Friday, April 16, 2010

Learning from my colleagues

"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...


  1. When I was born the Uk hospitals were still at the stage that moms stayed in hospital for about 10 days so they can recover and rest properly without distraction. They could sleep and feed the baby and bond with their child and go home when they were recovered from birth.
    In contrast, my sister gave birth last month and was home in about 2 days, would have been only 1 if she hadn't needed stitches.
    I think the rest thing is an awesome idea although not the wheeling around part or no standing in the shower...

  2. I know... it actually sounds awesome and I wonder if there are places like that in the U.S. The thing I'm MOST afraid of with giving birth is the first 3 weeks and no sleep. I do NOT do well without my eight hours. I really don't.

  3. Somehow my grandmother had 11 babies at her rural home (which included 2 who were stillborn), but her most impressive feat was huddling behind a bush for 10 hours just after delivering her fifth child as Hurricane Eleven of 1933 came ashore that day. My uncle still loves to take out the newspaper article from the local paper that reported his tragic death during the storm.

    But back then, they didn't have much choice. Sadly, in many parts of the world they still do it the same way. The rest of us just don't realize how lucky we are to live where we do.

  4. You asked, "I wonder if there are places like that in the U.S." Well, dear, that is why mothers or mothers-in-law come to stay right after the baby is born and stay sometimes for several weeks - they are not there to take care of the baby, but they take care of the house and the mother so the mother can rest and enjoy taking care of the baby. Just hinting....


  5. Hi

    I stopped by via expat women and just thought I would leave a comment so you know I was here :-)

    In Japan it seems similar to Korea- although I was able to leave the hospital after 4 nights when I gave birth to my son here, some places make you stay 6-7 nights and almost ALWAYS women return to their mothers home for the first month of a babies life.

    Is it also similar in Korea that they believe you should not take a baby outside for the first month of their life?

    The place sounds nice though! I had my mum come to Japan when my baby was born but I was still up and about, cooking, cleaning and what not- much to the surprise of the old ladies in my building that would see me taking the garbage out and find the need to tell me I should be lying down and/or not lifting anything.

  6. 조리원's sound like a fabulous cultural practice, but I know for a fact that not all Korean women "indulge" in them. A Korean professor I once worked with in Korea had her fifth baby and was back to lecturing the next day. She did have a MIL who lived with her, though. I'm sure that was a big part of her quick recovery.

  7. John,
    Part of the reason I think Koreans are so concerned about after birth health is that two generations ago, they were still a rural, third-world country, with rural, third-world infant (and mother) mortality rates. I asked if there was a home-birth movement here like there is in the U.S. and other western countries. There is not, but I have no doubt that after Korea's been longer established as wealthy, that will change. But now that they have a choice, they ironically think they DON'T have a choice.

    Lots of Korean women (and women around the world) still rely on family members. In the U.S. you can also hire doulas to come into your home. But something about the community of a place like this sounds really nice. As long as they let me stand and take a shower. Because ew.

    I think there is some set period (maybe 21 days, that sounds familiar) that women are not supposed to recieve outside visitors or leave the home (though obviously the expensive after-birth centers are now commonly accepted as an alternative). I believe it is also rare to take the child out during this time. It's so funny how many "truths" about health are actually cultural. Things like pregnancy and childbirth really highlight this! And I checked out your very interesting blog...

    It is fabulous. I would love to do something like that! But it is TOTALLY an indulgence. Upper and middle class Koreans don't really believe it is anymore (see my earlier statement about the irony of choice), but I was trying to indicate that through Ms. Park. She's a very strong woman. She told me that she went home from the 조리원 early because she was bored. I know another woman who was teaching the day before she went into labor. Obviously Korean women are not the fragile flowers that Korean society sometimes tries to make them out to be. It's pretty funny.

  8. I think it's a really good idea to sequester the baby away from visitors for the first weeks of his/her life. It really helps in building up his/her immune system.

    And in Korea back in the day, so that neighbors would have an idea of the news concerning the newest member of the community, the family would hang a cord along its main doorpost with trinkets to indicate the sex of the baby. For a boy it was dried pepper (naturally) and for a girl it was hanji. They also strung pine branches and charcoal for both exes. The red pepper was to ward away ghosts, the janji signified purity, the charcoal was for cleansing, and the pine branch signified longevity.

  9. Also according to my mother-in-law, in Korea, you are supposed to eat miyeok guk exclusively for 2 weeks after giving birth. No rice, no meat, nothing.

  10. After my son was born, I couldn't walk for about 36 hours :-( The funny thing was all of the Korean ladies in maternity were up about while I, the lone foreigner, was the only person in a wheelchair.

    I think the pushing phase typically lasts between twenty minutes and a hour for first time moms, whereas I pushed my kiddo out in about a minute. I think his lightning speed transition from inside to outside had something to do with my temporary immobility!

    I have a sneaking suspicion that while I was doing simple chores around the house as soon as I got home, all of the ladies walking around the hospital were suddenly incapacitated in their comfy beds. But good for them! Birthing babies is hard work. I'm glad women here get the chance to be treated like queens for a month after bringing a wonderful little person into the world.

  11. This is so interesting and, coming from a different culture funny. I am always amazed by the things that different cultures accept as cultural norm and have been lucky enough to be shown some of the funny things Americans accept as cultural norms as well. Keep on sharing your experiences. Always fun to read about different cultures and beliefs.



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