Thursday, July 09, 2020

Walking in Seoul (originally posted 11/13/2006)

All these years later, I'm restoring here some of the old posts I wrote for Printculture, since the archives are no longer visible.

Walking in Seoul

My son W is very picky about his shoes. From a young age he cultivated a fine and mysterious sense of what shoes are fit to adorn his feet and which ones he won’t wear. Soon after we arrived in Seoul he chose white leather sneakers, which amused my in-laws to no end, a cross between the traditional white-colored shoes that people in the countryside wear, and 70s throwback sneakers with flat bottoms. 
He has a right to be picky about his shoes, I suppose (though he outgrows them quickly); we spend so much time walking around the city that the shoes seem part of his body. Unlike the car-obsessed U.S., Seoul is a walking city, and it is through walking that we have discovered and explored Korea.

We moved here from Michigan – a Midwestern state filled with open spaces where a little boy can run really fast! OK? OK!—and wide, clear skies empty of buildings. But in America the price of space is time spent behind the wheel. And though I loved to drive – loved to have time to think and listen to music, knowing W was safe and secured in the back– in the car W watched his world go by from his climate controlled cage.

Americans walk an average of less than 75 miles a year – which works out to around 350 yards a day – literally the distance between bed and bathroom, couch and refrigerator, door and car. In Ann Arbor we used to take W to the zoo and see 7-year olds pushed around in strollers, unable to walk for a few hours on their own. We hear of 2-year olds showing signs of heart disease, and see adults who start exercise programs plagued by the years of childhood immobility and little muscle base. My husband and I vowed that our children would grow up walking, and decided not to take the stroller when we moved to Korea.

At first the transition to walking was hard. W’s three-year-old legs were unaccustomed to serving as his primary means of transportation and I had just come off several weeks of rest after surgery. Jet-lagged, awed and open-mouthed, on occasion lost, and busy with the tasks of moving to a foreign country, we strolled and skipped and strided around Seoul so that by spring, walking defined the rhythm of our new lives.

Everyday we walked to W’s grandparents’ apartment in the morning, and then he walked with his Grandpa to school. In the afternoon I picked him up to walk home, or sometimes to the grocery store, or the doctor, or the subway, or wherever it is we had to go. Our ten-minute walk from school to home usually took us an hour. W figured out all the various permutations through the apartments to the river, and insisted on taking only the back secret ways—winding behind apartment blocks, finding quiet and secluded spaces, discovering dark scary tunnels and secret gardens. There are rules in these spaces: “Shh, mommy, you have to be quiet and whisper here! You have to talk really loudly here! You have to jump over this hole. You can only walk on the red tiles!” W found a fantasy world in the city terrain, a labyrinth of spaces to explore, control, conquer, be master of, be concealed in, be small and afraid in – all while holding my hand.

I remember that first spring – the smell of it in the air, how we optimistically replaced his winter coat with spring coat and several layers of fleece, how we stopped to breathe in the air and inspect the buds forming on the trees. W triumphantly declared, Mommy, this one is an evergreen—– in truth, by summer I didn’t know the difference between an evergreen and not, but spring makes naturalists of us all. He rubbed his jacket along the rough texture of a brick wall as we stealthily rounded a building. He delighted in telling me what things are made of – brick, cement, barbed wire, dirt. We pee-yooed! at the smell of car exhaust, and turned our noses to the smell of the river. We stopped to listen to the water gurgling and tricking (in my effort to endow him with a rich English vocabulary, I repeated listen to the water gurgle and babble!—over and over) until the sound was drowned out by two big military helicopters. We talked about littering, stopped to examine a praying mantis and help it get unstuck from the rubber path. Walking across the bridge one day the sight of two men replacing a streetlamp with a cherry-picker captured our attention and we spent a good twenty minutes watching them. We peered in open manholes and saw the workers cozy in their nests of wires and pipes underneath the earth. Summer came and W stripped to his underwear to play with the other children in the small rock pools by the river, next to retired men soaking their feet after a day of hiking. A good sturdy branch provided a powerful tool for warding off enemies, for tapping on manholes and cracks, a souvenir worth keeping in our collection by the apartment door along with cool rocks. The uncool rocks were thrown into the river to make satisfyingly big splashes. We stopped to watch people exercise, then precariously walked the balance beam made by the edge of the sidewalk, and climbed the embankment to become the king of the world and examine our shadows. Seoul became a world of senses, where we both controlled the pace, where we could stop and examine a small ladybug or the crane constructing a skyscraper for a second or for an hour.

Now we’re approaching our second spring in Seoul, baby M has joined us on our walks, and W no longer holds my hand, instead running ahead of me to brave the crosswalks by himself or to seek out playmates. The weather has suddenly turned cold again, so as we set out this morning I thought only about hurrying W to school and getting back in time for M’s nap. Walking by the river W suddenly pulled me aside to examine the trees: “Look, Mommy! Buds!” So immersed in our now routine life I had not noticed winter slipping away, nor realized that I had stopped savoring the rhythm of our secret world. Rummaging through our closet to pull out the spring clothes I came upon W’s old white shoes, still in pristine condition – he outgrew them so fast – and I realized suddenly how quickly we have grown into our lives here. For that one stolen season the smug and jaded adult strode around the city like a child, openmouthed in wonder, overwhelmed by new sights, smells, and sounds. For one spring I was able to walk in W’s shoes, and now we’ve both grown up. 

My So-Called Ex Pat Life (originally posted on 10/18/2006)

All these years later, I'm restoring here some of the old posts I wrote for Printculture, since the archives are no longer visible.

