Posts Tagged ‘expat’

Dragon’s favourite Korean book is a simple story about a boy getting ready for bed. He brushes his teeth, splashes in the tub, gets read a bedtime story and…bows to his parents.

The Canadian in me shivers at this image, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Even with the smiling faces and cute bowing teddy, it seems like such a heartless bedtime ritual. It seems so formal and lacking in familial affection. How can insa ever exist in place of cuddles?

Of course, the question remains whether this picture is a manifestation of reality or an ideal vision of how it all should be in a Confucian society (two pages later the boy peacefully drifts off to sleep immediately after his mum reads him a story…and all parents know that bedtime is really always that easy!) But it’s safe to say that such an image would not normally be found in a modern day Canadian children’s book.

Now, after ten months of reading this book to Dragon before bed (snuggling together, sometimes with his arm wrapped around my shoulder), I still admit to feeling uncomfortable with the formality of it all. However, I’ve also experienced the exquisite sweetness of insa at daycare.

Dragon has a kind of girlfriend there – an older woman no less. And she’s taken to spontaneously greeting me at the door on occasion when I arrive and depart (already trying to get into our good graces!). And my goodness, when she folds her itty bitty hands at her waist, and bows slightly with a shy smile, my heart melts and everything within me screams CUTE. Her miniature attempt at a custom which seems far above her age cannot help but endear her to me, and with that feeling, I can see how a ritual that seems so cold in the abstract can actually be a very loving and affectionate gesture.

I’m not going to give up cuddles though. Ever.

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On the weekend we signed the contract for Dragon’s first birthday venue. But, you say…isn’t he just eight months old? Why yes. But we actually reserved the spot and paid the reservation fee when he had just turned seven months old. Even then, apparently we were ‘late’ in making first birthday plans because the larger rooms at the venue were already booked through March. It seemed like everyone else has been scrambling to book too. When we booked the venue in September, there was only one other family consulting with the staff. On Saturday, the waiting room was chaotic and the woman we met with said people had been pouring in since the end of Chuseok. So I took back all the skeptical looks I had made in Mr. Lee’s direction when he had told me we were booking for first birthday room five months ahead of time.

But it’s not just the first birthday venue where we seem to be behind in the parent game. It took phone calls to twenty clinics at the beginning of August to find a doctor who could fit Dragon in for his baby wellness check up before October (we needed it before he could start at daycare). And speaking of daycare, I thought Mr. Lee was insane when he started calling places when Dragon was a twenty week old fetus, but when the time came to actually start him, we came THIS CLOSE to literally getting on our knees and begging for a spot.

I know that daycare wait lists exist in major North American cities too, and some of the problem with child-related insanity here comes from the combination of the dragon year baby boom and the government suddenly paying daycare fees for all. But the thing is, I had finally accepted that in Korea, everything is done last minute. No one thinks it is cutting it close when you are finally allowed to go to immigration 30 minutes before closing time on the day your visa expires. But try apartment hunting at the end of February for a beginning of April move in, and you’ll have everyone scratching their heads because you are starting to look SO EARLY. And then there’s the meetings that are scheduled at the last minute, the reports given a minute ago that were due yesterday, the call from your MIL at 10 am that your aunt in law has been visiting for a month without your knowledge and is returning to her home in the US on a 1 pm flight, so when are you going to visit her???

So yes, I had thought I had Korea all figured out. Everything is done last minute. Prepare for it. Accept it. Embrace it.

And in most cases, I had. Because really, there’s a lot of good in the ability to have things done quick without reservations and waiting around.

But then parenthood has thrown me for a loop because I forgot the number one rule about culture: a cultural rule that applies in full in one area is likely to be completely subverted in an unexpected way in another area. And so parenting here has been that somewhat necessary corrective to my smug comfort of knowing how things work by reminding me that I have a whole lot to learn – not just about raising a baby but also about how things work in Korea.

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On Feeding

In general, our relationship works like this. When we’ve mutually agreed that one person should be in charge of something whether it be doing a chore, making a purchase, or planning an event, the person in charge gets to make the decisions. When it’s something that pertains to one person alone, that person gets to make the decision.

