Monday, November 07, 2011

Bringing up Baby/ Korea

Lucas, excited about some live fish in front of a restaurant.
No need to visit an aquarium when you live in Korea. 
Raising a preschooler in Korea with two foreign parents. Not a lot about this online. There are tons of blogs and online resources out there about living in Korea as a foreigner. There are quite a few on raising kids in Korea, too, but they seem to relate to families where at least one parent is Korean. Obviously there are families here in Korea where both parents are foreigners (we've spotted a couple), but they just don't seem to be writing on blogs or anything. Maybe because parenting a foreign child in Korea means you JUST DON'T HAVE TIME!!!

So, until someone points us to some resources, here is our in-progress guide.

Things You Should Know About Raising a Young Child in Korea

(when neither parent is Korean)


Let's begin with the fact that, unless you've been granted immigrant or some very long-term status in Korea, getting a car is basically out of the question. This is the first vital way in which those one-Korean-parent families differ from ours. So first of all, your grocery runs and errands are done on foot with the subway and bus (or sometimes taxi) as your only means of transportation. For those who are used to this, it may not be as difficult. But for someone who had car access and no walkable stores both in the US and Mexico, it requires a whole paradigm shift. You can only purchase as much as you can carry while still having the ability to grab your preschooler out of the way of a speeding moto on the sidewalk, or out of his trajectory towards the boxes of live silkworms on the sidewalk near the street market. This requires more strategic thinking, shorter shopping runs, and a lot more hair-pulling.
No, Lucas, we're not supposed to play with those.
Now here, help me carry this bottle of red cooking wine. 
Squeezing in here with a kid and large canvas bag full of groceries = madness.
In the US, it seems the budget baby-supply business is booming, and you can always find bargains on everything from diapers to stroller systems, even brand-new. Here in Korea, like in Mexico, those deals don't seem to exist, at least not as readily as they do back home. In Mexico we had the mercadito, street market, where people often sold secondhand stuff for a little bit cheaper, and you could often find baby gear for better prices. Here, the street markets near our house only sell food, so we're left to find clothes and gear at the superstores like HomePlus and SaveZone, which do NOT have the greatest prices for these things. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was the biggest contributing factor to our decision to potty-train Lucas soon after we arrived. Even diaper prices are shocking when you're used to a $20 store-brand box from Target that can last an entire month.
Korean Huggies: 60 diapers for nearly $30 US.
AmazonMom members might pass out when they read this.

Lots of foreign teachers get together at night in places around Seoul. My recruiter who matched me with this job hosted an event where teachers came from all around the surrounding province. We've hardly had a chance to take part in any of these get-togethers because when your child is having a meltdown in the apartment at 5:30pm, it seems like a suicide mission to attempt an event an hour away by subway that will likely last until 10pm. Carlos has gotten a chance to go out and have dinner/watch soccer matches with some of his teammates from his soccer team, but Lucas is just not ready for that, and Itaewon (a popular sector of the city for foreigners) is not reliably family-friendly after dark. Being a parent here means missing out on a lot of the events that other foreigners are enjoying.
Itaewon Freedom doesn't mean the same thing when you have a preschooler in tow.

The Curiosity!
While this can also be a major plus (see the Benefits section below), it can be a challenge for North Americans who are unaccustomed to it. You see, at least here in the Seoul metro region, Koreans are used to seeing foreigners out and about. But what they're NOT used to seeing is small foreign children out and about. Our little non-Korean preschooler is a tiny celebrity the moment he hits the street. Women and men, young and old, seem to come out of nowhere and swoop him up, hug him, kiss him, and/or gush about him in rapid Korean. I have discovered that Korean ladies who have reached grandma age all seem to have a supply of candy in their purses, and as soon as they see Lucas, they start offering it to him. If I try to politely decline (like after this scenario has played out several times in the day already), they look at me like I am one horrible, mean person. So I've learned to just accept it, and I'm sure Lucas has no complaints. What can be troubling to a Westerner is the proximity. In the US at least, infants and small kids tend to be protected from strangers and germs, and most US moms would be slightly horrified to have strange ladies grabbing their babies in public.
Just another day out with Lucas.
Conveniently 사탕,
satang or candy, was his first Korean word.

The Public Scrutiny
Meanwhile, any time we happen to experience a public parenting fail (example: Lucas decides to throw a toddler fit and lay down in the middle of a sidewalk because we're not stopping at Paris Baguette Cafe), there must be, BY LAW, an older Korean lady (A.K.A.아줌마, Ajumma) walking by to frown at us disapprovingly and perhaps even yell a few comments in Korean. Or he sits on the sidewalk, whining, because he doesn't want to walk anymore, and he doesn't appreciate our efforts to build walking endurance. Inevitably someone will come by and try to pick him up, as if maybe it just hadn't occurred to us that this is what he wants. In general, I feel like we're parenting in public and more subject to everyone else's analysis of our parenting skills, all the time. In the US, people may privately think critically about other people's parenting, and perhaps even talk about it behind their backs, but here they seem much more free to speak up about it to us (too bad we don't understand Korean yet) and even intervene. Although I don't generally care what other people think of my parenting practices, I do hate to be the obnoxious foreigner.
Ajummas, perched and ready to point out the foreigners' parenting failures


Other Kids
Having a preschooler means regular trips to the playground, where we have a chance to meet the most interesting little kids. Right on our own apartment complex playground, we've met some awesome little preschool and elementary kids, several of whom can shame my middle-schoolers with their conversational English. We're usually found right away by a little girl who is maybe 8 and her brother who I'd say is 5. They like to play with Lucas. The other day we passed them on the street as them got dropped off by the van from their Taekwondo school. The little girl waved and yelled, "Hi, Mimi!" Her brother then waved to Lucas and yelled, "Hi, Paco!" So we're all struggling with names a little bit....