My so-called ex-pat life

I (Chinese-American with ambiguous facial features, married to a Korean, two kids, tendency to slouch and procrastinate, addiction to cafe lattes) have been living in Seoul for three years: long enough that it is, unambiguously, home; long enough that I navigate through my daily life without much thought or preparation. Gone are the days of dictionary toting and rehearsing conversations in my head; gone are the days when a trip to the bank made me break out in a cold sweat; gone are the days of falling into bed exhausted at 8 p.m. from the effort of listening to and speaking Korean all day long. 
And yet. There is nothing like a visitor from the Homeland to make you realize how far you’ve come, and how very far you have yet to go.

Emily (loud laughing, curly haired, opinionated, East Coast, Jewish rugby-playing feminist psychology PhD currently living in LA) and I have been best friends since high school and this was her first trip to Asia.

Like a Dummies Guide to Living in Korea I prepared her: I taught her to bow and smile, to take and receive things with two hands, not to be alarmed by women with Darth Vader visors or by being jostled in the street by older men smelling of soju and cigarettes. I gave her index cards with phrases like where is the bathroom?—and I am 32 years old—(over her protests). Armed with mental and tangible tools she lived with us for a month, eating barley rice and seaweed, bowing and smiling, paying outrageous prices for fruit, walking all over the place, throwing away food garbage in specially marked bins, and being the only white person in the vicinity.

On her last day here she was at the gym, running on the treadmill and lifting weights, and an older man approached her and chastised her, You’re exercising too fast! Slow down!

I had warned her about this. One of the hardest things to learn about another culture is what is acceptable and what is rude. In Korea, it is completely normal to comment on other people’s appearance: You have gained weight,—Do you know you have a pimple on your forehead?—or sometimes women will just come over and brush lint off my shirt or fix my crazy hair. It is also fine for an older person to give constructive advice based on his or her wealth of knowledge derived from age: Your baby should be wearing more clothes.—Don’t use your MP3 player near your belly when you are pregnant.—Eating kimchee prevents cancer.—Or: Don’t exercise so fast.—

Despite preparation and her determination to follow the local cultural norms, she was unable to follow through with the standard response: a yes—followed by a bow of the head as acknowledgment, promptly followed by incident amnesia. Instead, she gave him that kind of smile/grimace which is technically a smile but communicates, Fuck off—in any language. As she said later, still seething with anger, It took all my control not to scream, ‘I was a varsity athlete in college and am the only one in this gym breaking a $*^%$*% sweat!—

That’s the hard part of cross-cultural interaction: if they receive you, it’s on their own terms, and if you respond, it is on your own terms. I’m sure that man was trying to break the ice, trying to be friendly and welcoming. And Emily wanted to be civil and kind and friendly as well, but her upbringing and personality made it almost impossible to provide the kind of response that he would have expected. He had hit her at her point of vulnerability; for all her educational and athletic success, she was still afraid of not being taken seriously. And this I understand well, because it is my problem too. Although we grow up and travel the world, we can never quite shed the residue of past fears, insecurities, ghosts, relationships past and loves lost.

Aside from whatever baggage we all harbor, there is a particular psychology to being an ex-pat; to some degree I am always aware of my difference and perhaps overly conscious of what I represent. For the many Koreans who have never been to the U.S. and have had limited access to foreigners, my small habits and idiosyncrasies will fill in the largely absent pieces of a bigger picture of what Americans Are Like; but for Koreans who are sensitive to the perspective of other nations I also represent the judgmental gaze of the U.S. There is a power to being a First World foreigner and at times I brandish my outsider status like a light saber or a Get Out of Jail Free card. You “ kid spraying graffiti on the side of our apartment building! I will scold you in two languages and watch you wriggle under my double-eyelided gaze! You “ fancy woman judging me for having wrinkled pants! I am an American and don’t have to adhere to your standards of dress! Mwah ha ha ha.

But to have my high school friend walk by side for a month was to remind me that I was always aware of my difference in the U.S. as well. Emily knew me when I had big glasses and braces and had to shop in the children’s department and when all I wanted was to fit in. She, with her parents who spoke perfect English, nice clothes, popularity, and tickets to the Opera, was my idea of a normal—American teenager, something I believed I could become if I tried. Years later, positions reversed, I was teaching her how to fit into Korean society, bequeathing to her the lessons hard won from my years in the field, making me realize that we haven’t changed so much after all. Having spent my youthful years feeling like a spy or a shape-shifter in the U.S., the idea of coming and living in Korea just seemed like an extension of that same project. I never believed in monolithic, stable identities, because my survival and my power seemed to depend on being flexible and infinitely adjustable.

Although aware of my difference and not ashamed to use it sometimes, I still believe somewhere in my unexamined heart that cultural assimilation is a matter of knowledge and will. I am ambiguous enough physically that if I dress and walk a certain way I can pass for Korean; indeed, when I return to the States I find myself bowing and accepting things with two hands without even thinking about it. I have reached some point in-between, I think, a true cultural chimera/cyborg. Then BAM! Like Emily, some latent emotional baggage overcomes my hard-earned cultural and linguistic knowledge and I find myself regressing into some teenage version of myself. High school: second only to family, the source of all anxieties and insecurities “ which, apparently, we are still overcoming.