And then we had a baby.

Because of our respective work schedules, I am solely responsible for Dragon during the weekdays. And because of social conditioning and individual ability, I’ve been the one making the majority of the decisions about how Dragon is raised, which, for an infant, is basically about food, sleep, and play.
There’s no dispute about sleep schedules; we only wish he would sleep longer and better. There’s no dispute about play and social interaction. And Mr. Lee has always been supportive of my choice to breastfeed and then my need to supplement at the beginning.

Then we got to solids.

Now, before we go further, I need to point out the mommy wars in Western culture often revolve around food. So this isn’t entirely an East/West parenting issue. And personally, I have stopped any form of philosophical parenting and taken a more – ‘what’s good for us and scientifically reasonable is what we’re going with’ sort of approach. That means I breastfeed despite obstacles and qualms about certain approaches to breastfeeding advocacy, and I started solids at 4.5 months because it was the right time and recommendations are just that. Recommendations. I also puree food because I like to and spoon feed for now because it works for us, but if the little Mr. takes something age appropriate and size appropriate from my plate, that’s okay too. In short, breast milk is great, purees are great, finger food is starting to be great. Breast milk is good for him and solids are good for him. All is good right?

Well, we went to the 6 month government sponsored baby wellness-esq check, and the dr asked if Dragon was eating beef. No. Chicken? No. Eggs? No. Fish? Um…no. A wide variety of fruit and vegetables (brussel sprouts even!) and lots of iron fortified pablum…yes. But the dr didn’t care about those things.
So then I got a big talking to. Because all 6 months old should be eating those 4 things. They should, specifically, be eating mackerel I was told. Really? I said in an exasperated voice which was unfortunately interpreted as a question. Yes. I was making my son anemic because he wasn’t getting his daily serving of hanwoo.

Now, agreeing to raise Dragon as a meat eater has been my big concession in parenting thus far. I made it for various reasons, but a primary reason is that we live in Korea, and he will be attending Korean daycare and kindergarten and school and kids have meals made for them at these places. And there’s always meat. And nobody is ever going to respect the crazy foreign mother’s request to omit that meat from her son’s portion. So I know that whether I like it or not, he will eat meat. And I was planning on starting meat from around 8 months. But because I feed iron fortified pablum, and because I breastfeed, and because I like the idea of introducing things slowly over time, I didn’t feel that the moment a kid turns 6 months he needed to be eating mackerel.

The same day we went to a second dr (our usual ped) for vaccinations, and I was again reprimanded for not giving my 6.5 month old meat. This of course started getting Mr. Lee antsy. He was already secretly worried I think about me the vegetarian REALLY agreeing to feed our son meat, and then he heard from drs that denying our son meat for the past two weeks was harming him.

And this is where intercultural parenting is fun. Because yes, I am the one who is preparing food and feeding Dragon most of the time, so from my perspective, I get to make the decisions.

But Dragon is not entirely mine. And we are not living in my culture. And to be honest, although people will say ‘your child is YOURS and YOU know what is best for YOUR child,’ that’s not entirely how most people see it. Society sees your child as theirs, family and children’s services see your child as theirs, breastfeeding or anti-circumcision or anti-spanking advocates see your child as theirs, and older generations sure as hell feel your child is a piece of them and that they have a right to have at least a little bit of an opinion. The validity of these claims is up for debate depending on the issue and situation, but at the very least, our child is ours. He’s Canadian and Korean and at some point there’s bound to be some disagreements as to how to deal with that fact in day to day decisions about how we raise him.

Plus, being outside of my culture, and trying to interact in a language I’m not fluent in means that I can’t always express my ideas adequately, or explain cultural differences like how our rice cereal is fortified with extra iron unlike most homemade juk. And of course, not being raised in this culture, I don’t always know what people expect as normative here in order to prepare my defense of my way or even prepare for the controversy. Anyway, needless to say, I didn’t respond well to the doctors, and I got kind of pissy.

