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


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)


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.

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.


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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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