Tag Archives: cultural differences between Korea and the U.S.

Goose Dads and Korean Postpartum Traditions

Every person I have spoken to at my job (including the parents in my parents’ class), when told that we would be returning to the U.S. shortly after the baby is born, has asked me the following question:  “Will your husband be going with you?”  The first few times I was a little put off, because surely, what kind of man lets his wife and newborn son travel back to the U.S. to fend for themselves while remaining at a temporary teaching job in a foreign country?   But then, as they usually do, cultural nuances began to make themselves more clear to my Western brain.

The first big tip-off that the question was a normal one to ask was when my in-laws offered to put me up in a birth hotel for a few weeks to recover from the birth, or, alternatively, to house Joo-Young to keep him out of my hair.  We were both a little miffed, (though looking back, it was an incredibly generous offer made with only the best of intentions)and stated in no uncertain terms that if Joo-Young was kept away from me and the baby, we would both be very upset.  Why would the sweetest people on earth offer a situation that separated mother and new baby from the father?  Simple.  Because in traditional Korean society, this is just how it’s done. Unlike the Western-style birthing traditions, which tend to focus more on the parents bonding with the baby, Korean (and many other Eastern societies’) traditions focus more on the well-being of the mother.  Here are a few that I’ve been told about:

Korean Postpartum Traditions

(I’m going to put a star next to the ones that got cries of disapproval from various people when I told them I would not be participating in them.)

Staying inside for at least 21 days after the baby is born * (this is to protect both the mother and the new baby, and can be done at a birth hotel or at home, to be cared for by either of the new Grandmothers)

Not showering or washing hair for 21 days after the baby is born (this one appears to be on the way out, but has something to do with the mother’s weakened physical state and the need to keep her warm)

Avoiding cold foods and drinks (it is thought that a new mother is highly susceptible to cold and that it will settle into her joints and cause arthritis if she is not careful)

Not turning on the air conditioning (even in the middle of August– see above for explanation) *****

Wearing sweaters and thick socks (again, even in the middle of August)*

Eating dog soup (to help the mother regain her strength. This not super popular, but is still around)

Eating miyeokguk–seaweed soup ( to help the mother’s milk supply)

Avoiding hard or crunchy foods (thought to be bad for the mother’s teeth gums)

There are many others, but one of my favorites (and one that we’ll be doing) is keeping the first shirt the baby wears for his whole life, and tucking it under his pillow from time to time when he grows up the night before an important event (big test etc.).  Joo-Young’s family even got us a little baby blouse embroidered by a local artisan so our baby’s first shirt is a pretty fancy one.

What does all this have to do with Joo-Young remaining in Korea while the baby and I return to the U.S., you might be wondering.  Here is the answer.  Think back to the 1950s in the U.S., how did the traditional family unit function?  The father worked to make money for his family, while the wife took care of the home and raised the children.  I’m not saying modern-day Korea and mid-twentieth century America have identical models of family life, far from it, I am however saying that it is still generally thought of as the man’s job to make the money, and the woman’s job to raise the children (at least when they are still babies).  Enter the 기러기 아빠(gireogi appa), or “goose dad”.

When you combine the importance Korea places on education with a more traditional family dynamic, you might get the goose dad; a man who remains in Korea to make money, while sending his kids (and often wife as well) off to English speaking countries for a year to improve their English skills, thus presumably giving them a leg-up in Korea’s highly competitive society.  The goose dad might “migrate” once a year or so to visit his family, but otherwise his primary job is to feather the nest by sending cash.  The New York Times had an article a million years ago about it, but the practice is still alive and well today.

So… when people ask if Joo-Young is staying behind, they are in fact asking a perfectly normal question by Korean standards; “Will he continue to provide for you financially while you recover with your parents?” Or, in other words, “Will your husband sacrifice himself to make your life better?”

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I want the job where I get to study your face.

My parents’ class is often a fount of information that I would otherwise not have access to.  The parents in my class (while predominantly upper-middle-class) have all different backgrounds, family dynamics and careers.  If it is a bad day we stall-out while trying to think of something to discuss, at which point we usually chat about weekend plans or mundane daily life (“Today I cleaned the house”).  If it is a good day we talk for longer than the 45 minute long class, discussing anything from whose marriage was arranged to idioms and expressions (one of my favorites; “a rumor without legs will walk for a thousand miles”).