Then I took a little break and tried to be rational again. And I tried to give up a slice of my monopoly on how Dragon is raised even if it’s really me putting in the time and raising most of the week. And I decided that my husband and the doctors shouldn’t be lumped together. I should talk and discuss and find a compromise with my husband. And in matters that are really not important, I should smile and nod and carry on when it comes to others.

So I started Dragon on chicken but only chicken at 7 months. He’s not a fan 🙂 But I fully realize it takes kids some time to get used to different tastes and textures, so I try every so often in different combinations to see if he will become a fan eventually. And Mr. Lee is okay with no mackerel. Because he is our son. And we should find a middle ground in an honest way because we are raising a child together and can work together to find a good solution for all.

And then when Dragon and I went for a follow up vaccination, and when the dr. started berating me about meat and how my seven month old MUST eat meat at EVERY meal, I refrained myself. I didn’t talk about how often he consumed meat. I didn’t talk about how my culture does it. I didn’t talk about iron fortified foods or the fact that a whole lot of kids don’t take to meat or solids in general for quite some time. I just put the hint of a smile on my face, agreed to the general principle that iron is important, and said, that yes, indeed we had started ‘meat.’ Less is better, and appearance of agreement is good enough in this situation.

I’m learning.

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He said: ‘Now that the baby’s in daycare and around other kids, we have to be more careful about his body temperature.’

She said: ‘You mean…we should be vigilant about checking him for a fever or signs of illness because of more germs?”

He said: “No, his body always needs to be warm because then he won’t get sick.”

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Some hospital drama with the fam back home in Canada this week, and the ever-evolving incident has made me say ‘The system’s bull shit! In Korea….’ more times than I’d like to admit. The privilege of having lived in more than one place is that you get to see the different ways people do things – and often do them better – than what you are used to, but the burden is not being able to explain to others why system A could be a thousand times better with a little introduction to the ways of system B. And especially when it comes to Canada and health care, you’re not supposed to touch that sacred cow.

Now, I was, when I could vote, a left leaning NDP voting Canadian (unless for strategic purposes Liberal), and I still strongly believe in universal health care. But the problem in Canada is that we are so geographically isolated from other countries that everything comes back to comparing ourselves to the US. I’ve had these discussions so many time since moving abroad, and in the end the debate about health care reform usually comes back to the line…’Do you want to be like the US?!’ as if that’s the only option.

And God knows I have problems with certain aspects of the Korean system. I almost had a breakdown over the care Dragon received when he was hospitalized, but the point is that most ways of doing something have something to offer to other ways of doing something. And in this particular case, I would really like the Canadian system to be a whole lot more like the enter-any-hospital-and-they’ll-be-happy-to-treat-you-and-do-more-tests-and-introduce-you-to-more-doctors Korean system.

But I also get that saying so sounds really annoying. Maybe it sounds elitist. Maybe it sounds like an attack on what in some ways is a good system. And most definitely it’s about bitching about a problem instead of using that time to come up with solutions. That’s not helpful. So I’m going to stop saying it. Because I’m being annoying. But I am having a week in which I wish I could marry my worlds and thus somehow make the world an easier place for everyone.

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Oegukeen over at Loving Korean asked me to do a joint post answering a reader’s question about speaking Korean and raising children. Click on over to read our responses.

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On Christmas 2011

A quick post on our Christmas weekend as a follow up to this post.

It started out with a visit to the PIL. As I said in the previous post, pre-me they never celebrated Christmas except for going to a pretty uneventful Mass, but now they get presents and a visit, so they’ll go with it. Being just after Dongji or solstice, we ate patjuk or red bean porriage…which is interesting because we’ve never marked the solstice with the inlaws in any way before. And then after that it was time for the much beloved Korean Christmas cake…always an ice cream cake in this family. This year I thought the Baskin Robbins options were abysmal…it’s like they put too many resources into developing the Halloween cakes and then had nothing left over for Christmas…so we had the monkey/lion pirate ship cake. Not the most delicious of the cakes I’ve ever had there, but the style…come on…blue ice cream waves? Points for that.