Nowhere does this conflict rear its head more frequently than in my relationships with my Korean in-laws. I have spent ten years now working to master the Korean language and culture. I have studied the history, tried to fit in, and tried to be appropriate. I have just about mastered the smile-and-nod in front of strangers, but every time my father-in-law tells my how to clean something properly or how to line up my shoes at the door I boil over with resentment and anger. “I’m a smart, well-educated adult! Don’t treat me like an idiot!” Even though intellectually I know that this is how he expresses his concern and affection for me, I receive every piece of patronizing advice as an insult to my intelligence and ability. I know he wants and expects me to respond with a respectful bow like a good little daughter-in-law, but I cannot. Even Korean women have trouble with their in-laws “ how can he expect me to shed my feminist sensibilities and mimic subservience? I could gain power over this relationship, perhaps, by being meek and manipulating him into doing what I want. I see it all the time on TV in those Korean dramas I can’t stand watching. But in order to do so I would have to abandon my sense of American-feminist individualism and power.

I would like to think that I’ve learned a lot since high school. I have travelled the world, learned new languages, created two new beings, and figured out how to walk fast while drinking a hot cup of coffee. As with many of life’s lessons this one catches me off guard: I must accept that I cannot (contrary to what my mom always said) become whatever I want. I am not limitlessly flexible. I learned my way into this ex-pat life through study and rehearsal, but the old modes are still there, molding my performance and giving it another dimension of meaning. I suppose that an ex-pat, like a teenager, is stuck somewhere in-between; not a child nor an adult; not quite this culture and not quite that one either. And like a teenager the ex-pat spends her day trying to fit in while simultaneously thinking of every act as a declaration of Self and what she can or cannot become. At least I don’t have to worry about pimples.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Trained by China

In between leaving Shanghai and before moving into our new place in Seoul, we traveled for a few weeks in the U.S.  I've lived abroad for almost eight years now, and though I go back once a year or so, each time the U.S. seems more and more unfamiliar. Sometimes things have clearly changed over there, like trends (I remember spending much of one trip staring at people's very large earrings -- the kind that fit into and stretch the piercings to the size of dimes), catch-phrases, or cars. But mostly things are the same there, and I'm the one who has changed. Or at least my expectations have. In China and Korea, buildings, trends, slang, manners, laws, signage, food, scandals, and the landscape change so much from month to month that it's weird to go to a place that looks almost exactly the same for eight years. 

Anyway, on this last trip, it became clear to me that I have been trained by China.

We regularly stopped at Peet's coffee. Each time there was a line. But what a line! You could park an elephant between the cash registers and the start of the line. As if people are afraid to stand too close because the cashiers have bad breath or really large personal spaces. And each person in line seems to leave a good arm's length between himself and the people in front and behind. 

The whole thing made me very, very anxious. I kept moving closer to the person in front of me, but then he would uncomfortably move forwards or sideways, so I'd move back, aware that I'd made a social faux-pas. But then I'd start to feel nervous and move up again. And every once in a while someone would come and stand in the space in front of the registers in order to get a closer look at the menu or the pastries, and my whole body would tense, ready to pounce on them if they showed any sign of trying to cut in. I fastened my stink eye onto their backs, thinking, don't even try it, motherfucker. 

When you stand in line in China, you can't let your guard down for a minute. Someone is always trying to squeeze in. You can't let any daylight show between you and the person in front of you. In the grocery store, you start unloading your cart almost on top of the person in front of you. When a taxi stops, you hop in the front seat before the current passenger finishes getting out. At the doctor, there isn't really any line exactly, just a whole bunch of people crammed into a small room, all handing their x-rays or charts or whatever to the doctor at the same time. Whichever one is in her face is the one who goes next. 

Even places where numbers are taken are not straightforward. At one point during our stay we had to get an important real estate document from a certain government agency. There were something like five steps, and both parties and both agents all had to be there to perform the first one. When the building opened at 8 am there were already 100 people waiting outside. They rushed in and grabbed numbers. But they grabbed more than one number each. So if the first number was called and some member of the party wasn't there (maybe they went to the bathroom, or the bank, or fainted from standing and waiting for so many hours) they would use the next number. 

So when we started out we had several numbers which weren't very good. But our agent, who was standing under a No Smoking sign with a group of agents trading cigarettes and smoking like crazy, would come back every 10 minutes or so with a different number. They'd trade among themselves, giving others the numbers they had pulled but didn't need.

Then, after the first few steps were done, we had to go to a different area of the building to pay a tax, and there was no take-a-number system there, just one straight line. But my agent had paid(?) someone to stand in that line all day; he just kept waiting in line, and when he got to the front, he'd go around and stand in the back again. So that by the time we were ready for that step we already had a place close to the front. 

And in the end it was almost 4:30, closing time, and we still hadn't finished everything. (Like all government officials anywhere, they shut down from 11-1 for lunch.) I really didn't want to come back the next day and do it all over again. So it ended the way things do in China. My agent found someone he knew in the office, and five minutes later we were done.

Back to the U.S.  The other moment during the trip when I realized I had become Chinese was when it was time to cross a road. My friend E sauntered across four lanes with barely a look back and forth. I stood petrified on the sidewalk, saying, "Watch out! There's a car way over there!" She said, "What are you doing? Come on! They're legally obligated to stop!" Oh yeah. People actually do that here. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I might as well be talking about the last few years of this blog, eh? Kind of fell off the blogging world when I moved to China. It took a while to get settled, you see. And I had to deal with learning the language and figuring out where to get my bicycle tires fixed (free advice: don't buy a bicycle at Carrefour, get it at Decathlon). I was going to school every day and rotating our milk sources. And then when I might have started blogging, we were blocked from blogger and that was a good excuse not to start up again.

So now we're back in Korea and I find that I've been thinking about blogging again a lot lately but having been away so long it seems scary, somehow, to put myself out there again. And the bar is a lot higher now; there are a lot of bloggers out there when once there were few. I need to face up to the fact that if I'm going to write anything it isn't going to be stupendous because I don't have time to edit.

So... baby steps. Small posts. For today: silence.

