Dutch Uncles and Korean Mamas

“Dutch uncle” is one of my new favorite terms. I got it from The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. He was referring to his mentor at Brown, Andy van Dam, who did him a great service by telling him nicely, “Stop being a jerk and you’ll get farther in this world.” Of course, he learned other things from his Dutch uncle. A “Dutch uncle” is someone who tells you how it is for your best interest. It’s not unlike a Korean mama, but I think Dutch uncles are a lot nicer about how they say things.

Korean mamas have no censor. If you’ve gained weight, they’ll let you know. And chances are, they’ll let you know many times over. In the same breath, they’ll feed you whatever they made or brought over for the hard-earned opportunity to see you. It is a Korean mother’s instinct to feed. The best compliment you can pay her is by cleaning up your plate. (Presently, I am trying to unlearn this.)

I’ve designated myself as a “Dutch relative” to my dear friend, who is looking for a special someone to spend the rest of her life with. She recently moved to Chicago after having spent the last past five years working in the outskirts of Atlanta.

When we were in Boston, she’d be the one to get me to go shopping and be my partner-in-crime when we’d go out. Over the years, she’d lost a bit of her fashion-edge and desire to look her best.

“What happened?” I asked.
“Atlanta,” she replied ruefully.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to take a picture of her for eHarmony. She had come to my house that day in her Sunday dregs, wearing no makeup and with frizzy hair. I told her, “I say this as a friend. I absolutely cannot take your picture now. It will not do you justice.”

She tried to convince me that a bad picture is better than none at all. But I held firm. “Sorry, I can’t do it. It’s better to keep them wondering than to put you at your non-best.”

I explained to her that she needed to put her best foot forward. Men tend to put a lot more focus on a woman’s appearance than we women do for men. (Also, I think we’re more forgiving and more willing to visualize their potential if other factors stand out.) So, even though it’s a pain to put on makeup and spend ridiculous amounts of money on haircare and body-flattering clothes, it’s a necessary evil. Plus, wouldn’t she like her fellow to look his best?

I told her about my brother’s rejecting a prospect because she came to see him in her un-best, even though he’d flown down from Seattle to San Francisco to see her. (She met him at a nice restaurant wearing a red trenchcoat and no makeup.) There were other factors that contributed to his declining another meeting with her (she didn’t quite get his jokes, and they didn’t have much to talk about), but I was struck by the fact that he even noticed what she had worn and the fact she wasn’t wearing any makeup.

The next Sunday, my friend came all made up, and her hair was tamed with product. “Much better,” I said. “See? You clean up pretty nicely.” I went ahead and took some glamour shots.

The funny thing was when she was reviewing the pictures, she was so surprised that the images were of her. “You’re right. I need to do something about my hair. And the clothes—they really weren’t doing me any favors, were they?”

I smiled without saying a word. I totally understood where she was coming from. It’s the same way for me. Just the other day, I looked at some pictures that were taken at my daughter’s kindergarten graduation. “That can’t be me, can it?” Yes, it’s you. Who else could it be? Whenever I see pictures of myself there is a disconnect between what I see in my mind’s eye vs. how I appear through the lens. It’s tough enough listening to a recording of my voice, but seeing images of me is much worse.

Through my friend, I am reminded not to neglect the physical side of me—not for vanity’s sake, but for good health and well-being. Like my friend, I do clean up well when I put my mind to it. Now it’s a matter of putting in that effort more regularly. Even though I’m married and have a child, the work isn’t over. HB is a man after all, and the Princess will learn from my example.

The words of my Korean mama have come through loud and clear through the filter of the Dutch uncle in my mind.


4 thoughts on “Dutch Uncles and Korean Mamas

  1. How about an Irish Aunt? I’ve been lucky enough to have one in my life. She once greeted me at the door of my car–after I had just driven 2 hours to visit her–by saying: “You look terrible. Go inside. We’re going to eat dinner and you’re going to bed early.” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. I was going through a busy time and it was a relief to know someone cared enough about me to be really, really honest. Without question I went in to her home, ate dinner, and went to bed while the sun was still shining. I’m sure I looked and–more importantly–felt much better in the morning.

  2. Heh… Andy van Dam was my dad’s best friend from Swat. Did you know that?

    Make-up… never got into it. Likely never will. I blame that and my general lack of fruit eating on my mother. So it goes. However, I finally have a haircut that I like and that the Critter can’t demolish. Small favors in a large world.

  3. Yes, I remember one October break we stayed at his house on the Cape with your mom, and also visited him and his wife in RI. He was quite a foodie!

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