The other reason we went to see the inlaws was to pick up all the boxes of baby stuff we’ve had delivered to their place over the last 2 months. We barely got everything in the car, and then when we got home, it was time for Mr. Lee to figure out how everything went together…training I think for a parent’s role after Santa comes in the next many years….

After sitting on the couch for 2 hours watching the fun, I left to attend Vespers.

And when I got home, I managed to manipulate Mr. Lee into watching a movie…okay it was The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe…not a Msleetobe family traditional holiday movie…but it does have Santa in it, so that was something.

Christmas morning we woke up and ate some tasty pastries before Skyping with my mama and sister. We opened presents, gossiped, made stupid faces at each other, tried to get the cats on camera…the usual.

And then I had some of my from-Canada hot chocolate and mini marshmellows that mama had sent.

As for the cats, the little one spent almost the entire Christmas day in his blanket nest trying to maximize the ondol experience.

Sometimes he got up the energy to glare at us as we took photos of him, but mostly he just wanted to be warm, cozy, and undisturbed.

The older cat took a rather strong liking to the Peg Perego stroller box and spent almost the entire day sitting in darkness and claiming the box as her territory.

She only emerged to get some Christmas treats and yell at Mr. Lee for disturbing her cave dwelling.

We ended the weekend at the Grand Hilton for dinner. Poor Mr. Lee called 20 hotels before we were able to get a reservation. We left making plans far too late this year – especially for a year when both Christmas Eve and Day fell on a weekend. But finally he was sucessful, and we managed to get a spot for ourselves and his best friend.

The lights and decorations were not as delightful as the Millenium Hilton’s, but the Grand Hilton was slightly less chaotic as well.

We went to the buffet, and while it was not your standard Canadian Christmas meal, it was nice. They even had Christmas pudding…which I despise…but they had it! Here’s my first course…

And Mr. Lee’s…

All in all, a busy yet low key weekend, and a lovely time to share with hubs. Next year….Christmas will be a wee bit different…. Merry Christmas my dears.

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Last week on Feminist Mormon Housewives’ Ask Mormon Girl column, there was a question that really resonated with me. A reader asked how she could get her convert fiancé, who had never celebrated Christmas – let alone her family’s all embracing Christmas celebrations – to integrate into a family that does “matching pajamas and rhyming, multi-stage treasure hunts and nativity re-enactments and Danish aebleskivers from my great-grandmother’s recipe and grandkids bolting to bed after sighting Rudolph’s nose in the sky and a laundry list of other traditions.” At the same time, from a discussion on a wives forum I am on, I realized that I am not the only Western wife who has radically different ideas about holidays and celebrations than her Korean husband.

I’ve seen big changes over the last seven Chirstmases in Seoul. However, Christmas is above all a dating holiday when couples go to special Christmas concerts, eat ‘Western’ food, and/or go to heavily packed areas like Myeongdong en masse with other dating couples. When I first got here, it was very difficult and highly unusual to find home decorations – because nobody decorated. And if they did, it was just a small tree not the every room + massive outdoor light displays that happen back in Canada. Above all, Christmas is a public friend/couple holiday lasting about two days with a longer Starbucks/Baskin Robbins/Dunkin Donut build up in Korea. Holiday concerts seem to be increasing at nursery schools and Kindergartens if my friends-with-kids’ Facebook status updates are to be believed, but only in the same way that hogwan competition seems to be driving the Halloween party fad among the 2-6 age group. But Christmas is pretty much an outside holiday. It’s something you participate in with the one you love or the kids at school, but it has very little family meaning. And until I came along, my in-laws had never imagined they would do anything remotely Christmas-related at home.

