In Austria during the post-war reconstruction years, when foreigners were few and bicultural couples rare, a young Austrian girl and a Korean student met and fell in love. They were determined to overcome all obstacles in order to build a life together. This is their story.
(Read Part One of this heart-warming story first.)
Waltraud and Leo’s marriage ceremony.
By Waltraud Kim
After our marriage in 1970 we stayed in Austria for a while. Leo got a good job as an engineer in a small city at the center of Austria.
The first years were pretty hard. We could only meet on weekends, as I did not give up my job at first. But in general life was the same as if I had married a “real” Austrian. My husband was very eager to adapt to the Austrian life style. There was only one thing which he missed a lot: Korean food.
Austrian food was too heavy and too tasteless for him. He missed the spices and his kimchi, a pickled cabbage with a lot of garlic and pepper. In Korea one cannot imagine a day without kimchi.
So one day he made it himself. He took a big pot, cabbage and a tremendous amount of garlic and salt and a lot of peppers. After one or two days, when the kimchi starts to ferment, the result is usually a spicy, delicious pickle which, indeed, you would not want to miss – if it is prepared correctly!
But his kimchi was something even more special: it was prepared by a student without any cooking experience and with Austrian spices, which are very different from Korean spices. The result was simply – well…. When he first opened the kimchi pot after two days of ripening, I almost fainted. An intense smell of fermented garlic streamed through the room. He had obviously added more garlic than cabbage! The kimchi smell somehow managed to fill your stomach even before you even tried it. The taste was even more exotic. It was like eating a spoonful of garlic with salt.
“I took more salt than usual, just to be safe, to preserve it better,” he said. At first I had enough of kimchi. After a lot of trial and error, we managed to prepare some really good kimchi and a miracle happened: I started to like it too!
One day, when Leo still was a student, he called me to tell me that something really terrible had happened. The most terrible thing had struck him since he came to Austria. Alarmed by his excited voice, I visited him.
When he opened the door, he held an open tin can in his hands, his pale face expressed horror and disgust. I had seen that tin can often in his kitchen before and it contained delicious Gulash, which is an Austrian specialty. He bought it often because he claimed it came close to the taste of a Korean dish.
“I just read the label more closely,” he said with disgust.
“Why, is it cat food?” I asked.
“No, worse, much worse,” he said “It is – horse meat!”
At that time there were a few horse-meat shops in Vienna. Horse meat was even considered healthy, but today you hardly can find any shop at all as no one eats horse meat anymore. It was Leo’s fate that there was one shop on the way home from his university, where he used to go to picked up a can, thinking it was Gulash…
In the year 1979, my big dream to go to Korea for a longer period of time came true.
A miracle happened: Leo had to work for a project connected with his home country and was therefore sent over to Korea to lead a branch office. We were thrilled. I finally had the chance to learn more about his home country and to get to know his family.
All the time I kept asking him to tell me something about Korea but he would not. “You have to see yourself,” he used to say. “If I tell you something, you will misunderstand it and get a different picture of what this country is really like”.
When I first went to Korea, I suddenly knew what he meant. Korea at that time was simply a different world. The scars of the Korean War had not healed yet, and the country was down economically. There was a lot left to build up and reconstruct, and even though I was shocked to see the miseries in that country, I was also glad to know that my husband was one of the persons who could contribute toward helping reconstruct his home country.
For a European woman who was used to enjoying all kinds of comforts, life in a small Korean town in the countryside was a challenge. Initially it was the little things that I missed, especially the food, such as Viennese coffee, bread, ham.
Gradually, I realized that one needs so little for living and my attitude towards life changed completely. I soon adapted to the exotic food, which I liked from the very beginning, started to learn the difficult Korean language, and started to take an interest in the culture.
So far I could manage well with this different life and even found it exciting, but there was one thing which hit me very hard: my husband’s behavior suddenly changed completely. Since he had to adapt to the tremendously stressful working life in Korea, he gradually transformed into a nervous, authoritative person. Work took up 90 percent of his time.
Another factor was that as the eldest son in his family, it was his responsibility to care for his parents, sisters and brothers, in addition to his own family. This all must have been a great burden on him.
Where was the relaxed, friendly guy I had married? There was but little time left for his own kids. And even less time for his wife.
Soon after our arrival in Korea I gave birth to our third child. My son and daughter, who were old enough to go to kindergarten by then, learned the language much faster than I, and sometimes they assisted me when we went shopping.
My husband usually worked late into the night. Most of the time I was alone with the kids and had nobody to talk to. Since my Korean in-laws lived far away in another city, I felt depressed and suffered severely from the baby blues. I wanted to attend a language class so that every-day life could be made easier, but there was nothing of that kind nearby. It was the hardest time of my life.
