So as you may have gathered from the last post, my parents just spent two weeks with us here in Busan. This visit marked the debut of our baby into the world beyond the confines of our one-room apartment in Haeundae; Harry had gone outside a few times before, but usually for just a few panic-stricken hours of starlight or moonlight, during which time everyone involved in these excursions was chewing their nails down to the quick in anticipation of the impending Supernova Of Harry, when our beautiful adorable son would instantly transform himself into a shrieking, vomiting, shitstorm, usually inside two hours of leaving the apartment.
With our parents it was different. Harry had safely reached a hundred days of age, and this meant that we could take him outside without disobeying the injunctions of Korean culture, which state that an infant will expire upon contact with the outside air if he leaves the warm filial aromas of the nest before he reaches exactly one hundred days of age. If he should leave the apartment so much as a single second before this vital anniversary, the baby will collapse into the wind like a handful of ash, because Korean physics and metaphysics are often one and the same thing.
And now of course with my parents we had two more very capable people to help us take care of this kid; two more pairs of arms and legs to carry him, move him around, change his diaper, and make his milk, whenever circumstances prevented his mother and father from doing so. Their company enabled us to escape the dull boundaries of our one-room pretty much every day, for the whole day, for two weeks, and as I think all three of us had been going a little stir-crazy over the preceding months, locked as we were within the prison of the apartment, and the greater prison of Busan itself, their visit was a welcome respite from the sturm und drang of postpartum existence.
These voyages into the great abyss of Busan forced us into some odd encounters with just a few of the millions of unfortunate people who are forced to live in this place.
Foreigners of any stripe are odd and different by definition wherever you go across the world; even back in my sometime-hometown of Seal Harbor, Maine, a very stark difference can be seen between the millionaires who occupy one side of the town for several weeks in the summer and the cotton-haired retirees, tractor-driving hillbillies, and white-collar middle-classers who inhabit the other side full-time. Koreans and white people in Korea are no exception whatever to this rule that People Are Different; and one of the most obvious differences between them is how either group usually treats babies.
For white people, I think it’s safe to say that babies are not just an annoyance, but a massive stroke of misfortune, a ready example of divine wrath. In North America babies are a near-unbearable pain in the ass for white parents, relatives, and strangers; anyone who likes babies is suspected of being a bit kooky, and most of the people who are unlucky enough to be afflicted with babies have basically thrown their lives, their careers, their wallets, their bodies, their souls, and their minds, down the gullet of their little wailing monster. They get and expect nothing except suffering in return for their sacrifice. I’m sure people will disagree with me here, but regardless, this opinion is true.
For Koreans, and perhaps also Asians at large, babies are a blessing, a gift, and a miracle. If you see a baby, your first reaction is to exclaim one of two things: “It’s cute!” or “It’s beautiful!” Then you must proceed to gaze into the baby’s eyes while also grinning ear-to-ear, as your own eyes shine with glee; you feel free to touch anyone’s baby as much as you like, and you may even ask the parents to hold the baby for a few moments.
To you, babies are delightful and amazing. Their screams make you laugh. You will stop in your tracks and stare with glee if you see a baby anywhere, even if you are standing at the middle of a crosswalk with traffic roaring straight at you from four directions. If you have a relative with a baby, you will frequently volunteer your rare free time to help take care of the baby in question, and you will never complain about doing so. These opinions are also true, because babies are essentially the greatest gifts and the most horrifying afflictions the gods could ever bestow upon a human being; double-edged swords that gore us and, often enough, rub us just the right way.
However, if you are a Korean who is at least thirty years of age, and you see a baby, you will also feel an inexplicable compulsion overwhelm all rational thought. An uncontrollable urge surges within you. If it is sunny outside, you will tell any parents you see that their baby is getting too much sun; if there is so much as a slight breeze on a blisteringly-hot day, you will tell the child’s parents that Their Baby Is Cold.
We received this latter comment several times a day from complete strangers for two straight weeks. “Ajumma,” people would say, addressing my wife, who despises that appellation, “Your Baby Is Cold.” Then they would walk off and leave everyone fuming. The baby could have been bundled up in a spacesuit and they still would have said it. Ajumma. Your baby is cold. Actually sometimes they would stop to give us this highly-useful and desperately-needed advice, but for the most part these encounters were more akin to drive-by shootings: they would snarl out the Korean at us, ajumma, agi choopda, without missing a single beat to the footsteps, breezing past as if they’d said nothing at all.
Since these people are our elders we are usually forced to smile, bow, genuflect, lick their shoes, and thank them for their rampant idiocy, but after our hundredth yourbabyiscold I told my wife that I would start replying by saying, in Korean, with the proper polite conjugation, and the stab of a frigid smile thrown in for free, the following: “Your heart is cold.”
She laughed and then told me very seriously not to say that, since we’ll soon be living in a smaller city where people actually know each other. Actions have consequences. And as it is unlikely that any of these people are going to learn anything from my free lessons in basic etiquette—i.e., it is probably impolite to criticize strangers on the street, which they should already know, since they are so old and so wise—I may just have to stiffen my upper lip. After all, it’s not like these people have any idea of what they’re doing. It’s an uncontrollable urge. It’s an unconscious reflex. And it doesn’t just happen with babies. Indeed, in exploring Busan, one is forced to conclude that the people who made this place did so while sleepwalking.
Unwanted pediatric advice is not unique to Korea, nor is public staring—the attention I got in Eastern Turkey was far worse than anything in this country. But people still do stare, especially when I’m together with my wife, and especially when we’re together with our baby; older men in particular have a habit of stopping to do the full-on neck-crane as we pass them. Usually it is an uncomfortable experience. While we were attending to a sputtering Harry at the entrance to the spectacular Taejongdae Cliffs, more or less in the parking lot, which I thought deserted, I turned around from the milk-making and the wailing and saw that a lone Korean man dressed in an orange hiking outfit had stopped not five feet away to watch us. He said nothing. He did not acknowledge me. His expression was rather blank. He really just wanted to have himself a good stare. It’s a national pastime here; it should be a sport. But something about the lonesomeness of the place made this singular figure rather eerie. Who knows, after all, how many North Korean sleeper cells there really are?, etc., etc.
But after a few tense moments this peculiar figure stepped forward with a smile, looked down at Harry, who was by then struggling over his milk, and said, in profound Korean: “The baby is hungry.” After a very resonant pause, he glowed a bit in the sun, and then added: “Eat well”, before vanishing into the mist. I am not kidding. I could never make up something so amazing as that encounter.