And speaking of family, of course, as you grow older and start your own family, you realize that what you think of as ‘traditions’ are often your own family traditions and not necessarily the traditions of the wider community around you. The Msleetobe family has a lot of traditions. There are certain movies that have to be watched – The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, White Christmas, the 1960’s Rudolph claymation, and now Elf for example (although if you can throw in a few more, that would be best). The times these movies will be shown are carefully noted and schedules may be rearranged in order that everyone can be in their pjs in the family room, each with a bowl of popcorn, so the watching (and singing) can begin on time. When my father was alive, there were always surprise nightly detours on the way home to neighbourhoods never before known so that we could see the outdoor lights of people we had never met as well as trips to well known Christmas display hot spots. There were Christmas baking extravaganzas and cookie exchanges when I was younger, the Christmas concerts my friend L and I used to put on for our families during our elementary school days, and those many many trips to the mall (or malls) to see Santa. There was the White Gift Service, the church Christmas concert, the Toys for Tots and Canadian Tire money drives at school, special breakfast on Christmas morning, Christmas Eve candlelight service, Avon products in our stockings and yearly tool contribution to our individual tool boxes (cause Dad believed in girls using and owning tools yo), and of course, the yearly Christmas gathering traditions with family, friends, neighbours, and social groups. Christmas was a big freaking deal for me growing up – and very little of that big freaking deal had to do with commercialization and presents. Most of it – at least the things that stick out years later – were the memories, the family traditions, and the magical atmosphere. I fully recognize that not everyone in Canada has these experiences or had them growing up, but I do believe that Christmas was and is a magical time for many people far apart from the commercialization.

But why talk about this here? Because my husband did not grow up in this cultural or family environment. And it’s not just Christmas. It’s pretty much all holidays. His family has a low key Chuseok/Seollal which I think is pretty commonplace in Seoul these days. We celebrate his parents’ birthdays. We take some flowers (the standard ones everyone is supposed to take) on Parents’ Day and eat together, and usually we get together with the in-laws for Mr. Lee’s birthday – but not with any of his other siblings. Each occasion is pretty standard – eat a meal or go out to a galbi restaurant, give money or a standard Korean gift set easily purchased out of the gift section of any department store, and … that’s pretty much it. Now, I recognize that this is partly Mr. Lee’s family dynamics and that other families might be more or less traditional, more or less festive, and be more or less creative.. And I also recognize that my family – which has always celebrated major and minor holidays with a flair (I still get St. Patrick’s Day and Ground Hog Day cards from my mum not to mention Valentine’s Day candy and chocolate) is not necessarily the norm, but there does seem to be a cultural difference in addition to a family/individual difference between how people celebrate special events in Korea and Canada.

I had never really thought about this difference until women in my online group started comparing how our Korean husbands understand and celebrate personal milestones and public holidays. A common thread was that most husbands (living in Korea … some living abroad after living in Korea for most of their lives) did not feel the need to mark anniversaries. Birthdays were sort of celebrated…sometimes. But the biggest complaint was Christmas – including the fact that many raised-in-Korea-men did not feel that family Christmas celebrations were attendance-mandatory when living or visiting abroad – or that even spending time as a family was necessary. To your average Western wife…I would say that’s a major gulf.

In some ways I wonder if part of the problem is that because Christmas is kind of celebrated in Korea. I wrote about this earlier in the year in a post about critical thinking. My students were asked to read an article about Canadian Christmas traditions and then brainstorm the differences with Korean Christmas traditions. However, despite their excellent reading comprehension and very detailed information meant to get students thinking about the differences, many students failed to notice any of the differences. They said ‘we have a Santa and A reindeer and we have Christmas trees…in department stores’ without noticing that the article talked about an in-depth Santa myth that is not present in Korea or a multitude of differences in who the time was celebrated with, and where, and what people ate etc. The idea (widespread across all of my classes) was that Koreans had Christmas, and Canadians had Christmas….so they must be the same right? Of course, anyone who has spent a family Christmas in Canada and a date night on the town in central Seoul knows that what constitutes Christmas in each country is very different not necessarily in symbols but rather in meaning, tradition, and atmosphere.

Of course, when you are a single expat in need of others to hang out with during the holiday or a person involved in the dating scene, this distinction doesn’t matter as much. However, when you get married and start wanting to continue your past traditions or start new ones – or especially when you have children and suddenly realize that the traditions you never gave much thought to are important, there can be a disconnect if your partner considers Christmas to be a night to drink with friends or something only young 20-somethings do.

