Mother-in-law Diaries February 2003


Another old friend from back home stopped in Korea for holiday. He‘s on his third year as a high school English teacher in Japan. We all have our silly fantasies about living in Japan, and my friend confirmed most of them. But as a black man in Japan he‘s found personal intimacy close to impossible. Japanese girls, he says, want one thing from him. They don‘t need his name for this.

I took him out Saturday night. In the bars, college girls practiced English, asking questions about Japan, America, Korea and his opinions on each culture. He seemed relieved that none asked him to a hotel.

Honesty, personal intimacy and real friendship are not difficult to find in Korea. Getting into a Korean girl‘s pants, without the promise of love, usually is. Japan and Korea sometimes seem distant, not even in the same hemisphere. But in both countries foreign men find room for dissatisfaction.

Earlier, on our way to the bar, we passed a demonstration for the two dead middle school girls. I told my buddy about it and he hurried past. I lingered, waving hello and smiling at the high school kids. The result was typically Korean. “Hello foreigner! What‘s your name? Where are you from?” I told them, “Miguk nome imnida” They laughed and said in English “No. This is not about you. You are welcome. Welcome to Korea!”


Warm January afternoon. Neighbors open windows and set things out to air. Ajummas move back to the gardens for thawing veggies. The local tofu shop sets out crates of delicious steaming tofu cakes. The soft sour odor reaches my nose. A shit-dog trots up, sniffs the tofu, looks warily over each shoulder and lifts his leg.

Rita brews a fresh pot of Kona Coffee, just received via care package. The brew smells of lilac and strawberry, tastes pleasantly sweet, but the fragrance holds more flavor than the coffee itself. My teeth feel slippery and clean after a second cup. I open the coffeemaker’s lid. Inside are three melting balls of care package bath soap gel: strawberry and lilac. Where’s Caleb? Three cycles of vinegar later, the coffeemaker smells like pickled strawberries.


Sitting on a new bus with new, broken reclining seats. Bus starts forward and seat reclines more. We speed up and it reclines with the acceleration. If the bus stops the seat comes up. I move to the next (broken) seat.

My classroom is cold and I turn on the electric heater. Five minutes later it shuts off. Turn on again. Shuts off again, etc. Classroom chairs collapse when someone sits on them. A student sits in a desk and the legs splay out and collapse. The three printers break in weekly intervals.

I put 400 won in a coffee machine with no coffee. Broke, and I‘m out 400 won! I put my fist through it and wait for the bus. It passes so I holler fuck this country until the next bus stops.


Caleb sits in front of me crying. “Appah, mi-an! Mi-an! Mi-an!” His little body shakes and rocks. My temper has me in a fit.

It‘s difficult to record this. I have to stop and breathe, force myself to write. My temper does not cause physical abuse, nor does it cause neglect. I don’t know what to call it — sporadic, marginally controlled rage.

What happened was this: Caleb climbed onto a table to get his Sesame Street videos. He’s hidden them somewhere. Maybe he‘s broken them again, twenty dollars apiece. Any kid his age would do the same. Most parents would explain to their kid, punish him lightly if he disobeyed again. Most kids would sneak back and disobey.

In a way I am proud of his willingness to disobey. It shows he‘s got character, balls, his own agenda.

So this is my issue, not his. I’ve told him once, then told him again. Maybe told him three or four or five times yet he willfully disobeys, then I set into rage. I want to make an impression, but don’t know how to approach it effectively. Impulsively, to avoid spanking, I yell at him. I punch a wall and yell some more. Then I stick him in his room while I rage on outside the door. Then I go back and yell at him more, maybe spank him, yell at him for disobeying. He’s apologizing, crying, rocking, chewing on his finger and trying to be quiet.

The whole time I feel rotten. My mind is in a funk. I hate myself. I regret every word, every action. Shame makes me angrier. He isn’t physically bruised. Nothing broken. He‘s just shocked, fearing his father.

There is an overwhelming temptation to make excuses. People tell me to ask him nicely, ask him why did you disobey, Caleb? But he cannot explain yet, in Korean or English. Asking a two-year-old “Why?” in a language he doesn’t even know is expecting too much. At best he gives me an animated skit involving dance, water and a boat (he refers to these constantly).

What are my alternatives? A long walk; appah needs time out.


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