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Posts Tagged ‘Korea’

Just a few pictures to show you how we celebrated our first Christmas as a family of 3!

Preparing for the big day

 

25 advent

stocking

Christmas cookies for daycare teachers

 

25 cookies 2

25 cookies

Dragon enjoying and wearing his Christmas presents

25 christmas outfit

blog presents

blog dragon

A selection of the many stocking stuffers sent from abroad

25 irn bru

25 chocolates

25 pp

Including some Father-Son matching shirts

25 guns

We went for lunch at the inlaws (mandu guksu, bulgogi, and tiramisu)

cake

And ended the night with dinner at the Hilton with our friend (no cooking for me today!!!)

hilton collage

Merry Christmas to all

xo msleetobe + fam

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On My Teaching Identity

Last fall I wrote this post about the challenges of being a 30-something female teacher in Korea. After aegyo and cuteness and being admired or rejected for your looks, what kind of identity was left for a teacher of my age?

I think I got my answer today in a student feedback form:

 “Professor. You are mother like teacher. At first, I was very bad presenter. But, you helped me like mother, so I changed.”

I guess Dragon isn’t an only child afterall…

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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.

insa
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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If you’ve ever wondered how many layers it takes to be considered a warm baby in Korea, I guess it’s at least one more layer than this. Because a onesie, lined track suit with hood, puffy jacket extending over the hands, hat, Ergo winter cover, and being worn against mum was still not enough to prevent the cold comments on the subway today.

cold

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My return to work post-mat leave has been good all things considered. I mean, the double burden is an insane burden, and re-signing season is upon us, so I shouldn’t be too confident until I have my new contract in hand. However, the office has been supportive thus far of my return, my coworkers don’t complain about the stockpile of frozen breast milk in the fridge, and my job allows me to split my day almost evenly between baby and teaching. There’s just one little thing that I would like to improve….the specifics of my pumping location.

I share my office with sixteen other people (thirteen of them men). And with the non-stop student parade going in and out of the office, there’s no time or place to pump discretely. I asked for the key to the storage room just off of the main room because it’s both rarely used and convenient, but I was denied because there is a breastfeeding room on campus. The problem it is that it is located in a different building on another part of campus, making it impossible for me to get there and back on breaks.

And so I pump in a cramped, traffic heavy bathroom. That in and of itself is not that bad. I mean, yes, I should technically be provided with a more appropriate place to pump. But there are some practical realities about the space available in our building, and unfortunately, this is one of those times when one thoughtful accommodation – a breastfeeding room already established on campus – means that a request for a closer venue is seen as pointless due to the existence of said room. I could fight it, but I really don’t feel like explaining the principles of supply and demand to people who are older and male. And yes, when I think about it, bathroom pumping is kind of dirty. But parenting is dirty. You really haven’t lived til you’ve been projectile pooped on. So I try not to touch much, use hand sanitizer just in case, and have lost all qualms about parading the hall between toilet and office with my bottle full of breast milk goodness. Really, the bathroom part of this situation has ceased to faze me.

The issue is that this is a Korean bathroom in late October.

And what does that mean my friends? Air refreshing. Or air exchange. Depending on your translation.

If you don’t live here, let me introduce you to this concept. There’s an idea which pops up now and then that when the heat is on, you need to open the windows because the air is ‘stuffy,’ or ‘the air needs to be exchanged,’ or the air needs to be ‘refreshed.’ It matters not how cold it is outside or how cold this exchange makes those inside or how counterintuitive it seems to blast heat while the windows are open. Damn it! That air must be refreshed!

Some have cited past forms of heating which had a particular smell or safety issues that required frequent window opening while others cite germ theory. Whatever it is, it sometimes happens, and where I work, there is no airing of the bathrooms on a set schedule throughout the day, but a constant air exchange. Stepping into the bathroom (and often the halls) is like stepping outside. Except colder. Because there’s no natural heat from the sun.