I feel happy in that I started pushing for a more home-centred Christmas long before we got married so that by the time we got to this stage in our lives, there was less controversy. Christmas Eve is a night for church. The end. Christmas Day is a day to spend with family (blood, marriage, or urban). These have long been my two demands and slowly Mr. Lee has started to see how these two days of Christmas celebrations can be helpful in building traditions. Of course, I have to give something too. Mr. Lee just does not understand the Christmas movie thing (and neither it seems does Korean tv which ran ‘Christmas specials’ such as Cars, Bridget Jones Diary: The Edge of Reason, Toy Story etc as their ‘festive movies’). I think I will always watch Elf and sing to The Muppet’s Christmas Carol while he watches Swedish rock videos in his home office. He is also never going to be okay with me blasting Christmas carols in the house from the end of November – but I can listen on my ipod on the way to work. And he is never going to fill a stocking for me…and after years of trying to do stockings for him, I’ve realized that the stocking tradition really does not work unless it’s reciprocal.

At the same time, there are traditions I cannot give up, and I especially want my son to grow up with. I did a big 10.5 hr Christmas cookie extravaganza this year and shared the dozens of cookies with my neighbours and coworkers. I’ve started insisting that we see his parents during Christmas and bring them a gift. They of course are totally thrilled to be getting a gift, and although we’re eating pat juk or bibimbap and not a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner, I think it’s a good tradition for both me and the family. In addition, we’ve had two years now of Skyping present opening with my mum and sis – not the same as the real thing, but for those times when we are not together during the holidays, I’m happy to embrace technology so that we can hang out together during Christmas. And certainly when Dragon is old enough to form his own memories of Christmas, we will stop doing Christmas dinner at a hotel and start making a meal at home, wrapping presents properly, and putting them under a tree (I would have a big tree now, but the cats would climb it…I’m hoping that my Olympiad cat will have lost some of his prowess by the time Dragon can remember a tree so that we can have a proper one), And last but not least, of course we will always have Korean Christmas cake which thank God is so far superior in taste and style than what most native English speakers think about when they hear ‘Christmas cake).

When we were a bit earlier on in our relationship, I used to really struggle with how non-tradition oriented Mr. Lee was during major events and holidays. Did he not care about me? Did he not care about memories? At that point I tried to start making a point out of celebrating more. If he didn’t want to go out for his birthday with his friends – because none of his friends ever did friend things for their birthdays – that was fine. But I was going to do something to make his birthday special. And now several years later, I do think he looks forward to having a ‘Mr. Lee Day’ even though he did not grow up with that kind of experience. And now, slowly over the years, I think I’ve been able to show him another way of celebrating, and where we are now is somewhere sort of in the middle where I realize that I can’t have everything my way and he recognizes that he married someone from a different family and culture who is going to celebrate a little (lot) differently. I’ve also come to realize that what I thought of as ‘traditions’ did at one time have an origin in our family, and that they only became tradition between my parents, or our church, or school, or my dance teacher, or someone decided to make them a tradition. And thus, if I want my child to grow up with Christmas traditions, then it is really my responsibility – not the culture I am in – or the family I married into – or the people who surround me – but my responsibility to make these memories for this child.

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Are you an iHerb customer? I am. Love iHerb. Brown basmati rice, organic icing mix, butterscotch chips, herbal medicine, quinoa, macaroni and cheese, glutton free flour…it’s all there. And the shipping is fast and mostly reliable. I use iHerb all the time and so do most expats I know.

I was putting in my latest order yesterday when I learned that there was a new shipping option called ‘Direct Korean Postal.’ It takes only 4-7 business days to get your order, it doesn’t have a 6 item maximum purchase like the CJ GLS shipping option, and until Dec 31st it’s 30% off. Sounds awesome right?

So I put in my order for all manner of things I’ll need postpartum and choose the Direct Korean Postal option…only to learn when it came time to put in my address that I had to include my Korean id number…and surprise surprise…I see the message ‘Resident Registration Number is not Valid !’

