Shabby. Shabby was my treatment at the hands of my future in-laws. I’m not complaining, they had every reason to be wary. They didn’t know me. I had suddenly swooped in while they weren’t looking and snatched their daughter without so much as a by-your-leave. I was, most evidently, importantly and, to them, worryingly, of another race.
One of the things that was so startling for audiences of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Katharine Houghton brings Sidney Poitier home to her rather discomfited parents, was not that the white parents, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, are uncomfortable with the relationship, but the reluctance on the part of the black parents. Why would, most reasoned at the time, members of a minority have any problem with their child marrying into the majority?
I am a white male. My wife is Korean-American. We met, mated, dated, fell in love – the usual story. In fact, the idea that we were ‘mixed-race’ was never a concern or even a consideration. We were just two people who were in love. While on holiday in my hometown in Maine, I asked her to marry me. My parents, who had only met her a few days before, were ecstatic. Then we went to California, where my wife’s parents lay in wait.
To be honest, I thought there might be any number of reasons her parents might object to me, but the fact that I am white was not one of them. Just like those moviegoers of 1967, I naively – and in retrospect rather bigotedly – assumed that marrying white folks was perfectly peachy. I was mistaken. Deeply so.
My parents had greeted my then girlfriend, soon-to-be fiancé, with smiles and hugs. Her parents greeted me with animosity seething under a (very) thin veil of civility. I had lived in Korea for a year, so was lightly armed with the right words and moves. I was polite to the point of prostration. I bowed low, used my left hand to support my right when we shook hands. I was deferential, demure, docile. Because I had rehearsed them, I still remember my exact words as we sat down on the living room sofa.
“Mr. Kwak, I love your daughter and want to marry her. I hope I have your acceptance, and I hope, some day, your blessing.”
Long moments stretched painfully out across a vast plain of silence as he looked me, literally, up and down. (I had thought that was just an expression – I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone actually do it.)
“We will see,” he eventually announced with a note of finality. Although I tried desperately to think of something, there was really just not much more to say on the matter. Notice had been served – I was not there to socialize with the family, I was there to stand for sentencing.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had already unwittingly made a serious misstep. I hadn’t asked Mr. Kwak for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Frankly, the idea had never even crossed my mind. I thought that the practice had died out right around the time fathers lost the right to sell their daughters into slavery. I thought it was a quaint custom found mostly in old Jimmy Stewart films. Again, I was wrong. Failure to make proper inquiries into his willingness to allow his daughter to couple with me was an egregious breach of custom and an insulting display of disrespect.
It wasn’t until the following day, however, that the crux of the matter came out.
With a hard look and a somewhat impatient note of explanation, as though he was laying out the obvious to the village idiot, Mr. Kwak said, “We always wanted Susan to marry a Korean man. Or if not a Korean, at least some kind of Asian.”
There it was. It had been said. My genetic makeup made me ineligible in their eyes. For me, there were three striking aspects to this simple statement.
One, he was voicing an objection which I could not possibly overcome and to which there could be no real response. (‘I’ll change, I swear.’)
Two, an Asian – of any kind – was preferable to a Caucasian. (Although I suspected there was probably a pretty rigid hierarchy of acceptability within the category ‘Asian.’) Why was that so? Why would a Japanese husband be infinitely more tolerable? Was it because of the cultural differences? Another Asian would come from a similar cultural background? Or was it simply that an Asian face of any kind would produce babies that appeared more Korean?
Which brings me to my last question: Wasn’t that an impossibly racist statement? Was he implying miscegenation? Would Asian blood dilute Korean purity less than my mixed German, English, Irish? Was I a mongrel in his eyes, and he didn’t want mixed-breed grandchildren? I was at a loss, and a bubble of anger started to burble up in me.
I tried to imagine my parents sitting my fiancé down and saying, “You know, honey, we never really wanted our son to marry an Asian. A nice white girl would be preferable. Light-skinned Latina might be ok, but…”
Swallowing my indignation and continuing my program of abject humility, the week wore on, until, one night at the dinner table, a breakthrough. Standing ceremoniously, my fiancé’s father looked down at me.
“Matthew, you may call Susan’s mother – Mom.” I was honored, I was touched, I was, mostly, relieved. But he wasn’t done.
“And you can call me,” he said, flushed, trembling, visibly agitated, “…MR. KWAK!”
Well, that was over 15 years ago, and it really didn’t take long for me to become an accepted and integral part of the family.
In the beginning, I demonstrated my own deeply-ingrained prejudice by assuming that they would have nothing but open arms for me, a true-blue member of the white ruling class. The Kwaks exposed their own ethnocentrism by expressing a strong (to say the least) preference for an Asian mate for their daughter. By getting to know each other, both of us shed many of our preconceptions, our fears, our faults. I call him Dad, and he likes that. Halmuni and Haraboji (Grandma and Grandpa) adore their little crossbreed grandkids. And by constructing one narrow bridge over the roiling waters of racism, we’ve hopefully left a way for others to cross.