I accomplished a major victory within my homestay today. I washed the dishes with actual members of my host family in the house.
As soon as I moved into my homestay, it became clear to me that I was not expected to do any household chores beyond keeping my room relatively neat. Furthermore, if I tried to do anything to help out, I was immediately stopped. Even something as small as clearing the dishes from the table after dinner was all but impossible - as soon as I stood up, my family leapt into action, prying the bowls from my hands with horrified expressions and shoving me into the family room to watch television. No dishes, no laundry, nothing.
Now, I know this sounds like most 20-something recent college graduates' dreams come true, but it's actually very frustrating at times. I don't want to be a burden on my family and I want to help out with the things that I should be helping out with. Plus, it's nice to have the independence and sense of control that comes with cleaning one's own living space. Nevertheless, despite frequent efforts on my part, I am still allowed nowhere near the kitchen sink as long as my host mom is watching. And my host mom is a housewife, so she's watching quite a lot.
That's the thing about Korean housewives - or at least the one I live with. The house is absolutely Her Domain, and no one else shall enter Her Space without Her Permission. My host siblings do help out a little, but by and large my host mother is in complete control of Her Domain. I've managed to do small things around the house from time to time, but only when nobody else is home.
Then came my big break. This week my host mom is on a well-deserved vacation to Japan with some of her female friends - although this doesn't mean I was suddenly able to leap into cleaning action. Family friends have been coming over the past few days to take care of the kids, cook dinner, and clean up afterward. Efforts on my part to clear the table were again thwarted.
Today, however, it's just me and the kids. We ordered take-out food and watched a movie on TV. And when we were finished, as my host siblings folded the laundry, I walked over the kitchen sink, put on the rubber gloves, and turned on the water. Mina, the 14-year-old, of course tried to stop me, but I was already rinsing off the first spoon, and I convinced her that cleaning the dishes was no burden to me, and that I was happy to do it.
I doubt my newfound freedom to clean the house will continue once my host mom returns. My family still thinks of me as relatively young and unaccustomed to taking care of myself and my own chores, and I know they worry about life with them being difficult for me. I am grateful, though, that my host mom is getting some well-needed rest and that I was able to give back to the family just once. And who knows -today just might set a precedent for future Sundays home alone with the host kids.