs I had shed there.

I'm a hirsute guy, meaning having approximately as many hair follicles as a large wolverine, but fortunately God looked at my situation and—in a moment of mercy—took it easy on the back hair. Anyway, the next time

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