Last week we were talking about the fact that my school is hiring a new native English teacher.  I told them that we hadn’t had much luck yet, and they nodded, volunteering the information that the candidate’s skin-color probably has a lot to do with the decision-making process (sad but very true).  This led to a discussion about the fact that when I applied for my job I was required to give photo of myself (as well as being asked if I was “slim” or “fit”).  I mentioned that in the U.S., unless your physical appearance has a lot to do with your prospective job (model etc.), it would be very strange if you included a photo on your resume.  I also mentioned, and I’m not sure how accurate this is, that a prospective employer in the U.S. is not allowed to base any of your suitability for the job based on looks (with some exceptions of course).

The parents told me that not only is it required practically everywhere to post a photo on your resume, but that the top companies even employ people who scrutinize each face and determine what kind of characteristics each potential employee has based on their features.  I asked what you were supposed to do if you were born ugly or disfigured in some way, to which they responded that you would probably get plastic surgery.  One mother though was quick to point out that aside from these face evaluators (seems eerily similar to phrenology to me), the way you present yourself is far more important than how good-looking you are.  “Oh,” I said as I self-consciously patted my frizzy hair and tugged at my collar.  “Of course.”

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Is it Autism, or just kids who spend their time studying??

So the world has been buzzing with the news that in Ilsan, out of over 55,000 elementary students involved in a study,  2.64% showed signs of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  I obviously (I can’t stress this enough) am not a scientist, but I am an educator who has worked in both the U.S. and in Korea, and I’m thinking, maybe, is it possible that the questions asked of parents involved in the study (the results of the study were determined mainly via surveying the parents) were questions that were not entirely applicable to Korean students?

There are many, many similarities between our two countries, but it’s important to realize that there are some huge differences too.  The study points to the fact that many of the Korean students who could possibly have an ASD “”did not participate in many activities outside of school””.  After speaking to the parents I teach, it seems pretty clear that most of their kids only really participate in one activity outside of school–more school.  Yes, in the U.S. a kid might hang out downtown, take ballet, piano, play soccer etc. on school days, but in Korea, most of the kids I know spend their after school time studying in private academies.  Not to mention the fact that tons of these kids are up past midnight studying, only to wake up at 7:00 and go back to school.  I don’t think it’s abnormal at all in Korea for a child to have limited after school activities–including playing with friends.  As one of the parents I know pointed out “Look at the playgrounds, when do you ever seen children in them??”.

Could it be that the questions given to parents in Ilsan just didn’t take into account the vast difference between the way kids are raised in our respective countries?  Again, I have no idea– this is a mostly blind theory.  I’d also like to point out this study which says that South Korea students have been ranked the second lowest out of 36 participating countries in social interaction.  Is this because of the high rate of Autism in Korea?  I don’t think it is.

Joo-Young and I were talking the other day about this, and the whole thing seems a little weird.  It might be easy, by American standards to assume that a student who has a lack of after school activities and who excels at multiple choice tests instead of kickball with friends might have an ASD, but I think that’s a pretty big leap to make in a country where a student’s ability to focus only on one subject at a time, religiously devote themselves to memorizing facts, and deciphering the minute aspects of foreign language grammar are prized and praised.  Education is the number one priority for students in Korea, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Korea’s students.  This is not to say that there aren’t children with Autism in Korea, I’m just suggesting that the rate might not actually be as high as reported (basically double the rate in the U.S.).

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Excuse Me Teacher…

I rarely feel weird about personal space anymore with the exception of being coughed on or elbowed in the stomach (both for obvious reasons I think), but one time this difference between our cultures still jars me is in the teachers’ office.  For some reason our office is always flooded by various peddlers.  It might be a limping older man who sells pencils, a kindly ajumma selling juices or yogurt, or a slick-looking guy in a suit selling various electronic devices to be used in the classroom.

From behind I guess I might look Korean, so the peddlers usually approach me unless they know better.  While it is strange to be solicited to buy things during work hours, what is stranger to me is the way I am approached.  There is not a tapping on the back, nor is there a kindly, “Seonsaengnim?”(teacher).  instead, it goes this way:  I am typing away at my computer or correcting a test or something, minding my own business, when suddenly, two inches away from my face is a stranger, bending over me and peering deeply into my eyes.  Usually I prefer strangers don’t speak to me within kissing distance, but I get particularly annoyed because then whenever they crane around my body to get right in my face they realize I’m not Korean, which always produces a laugh, you guessed it, right in my face.  Best way to shake someone’s concentration, I guarantee it; sneak up behind them silently, put your face  really close to theirs and start laughing.

