Thursday, April 14, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 14: The Baby Experience

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Another important event in my life was the birth of my baby son four months ago. Actually, our plan to have a baby was one of the reasons we returned to Korea.


I though it would be better to have a baby in Korea rather than in England. We have our National Health Service, so the cost is very low, but sometimes the service is quite basic as well. Korea is more expensive, but there are many hospitals and treatment options to choose from. In the city I’m from there’s one really large city hospital which covers everything – including delivering babies – so this means if you choose to have your baby in a hospital rather than a home, that’s where you have to go, whereas in Korea our first task was to choose a hospital.

In a way it wasn’t a difficult choice. There are different options but we wanted to choose one close to our apartment because we don’t have a car, so that really limited our choice. Actually, one of the major differences between England and Korea is the 산후조리원 [sanhujoriwon] system – we don’t have that in my country, we just have midwives who visit new mothers regularly after they’ve given birth. In fact, I know Koreans find this a bit shocking, but the average length of stay in a British hospital for a woman who gives birth is just six hours. So when my wife wanted to stay in the 산후조리원 for two weeks, I was the one who was shocked.

And some more surprises

So at first I thought she’d give birth and come home shortly afterwards. If there are no complications that’s the way it works in England. It’s probably too short really, but then two weeks or more seems very long. Of course, then I learned how there’s a belief in Korea that women’s bodies are ‘shattered’ once they’ve given birth, and they are so delicate they aren’t even allowed to shower or bathe for a week because of the belief that it will leave them vulnerable to the cold in winter.

Looking back, I had a lot of surprises even before our son was born. Normally in England I think a woman only gets two ultrasounds during her pregnancy, if everything seems normal. Here, we went to the hospital every two or three weeks, and had an ultrasound scan every time. And every time they burned the scan to a DVD so we could watch it at home. At least, until about half-way through when the system changed – then they uploaded them to an Internet account instead. So the regular scans were a really positive difference.

Another big surprise was when my wife said “we have to choose whether we want to buy a stem cell package”. That’s not really common in England, so the whole process of going and meeting various stem cell companies at the BEXCO baby fair, and evaluating their packages, was not something I’d expected to be doing.

I didn’t cope well with the language barrier, and it was was of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in Korea. My wife’s pregnancy didn’t go completely smoothly at first, so every time we saw the doctor I was really desperate to understand what he was saying, but of course, I couldn’t.

The birth

The birth itself was also quite different from what I expected. My wife’s water broke late on Saturday evening, so by the time we got to the maternity room it was 11pm. That’s when I realised that the problem with giving birth in a small hospital – especially at night at the weekend – is that there aren’t many staff around. In fact, until the doctor came at 4.25am, there was only one nurse on duty and that’s the only person we saw – the rest of the floor was deserted, whereas in a large British hospital there are hundreds of doctors, which means that if something unexpected happens, there’s always going to be an appropriate specialist around.

Of course I couldn’t understand what the nurse was talking about, but having said that, at one point towards the end – after the nurse had made a series of calls – I sure she was saying on the phone “where’s the doctor, where’s the doctor?” So it wasn’t a happy experience.

But in the end it all went relatively smoothly. Our son was born at 04.57am, and I cut the umbilical cord – that’s another thing I had to do in Korea that I wasn’t expecting.

No contact rules

Then, after 30 seconds with his mother, he was rushed off to the maternity unit, and that’s the last time she saw him for 24 hours, which also shocked me. And then – this is not so much shocking as annoying – they wouldn’t let me hold my son. I really wanted to hold him, but he’d been rushed off to the maternity unit and the hospital had a ‘no contact’ rule for fathers. When we asked when I could hold him they said “in two weeks when he comes home”. It was a bit upsetting really at the time. In fact, there were really limited visiting times, and when you went the staff would show you your baby for between two to five minutes, then that was it. So in the first two weeks I think I saw my son for a total of 50 minutes despite twice-daily visits to the hospital, and of course there was no physical contact.

So in some ways the hospital was really strict. But in other ways, not so much; they let photographers from an external company into the maternity unit – but just not fathers. In fact the hospital was a bit of a disaster anyway. I was just before Chuseok, so a lot of women had chosen to be induced over the holiday. The hospital had basically taken the business, but then didn’t really have much room for the mothers afterwards. And despite this they gave their cleaning staff the week off, so you can imagine – the place was like hell after a few days. In fact, the woman in the next room had a big plumbing problem in her bathroom, and when she complained to the hospital boss, rather than doing anything about it, he just gave her a tool to fix the problem herself, even though she’d just had an operation.

