The perfect American wife, Korean-style
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — In one deft motion, Yvonne Park bangs a head of lettuce against a table and extracts its core as effortlessly as if she were Martha Stewart. Twenty Korean women take note of the neat trick. They've never made an American-style salad.
Next, they learn how to baste a turkey, slice canned cranberry gelatin, and bake pumpkin pie.
These skills will come in handy: They just married American men, and are eager to learn how to become American wives.
Run by the USO (United Services Organization), a group that serves American military communities, "Brides School" caters to the hundreds of Korean women who marry American servicemen stationed in South Korea each year and will be moving to the United States.
The bride school covers everything from fashion sense and shopping tips to more serious issues like women's health care and finding a job. "We aren't trying to make all-American women out of Korean women," says Park. The heart of the program addresses how to have a graceful marriage while maintaining a Korean identity and adjusting to a new setting. The practical information comes first.
"Don't smack (your lips). Don't make noise," Park says, referring to the sounds that in Korea would indicate an appreciation for the meal. "Pass the food from left to right - counterclockwise," Park advises the women, who pay $50 for the four-week course.
If invited to a social function, bring a small gift and always write a thank-you note, say Brides School instructors, who also explain baby showers and department-store bridal registries. To avoid gaffes in public, keep in mind that while "Seoul is very [crowded] ... in the United States, people do not like to be pushed," says Phoebe Coldbeck, an instructor.
On one morning, students are captivated by a colorful video of sweeping American vistas. They are reminded that while Koreans have their own ideas about America - which translates from Korean to "beautiful country" - they are not always true.
A hard concept to grasp is American postnatal care. Korean women believe that their ki, or energy, is depleted during childbirth, so everything is "loose."
"Our bodies are different from American women's bodies.... If you don't eat certain Korean foods you'll lose your teeth," say some students. Korean women spend three weeks in bed eating soup after giving birth and are shocked that American doctors expect more activity.
But the cultural pointers are just part of the lessons. "The best thing for me was to meet people who are having the same experience. I thought I was the only one," says Min Ah Kim.
Min Ju McCrady, who emigrated to El Paso, Texas, says the school was indispensable when she graduated 15 years ago. But nothing could prepare her for two resentful stepdaughters. "They tried everything to make me angry," recalls Ms. McCrady. The girls complained about Asian food and wouldn't allow their stepmother to assert any authority.
Brides School's sexist-sounding name evokes 1950s ideals. But South Korea has its own Shinbu Hakkyos to train subservient Confucian wives. There, a small percentage of Korean women formally learn self-sacrifice, and the art of pouring tea and peeling fruit.
The USO school encourages women to be more independent than Korean culture allows. "We don't teach how to iron husband's shirts ... or bow to the in-laws," says Park. She encourages women to go to school, make career goals, have their own friends, and be active in the community.
One of the most important classes focuses on managing intercultural friction. At a special evening class, men are advised to learn Korean and respect demanding Korean families. Sgt. Patrick Jordan already knows.
"When I first met [her parents] I got kicked out three times. I didn't even get my shoes off," he says, referring to the Korean custom of removing shoes at the door. His fiance's father worried about her marrying a foreigner. "In Korea, marriage is not just man and woman fall in love and get married. Two families become one family," says Park.
"My parents asked, 'How will we trust [Patrick]?'" says Min Ah Kim, his fiance.
Her parents moved into his house. "His Korean has improved a lot," says Ms. Kim, and they've all gotten close. The Kims like his chicken cacciatore, says Sergeant Jordan.
At the practice Thanksgiving feast, Park is fretting because, in this chopstick culture, the students don't think to use serving spoons. But Brides School doesn't expect them to become perfect Americans. Husbands are asked to be sensitive on nights their wives don't want turkey for dinner. Instructors perform a skit about an insensitive husband who comes home to find his wife preparing odoriferous kimchi soup. "We're in America now!" he implores. The ultimate lesson is to communicate.
"Translate!" wails Shin Aye to a nearby soldier who knows some Korean.
"I worry sometimes, but I think it'll work out," says Capt. Greg Viggiano, her husband.