After a few months I had enough of this depression. I hired a maid who helped me with the household and kids, and devoted more time to get acquainted with the Korean culture. Gradually I learned flower arrangement, oriental painting, temple painting and wood carving, where I specialized in making Korean masks. This creative endeavor helped me to not only to cope with my problems, but it was also a good way to get in contact with other Western women, who had similar interests. Gradually, my life changed for the better.
Waltraud with her masks in the background.
There were certain rules in social life which had to be kept strictly, and which became especially apparent whenever all of our Korean relatives met. As the wife of the first son I had a special place in the family and was expected to behave in a certain way appropriate for the first daughter- in-law. I had many duties towards my parents-in-law, but in a certain way I was also an authority, as my husband’s younger sisters and brothers looked up to me.
When there were big family meetings I often felt strange and insecure. There were language problems and I had to adapt to different ways of behavior. I tried hard, but I was a Western woman with Western habits, which, I am sure, sometimes evoked astonishment in the Korean family.
For instance, it was considered very rude for young women to smoke or drink a glass of alcoholic beverage in the presence of older people, such as my parents-in-law. I absolutely dislike sweet drinks, and as a real Austrian, the best drink for me is beer, which is also the best thirst-quencher in a hot country with extremely high air humidity.
So whenever my parents-in-law were present and I wanted to drink a glass of beer, I had to leave the room and drink it somewhere else. If the situation required it, I even drank it in the bathroom.
One day we were invited for dinner by some relatives. At that time I was a complete “beginner” with Korean food. At the end of the meal the lady of the house offered me something on a plate which I have never seen before. Some whitish thing sprinkled with brownish crumbs. “Eat”, she said, “it is made of lice”. My stomach almost turned, but I tried not to show it.
The lady took a pair of chop-sticks, took one of the chunks sprinkled with… fried lice? and held it to my mouth. My blood rose to the head and I squeezed the lips together.
Then I remembered my husband’s words: “When you are invited somewhere, it is very bad-mannered to refuse food.” I closed my eyes and reluctantly opened my mouth. I bit into it and noticed that it was one of the specialties made of…..RICE! It was sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds and tasted soft, sweet and delicious! I realized that the lady simply had problems with the English pronunciation, as in the Korean alphabet there is only one letter for L and R, sometimes it is pronounced like “L”, sometimes like “R”.
I often found that many “Eastern” ways of behavior were opposite to the “Western” ways and could cause confusion on both sides. So, for example, when I was young I was told to look into the eyes of the older person who is talking with you. Looking down on the floor was considered bad-mannered. In Korea it was just the opposite! It is absolutely unthinkable look into the eyes of an elderly person while talking with him!
Or, when you pass on something to another person or receive something, in Europe it is acceptable to do so with just one hand to keep the other hand free for some other action or for shaking hands. Receiving something with both hands could be interpreted as an expression of greed.
In Korea it is the contrary. It is unthinkable to receive something with only one hand and doing so is considered bad-mannered. These are just a few examples. I can imagine that I was looked on in Korea as a young girl who “does not even know the simplest rules of correct behavior”!
The language was another big problem. As there are several different forms of politeness or formality in the Korean language and you have to use a different form with different people, it was very difficult for me to learn Korean.
When my parents-in-law talked to me, they used the informal form; yet when I addressed them, I had to use the formal form, which is completely different. So I could simply listen to what they were saying to me, but I could never use those same words when replying to them.
Eventually, I had a chance to attend language classes at University. After a while I managed to be relatively fluent in Korean. The ability to speak the language helped me to build a bridge to other people in my environment. This made my life a lot easier. As the years passed, I felt more and more comfortable with life in Korea. Gradually, Korea became my second home-country.
In 1994 we returned from Korea and settled down in Austria, for good. Today, I am happy to know that there is a family on the other side of the world which consists of my “brothers” and “sisters”, and I know that I am welcome there at any time. When I go back to Korea for short visits, I feel like I am visiting my “other” home again.
Leo and I were married for 33 years. They were years of happiness, love and tears.
I am now standing in front of my husband’s grave. Too sudden we have been separated by a treacherous disease. Memories resurface again and again. I know in my heart we will meet again one day. The first thing I will do is to dance a waltz with him!
If you were to ask me whether I would repeat this life again, I would definitely say “Yes”. Maybe there are some things I would do differently. Before we got married, my husband did not ask me whether I would like to marry him. He knew that I was eager to do so; but for long time I had not been courageous enough. So he simply said: “If you have enough courage, marry me”. Courage is the point.
To make an international marriage a success, you need courage and the will to work hard on it. There are also times when you think that you do not understand each other, and the cultural differences seem to wear you out. But all is possible to overcome with a big portion of courage and good will.
If you were to ask me whether you should go for a marriage with a partner from a foreign culture I would recommend you to go for it! But be aware that you have become the center of attention. Do not give up easily when you are shaken by culture shock and difficulties. Give a good example and show to the world that international understanding and generosity are possible.
Make your marriage a good one. Thus you have a chance to contribute to the peace of the world.