So we're in the new place, and it's good. Really good. Dishwasher (haven't had one of those for almost 8 years, unless you count ayi, who washed dishes among other duties...), heated toilet seats, nice community sauna/bath and swimming pool, etc.

The first night we slept here (on a 손없는날: that is, a day in which the ghosts go up to the heavens to play, so it is safe to move), I was exhausted from the moving and traveling, ready to collapse in our old bedding in the new place. But that's when it really hit me that we weren't in Shanghai anymore: it was so quiet. In the background I could hear the hum of something, probably the heating system, but that's it.

There are many types of quiet. Quiet in this place is Hotel Quiet: a mind-your-own-business kind of quiet; impersonal and antiseptic.

We had just spent a few weeks in the U.S., and we visited some friends from Shanghai who had recently moved to a hillside house in Saratoga, California. The quiet on their porch was a sweetly relaxing kind of quiet, the kind of quiet that makes you feel like you are being cradled by the kitten-soft tongues of tree leaves. I wanted to just stay on their porch, immobile, and watch the centuries go by. I could understand in that moment why writers seek places to nature to write, and why Koreans bury their bed on mountain tops. It was the kind of quiet that says eternal peace and wisdom.

The quiet of that first night back in Seoul was an empty kind of quiet, leaving enough of a sensory black hole to suck me right back to Shanghai, despite months of effortless denial about leaving that place. I remembered all the night noises in Shanghai; the baoan guards talking into their walkie-talkies, bells clanging for various recycling pickups, ubiquitous honking, the sounds of children playing in the playground. Our first night in our last apartment in Shanghai (we lived in two different places) we were all sleeping in a huge mosquito tent in the living room because our bedroom was full of stacks of books (we had not yet bought any furniture). Around 1am we woke to shouts from the street: "小偷!小偷!" [Xiaotou!Thief!] It took us a few minutes to groggily figure out what they were saying, and then KC and I stumbled towards the verandah and looked out into the night. Baoan were coming from all directions, converging on the poor thief in the middle of the large road behind our complex. Some of the baoan were on scooters, and they were going to run him down. Eventually they caught up with the guy and started punching him and then dragging him towards the side of the road, I guess to take him to the police. We went back inside and went back to sleep. Shortly after that, in preparation for Expo, the city began repaving and fixing all the roads in our area, so seven days a week from 7am to 10pm we would hear jackhammers, steamrollers, and work crews trying to make their deadlines. Accompanied by the wonderful smell of asphalt, of course.

The first night we spent in Shanghai (in our first apartment), we were woken at 7am (it was Sunday morning) which what sounded like gunfire. Of course it was fireworks, not gunfire, and within a short time we had become so used to the sound that I barely noticed it anymore.

But that's what happens with a city, I suppose. You're so busy trying to figure out where to step and who to befriend and where to buy your veggies that two and a half years go by in a big whoosh, and you don't realize that you're carrying the place around with you, in the grime under your fingernails, in the soundtrack to which you fall asleep at night. Every once in a while when I'm walking around Seoul, remembering what it was like to live here before and comparing it to now (more on that another day), I get a whiff of Shanghai and my mind takes me back. I think of the odd scenes: the man carrying a bag of live chickens on the subway, or the taxi driver who, during a long red light, painstakingly weeded his white hairs by leaning awkwardly out in order to see himself in the rearview mirror. I think of the commentary that followed me whenever I walked around with my kids, "Three sons! Three sons!"

I don't think I appreciated what a persistant and colorful character Shanghai had, and how much I had grown to love it, until that quiet night.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Guest Blogger: Max

Been neglecting the blog again, as I try to get my fill of Shanghai before we leave. So I'll turn things over to the words of our budding writer Max.

Max has been wanting to write since before he actually could. He used to spend long periods of time hunched over his notebook, drawing squiggy lines that met his perfectionistic standards. He'd then tear out the piece of paper, hand it to me, and very seriously inform me that "This is Blah Blah Blah Language. You have to take this and study it. Then I will test you tomorrow. If you get them all right I will give you one piece of candy." 

I guess this is what I sound like?

Now that he can actually write he leaves me amusing little notes like this one:

Dear Mommy,
     You do not have a house and you do not have a sword for fighting bad guys. 
Love, Max

I'm pretty sure I don't sound like that.

Anyway, today I give you, for your reading pleasure, a story he wrote in his handwriting notebook at school. I copied it the way he wrote it, so you have to decipher his spellings.


Farfar away in the galaxy ther was a young gediy Calld anykin. anykin was youg but he was schrong wen he dfeds a person he Winks and one time he fannd a chick and the chick had one leg brokin so he fixit one person's chin brok so h fixit when he winks his mauth tacks I think wen my brother gros up he's gowing to go to the Sink and wash Dishis.

By Max Chang 

And if you don't like it, in Max's words, "You want to Bisa me?" [You want a piece of me?"]

Real blogging to follow soon.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Third child

Some animals mark their territory by pissing. We playfully tossed around the idea of marking the countries we've lived in by having a baby in each one. (Or perhaps more accurately, making each birth a souvenir of each place, and folding those countries into our family, at least symbolically.) I wasn't sure we would actually go through with it, but now we have. The U.S.: Aiden. Korea: Max. And now China: Felix. All boys, all born in May, but each in a different country. 

Pregnancy and childbirth are transformational experiences on the individual level (both physically and emotionally), but they also provide a kind of up-the-skirt glimpse at the values and prejudices of the society one lives in. When you're walking around with a big belly people feel free -- compelled, in some cases -- to give you advice. To warn you of the dangers of X and Y. To implore you to raise your kid This Way or That Way. Same thing when you're carrying around a newly-minted human being. I suppose that people see pregnant women and babies as a tabula rasa, a blank and forgiving slate, available for imprinting and for correcting previous wrongs. Pregnant women and babies represent a place for redemption, for individuals and societies. If you can just nip that problem in the bud and change someone else's life... the reasoning goes. So it's hard for people to keep their thoughts to themselves. 