Baby naming

So we were glad to get home, but it’s not as though the problems stopped there. Then there was the whole baby naming business afterwards.

Naming a fusion baby can be a difficult issue. We decided to compromise by having a Korean first name, and my Western surname. I thought we might be able to choose the Korean name, and I had an idea about naming him after a famous Korean physicist because it’s something to aspire to. But then I learned that what usually happens, is the fortune tellers recommend a list based on the parents’ times of birth and the baby’s. We had to wait until after my wife had left the hospital to consult the fortune tellers – so for the first three weeks of his life he didn’t have a name, which to me seemed really odd.

So my son was named by a fortune teller in the end. A fortune teller my father-in-law knew gave us a recommendation, but it was only one name when I thought we’d have more choices. We went to another fortune teller and got another ten choices, but finally we chose the first one we’d been given. It was a hard process because I wanted it to be a name that would be easily pronounceable for my family back in England, and it had to sound right in English.

Of course, being a former police officer, my father-in-law knows some... interesting people. So I sort of jokingly asked – he’s not a former criminal is he? And sure enough, that is how my father-in-law knew him. So that’s how my son ended up being named by a convicted fraudster. I just have to hope he’s good at reading fortunes.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-01-26 @ ~19:30


Anonymous said...

I wonder, since your wife is young and has lived in placed other than Korea, does she believe the "shattered after childbirth" bit or is that more of a tradition from an older generation? My (former) boss's wife told me basically the same thing; she was appalled when her sister had a baby here, in the southern US in July, that the hospital borught her ice water to drink. Anytime I would voice a different opinion on these sorts of things I was told quite emphatically that Koreans are physically different than Americans. In other words, what might be perfectly healthy for an American would be physically disastrous for a Korean. I think this was a sincerely held belief, but I find it incredible.

Mike said...

This is a fundamental question - and I'm beginning to think perhaps the most fundamental question of life in Korea in the longer term.

My wife has lived outside Korea for nine years. She holds a degree from a relatively prestigious 'national' university in Korea, and a second degree from a British university.

But she does generally believe that woman's body is shattered after childbirth. In fact, when we first came to Korea, it was all I could do to persuade her not to believe in 'fan death'.

But as I implied in my post about fan death, if worldwide scientific consensus believes one thing, and the Korean media believes the opposite, in my experience Koreans will usually believe other Koreans. Tell them that British women are often back at home from hospital within hours of giving birth, and they certainly aren't avoiding bathing for two weeks afterwards, yes, you will be told "but Koreans are physically different". There's always an answer that makes logical sense, at least to a Korean. It can become rather infuriating after a while.

If there's one issue that will eventually make me give up on Korea it is that on my darker days I end up thinking - as a foreigner - "you just can't reason with people here." I hate the simple stereotype and yet if I had to draw a general conclusion from the sum of my experiences, and observations of Korean political, cultural, business, historical and various territorial disputes, this is it. What if you were destined to live in a country where nothing you ever said was going to be taken as seriously just because you are a foreigner? That's a question I'm grappling with right now. Alarmingly, these days I know foreigners who have been here a very long time - much longer than me - and they seem to be still asking the same question.

I think the Koreans born outside Korea or living long term in other countries can be more sceptical - but the cultural and media-led 'groupthink' is particularly strong here in Korea. I think the Internet and increasing multiculturalism here is helping people consider new ways of thinking though, and Korea is changing, so perhaps there's some hope for the future in that.

Anonymous said...

I will confess to having the "surely we are different species" thought on occasion when observing some of the acrobatic athletics (I worked at a martial arts school).

RE: groupthink, I was constantly being asked to explain what Americans thought or felt based on the behavior of a single person. My fallback answer of 'we are all very different' was typically met with facial expression suggesting doubt/suspicion.

There is no shortage of Americans with irrational beliefs and traditions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, and I am generally of the opinion that baby mama should be allowed to follow her own ways. But raising children with the same mindset would give me serious pause. I saw it up close in the reverse form here: two Korean parents naively assuming they will raise children who absorb only parentally-preferred aspects of American culture. In some ways, those with one Korean parent and one American parent seem to have it a little easier, but this is because the Korean parent (usually mom) appears to have resigned herself to raising an American.

I no longer work at the TKD school but still enjoy your blog and am glad you “haven’t stopped writing” it.

Mike said...

Thanks. I'm sure it's true, and I'm going to find out for myself, that raising a child in a different culture has its own particular challenges, just as it does for expatriate Koreans living in America. If the roles are reversed in my cross-cultural marriage - living in this very strong culture - I wonder if I'm going to eventually resign myself to raising a Korean? The answer to that question promises to be an interesting voyage of discovery for me.

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