Tharp On: Family

“Royal Baby Arrives!

This is the headline that greeted me after returning from a camping trip in which I was entirely off the grid. For one solid week, neither newspapers nor computer monitors taxed my sun-blazed eyes. I was wonderfully ignorant of the happenings of the world outside my immediate sensory zone, but now, once again, I was an informed citizen. And here was my first nugget: after nine months of blissful swimming in his mother’s very posh womb (I’m told that Kate Middleton’s amniotic fluid was a mix of Perrier and Cristal), the Little Prince Boy George had finally slid out the regal pathway into this big, crazy world.

Who cares, right? A royal baby? What makes this sprog more important than any of the other 370,000 popped forth on the same day? Sure, he was ushered into a clan of obscenely wealthy, horsey-looking people, but isn’t royalty an arbitrary determination? After all, this is the 21st century. It strains credulity that some countries still have kings and queens and duchesses and princes.

We may not be flying around with jetpacks, but ridiculous notions such as royal families should have been discarded onto the dung heap of history a long while back. Thankfully, some have tried. The USA and much of Latin America cast theirs off through open rebellion; the French beheaded their royals, while the Russians machine-gunned theirs in 1917. Many, such as myself, consider these bloody acts a pretty good start.

Being a member of a Korean family is kind of like being in the mafia. All problems are dealt with internally. You will be protected and taken care of, but you can never, ever leave.

Yes, the Royal Family is a dumb, frivolous thing, but… they are still a family. Take away the crowns, palaces, decked-out Range Rovers and shallow gene pools, and you have a group of people bound by blood who love one another very much.

Okay, maybe they don’t all actually love each other, but they’re stuck together, whether they like it or not. Tough titty, as my buddy’s white trash grandpa used to say.

Being stuck together is the very definition of family. And when I took in the photo of William and Kate holding that very privileged little spawn, for just a moment, all the titles and aristocratic bells and whistles evaporated: I only saw a pair of adoring parents who were obviously thrilled to be starting a family.

This idea of family has been on my mind lately. I write this from my hometown in America, where I am lucky to be spending a good chunk of the summer. The first week of the visit was spent entirely with my family, which was enthralling, satisfying and aggravating all at the same time. We ate like the pack of chunky Americans we are, drank soft drinks and beer, played endless rounds of croquet and posed for more photographs than red carpet walkers at the Academy Awards. (This digital age has turned the modern family into a veritable herd of paparazzi.) Old beefs and annoyances were cast aside; everyone was all hugs and smiles—even those couple of family members who have unfriended me on Facebook.

What struck me about this recent convergence of the family Tharp was how many new ones there were: a whole passel of young ‘uns frolicked about. Many of them had come into the world during my tenure in Korea, so it was my first time to see them. I had always counted myself among the family’s youth contingent, but things had changed: my generation of brothers, sisters, and cousins had now crossed over into the old aunts and uncles department. We were now a bunch of pudgy gray hairs and must have appeared positively ancient to the new guard. Welcome to Geezerville. Pretty soon these kids will be changing our diapers.

In Korea, family is everything. Personal happiness lay subservient to the well-being of the family as a whole. These very Confucian notions of hierarchy, sacrifice and filial piety form the bedrock on which this society was constructed. These ties run deep in Korea, and can often turn into fetters.

Many young Koreans cast off their own dreams in order to pursue a life path that will please their parents. While generally cared for until marriage (which often happens at the parents’ behest: You must get married this year!), Korean children are expected, in turn, to return the duty when mom and dad go geriatric. These responsibilities are even extended after death, with labor-intensive ancestral rites performed several times a year.

And it used to be much more extreme. In days past, the eldest son was required to live in a hut next to his parents grave’s for three full years after their deaths, tending to them daily. This is dedication.

Being a member of a Korean family is kind of like being in the mafia. All problems are dealt with internally. You will be protected and taken care of, but you can never, ever leave.

I have now married into a Korean family, though mine is smaller and less conventional than others. We visit my mother-in-law’s apartment periodically, where I am presented with dizzying piles of home-cooked food employing liberal amounts of pepper paste and sea tentacles. I am lucky enough, however, to not have to spend the whole of the big holidays with the extended clan. Some of my married friends have to endure these gatherings, where they sit on painful wooden floors for days on end, watch TV dramas and numb themselves with rice wine, while waiting for that one stink-eyed uncle lurking in the corner to unleash his inner racist after his third bottle of soju.

So, this upcoming Chuseok, while my other married buddies look ridiculous in their hanboks, gorge on bland rice cakes and prostrate themselves in front of fruit platters and photos of stony-faced relatives they’ve never met, I’ll be away with my wife, up in the mountains, once again off the grid, where just maybe we’ll spark the fire and start a little family of our own.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

 Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at:

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