Maybe because being pregnant draws people's comments so well, I feel like going through pregnancy and childbirth in each country gave me a chance to get to know each country better. In the case of China, it was my first real encounter with the medical system here. (Up to that point we had taken care of all of our medical needs in Korea, and just tried to stay healthy in China, where we have no medical insurance.) I don't think one can really feel comfortable living in a country unless one can comfortably bank, go to the doctor, and send one's kids to school. Now I have some experience with each of these, and it makes me feel more settled here.  

Anyway, sleep deprivation is no easier the third time around but I'll try to slap myself into semi-consciousness long enough to write some notes on this last pregnancy and childbirth. Not only am I tired and scatterbrained, but it's also been a long time since I did any writing. Starting blogging again is like starting exercising again: painful and clumsy. 

Third. In the U.S., having a third child is pretty ho-hum, but in China and Korea where birth rates are low, being a mom of three is much more unusual. Reactions upon discovering I was pregnant were interesting. In Korea, several people commented, ""육심이 많네요"; a case in a which I had trouble reading tone/nuance. [I'm having a hard time translating this: something like "you have a lot of desire/greed," but that doesn't really capture the meaning in Korean.] Was that meant to be a veiled criticism? Can't decide. In China, I got, "太多了!" (Too many!) Which just made me laugh. Many people speculated that I must be trying for a daughter, and several asked me if this baby was planned, which I felt was an overly personal question, but answered it anyway (yes, it was planned). In the early days, whatever I ate was scrutinized: my grapefruit cravings were a sure sign of a boy, but ice cream was a girl. My complexion was remarked upon many times (if your skin is good, it must be a girl). Later, the shape of my belly was commented on by almost everybody I walked by; I felt like a tourist attraction. The pointy belly meant a son for the Chinese, but for the Koreans it is the opposite. (In this case the Chinese were right.) I also got scolded for walking around so much, and after the baby was born, for being out and about so soon after giving birth, and for not putting socks and a hat on my newborn. Nobody asked me why I wasn't wearing one of those radiation garments, probably because I'm a laowai, but all the pregnant Chinese women were wearing them (an ugly smock that is supposed to block electromagnetic radiation). 

Hospital. We decided to have the birth at International Peace Maternity, a Chinese hospital specializing in women and children's health, in the VIP section. There's really no qualification to become a "VIP" except willingness to pay about ten times more than what the regular people pay, and for that you have fewer lines, better facilities, and doctors who have some international experience/training. I chose a Chinese hospital for two reasons: first, as a hospital that deals with so many births every day, it is well-equipped to deal with all sorts of emergencies, and it has an in-house NICU. The international hospitals provide an atmosphere that may be more like an American hospital, but the care is not necessarily as good. The second reason was financial; we don't have health insurance in China and delivering in a Chinese hospital, even in the VIP ward, is two or three times cheaper than in an international hospital. 

Peace is a pretty popular place for expats to deliver. I know a lot of women who have had their babies there. And for that reason it's hard to get an appointment, even at normal times, and it may have been more crowded than usual when I was pregnant because people were trying to have an "Expo baby." I called soon after I found out I was expecting and the first available time slot was not until my 19th week. So I ended up doing the first half of my pre-natal visits in Korea. 

Going back to Korea (to 차병원, which is also a well-known women and children's hospital) for half of my prenatals was nice and familiar, and my old doctor seemed very blase about this pregnancy, except for the maternal age factor. When the Triple Screen results came in, he said, "나이가 그렇고, 그래도 괜찮을것같아요." (something like: you're old but it'll probably be ok.)

Boy or girl? For the first time, I really wanted to know the sex of this child beforehand. But both Korea and China have policies prohibiting the disclosure of the child's sex, to prevent selective abortion of girl babies. In Korea the policy is changing, and in most local hospitals you can find out, but the larger hospitals  are still quite strict. I did my best to find out, pulling out the "I'm a foreigner!" card and the "I already have two boys!" card. I tried the subtler routes: asked what color clothes I should buy and whether the baby takes after me or my husband, but the ultrasound tech wouldn't even give me a hint. She told me to ask my doctor. Finally he told me, "아빠 닮았어요" (the baby takes after its father). In other words, another boy. At Peace, in the ultrasound room, they have a sign saying something along the lines of "don't even ask because we won't tell." 

First appointment at Peace. We were running late for our first appointment at Peace, so we rushed through the door without really thinking about what we would find. KC stopped in his tracks and said, "Oh my god, I've never seen so many pregnant women in my life!" It was a large room with tons of people standing in line, sitting in rows of uncomfortable chairs, and milling around. We headed towards the back where the VIP elevators are manned by a security guard, who looked us up and down and extended his hand towards the elevators, letting us through.

We took the elevator up to the 13th floor, where the scene was more peaceful. A large room with sofas, with a circular nurse's station in the middle topped by a chandelier. An espresso machine in the corner. Free bottles of juice and water plus packs of crackers and candies in bowls around the room. Most of the sofas were full but it was nothing like the cattle driving going on downstairs. 

Procedure-wise, it was much like Korea: check in, stand in line at the cashier, provide urine sample, get weighed, wait. Later: make appointment, pay for any remaining tests or medicine. Like Korea, there's a production-line structure to hospitals that enables clinics like this to see many many people in a short time. 

