What Went Right and What Didn’t, Part 1

Rick and Hillary

In many cases, culture and class is a major factor in the breakup of international relationships. (Link) (Link) But in the case of this ten-year marriage, cultural differences were either minimal or promptly overcome. This impressed me so much that in 1997 I asked Hillary (the name she chose as an English student) for an interview to include in the dating chapter of the textbook I was writing for Korean students. Oddly, when we discussed the chapter, my students invariably told me she didn’t look Korean—maybe Japanese—I think because of her long, curly hair and her grin. Or maybe it wasn’t her looks but her words.

Hillary’s story

Some Western men think Asian women are obedient—until they find out differently—but I guess, in general, Asian women are still more obedient than Western women.  Rick isn’t like that, anyway.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect obedience from me.  He can do everything around the house—he cooks, and he does dishes…everything.  I think I’m pretty lucky.

Actually, I’ve never thought in terms of Western and Korean. I haven’t had any difficulties because he’s a foreigner.  I’ve never felt under any pressure to understand him.  He’s just like me—I don’t see any difference.  Some Asian women date Westerners because they think they’re sexy, they’re different, they take care of women and they have good manners.  That’s nonsense.  It depends on the individual.  I think Rick is Rick.  But I don’t think I’m a typical Korean. I’m more open, and Westerners can see that about me.   If I want to do something—like date this guy—I do it.  I try to be honest, especially with myself.

But one place where I do see a difference is that Koreans never talk about an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend with the present one, and Westerners do. We think it can hurt people’s feelings.  I felt jealous yesterday when he talked about the past, but what we are trying to do is express our feelings and talk to each other frankly and honestly. So I told him how I felt. I don’t want to hide my feelings from him. He always says, ‘Please don’t hide anything. Just tell me what you feel.’ I think that’s really cool.

I’ve been out with Korean men, but it always ends the same way.  They think I’m too independent or too imaginative.  They’re afraid they won’t be able to control me.  They were always pretending.  I hate it.  They say things like, ‘You’re like a flower, I should protect you from the rain.’  No. I don’t want to throw my dreams away.  I want someone who can support me in the things I want to do.  If I want to go to India, I’ll want him to say, ‘Go to India. You can do it.’ I want a friend near me. I want someone who doesn’t have to create a special mood before he can kiss me. I hate that. Be creative, and be honest. I don’t know exactly what Rick thinks, but I don’t think he finds me very different from American women. Rick and I are very much alike.

I don’t know about the future. He wants to go back to the States and try something different from teaching English.  I want to go to graduate school.  Maybe we’ll meet again, maybe not.  Right now we’re just living in the moment.

The interview with Rick took place in the summer of 2012 over Skype. He was in New England, and I was in the Philippines.

Rick’s story

Initially, I only dated Western women when I came to Asia. I hadn’t developed the language skills to really communicate in a relationship. I wanted a deep friendship, a sense of intimacy, the ability to talk about what was going on inside my head and inside my heart. I saw man after man who had either learned the language or who was comfortable in a relationship based on physical attraction. It was easier talking with a native speaker.

When I started teaching at Catholic University, I was dating an American woman. I became really good friends with a young lady who had graduated from that school and was the English language program coordinator. We had developed a friendship. When I broke up with the American woman, I had already decided to leave Korea, but I thought, “Hey, why not go on a date with a friend?” Soon we fell very deeply in love. We got really serious in a couple of months. It was an awful lot of fun. She was a very intelligent, strong woman and a genius with languages. I enjoyed being friends—and more than friends—with someone who can challenge me at all levels. Basically, I enjoy having somebody call me on my shit, and she did that.

At the end of the semester we took off together and headed for Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. However, we fought the entire trip. I admit that most of the time she was right. By this time I was convinced that she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but the fighting was driving me nuts because sometimes she wasn’t right. We decided to go through Southeast Asia and stay in Australia for a while to see what happened. By the time we got down to Singapore, I had pretty much had it. We separated and made a vague plan to meet in the United States. After that we missed each other terribly. Fortunately, email had just appeared so you could go online instead of sending daily, old-fashioned aerograms back and forth. We decided then to meet in Osaka. Hillary had read Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Kitchen and decided she wanted to be able to read the Japanese original. So while I spent six months teaching at a language school, she spent six months learning Japanese at a language school. In that time she progressed from not being able to read the Japanese phonetic alphabet to getting a solid foundation in Japanese and being able to talk all day with native speakers. We had different days off, so we never had any time together, and I didn’t notice what I later called the Achilles heel of our relationship, namely her workaholism. She’s since gotten a Ph.D. in Japanese literature, and she’s now teaching at a major university. I really wish her well, but we are not in contact with each other.

My coming to terms with Asia I will absolutely credit to Hillary. When I saw myself as an outsider she provided me with exceptional translation and cultural explanations. She helped me through the transition so I felt like part of her family.

Her maternal step-grandmother was a fishmonger who would pick up thirty pounds of fish and twenty pounds of ice, put them in a basket in Incheon and sell the fish door-to-door in Seoul. She was a short, powerful, cocky, enthusiastic woman. By the time I’d gotten into the family, Grandma loved to talk with me. Her rhetorical style was to make suggestions, telling me how to be happy. Hillary just said told me to say “yes, Grandma, yes, Grandma.” We got along great. In fact, she was sure that I could speak Korean and that I understood her.

Hillary came from a very non-traditional Korean family. Her father went bankrupt twice during her early childhood and left the family. There was a divorce, which was a rarity in Korea at the end of the 70s and start of the 80s and cause for a lot of shame. She was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her mother went into the food service industry, worked like a dog and had some success. When she was in high school Hillary moved back to her mother’s home, and lived there until we first went to Osaka together. Before we left, I was introduced to my potential mother-in-law. She was born in 1944 or 1945 and came from the northern part of Korea, which meant that when she was six to eight years old she was caught in the middle of the civil war and eventually ended up on the southern side. Due to malnutrition at that time of her life, she had really poor vision.