Now, it’s one thing when you run out of your toasty classroom and into the toilet for a quick pee. Yes, it’s annoying that the hot water isn’t turned on til December to save money when heat is pouring out through the open window, and yes, if you don’t manage to snag the stall with the heated toilet seat, you are in for a few seconds of tush freezing. But it’s not for long, and you can quickly return to the comfort of your toasty room.

But not when you’re pumping. Nope, you’re there, boobs exposed for a good fifteen to twenty minutes with your nipples frozen in the pump and nothing to think about except the fact that it’s titbit cold.

I’m curious to know if the freezing point for breastmilk is different from water’s? I wonder if constant shivering will affect the amount of milk I can pump? Ooooo experimentation awaits!

For now, I find myself in a constant battle with unseen cleaning ajummas. I go into the bathroom to pump and close the window. By the time I emerge from my stall, the window is open again. Tricksy tricksy. Maybe they’re onto me? I suppose the roar of the pump motor gives me away in there.

But I will persevere – either in closing windows or wrapping my breasts in scarves while pumping to keep them from becoming titsicles. Because after all this milk supply has been through, I shall not give up on account of a little air exchange….

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Dragon and I have been back in Canada for a week and a half now, and there’s a lot of good. Eating berries by the carton for breakfast, Timmy’s on every street corner, fresh air, peaceful streets to take early morning stroller walks on, and ketchup chips. Not to mention the fact that Dragon LOVES his Nana. But there’s a lot of end of life issues with family members right now with dementia being one of the most frustrating and heart breaking issues.

It’s got me thinking about what a bicultural and bilingual marriage looks like at 90. If we are so lucky to spend 50 years together, and if we are unable to escape the challenges of dementia, how will having two mother tongues and growing up in two different cultures further complicate dementia issues? I hope to improve my Korean skills, but I will probably never be fluent, and I wonder, if it is Mr. Lee who suffers from dementia, if he will become trapped in 1983 and lose his ability to speak English. Or if we spend the end of our lives in Canada, but he is living in another era in his mind, if the disconnect between his surroundings and his mind will cause even further anxiety because he is not in his birth culture. I know in Canada there are now retirement and nursing homes devoted to a particular culture in order to minimise these issues, but if we end our lives in Korea, will the same be there for me?

It’s not a serious worry I have at this moment in time, but I suppose until now I had always expected that the unique challenges of international marriage would be fully worked out by our later years. We would be the grandparents and the inlaws. We would be the generation with the old fashioned ideas. We would have raised our kid(s) already and retired, thus leaving behind cultural differences in the workplace. We would have come to fully understand and accept each others’ weaknesses and use our strengths to mutual advantage. Everything would be perfected after 50 years right?

But maybe there are additional challenges when the mind goes in a different direction. And perhaps that will make our own end of life issues harder. Or maybe it won’t matter? Maybe when one of us is in the bed crying out in pain or delusional, the other’s worn and wrinkled hand will be the way to soothe regardless of language.

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One day, my Canadian friend came home after a 14 hour work day to find his Korean Mother-in-law playing with his infant son’s penis. He blew up at his Mother-in-law. Neither his wife nor his live in Korean family members understood why he was so upset. To my friend, any kind of penile touching except using a wipe or wash cloth to clean the area when necessary was tantamount to sexual abuse. Had his MIL been doing this the whole time? Did his wife harbour some sexual trauma in her past that she had not divulged to him after being raised in such a family? Was his son safe at home? He was suddenly terrified. On the other hand, to his Korean family it was just a bit of light gochu nudging by a doting grandmother excited about the existence of her first grandson. Nobody thinks of squeezing a cheek or oooing over a tiny fingertip or admiring the mop of hair. Why should the baby’s penis be the only body part off limits…especially when it signified his all important boyness? Needless to say, the outburst that followed observing this practise didn’t help to bridge the culture gap.

