After I graduated from college, I lived in Japan for two years, in a rural part of Kyushu where there were hardly any other foreigners. I had a handful of friends from the US, Australia and the UK, but at work I had to speak Japanese all day long. It was exhausting, especially at first, and even after I became functional in Japanese, there were many conversations in Japanese that I couldn’t join because they were talking too fast, or about things I didn’t understand, or in the local dialect. Although on the whole, I felt very welcome in Japan, those were the moments when I felt like an outsider. That’s probably one of the reasons I was drawn to Mi Sook. When my son Theo was in kindergarten, he became friends with a Korean boy called Samuel, and soon the two of them wanted playdates. His mother Mi Sook was hesitant at first because she didn’t speak much English and was shy, but I remembered how easy it is to feel left out in a foreign culture, so I was determined to talk to her and get to know her despite the language gap.
For the last five years now, Samuel and Theo, and Mi Sook and I have been friends. At first I talked slowly and carefully so that Mi Sook could understand. This meant that we didn’t go very deep into conversations, but as Mi Sook’s English has improved and we’ve become closer friends, we have talked more naturally about the boys, education, relationships, art, and the world. We have shared favorite foods, doubled up to do a cooking class with the boys (though neither of us really enjoys cooking) and to take the boys to art classes together (she’s a wonderful artist herself, though she is very quiet about it.) Most of Theo’s friends have American or British parents, so I find it refreshing to learn Mi Sook’s opinion about education, video games and American culture in general. Although she pushes her son in math much harder than I have pushed Theo, she is no Tiger Mom, like many of the mothers in Korea – like her own sister, she admits. She is firm and focused as a mother but also very gentle and loving, a perfect blend of cultural approaches to parenting. Today, I poured another culture into the mix and gave her an Indian silk scarf, because it’s pretty and I thought she’d like it. Only afterwards did I realize that in its soft beauty and very strong fibers, it is just like my dear Korean friend.