Korean Babies

I’ve observed that a given foreign culture in this day and age may be able to imitate the west pretty well on the surface, at least. Korea has buildings, suits, skirts, TVs, fighter jets, cars, roads, laws that people follow at least sometimes, a republic at least in name, a market economy, schools, paper money, electronics, birth control, etc. People speak English on occasion, and they probably won’t rip you to pieces if they think you’re a foreigner, as their brothers and sisters might in the more barbarous north. But with babies it’s different. The culture has given up very little to the west in this regard, and I suspect it’s the same in other parts of the world. Korea itself is weird enough, but ideas and superstitions about babies make that weirdness pale in comparison.

Oh god, where can I even begin? Perhaps with the two dwarf-sized stacks of seaweed sitting in our new apartment’s living room. My wife is supposed to spend several months eating this, and only this, after she gives birth. If you ask what the reason is for such a practice, the answer will always be Korean culture (an all-purpose justification), or some vague reference to all the babies who died in the past when this place was poorer than Zimbabwe—or, if you ask my wife, she might angrily say “meesheen”, the word for superstition, and then she might perhaps wonder if it might not be better to vary her diet a little after she frees herself of the bothersome burden of morning sickness and the inability to really enjoy wine or coffee, because she is an international woman, especially when she frees herself of these cumbersome Korean borders, and goes abroad. And the seaweed is definitely good stuff, but three times a day for two months??? I told her it would take us years to go through all that seaweed…

But that comes after the birth. Before the birth things are still weird. A woman cannot look at dirty things or ugly people or watch horror movies because that threatens the health of her baby—it may be related to how, when I suggested that little Harry listen to some Mozart, my wife slipped a pair of headphones into her ears and then claimed rather amusingly that the boy would gain some benefit from her doing so. Most women also cease making an effort to look good while they are pregnant here, dress in sweatpants and sweatshirts, and apparently do not really go out so often; but Kim Eun-ok is a little different, and actually a rockstar, and undoubtedly the most beautiful pregnant woman anyone’s ever seen. To generalize, most of those other women are also married to men who don’t give a damn about them, which explains a thing or two.

So then comes the birth. Another blogger was prevented from seeing his child for thirty days because the doctors claimed that his germs would kill the boy (or something). I’ve told my wife that I will play the part of Samson and rip the hospital out of the ground if the doctors try to pull any such bullshit with me. Anyway, one of our very first arguments was about showering. Korean women claim they are too frail to shower, or really clean themselves in any way, after covering themselves in their own blood and various bodily fluids, when they give birth. I’m not sure how long they’re supposed to wait, with their legs caked in dried, encrusted placenta, but the term may be about two weeks. If they do shower, apparently their bones will break.

When I said to her wife that maybe she’d like to just try cleaning herself up a bit after giving birth, and that she could stop if it breaks one of her bones, and I could help her when she does so, we got into a rather heated argument—she claimed that Korean women have different bodies from western women, and that that’s why their bones will break under the spray of a shower after they’ve given birth, and that this is also related to why westerners can’t sit on the floor for hours on end, a practice fairly common here. Thus any disagreement essentially boils down to the clash of cultures: the liberalism of the west, which basically says do whatever the hell you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and the conservatism of Korea, which says you’ve got to do it our way because that’s the way we’ve done it for a long time, or go to hell.

God, is there anything else? A woman has to stay hot after giving birth. It’ll be hot enough to roast a wild boar out on the tar very shortly here in Busan, but I’m afraid we’ll be using the heat in our apartment in spite of that. The baby also can never get cold, and apparently old people will tell us so, if the child is not bundled up in a thousand blankets, whenever we leave the house (although this may actually be a pretty good way of keeping the kid chilled out—Korean babies are probably the best behaved I’ve ever seen, at least in public). The baby also cannot leave the house for a hundred days or else he will instantly die on contact with the outside air. Only women can carry and care for babies. My wife and I have been counting how many ajoshis we’ve seen holding babies outside: after two years, and seeing hundreds or perhaps thousands of ajummas caring for their children, we have witnessed approximately thirty Korean men caring in some significant way for their babies, most of them here in Haeundae, the most liberal part of the city.

We haven’t had Harry just yet, although my wife is in so much pain that I’m encouraging her now to have the birth induced and just get it over with, but I’m sure that when he does finally pop out of her swollen belly, I’ll find that this lengthy post is but the tip of the superstitious iceberg.

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One thought on “Korean Babies

  1. Busan Mike says:

    This is a good summary of the issues, and yes – from my experience – I’m afraid it probably is the tip of the iceberg.

    The situation with being prevented from seeing my son – which you referenced – was something we stumbled into not fully appreciating how the hospital was going to be set up, although this was because they changed their procedures between the time we signed up and the time my wife gave birth. Once we were presented with this fait accompli, there was the vague concern that getting angry with them about it might have been detrimental to my son’s care, so I had to live with it.

    In the twelve years since I met my wife there’s been nothing which highlighted the problems with the cultural differences as much as the baby experience, because it often doesn’t matter how well educated and liberal your wife is, or how long she’s lived outside of Korea being exposed to – shock – other ways of thinking, when they get pregnant they tend to revert back to factory settings.

    In my experience it does get better but it can take time. Good luck anyway to you and your wife.

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