You see, Korean id numbers are 13 numbers long. The first 6 numbers are your birth date. The 7th number denotes a) your gender b) the time period in which you were born c) your Korean/foreign status. For instance, 1 is the number for Korean men born in the 20th century and 2 is the number for Korean women born in the 20th century, but 5 and 6 are the numbers for foreigners born in the same time period.

And what does that mean? Most Korean websites will not recognize 5 or 6 as ‘legitimate’ id numbers. We’re foreigners you see. And foreigners are just passing through. We aren’t expected to stay or participate or marry or have kids or be part of society. We’re just backpackers passing through for a year and could never ever need to negotiate a Korean website right?

Except now I can’t even use an American website correctly because it is configured with the Korean postal service which refuses to acknowledge either me or my id number as valid.

I messaged iHerb directly, and they sent me onto the people who deal with shipping to Korea (korea@iherb.com). They responded with a curt email stating, “Korea Postal is available to Korean only at this moment.(customers who has RRN). We are using the system that provided from Korea Postal Service but it only works on Korean RRN.”

Now, I could use the other shipping option…although it’s not really an option if it’s the only thing I can use. But why should I be limited because there is a 6 instead of a 2 in my id? And yes, I could put it in my husband’s name and send it to his work (as we don’t have a security guard in our building, and I’m rarely home, they won’t allow a package to be dropped off unattended outside of our door). But why should I have to send my Mother’s Milk tea which increases’ milk supply and perineum healing spray to my husband’s company? Seriously.
I’ve talked before about how I sometimes feel like a dependent woman not because of some kind of crazy patriarchal husband demands but because Korean society isn’t set up for a person like me who is just trying to live a normal life and get stuff done like everyone else. And so it sucks that I either have to pay more and wait longer (because I have to put things in smaller and more frequent orders than one large order), just because of a freaking number and a freaking system that people refuse to change. And now this nonsense is happening with an AMERICAN website. It’s such a simple change. And it’s such an unnecessary obstacle to being able to participate properly in Korean society. And it’s incredibly unfortunate that iHerb has decided to participate in the discrimination.

Do you think this is wrong? Contact iHerb and share your frustrations… info@iherb.com

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So we’ve been through the good and the bad of getting prenatal care in Seoul, but I don’t want to leave this topic on a negative note. Therefore, here’s my own personal ways to deal with ‘the bad.’

Do your research

But you were doing this anyway right? Honestly, I feel like I am more informed because I am an expat than if I were living in Canada. If I were back home, I would probably do whatever everyone else around me back home was doing and not even realize there were different options out there when it comes to birthing. But everyone should be researching different options and different ways health care providers deal with birth. And most importantly…something I’ve had to learn over and over again here…just because something is often one way in my home country does not mean it is the same way in this country. For instance, my friend told her doctor she did not want an episiotomy. The doctor smiled, nodded, and gave her pamphlets on vaginal reconstruction surgery and told her that her husband would never ‘want her’ again if she didn’t have an episiotomy. I shit you not. And I’m telling you this not to horrify you but so you can be prepared for such possibilities.

You need to know what your provider’s policies are regarding post 40 week deliveries, routine medical procedures, movement during labour, breast feeding, rooming-in after birth, and postpartum care. They may be very different from your assumptions regarding birth – or they may not be different. But you should still know what to expect. And most importantly, if you do know what you want, and your birth preferences in any way deviate from standard medical practice in Korean hospitals (no episiotomy, waiting til 42 weeks to be induced, birthing in any position not lying down, wanting to vaginally birth breech babies or multiples, wanting to breastfeed immediately/delay cord cutting/room-in after labour/breast feed a smaller or larger baby than what is considered ‘normal’ etc….), then you need to know this. Many doctors will use the ‘bait and switch’ approach. In other words, they will tell you ‘yes yes, everything will be okay, you can do what you want,’ and then when you are in labour they will tell your husband or you (when you are most vulnerable) that X must be done for dubious medical/policy/whatever reasons.

