It took me until my baby was 5 months old to realize that the word I had assumed meant “cute” or “adorable” or something of the like, the word that was hurled at me from the mouth of virtually every older Korean woman (and a smattering of older men) I encountered meant “cold”.
It began the very first time I left the house with my newborn (gasp) a mere four days after his birth, well before the recommended 30 days of confinement for mother and child. It seems appropriate to point out that my baby was born in Seoul during the month of June which means it wasn’t just hot, it was fucking hot. And it wasn’t just humid, it was fucking humid. My newborn child was worn in a sling, his hot little body pressed up against my hot big sweaty body. My kid was not cold and he had the heat rash to prove it. Fortunately for me, I had only just arrived in country mere weeks before his birth and didn’t speak a lick of Korean, which meant I didn’t understand their meddling. Instead I would smile and enthusiastically thank them for recognizing my child’s beauty. Since the cuteness of a baby is universally agreed upon, and virtually every person said this to me when I was out and about with him, what else could it mean?
As the weeks and months passed, I became accustomed to being stopped every time I left the house. “Yes, yes, he’s adorable, I know”, I would think as they pointed and repeated over and over again, “추위, 추위”. Sure, I would get mildly annoyed when they would grab a blanket out of my diaper bag and lay it over him. No, I didn’t enjoy it when they would also insist that I sit on the subway despite my many protestations and attempts to explain that he would lose his shit if I sat down with him in the sling and that we were both much more comfortable standing, thank you very much. And yes, I did find it rather intrusive when they would physically prohibit my forward movement to grab his tiny little feet or hands or poke his cheeks without asking.
But, believer-in-humanity that I am, I chalked it up to a society that just loved babies, valued children, and was, with the best of intentions, trying to make my life as a new mother easier. It’s not a crime to want a mother with a baby to have a seat on the subway, is it?
But then fall came. The weather, thankfully, gave way to cooler temperatures. Taking a walk with my little one strapped to my body became not only bearable, but enjoyable, as we were both spared from being dripping wet with sweat after each outing. One day I was walking in Samcheon-dong Park, breathing in the glorious crisp fall breeze as the little one slept, snuggled into my chest, when an older Korean woman approached me, a scowl on her face, and angrily yelled, “ 추위, 추위”, gesturing towards my baby and then the sky. Suddenly her meaning was clear: it’s windy out here and your baby is cold (and you are a horrible mother)!
I pulled out my iPhone, opened my Google Translate app, and typed in “cold”. Having just taught myself to read Hangul, I sounded out the word that appeared. “Choo eee”. I recognized it immediately as the sound that had issued forth from the mouth of every older woman in Seoul whose path had crossed mine in the previous 5 months. Oh Christ. He’s cold, not cute, and not adorable, not the most beautiful baby we’ve ever seen. I was amused at first and for a moment got caught up in wondering why I hadn’t attempted to figure out the meaning of the word sooner. But then my amusement gave way to frustration, which quickly turned into anger as I recalled all the times complete strangers had approached me to tell me that they knew better than I did how my baby was feeling. Suddenly all the times I’d been forced to sit on the subway no longer seemed like well-meaning attempts to give a tired mother a break. No, they were further proof that in the mind of a Korean woman, I was an idiot.
My eyes thus opened, I began to observe all of the young mothers I encountered and quickly saw that they too were subject to the meddlesome whims of any Korean woman over the age of 50. Without understanding a word of Korean I saw it: the endless slew of instructions and corrections. No, not this way, that way. Don’t give them this, give them that. Your baby is cold/hot/hungry/tired/underdressed/overdressed.
Being a new parent is hard. It basically means spending every waking moment (which are most moments for the first few months at least) doubting your every decision and instinct in a futile attempt to be the ideal parent. To be sure, the advice of those who have been through it is invaluable and many of us rely on an assortment of friends and relatives to answer our burning parenthood questions. But, and this is a big but, advice that is solicited is much more welcomed than advice that is hurled by perfect strangers when one is just trying to have a pleasant walk with their infant or buy some rice cakes at Emart or grab an iced coffee to go.
Korean culture, deeply rooted in Confucianism, is set up in such a way that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for older women (ajumas) to give unsolicited advice to anybody at anytime. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when this may have been not only valuable but welcomed. The fact is, though, Korea is changing. Women are waiting longer and longer to have children, which means they tend to be better informed and
more intentional about how they raise those children. Korean women are among the best-educated (and most under-employed) in the world. This was not the case with their grandmothers’ generation. The fact is that many new mothers in Korea have been exposed to more scientific research and evidence than their mothers or grandmothers and are not so reliant on the wisdom and help of their elders in raising their children. This is
one of those situations where the younger generation who thinks it knows better than the older generation about some things may actually be right.
I’m not suggesting that the wisdom and help of elders is not necessary or wanted. Quite the contrary. The respect granted to older generations is one of the things I most admire about Asian culture. But, respect goes both ways. A relationship where only one party is meant to be shown respect cannot truly be called a relationship. Mutual respect, appropriate boundaries, and reciprocity are essential to meaningful exchanges and relationships and I feel that they are missing among the generations in Korea.
To be a Korean woman of my age, a young Korean mother of my age, is something I cannot imagine. On the one hand, they have been raised with every modern advantage, but as soon as they marry and bear children they are expected to leave all that to fulfill these traditional roles of the patriarchy. It is a confusing mixed message they are receiving and it is wholly unsurprising to me that so many Asian women are choosing not to marry and have children at all.
Would you choose to marry and have children if it meant giving up your career and dedicating your life to caring for your children and husband (as well as your in-laws) while your well-educated brain turned to mush as you bore the non-stop onslaught of instructions and opinions from (undoubtedly well-meaning) relatives and strangers alike until your children were grown?
Would the prospect of then getting to subject the next generation to the same treatment be any consolation?
More about Ms. V:
Ms. V is a yoga teacher and a co-founder of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center, a non-profit yoga studio in Tacoma, WA. While not marveling at her beautiful baby or doing yoga, she enjoys, writing, reading, and has dreams of one day sleeping again.
Ms. V keeps in touch with her students back in the States via the blog Body, Mind, Seoul and with perfect strangers via the blog I Don’t Know, where she ponders everything she doesn’t have an answer to – so a lot! She is also a contributing writer for World Moms Blog.