We met the doctor in a very large room, larger than our largest bedroom, but empty except for the desk, two chairs, and an examining table. After we talked for a bit the doctor asked me to take off my pants and lie down, but there was no sheet, no curtain, no barrier between me and the very large room. It felt odd. I mean, there's a chandelier outside but you can't give me a modesty sheet? The sheet, if you think about it, doesn't really do anything, it's just something extra to wash, the doctor and husband are going to see everything anyway in a moment, and there's nothing really to hide, it's just psychologically comforting, like a security blanket. 

This (what Americans would consider) lack of privacy was the main thing I noticed in the medical arena. When waiting in line for the cashier one day, a doctor and patient standing a foot away were immersed in a conversation which I think was about the patient's miscarriage. (Could be a misunderstanding, since it was in Chinese and I missed the beginning, but it was about how there was no heartbeat, how there is usually no way to know the reason, how the patient should try again, and get prenatal care earlier.) 

Check me out. The sizing up of patients is the same, or similar, no matter where you go. When I was admitted to give birth to my first baby, in the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, I remember the nurse watching me for a while and then proclaiming, with a decided air, "You're going to do just fine." In Korea, while I was in early labor (3cm or so) there were two nurses hanging out in my room just waiting for things to get exciting, I guess, and we were all listening to the screams from the woman in the room next to mine. They commented, "She's having a hard time." And then looked at me and said, "You don't seem to be in any pain at all." You're weird, seemed to be the unspoken question. Then they gave me pitocin and I think I made enough noise to satisfy them after that.

It would be fascinating to do an enthnographic study of Labor and Delivery nurses, who have to deal with all manner of laboring woman, probably learning to diffuse each one like a different type of ticking time bomb. They seem to have their own codes and theories about what makes a woman easy or hard, or even what makes us go into labor. I arrived in the hospital in Ann Arbor for my first delivery after a tornado had gone past town, and was informed that the hospital was full. "When the barometer drops, everybody goes into labor," the nurse told me. In labor for the third time, when I approached the nurses station and announced that I was having contractions, the nurses gave each other a look. "A lot of people today?" I asked. "Four already," the nurse said, and gave a little chuckle. 

Anyway, perhaps (probably) because it was my third, the nurses and doctors here seemed relaxed about this pregnancy. They kept telling me, "No problem. It's going to go fast." And during labor, they for the most part left us alone, which was wonderful. We had a button to push if we needed anything, and got to labor the way we wanted. And after the birth, we were also left to enjoy our baby without much intervention, especially at night. In Michigan and Seoul people were coming in every hour, day and night, and I couldn't get any rest at all. Because of that, this last birth was the most relaxing. 

Show me the money. Since we didn't have insurance, we needed to deposit 30,000RMB before giving birth; this would be about the cost of a C-section should I need one. On the day we checked out of the hospital, an administrator came around with a large bag and a bunch of papers showing how much we had actually spent (less than half that amount, since it was an unmedicated natural birth), and then reached into her bag and started pulling out large wads of cash. "Count it to make sure it's correct," she told us. Ha! Someone should have told us we'd be taking home two important bundles: one with a baby and one with a lot of cash. Take note, Chinese robbers! The administrator remarked that she was returning a lot of cash that day because so many people had had natural deliveries. 

Baby Swimming. Another unusual experience in China was the baby swimming. I had seen advertisements for this in the subway stations and thought it looked really strange. Basically, they put little inner tubes around the baby's neck and let the baby swim in a small, tall tub of warm water. On Felix's second day of life the nurses asked us if we were interested in having him try this plus an infant massage for 100 RMB (less than 15 dollars). Sure, why not? The nurse woke him up, which he was not happy about, stripped him and put a piece of tape over his belly button stub, and put the tube around his head, all of which made him cry. But the minute he entered the tub he grew calm. He wiggled his little legs looked around very quietly. We were amazed. I suppose that being immersed in warm water must have felt familiar and comfortable for him, despite the big tube around his neck. I later ordered a tube on the internet and have been letting him "swim" every few days in our bathtub. It takes a lot of water so I don't do it every day, but he continues to love it. Our tub is not quite deep enough, so his feet touch, and he can push himself from one end of the tub to the other, and flip so he's somewhat stomach-down or back-down. 

Breast Massage.Another option in the hospital was to have a breast massage. I had just watched a good friend of mine here in Shanghai go through a terrible bout of mastitis, having to be put on IV antibiotics and finally having to have surgery to drain the infection. One of the things she ended up doing to help was having a breast massager come to her house and unclog the blocked ducts manually. Apparently there’s a branch of Chinese medicine that does breast massage. I got to watch once, as the masseuse rubbed and pulled at the breasts, spraying milk all over the place, and getting small back and white things to come out, which I guess were what was blocking the ducts. Pretty gross.

So when given the option to have a massage at the hospital I took it. I imagined it would be done by a person and that it would be painful, like my friend’s had been, especially since my milk had already come in and I was quite engorged, especially on the left since Felix seemed to prefer the right. But in the hospital it was done by a machine. A nurse came in with the big machine, and put two flat, round, black rubber pad-type things on my breasts, which emitted some sort of pulse. It was actually quite nice and not painful at all. Afterwards the nurse helped me express some of the milk from my rock hard left side. She got about an espresso shot amount out of it, still orange from the colostrum. “Drink it,” she said. “Don’t let it go to waste, this is good stuff.” It was far sweeter than I had imagined.

The small plastic cup she expressed the milk in (like an espresso shot size) was what they use to feed the babies in the nursery. I’m not sure why they don’t use bottles. Interesting.