We’ve all heard again and again that the key to a successful marriage is communication. Before you ever get married you are supposed to talk about goals and finances and expectations and roles and boundaries and all that good stuff. And these days many people have lived together before marriage or have spent enough time playing some semblance of house that they’ve seen the potential issues ahead of time and fight/work them out before the ceremony is completed and marriage papers signed. But parenthood is a very different thing. There’s very little that can prepare you for the changes a baby brings to your life, and as little ones change so fast, there’s a constant stream of issues to deal with that were not previously necessary to think about even a few weeks before. So yes, you should probably talk about how to discipline your kids or vaguely outline your parenting philosophies pre-baby, but in all honesty, you won’t really know how interacting with this tiny being is going to go until you personally experience it’s individual personality, quirks, and the reality of parenting.

But then throw in parents raised in different cultures and you have an added bit of fun. Before seeing your MIL poking your son’s penis, how would you know that you even needed to have a conversation about the appropriateness of said action? How do you begin communicating about a difference of opinion if you don’t even know such a practise exists before you are confronted with it? And when you are surprised so suddenly by something you feel you should abhor or should just be common sense to everyone else because it is common sense to you, how do you react reasonably and rationally to avoid a massive family dispute?

Between forums and friends, I’ve been able to learn about some cultural differences and deal with them before we’ve encountered them. Different beliefs in the essential coldness of babies or postpartum practises for mothers have been on my radar for some time, and while I’ve had problems with strangers or people on the periphery of my life when it comes to these issues, Mr. Lee and I have negotiated these differences pretty easily because we knew about them and discussed them before they became an issue. I also remember one girl I used to work with telling me that the final nail in the coffin to her American mother’s desire to raise her children in Korea with her Korean husband, came when my co worker’s teacher cut off her hair in class. Since then I’ve also heard about in laws feeling no qualms about shaving or cutting their grandchildrens’ hair without getting permission from the parents first. Within a Korean context, the teacher of the 1980s or the in laws of the present day have a position of power and authority that is somewhat different from a Western concept. And boundaries about the body and who gets to make decisions about the child’s body are a little bit different here. I was amused today when a friend I’ve known for years asked if it was okay to take a picture of my child. I’m so used to strangers feeling Dragon is public property that I forgot that some people and even some legal systems have different ideas about babies. 

But back to the head shaving, knowing this practise existed, I was able to formulate an opinion about infant head shaving and approach the issue rationally with Mr. Lee before anyone shaved him without my permission. And I had years to think about baby penis touching before I ever saw it done myself and had already come to a few conclusions about under what circumstances it might be tolerable. Pre emptive discussions about cultural differences and knowing about these differences has been key to negotiating cultural differences, but the problem is…you don’t always know.

Early in my years here, I had noticed toddlers running around the 24 hr Home Plus past midnight or had experienced friends keeping their kids out way past my idea of a child’s bedtime when we were out at restaurant-bar type places. I had also worked at a place where 12 year olds were studying until 10 pm and seen job ads for (illegal but still publicly posting) hagwans which ran until 1 or 2 am. And that’s not to mention the adult students who would commute 4 hours a day, starting out at 4 am, working all day, taking an English class til 10pm, arriving home at midnight, and getting up at 4 the next morning to start the daily grind. I did know that there were different concepts of sleep in Korea.

But I thought it was common sense that you don’t wake a sleeping baby. Take that baby out to the fried chicken joint at 11 pm and have her fall asleep in your arms. Have your child running around the meat aisle at all hours of the night if he’s awake. Keep your middle school student up studying til all hours of the night to get the test results needed to get into a good high school. But why in the world would you wake an already sleeping infant? And in my experience pre-100 days, the baby was considered by Koreans around us as a fragile being. And doesn’t something so fragile need something as important as sleep?

