"Ms. Park... why are there sprinklers watering the dusty athletic field that has no grass whatsoever?"
"Oh... The field gets too dusty, so they try to keep it damp. It's healthier for the students' lungs."
Weird. Especially since it rained yesterday. But hey... the answer makes more sense than not knowing.
Mr. Lee is a math teacher who takes my English conversation class for non-English teachers. He is the most capable of speaking in English (though some of the other teachers are just as good at reading/writing). He recently welcomed his second child--a son. We'd been studying families and the homework assignment was to write an essay describing his family. In the essay he said his son was 16 days old and in a 조리원. I had no idea what that was, so I asked him.
"It's a kind of place for children after they are born. A house kind of." His face looked a little pained as he searched for the words to explain. I misunderstood this as worry for his son and thought it might be an incubator.
"Like a small glass house that sometimes babies go if they are too early?"
"No. no. It's for babies and mothers. A resting place."
"Oh, not in a hospital?"
"No, not a hospital. It's warm. In Korea we think warm is good for the baby and the mother. And women help with the baby so my wife can rest."
"I don't think we have those in America. Like a place just for women and newborn babies so they don't have to cook for themselves and such? Nurses and other helpers take care of mom and baby?"
"Yes. For maybe three weeks."
"Wow! That would be so nice. Is it expensive?"
"Some. We are using an expensive place!" He says this with pride.
"How much is it?"
"Our place is 2,700,000 won."
"For the whole three weeks?"
"That's not too bad, considering how much help it must be to your wife!"
Back in the teacher's room, I tell Ms. Suh what I learned about 조리원 to confirm that I understood what Mr. Lee was saying. We then started talking about the differences between America and Korea in birth culture.
"I think American women and Korean women are different species," declares Ms. Suh with a playful smile on her face.
"No, no. Not different species! Just different cultures." I insist.
"My friend told me that in America when women give birth, they can walk the next day. That's not true in Korea."
I'd heard about the belief in Korea that after giving birth women should rest in a rather extreme fashion, so I objected quickly. "Korean women CAN walk, too. They just don't."
Ms. Suh insisted for a few minutes more, while I maintained that biologically, Korean women are capable of walking but culturally they are instructed not to do so, until Ms. Park (who has two children) returned to help us out.
"Ms Park, help us out. Can Korean women walk after giving birth?"
"Yes! Ms. Park will know because she has experience! Tell us!" Ms. Suh was very excited at this point.
Ms. Park gave us both the funniest deadpan look. "Well, people like to say that women can't walk after giving birth. But two hours after the birth of my daughter, I was up and walking around the hospital looking for her."
We all laughed.
After Ms. Suh went off to class, I learned more about the cultural practices surrounding birth in Korea from Ms. Park. Like women in the 조리원 are not supposed to stand to shower for the first few days (ew!) and have to be wheeled around like an invalid for a week or more.
Overall a very educational day for me...