Head or Tail? I was curious, this time around, to see how the midwife would hand the baby to me upon birth. In the U.S., I received Aiden head-first, so my first view of him was his face. In Korea the nurse handed me the baby butt first, so I got a good glimpse of his balls and penis, as if the nurse was allowing me to confirm that yes, this is indeed another boy. I don't know what to make of that, is it a cultural thing or just an accident of that particular hospital or nurse? 

Anyway, in China I again received the baby butt first. Hmm. 

Naming. Each of our kids has a Western first name and a Korean middle name on their American passports (their Korean passports just have their Korean names). It takes us a long time to come up with the first name, but we have total control over that process. The Korean name is more logistically complicated. The second part of the name is generational, so each kid has the same character. My in-laws have employed a name-maker to come up with options for the first part of the name. The name maker is someone who specializes in coming up with a good name for the child, based on the parents' and the child's birth dates and times. For Aiden, we knew we would only have a few days  to prepare a name, so we asked the name maker to come up with some suggestions despite not knowing exactly when he would be born. He gave us 5 options and we chose one of those. When Max was born, we had more time to employ a name maker, since the Korean hospitals give you more time to come up with a name. Still, the process was quick; it only took a day or two if I remember correctly.

This time around we called KC's parents soon after the birth and asked them to get on the name-making process. But they didn't understand, and it didn't occur to us to explain, that we needed the name within the next 3 days in order to put it on the birth certificate. They had decided to employ a high-end name-maker who needed a week. After some back and forth the name-maker agreed to give us a name on the third day but we would have to call him to get it. 

I was surprised how nervous we both were, waiting for this name. We called the name-maker from the hospital room (via skype) and he gave us three names. We chose one of those right away, and then ran into problems right away, since the character we chose, (빛날혁), is kind of an older character, not really used in modern Chinese. Would they be able to put it on the birth certificate?

It turns out that they were able to. So Felix's birth certificate has both his American and Chinese names. Pretty cool. 

42-day checkup. At Peace, mothers and babies come for a joint 42-day post-partum checkup. All the moms and babies are taken to the waiting area where the babies are weighed, one by one, and then sent one by one to see the pediatrician and the Ob/gyn. The weighing was quite funny to me: all these moms and grandmas and ayis crowded around their little baobaos, but watching all the other babies, sizing them up. Felix was the first to be weighed, since we arrived first (I finally learned to be the first one there in order to get out in a reasonable amount of time). He was quite small still, having been born 3 weeks early and exclusively breastfed (he is not small now, he is quite a porker). One mom abandoned her baby to grandma to stand by the scale and comment on all the other babies' weights. She asked the nurse, "Is that baby also 42 days? He is so small! He's only half the size of my baby!" Then after her baby was weighed, she crowed happily to him (and the whole room) "你是第一名!" (You're in first place!) He was a really big baby, must have been 5kg. The women were all busy exchanging information about whether they were doing breast or bottle, how much their babies were sleeping, etc. I listened to them, exhausted, remembering what it was like to have my first child, back in the days when I had no idea what I was doing, when I was hyper-conscious of what other parents were doing. Back when I gained a sense that I was doing ok as a parent by constantly comparing myself and my child to other moms and their children. Imagine a whole room of first time parents, all vying for some sense that they have a handle on things, trying to fight off that sense of panic that comes with being a parent for the first time and having your life changed completely as quickly as someone pulling the rug out from under you. Now imagine a society where almost all parents are like that, because they only have one child.

On that note, the Korean ajumas say that moms of three boys are 깡패, gangsters. I've got to go knock some heads, but will try to keep up the blogging now that I've started again.  

Note: Thanks for the comments, everybody! I have figured out how to email my posts, but I have not yet figured out how to approve comments from behind the Great Firewall. So keep the comments coming, but be patient with them appearing on the site. I still get a lot of spam so I don't want to set it to automatically post comments. I will figure it out soon. 

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Two Years Later

My goodness it's been a long time since I've blogged. Too long. Sitting here in front of the computer I'm at a loss for how to start. My fingers don't know their way around the keyboard anymore, and I find myself sounding more like whatever book I'm reading, my old blogging voice buried somewhere in the recesses of my brain. 

So where were we? I think I had been providing updates on the language. Here's where we are on that. Aiden is much more comfortable in Chinese and his Korean is still very good. Some of the comic book series that he loves reading in Korean have been translated into Chinese, and he can read those too. He used to be shy about talking to Chinese-speaking kids in the playground, or waitresses in the restaurant, or taxi drivers, but now he just talks. He doesn't always know all the words, but he is able to converse easily, without thinking much. He still reads a lot in Korean and we have been spending about 2 months a year in Korea, so I don't think his Korean has suffered much if at all. Through his reading he's still picking up a lot of vocabulary. He still thinks my Chinese is better than his, but I doubt that's the case. He certainly can read better than I can.

Max's Chinese has improved a lot, but his perfectionist tendencies hold him back in public. He will speak Chinese if he knows the other person doesn't speak English or Korean, but otherwise he will not. He is now in first grade at the same school Aiden goes to, and doing quite well. His Korean has been declining since we moved to Shanghai, but I spent a lot of effort teaching him to read last year, so at least he's literate. Every time we go back to Korea for a month he picks it all up again, but English is definitely his strongest language, by far. He's also become a pretty proficient reader in English. 

Felix has joined our little house of boys, but his language ability is limited so ah-goo and grunting at this point. I've been telling the big boys that they need to speak to Felix in Korean, but I haven't enforced it so far. I need to come up with a language plan for him fairly soon. Something like: I speak English, KC and the other kids speak Korean.... but then what about the Chinese? Hmm.