So anyway, Dragon doesn’t always do well in his car seat. But on this one day he did! And he fell asleep! And he stayed asleep between the car and the elevator and the building! And then the door opened and it was all this yelling – ‘Dragon! Dragon! Dragon!’ along with poking, prodding, blanket stealing, cheek pinching. The works. I tried to shush. I tried to ask for quiet for just.a.few.more.minutes. The baby was SLEEPING. Yes I KNOW you want to see him, and I’m GLAD you want to see him, and you WILL get to hold him when he wakes up. And I know you are older and the baby is younger, and the baby should learn nice Confucian values early…but does that need to extend to a sleeping baby? Apparently it does. Over and over again. And according to the experiences of many other Westerners I’ve talked to, they have had equally aggravating experiences between their concept of sleep and babies and Korean family/friends’ concept of sleep. It seems like such a small thing, but when you have a child with as many sleep issues as Dragon, you really really really value the peace that comes with the baby falling asleep by himself and staying asleep for longer than 5 minutes.

Anyway, I regretably reacted badly because it never occurred to me that not everyone shared my cultural assumption in the sacredness of a sleeping baby. And I regret that I didn’t keep my temper because in the grand scheme of things, it really was a very small thing done without bad intentions. But I wasn’t expecting it. And so I flipped out not so much in anger but in shock.

There are areas now that we realise are cultural chasms. Baby eating is one where my ideas are often shocking to Koreans – breast milk, formula, how much, how often, until when, solids, which solids, when, what order, water, barley tea…these are areas where we have some differences of opinion and differences in cultural expectations. So we now try to start those conversations with a ‘in your culture….what do you do about this?’ and only then, after learning about the other’s opinion do we give our individual or cultural view. It helps to hear the other person out first before you go asserting your ideas. But of course…we already know that food is going to be a flash point and proceed accordingly. I’m sure there are many more surprises in intercultural parenting to come along in the next few years….

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Mr Lee has taken to calling Dragon ‘ogyepseol’ sometimes – a play on the Korean word for pork belly. The Korean word is samgyeopseol – ‘sam’ being the three layers of fat on the pork belly, and so ‘o’ refers to the five rolls of fat on Dragon’s belly. He also gets called ‘cubby’ or ‘plump’ as a nickname in Korean by Korean family and friends. Then the other day Mr. Lee was bemoaning the fact that even though it appeared he had double eyelids on both eyelids at birth, as the months go by, his right double eyelid is becoming harder to see. This has prompted Mr. Lee to become concerned about the need for surgery later on. In fact, the only person to realise Dragon was part Korean while he was with me alone, came to the conclusion that he was not ‘fully foreign’ based on his lack of a second double eye lid. So I guess other people are noticing too. And then there’s the Korean predilection for physiognomy that I didn’t realise was still prevalent until baby came along, and there are endless conversations with family about the shape of his forehead or the way his eyes slant and how that means this or that about his personality and fortune. It’s fascinating if confusing.

On one level, this obsession with pointing out and discussing various aspects of the body at length concerns me. Yes in my culture we also talk about a baby’s ‘chub,’ and fat rolls are fawned over. And sometimes we’ll laugh about a funny birthmark or a stage of development that makes kids look particularly hilarious. My friend’s baby went through the most amazing Benjamin Button phase for a few weeks and took the most stupendous old man/gnome-like passport picture. I’m sure his parents will keep that picture and show it to future girlfriends to his horror. But the desire to monitor others’ body weight and publicly discuss their body ‘flaws’ does not continue through childhood and into adulthood to the same extent as it does here. Yes – there’s a lot of public policing of celebrities in Western culture and women’s bodies especially, but for the average girl, that discourse tends to be played out more indirectly through media images rather than direct cataloguing of physical features and how to ‘perfect’ them by family, teachers, employers etc. I once had a student tell me about how she felt her friend was gaining weight. She stated repeatedly that her friend was gaining weight and should go on a diet, because you know, her friend was getting fat and needed others’ concern to encourage her to diet don’t you know? Finally, they went to a sauna one day, and she noticed her friend checking out her weight on the scales. She crept up behind her friend and saw the numbers on the scale and cried out, ‘You LIED! You are 10 kg heavier than you told me you were!!!’ The girl on the scales turned around and of course…it wasn’t her friend. It was some other rando girl. My student was horrified and ashamed of what had happened. My moral lesson from that story was that you should probably not continually obsess over others’ weight, and you shouldn’t try to publicly shame others. The student’s moral take away was that she should have double checked to make sure it was actually her friend before saying something. I think that’s a fundamentally different way to see how we should interact with others when it comes to their bodies.