So what do you do about this bait and switch? Not only should you be researching and thinking about what kind of birth you want, but you should search out first-hand accounts of other women’s experiences at different hospitals or birthing centres. If you do not know many people who have birthed here, I highly suggest joining the Expat Parents Forum which is full of people who have birthed and are raising kids here. The people on this forum can tell you their stories and you can decide based on their experiences, your research, and your discussions with various health care providers what you are most comfortable with. Your other option is to hire a doula (a birthing companion). There are so many options in the Seoul/Gyeonggi-do area (Belly Bliss Doula, Journey Doula, Birthing in Korea, Morning Calm Doulas). There are fewer options outside of the metropolitan area, but one woman I know is having a Suwon doula travel all the way down to Mokpo for her birth, and there are doulas in other areas including a lovely woman I have never met but count as an online friend (Jeju Doula). I also highly recommend the Korea Doula Network for birthing information and additional information on some of the doulas listed previously. There are many benefits of doulas, but for the purpose of this section, one of the greatest benefits for expat women is that doulas have been involved at births in many different locations, and they can also give you first-hand information about what each provider really does when it comes to labour and postpartum care. If you do not want to commit to a companion during births, many doulas also offer birth classes or consultations where they can offer helpful advice about birthing options.

Keep the jeong

Ok, so I’ve just told you that you need to do your research and choose your provider wisely. However, as a balance to this advice, I want to say that, like everything in Korea, keeping a good relationship with a person perceived to be in a higher position than you is important. My first part of this advice is that you should pick your battles wisely. Again, just like everything in life here, there has to be a balance between your home culture and Korean culture – between doing what you feel strongly about and what is reasonably possible in your present circumstances. If you fight over every single thing, it’s probably best to change providers, compromise, or….smile, nod, and ignore everything your provider has said once you leave the office.

Now, this last piece of advice does not always work when it comes to being in labour for example. However, when my current doctor told me to go on the no-carb diet, I instinctually did what I do with most advice given to me by older people. I smiled, I nodded, and I said I ‘understood’ (in my mind ‘comprehended’ not ‘assented.’) Now, I did go on the no-carb diet for a week, but when I realized it caused me more problems, I disregarded the advice. Actually, I should have gone with my first instincts and disregarded his advice from the get-go. I’ve also done this in terms of my doctor’s advice on the brand of prenatals I should take (I had been taking my prenatals months before my doctor recommended the ones he was selling through his office), and my previous doctor’s advice to think about amniocentesis when I had decided before I even got pregnant never to do amnio because of the risks. The reality is, often older people/people in higher positions in Korea do not always expect you to fully follow their advice. Often, they just feel it is their ‘duty’ to give advice and so they do. And even when they do mean for you to follow the advice, many younger people deal with the situation by smiling, nodding, and disregarding. My husband confirmed that smiling/nodding/disregarding was in fact the proper way to deal with the diet comment. In this way, we can keep the jeong (relationship and good feeling) with the person in a higher position while still doing what we want/think is necessary.

In Canada, I feel like when I ‘agree’ to something I should actually follow through because I have assented. However, I have had to learn a very different mode of interaction which is based on helping the person in a higher position maintain face while still kind of doing what I think is right. Now, of course this can go too far, and I’m not saying that you should disregard all of your health provider’s advice. And obviously, as I’ve already said, this advice depends on the situation. You probably won’t be smiling and nodding and disregarding while in active labour as they hook you up to machines you don’t want to be hooked up to. However, I do think that Western expats often have a very different concept of how to deal with disagreements (directly verses indirectly) and in certain cases it is better to try to avoid the conflict by nodding in understanding but not agreement.


Again, I will reiterate that these are simply my views based on my experiences and conversations with others who have birthed (or helped others birth here) before me. I have yet to actually birth my baby, so perhaps I will have additional thoughts in my postpartum period, but for now what I can say is that research is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Research will help you to determine what you want and balance that with what is available on your area of the peninsula. Thankfully, the ability to change health providers quickly and easily (at least within the greater Seoul region) means that if you are unhappy with one person, you can switch to someone else. But for smaller issues, you can also learn to choose your battles and assent without assenting. The combination, or maybe the balance of all of these methods means that you can probably have the birth you want…or maybe even a better birth than you had first imagined…even when you are far from home.

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