For almost nine months now I’ve been running a Korean ummas (moms) friendship group that meets for playdates, ummas night outs (노래방!), storytimes, potlucks, meals, and other events. It’s been really wonderful to connect with other Korean moms and lately it’s been expanding my mind about what it is to be a Korean mom.
Why I started the group
I grew up without any connection to Korean culture until I was in my 20s so I was compelled that my kids have a different experience. I want them to have Korean friends and to know what it means to be Korean. When I started the group I had a few Korean friends whose houses I could go over to from time to time, but there were days when I pined for something more. As a friend of mine explained: “You have a distant star but what you want is a galaxy.” Exactly. I looked around and none existed so I had to create it for myself. (Sense a trend here? I do this–want something and through research find it doesn’t exist so then have to go and create it for myself. Example: my birth family.)
Before I had kids, after I returned from living in Korea, I had a really hard time adjusting back to life here in the States and I started a cultural exchange group for Korean people here in Boston, and Americans, to learn each other’s culture and language. This lasted for somewhere around a year and in the end proved to be too much work for one person–me. Then when I had kids I wanted to meet other ummas like me who had kids the same age whose kids could become friends with my kids. I wanted my kids to hear Korean and know enough about it to know it is part of who they are.
Additionally, as my friendships with a newly-arrived-moms-from-Korea grew I saw their difficulties in adjusting to their new home, and I wanted to help them with things like navigating and understanding American culture. They’d ask questions like “What do you bring to a bbq?” Or, “Why do Americans act this way?” Since I had lived abroad I knew how hard it could be to adjust to a new place and how local people effortlessly grasp things that appear incomprehensibly frustrating to newcomers. How often you don’t know who to ask for help or direction, and you often feel embarrassed even thinking about asking. I had been that person. I could help.
About the ummas
There are about 30 ummas (moms) in the group with kids aged newborn up to 5 or 6 years old. About a quarter of the moms are active meaning they regularly attend events and chat on our group chat. About a third of the moms are Korean American and the rest would be considered Korean or Korean nationals. But those terms are ambiguous and hard to define: at what point does someone stop being Korean and start being Korean American? 10 years? 20 years? When they feel more comfortable speaking English rather than Korean? (Does that ever happen?) How and when? (These are questions I actually want to ask them so stay tuned.) Some have been here two years and some have been here 10 or 12 years. Some are from California and New York and some are from Daegu, Daejon and Seoul.
Most of the ummas feel more comfortable speaking Korean rather than English, which is one of the reasons they seek each other out. I don’t speak Korean well but I speak enough to muddle through their conversations, and what I don’t grasp someone is usually kind enough to explain. In fact, recently my friend Yuna’s husband (not her real name) asked her how we communicate since she doesn’t speak English. She told him I have a lot of 센스쟁이 (Konglish word ~ common sense). She explained that I know enough Korean language and about the culture to understand what she’s trying to say. She’s right. I’ve spent a long time learning about Korea and Korean culture and that puts me in the position to help these ummas. In other words I comprehend enough about both cultures to translate or meditate the differences. It feels good, almost as if the work I’ve done to get where I am (going to Korea, being inquisitive, watching movies and TV shows, etc.) is paying off.
My heart feels content to be around them just hearing Korean, to be inside the circle rather than outside it. Oftentimes when I hear Korean I’m either eavesdropping on a conversation or am about to speak so that I’m so nervous my insides are twisted into a ball, my heart is beating fast and my hands are sweating. But these ummas have experienced the same nerves as they’ve learned English and they are kind and patient and want me to be part of their conversation. It feels so good. 마음에 들어요. And, as a bonus the more I hear the more I start to understand, which makes me so happy. 한국 엄마들 때문에 행복해요^^
What we talk about when we talk about us
A KAD friend once asked me what we talk about. Responses would be vast and varied but here are some examples.
-돌잔치s (1st birthday parties) and all the details that go into planning them; where, what type of cake, whether or we we ordered 떡, best place to get 떡, what the baby chose for his doljabi, etc.
-백일 or 100-day celebrations: 백설기, etc.
-Korean post-birth period, 삼칠일
-Cooking Korean food: what we cook at home, what we wish we could cook, what our kids eat, tips, suggestions, etc. I hope to compile a cookbook for us in the future
-Mothers, family, and mother-in-laws (of course!)
-Sleep. Naps. Eating/food. (The 3 most talked about things almost every parent talks about!)
-Korea (Enough said.)
-Longing. For Korea. For a sense of home, whether that be California, Korea, etc.
-Korean schools in Boston
-How a lot of our kids have the big Korean head (ha!)
-The crazy weather in Boston this winter! Will it ever end?!?
-Everyday things all local moms talk about; children’s events, storytimes, festivals, etc.
A lot of talk among the moms from Korea is about how lonely and isolating and difficult it can be to raise children here in the U.S. so far away from their families and friends. As a mom who lives with her in-laws, who has people who can watch my kids at a moment’s notice (seriously, when my 1stborn was a baby my mil would come running so quickly when I phoned her I worried she’d trip and fall) my heart goes out to them. And I think: “This is why our group exists. We need to be their family. We need to bring them 미역국 when they have a new baby. We need to be there for one another to commiserate and talk to and not feel so alone. To watch each others’ children and laugh and play and cry together.”
The future of us
The ummas in the group call me 왕 언니 which means “boss unni” or “boss older sister”, which is fitting because I can be pretty bossy. Right now I’m enjoying our friendships and getting to know everyone and helping them connect with one another. When I see ummas become friends it makes me so happy to know that the group I founded fosters these relationships. Often I hear Korean people talk about understanding one’s mind or heart. You hear it in dramas too: “He understands my mind.” I feel that when we get together. We understand each other. It feels good.
We’ve also talked about the possibility of creating our own Korean school for our kids. It’s a distant idea but I see the potential; among us there is a lot of talent. One of us taught kindergarten in Korea. One umma is crafty and artistic. Another umma can sing and dance like no tomorrow, and a lot of Korean school is songs and games anyway. Most ummas are native Korean speakers and know children’s songs and dances and of course Korean culture and traditions. Korean levels and knowledge are varied among our kids but we all have their best interests at heart. And sometimes it’s easier to do things as a group (or at least with one other person). Being in it together makes it more fun.
Right now the school is a dream and but maybe someday a reality. For now I’m feeling the love and hoping it lasts.