And of course, there’s the communal aspect of Korean culture that also extends to looks. Yes, there’s certain looks or body types that are preferred in Western culture depending on the styles and trends of the time, but this is amplified in a more homogeneous culture with plastic surgery clinics on every street corner. Looking around my classroom, I often see the same nose or the same jaw line – not because that is the nose or the jaw Koreans usually have, but because it is the one perfected by surgeons and popularised by celebrities. But Dragon is starting life already looking different from the ‘typical’ Korean child, and especially when with his parents, he will always face greater public scrutiny and be a more popular topic of public discussion for the good or bad because of his otherness. And I’m not sure how that will all affect his body image, sense of self, and self-acceptance in a place where altering your appearance is not only affordable but necessary in many cases to land even a basic job.

At the same time, I’ve also seen some of the benefits of Koreans’ openness to discussing the body. The body and its functions are much less shameful for public discussion here. When your students show you the translation for a particularly nasty bowel problem to explain why they will be missing class, there’s quite a bit of cultural discomfort to initially overcome, but when you get used to it, there’s a freedom that comes from naming things what they are and being okay with sharing your physical aliments with others. And while issues surrounding weight gain and resulting health issues are becoming more of a problem here with diet and lifestyle changes, I do think that openness about talking about weight gain does prevent most people from becoming morbidly obese in Korea. In Canada, we worry so much about offending people or hurting their self-confidence that we often end up enabling loved ones. I believe our inability to voice concerns or talk about an individual body directly in negative terms can also harm our self esteem by preventing the ability to vocalise and verbalise problems. Not talking about an issue can make us overly sensitive and more susceptible to internalising shame.

So there needs to be a balance – it’s just that it’s hard to say where it is. I’m a realist. Dragon will be teased at some point in his childhood for something. His weight, his height, his parent’s income, his clothes, his racial and cultural background, his test scores, his physical prowess, his gifts and talents in one area, his lack of gifts and talents in another area….and he will probably also tease others for whatever reason. Kids can be cruel. Kids learn cruelty when they experience it from others. I guess our role as parents is to help kids deal with the messages they receive from society and others. And I guess we need to help our children negotiate negatively whether it comes directly or indirectly and whether it is part of public discourse or hinted at in private.

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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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This weekend we had a very busy and a very hard parenting weekend. It was full of obligations and errands and obstacles. And yet, it was the weekend where we really clicked – not just as individual parents but as a parenting team. We were on the same parenting page without having to discuss how to get there. We both contributed equally in our own ways and passed baby between us as we went about all the chores we needed to do. And it was, overall, a seamless transition between roles and jobs and obligations. It seemed like we really found our stride and found it together.

Then we ended the night with a difficult but wonderful conversation about our failings as parents and our successes. And we talked about how we are, in his attempt to put it into words, trying to be a ‘Western family in Korea’ – or a family with a father who leans more toward his family and equal parenting than being married to his work. And how not only are we on this steep learning curve as new parents, but Mr. Lee simply has no model from which to see how to be the father and partner he wants to be. It’s not that they don’t exist at all – but they don’t exist in his salaryman circle. And so we are muddling through creating our own model. And we talked about how marriage and parenthood has blown the concept of what it is to love and how to love wide open, and how these experiences have taken us to places we didn’t know existed. These are good places.

And at the end of the night I said to myself, ‘Take a mental picture of this weekend. Of this night. Of this conversation. Because juggling all of our responsibilities is going to get harder in the next few months and when that happens, remember this moment and how you are both making progress as people and parents. And that you are doing it together in love.’

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