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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