It was an August afternoon when we first went to see her. The elevator had broken down, so we walked up seven stories. I was covered in sweat, and I had longish hair and a beard. In Korea beards are unusual except in the case of a retiree who grows a beard to show he has left the working world. When my mother-in-law opened the apartment door and she saw the beard and totally freaked out. She thought her twenty-four-year-old daughter was ready to marry a crazy foreigner in his 60s who might have twenty-seven children from different wives on six different continents.

I bowed deeply and said “Anyŏng haseyo.” She was frozen with a look of terror and a smile painfully plastered on her face. Finally, she turned around and ran off into the kitchen. I thought, “Hmm. Not a good start.” Hillary and I sat down in the living room. From the kitchen we heard first the sounds of what turned out to be a very tasty dinner. But Hillary heard her kid sister ask, “Mom, what’s wrong with you? Of course he’s different. He’s a foreigner.”

I didn’t understand what was said, but Hillary tapped me on the knee and said, “Just a moment. I’ll be right back.” She headed off to the kitchen, where her mother was chopping meat or vegetables with a very large cleaver. Hillary walked in and said, “Mom, what’s up?” Her mother turned with the cleaver held tightly in her fist, stared Hillary right in the eyes and said, “Do you love him?” As soon as Hillary said yes and she spun back around to continue chopping the food. Hillary came out and didn’t tell me what had transpired. We waited for dinner, Hillary with baited breath, and I remained oblivious. I tried to be culturally appropriate and ate everything I could of that delicious meal. The table was cleared, and just before the large pears came out for dessert, my mother-in-law brought out the family photo album. I thought to myself, “I’m in! She likes me. Awesome.”

We looked at the pictures while Hillary translated and provided lots of background information. After dessert, I turned to Hillary and said, “Does your mom have allergies?”

“No, why?”

“Well, her eyes are a little watery and she is sniffing a lot.”

“No, you dope. She’s happy. She’s crying with joy.’


My mother-in-law and I became fast friends with Hillary doing the translation. We really enjoyed each other’s company.

On her father’s side of the family, there were one brother and five sisters. The aunts had taken some English classes in language schools, and they were all excited about meeting me. But their husbands were kind of sitting in the back. It looked to me like they were thinking, “Ah, man. That kid always was weird, and now she’s planning to marry a foreigner? I hope nobody saw him come into the apartment.”

The event was just not going well. When Grandma showed up thirty minutes late, it reminded me of Italian mafia movies. Grandma opened the door, the entire family was overjoyed to see her and there was a line of people standing against each wall of the hallway, waiting to greet her. She was kissing people and hugging people. She came in and sat down on one side of Hillary, while I was on the other. Hillary translated. At that time I had a large handlebar mustache but no beard. After about fifteen minutes. Grandma grabbed a hold of my face and started talking and yanking my head up and down. The entire family burst into hysterical laughter. When she let me go, I said, “What did she say?”

“He shaved, but he missed this part? How could he miss this part?”

I burst out laughing. Everybody was laughing, including the weiguk who was the butt of the joke. That melted all the tension, and from that point we began feeling like we were a big, happy family. If Grandma liked me and I got her sense of humor, I couldn’t be that bad. So, in both cases, it was the matriarch who brought me in and made me feel like a part of the family. I’m eternally grateful to both of them for their kindness and generosity.

After we married, I ran into some absurd luck. A former girlfriend lived in a weiguk ghetto full of foreign language teachers over by Ehwa University. After Hillary and I got married, I needed a job in Korea so I could get a U.S. visa for her. [This part comes up again in Part 2.] The same former employer gave me a job which included an apartment as part of the contract. When Hillary and I were going to look at it, we got off the subway at Ehwa University Station, started walking down the street to the real estate agent’s office, and I thought, “Hmm.” We turned right, and I knew I had been on that street before. We forked left. “Uh-oh, I’ve been in this building before.” As we climbed up to the rooftop apartment, I started giggling, thinking the gods must be crazy. Here I was with my bride, but returning to an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Hillary got really pissed off. I said, “No, I was hoping we would go anywhere else in the world, but we ended up here, and I didn’t want you to hear this from a mutual friend who knows Amy.  I’m sorry, this really sucks, and I feel terrible.”

Her first year in the United States was very difficult. She was suffering from acute culture shock. We’d moved out to Colorado and worked at a ski resort. I love to ski, and she picked it up very quickly. I wistfully look back and say that was the best year of our marriage for me but the worst year of our marriage for her. The next year we moved back to New England, where she started on a master’s in Japanese literature. To finish that off, she wanted to go back to Japan to work with a professor who’d mentored her professor in Massachusetts. Knowing that, I decided to knock out a master’s in education so that when we returned to Japan in 2002 I would be able to get a job teaching at a university.

I got really lucky and was offered a job a school on the state line between Osaka and Kyoto, only a 45-minute commute from where she wanted to study. We were shocked at how well it worked out. This was the first job in Japan that I absolutely loved. She was happy with her work too and we were saving a ton of money and sending it back home. It was a really good situation.

But in the three years we were there, we began to talk about the possibility of divorce. Then she was accepted into a Ph.D. program, so we shut down Japan and moved back to the States. Our relationship got worse. About three years later, in 2007, it was time for her to do her field work. I got back my old job at that university in Osaka, but she insisted on going to Tokyo. She wanted her own space. Two months before we left, my father died of a heart attack. We continued to fight. Finally, I asked and she agreed to a divorce. In 2008 I came home, and I’ve been here since.