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Mother’s Class Redux and Things You Shouldn’t Assume

I got to meet with my lovely mothers today after a long break, and it was nice.  Nice, nice, nice.  It’s nice to sit in a room with adults and discuss the news (which is what we do).

I wasn’t sure what to expect from them regarding my obvious maternal state, but we are all so comfortable with each other that it really wouldn’t bother me if they flat-out asked, though I didn’t think they would.  These ladies are very careful not to offend me by asking too many personal questions, and while I am thankful for the most part, the other part doesn’t really care, since I usually prefer the truth be known rather than assumed.  With one recent exception.

One of the leaders of the class told me straight away that I looked different, perhaps I’d gained weight?  She knew I was pregnant, this was her way of politely prodding me to tell her.  I told her that yes, I was pregnant after which I got the obligatory congratulations from all the moms.  Then– and this is what I was referring to before– she said, “I hear you didn’t have a plan”.  I blinked for a few minutes, then I understood.  She was telling me that someone told her the pregnancy was unplanned.  This lady (one of my favorites) doesn’t have children in my school, so presumably she had garnered this information from the teacher who is in charge of the parents’ class.  A woman I have literally never spoken to.  Let me be perfectly clear:  If the mothers had just asked me, “Was your pregnancy planned?”  I would have answered them, perhaps not with the full truth, but I wouldn’t have been offended because I understand by this point that,

A. These ladies are housewives, and appear naturally curious about these kinds of things nowadays, and

B. Ettiquette in Korea is a whole different beast than what I’m used to.  Case in point?  When I was asked by my parents’ class what cultural difference in Korea bothered me, I answered that getting elbowed in the gut by older ladies on the subway takes some getting used to.  I asked them the same question, and they answered that seeing a beautiful foreign girl blowing her nose in public was gross.

Anyway, what bothers the hell out of me isn’t that the mothers were curious if the pregnancy was planned, or even that the other teachers (who are perfect strangers to me) are talking about me– what bothers me is that it is acceptable to spread the rumor that our pregnancy was unplanned.  Perhaps this is a natural assumption, the first doctor we saw here definitely assumed it was unplanned, since he explained step-by-step to us how a baby is made, but regardless, I can’t help bristling.  Tell you what; if you don’t spread rumors that Ponchie was a surprise, I’ll not spread rumors that you are struggling with incontinence.  How are these things related?  Both are personal and not anyone’s business, and both are better left unassumed.

On a similar note, I should point out that aside from this one case, every other person who has asked us if the pregnancy was planned currently lives in the U.S., where people should be very clear on the local etiquette that it’s rude to ask that question under almost all circumstances.  My own parents had the respect not to ask and I’m really close with my parents, so… unless you’re one of our best friends, I was probably pretty offended and uncomfortable you took it upon yourself to ask and now probably think you were raised by these guys .  But not to fret, if you’re the kind of person who shouldn’t have been asking in the first place, we probably lied to you.

Ugh.  Sometimes it’s hard to control these pregnancy hormones.  Did I mention that Ponchie likes to listen to Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls?”  He does, and we’re going to listen to it right now, kick a bit and calm down.

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Right of Way

A lot of you have requested that we spend more time talking about cultural differences between the U.S. and Korea, and so, here you go:  Korea is a Confucian, thus patriarchal society. The U.S. is also largely patriarchal, but not in the same way.  In the U.S., chivalry, though often lying dormant, is still a part of male-female relationships, even those relationships in which the man and the woman are strangers.


For example: I am walking down the sidewalk and there is a puddle on one side.  The width sidewalk will only allow one person at a time past the puddle, and there is a man heading towards me.

In the U.S., more often than not, the man will stop and let me walk past, or he will squinch himself to the side so that we both may walk past the puddle at the same time.

In Korea, I am often the one who is made to walk in the puddle, squinch to the side, or, most commonly, just stop walking and wait for the man to pass.

It was jarring the first few times something like this happened, and I’ll admit, I still grumble a bit.  It’s hard for me to understand why I should bow lower to my grandfather-in-law than to my grandmother-in-law, or why I had to eat at the coffee table with the women for the New Year’s meal when the men got served first and ate at the regular table.

It is hard for me to think of these things as just a “cultural difference” and then let them go—though I know that’s exactly what they are.  Part of my American gender equality mindset can’t quite get past it.  Needless to say I now have a deep empathy for the uncomfortable situations people from Confucian-based societies must find themselves in when they move to Western countries.

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