I was craving a dose of Western culture when I recently visited New York. I live in Tokyo, for a temporary stint due to my husband's work. After moving overseas, I have come to depend on regular trips back home, to the comforts of a society thoroughly known to me. I planned to indulge in simple luxuries, like speaking English and reading restaurant menus and street signs without a hitch. In short, the trip would be a break from Japan and my constant struggle to decipher its culture and its language.
Yet there was one exception to my feast of the familiar that week: my own father. To understand his latest doings, I still needed some cultural translation. Even though he has lived in America for 30 years, he is still very Korean, and often baffles my Western sensibilities.
Four days after landing, I still felt too foggy from jet lag to drive out to my father's house in New Jersey. Instead, I invited him and his new "woman friend" to dinner -- Korean, of course -- in Manhattan.
My dad had unexpectedly become widowed the previous year at age 62, when my mother passed away six weeks after suffering a car accident. His grief was acute. Still, as is often the case for new widowers unused to being alone, he plunged into finding a new partner.
A buzzing network of matchmaking friends and acquaintances assisted. Most were from the Korean American church my parents had attended. First, they produced a plucky divorcee. She was a Korean who had married an American GI years before and settled down in Texas. Then, more successfully, they introduced him to a widow from Flushing, a more recent arrival from Korea.
That night at dinner my father behaved like a man with a secret. Even before ordering a bottle of shoju, Korea's sweeter version of sake, his face was flushed. He had trouble maintaining eye contact and smiled an awful lot.
Meanwhile, his friend acted like a woman in charge of feeding her family. She busily tracked the many dishes delivered to our table. As soon as the waiter dumped a mound of raw galbi, marinated boneless ribs, onto our table's grill, she jumped to her feet, grabbed the tongs and took over.
Then my dad breezily told me that his woman friend would receive her green card within a few months. I knew this usually is a time-consuming process, unless . . .
"You got married!" I blurted out. My father looked away, and bashfully smiled.
Their courtship could not have lasted more than six months! And, because of my father's extreme reticence, much of it was mired in complete mystery.
I cheerfully toasted their marriage. But I felt dizzy.
What would I call her? I'd only met her once before and didn't even know her full name. My father told me that in Korea, I would call her Seh Omani, literally translated as "New Mother." As we sipped our shoju, I pondered my father's abrupt decision.
The green card may have contributed to his haste, but it was only one factor in their story. The couple looked too content.
I then remembered that New Mother's first husband also died in a car accident. That she and my father share a similar tragedy solved a small piece of the puzzle. It added some poetry to their union.
I was still shocked, of course, that he failed to tell me or my three sisters such important news. "I'm shy," he tried to explain. Shyness's cousin -- shame -- also figured in. My mother, with whom he was married for more than 35 years, had died only 18 months ago. How would it look?
Another explanation for my father's stealth, I think, was that he simply felt unable to discuss with his grown daughters a matter as intimate and emotional as his second marriage. Some sort of Korean taboo? Better to keep quiet, let the news slowly leak, and wait for the family approval to come later. Unwittingly, my father confirmed this analysis when he suggested I be the one to spread the news to my sisters.
Some of my romance-steeped Western friends ask whether they love each other. I don't know, I would say. It seems more apt to say they are very comfortable together. For instance, at dinner it seemed like a well-practiced routine for New Mother to fuss and cook while my father basked in the glow of her attention.
I couldn't help thinking of the days after my mother's funeral. One day, my sister and I took my dad to a supermarket to teach him to shop. My mother had always done the shopping before. Inside the warehouse-size store, he looked small and out of place beside the gargantuan mounds of produce and endless shelves of products. After a quick, dazed look around, he wanted to leave.
The shock of my father's marriage wore off quickly once I simply decided to accept his choice. I was able to do this partly because of memories like the scene at the supermarket.
It's easy to judge and condemn my father for his silent, foreign ways, but these days I try to stop myself. In Tokyo, I get a lot of practice. Here I encounter equally enigmatic behavior. I remind myself to observe, to let it be, to not criticize so much.
At the table, shouting over the din of the busy crowd, I told my father that I was happy for him. I joked that he beat two of my anxiously single, thirty-something sisters to the altar. He translated that one for New Mother and we all had a laugh.
No longer mortified, he rebounded from my "outing" of his marriage, and we continued our meal.