We have been here for over 2 years now and it is finally feeling comfortable. Two years seems to be the amount of time it takes. We've settled down. We're in a different apartment complex (for the last year) which we love. The kids have their groups of friends, who are quite international. There's a gang of Korean boys on the bus, and a Korean basketball team on Sundays, which allows them to maintain a nice Korean social community while in Shanghai. Aiden's soccer team and Max's Kung Fu classes are Chinese. And we have a great group of friends from all over the place, with North America well represented. 

China still doesn't feel as comfortable as Korea, and it never will. I feel like I have a good sense of Korea, an impression in my mind of how things work. But my relationship with Korea is far longer, I gain a lot of insight into Korea through KC, we lived in Seoul for much longer (5 years), and we lived as locals, with the kids in public school. I used to go long periods without speaking to anybody who wasn't Korean. Here my life is different; we live in a bubble. It is not as opaque as it could be. We don't have a driver, we don't live in a villa, we take public transportation, we don't live in Jinqiao, our kids go to a Chinese school. But it is a private school, and they are in the international class. I would love to hang out and speak Chinese with the other moms from school (this, after all, is how I picked up so much Korean -- by lunching with the ladies) but it would be a burden to them since their English is fantastic. Our roots in Korea grow deeper and deeper because of the local school connection; every time we go back to visit, we run into Aiden's friends on the street, and the moms make as much effort as I do to maintain the kids' friendships. Seoul feels like home, and our neighborhood there is comfortable and easy. People know our names and we know theirs, and they are still around every time we go back. Because our friends in Shanghai are mostly international (even if they are from Shanghai originally), we are always saying goodbye and making new friends. In two years I won't know anybody here, I think. They will all be moving on. 

It's wonderful to meet international people because they understand so much of the way we live, and we understand each other so well. But like us they tread lightly in China; they are here to experience, and observe, to taste the air and leave and go taste the air somewhere else. They are not here to put down roots, to be invested, to shape this place. And for the most part their insight about China does not go longer than 5 or 6 years. They have an emotional relationship to China but it is personal, not so much historical. 

In Korea my friends are not so international, they are not so well traveled and maybe not as well educated, but they are Korea. They talk and understand from long experience in that one place, and their knowledge of that place is inseparable from themselves. What I learn about Korea when talking to the ladies at lunch may not be historical or factual but it teaches me about the categories and stories they carry around with them as they approach the world, and that teaches me about the way they understand things. 

I had hoped to develop a sense of China the way I did of Korea, but I don't think that's going to happen. We won't be here for long enough, my ties to the community are too superficial, and, let's face it, Chian is BIG. Much bigger, much more diverse, and much more regional than Korea. Maybe, in fact, I don't have a sense of Korea at all, just of my little area of Gang-nam in Seoul. But Gang-nam in Seoul is kind of where it's at, and a fourth of the population of Korea lives in Seoul. So that's a good start. But Shanghai, despite its size, is nothing compared to the rest of China, and even within China, there's so much regionalism. My ayi is from Sichuan, one tutor is from Shanghai, and the other is from Dong Bei somewhere (yes, we have a tutor for each child and an ayi, I am a total tai-tai now), and I can see the differences, and the skepticism and assumptions they arm themselves with when it comes to people from other regions. But I don't understand them. 

I wasn't expecting to emerge from this experience as an old China hand. I really hate it when people go to a country for a short time (and 2 years is a short time) and then talk about it like they really understand it. After all, I lived in the States for what? 28 years? And couldn't tell you the first thing about the Deep South or Texas or the Midwest (even though I lived in Ann Arbor) or LA or New York. I can't explain the Tea Party. I don't know what The Hills is about, or why people like wearing sweatpants with words written on the butt. So this is not a complaint or even really a post of disappointment. 

I'm not sure what it is. Maybe a proactive staying off of "what is China really like" type questions, which I can't answer. But also I think a preemptive sense of loss. Because I really would like to be able to hang around for another decade and see what happens here. I have already witnessed so many changes, and they are going to keep happening. Seoul is different, really different, each time I arrive. And China is changing even faster than that, fast enough to feel viscerally, every day, not just at intervals after leaving. But I won't get to stick around and witness this as a resident, because we are leaving in 4 months. We are moving back to Seoul for 18 months (give or take), then probably back to the U.S.

I haven't blogged for many reasons, some of them logistical, but underneath that there's been a hesitation to say anything until I actually had something to say. I remember coming to a point, after about 2.5 years in Korea, when things clicked in my head and all the fleeting impressions coalesced into stories, cause and effect, statements, insights. I've been waiting, patiently, for that to happen here, knowing it would take a long time. But now I'm out of time, so I'd better start typing. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back to Blogging. I think.

What's funny about c*ns*rsh*p is how it becomes automatic and internal over time. Whenever I leave China I engage in rabid facebooking, but I rarely look at youtube, twitter, and blogs. I have gotten out of the habit. 

While here, I could invest in a VPN like so many others, but I am too cheap to do it. And I'm so busy with the kids that blog-reading and youtubing were only activities I did in my few minutes of spare time, here and there, so when I found I could no longer do those, I didn't have much time to make a sustained effort to find work-arounds. And by the time I did have time to make an effort, I had already weaned myself of my old habits. I no longer need the Great Firewall, I am my own censor. How sad. 

Anyway, I've decided to try to get back into blogging, by e-mailing my posts in. We'll see how that goes. I won't be able to look at my own posts, and I can't moderate comments from here so you're comments won't show up until I leave the country again. But keep the comments coming. Some feedback from readers has encouraged me to start up again, though the blogging will be fitful at first! 

(the asterisks are just in case... paranoia has also made me less than an active blogger)