Then there's a Kindergartener whose English blew me away. I asked her if she used to live in another country. She gave me a list, including Texas, Malaysia, and Singapore. Then she went and got her mom who explained the whole fascinating backstory. Seongnam has a more affluent, ritzy side full of families who travel and have lived in other countries. This is NOT that side, so it's always unusual to meet people here with experience outside Korea.

Another boy gets visibly frustrated with my inability to understand Korean, so he uses a stick in the sand to scratch out words in Korean, and then I use Google Translate to get an idea of what he's trying to communicate and perhaps find a response.

The Sidewalks 
This is one little aspect that I love. On most major sidewalks, and inside the transfer halls of most subway stations, these raised yellow grooves and dots are built right into the pavement. They're designed for the visually-impaired. The grooved lines continue for the full length of the sidewalk until an obstruction or intersection arrives, at which point you get a band of dots to signal caution. What non-parents probably don't realize is that this is an awesome way to teach a child to walk around a bit more independently. Although we hold Lucas' hand if it's crowded or there's anything dangerous, we can otherwise tell him to "just go straight on the yellow lines" and he happily walks until he comes to a dotted area, at which point he waits for us to proceed with him.
Photo from

People Approve of Harnesses!
When we go somewhere especially crowded, like the night we went to an international soccer match, we like to put on the monkey harness, just for a bit more peace of mind that he can't suddenly dart into a crowd and get lost. The first time we used it, I was concerned that people around us might disapprove that we've basically got our child on a leash (once again, obnoxious foreigner issues). But the moment we hit the street, people were gushing over it, giggling about how cute, poking their friends while pointing and smiling. Want to make your cute foreign kid even more of a novelty? Strap a monkey-shaped harness on their back.
Lucas calls him "Jack"

The Curiosity!
This can have its benefits, too. Where many foreigners seem to experience kind of a cold indifference from strangers on the street in Korea, we seem to get almost too much attention. Having a child with us means people are more comfortable to come up and start talking to us through their strained English conversation skills. They want to know where we're from, how old is Lucas, do we like Kimchi, what are we doing here. In addition, the freebies that come our way are astounding. Here's an example:
  • Pass the LG telecom service store. Outside is a display case which for reasons I can't explain, is full of little toy cars and planes along with promotional material about LG service. When the guy behind the display case sees Lucas, he smiles, reaches in and gives him one of the toy garbage trucks, says, "Do you like? Yes? Goodbye!"
  • Have a few encounters on the street with various passers-by smiling and exclaiming "Baby is very cute-ee!" from those who speak English,  or a barrage of other phrases in Korean, some of which we're beginning to recognize and understand. Perhaps another gift of candy.
  • Enter the mega-supermarket. Some ladies are selling these crisped rice cakes and other treats at the entrance. Upon seeing Lucas, they swarm him and we walk away with a bagful of treats they gave him.
  • Do our shopping as the fellow shoppers turn to look at us, stop, and smile to hear Lucas talking to us in English. Several say hello to us.
  • Stop at Baskin Robbins to treat Lucas for a successful shopping trip. The man working there adores Lucas and tries to spark up conversation with us in English, even as other customers wait to be served. We end up leaving with a free gift of a Baskin Robbins Lock&Lock pint container. Or another time, it was an entire gallon tub ("To keep his toys!" the man told us).  
  • Head to Lotteria (like McDonald's) for a quick meal. The girls behind the counter gush over Lucas and hand him a kid's meal toy even though he's just sharing adult menu items with us.
  • Get on the bus. It's crowded but right away, several ajummas offer their seats so that I can sit down with Lucas. This is the demographic most likely to fight to the death for those seats, but enter a mom with a kid, and suddenly everything changes.

These are all events that I suspect most foreigners without kids don't get to experience. Having Lucas with us really opens up an interesting world here.

Those are some observations of parenting in Korea that have formed over our first two months here. Anyone who has been there/done that, we'd appreciate your perspective!


Sandi Cedeno said...

I'm very proud of you, Carlos and Lucas. I am so glad that you have found a way to be togeher.

Lisa n Javi said...

Wow how interesting. Lucas is a big hit over there. It is so cool to learn how different cultures accept or react to differnt things. Cant wait to hear some more stories.

Anonymous said...

Hi there! I'm a fellow old member from VJ and i2us, and every few months I've checked out your blog to see where you are in your life. I'm extremely happy for you and your family, and I'm so glad that you are experiencing life together. :) Also, I also wanted to mention that you can watch free online K-dramas at and (you probably don't have a lot of free time, but not only are middle school & teen kids into these, so is the rest of Korea and other Asian countries - a good one to start with is Boys Over Flowers, which was popular 2 yrs ago). Anyway, happy ventures to you and your family. :)

Laura said...

Reading this gave me many flashbacks of being in Mexico: the lack of a car, using crazy transportation with a child, crazy stressful shopping trips, everyone offering my child candy, etc. It is definitely an adjustment but you are great parents and it is awesome that Lucas is having this cultural experience at such a young age. He will grow up to be a very versatile guy!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is one big change and at times it must be hard on you guys. I know you will do just fine and be bless your back as a family in your new future. Your friend Daisy

Corin said...

It's so much fun to read you adventures! Keep writing!

Luz said...

Hi Amy,

I'm an I2US member and followed your story since 2008 and I've also read your blog for a while, in this ocassion I couldn't resist to post a comment.

I admire your courage and perseverance, so glad that you're finally together as a family and I enjoy reading your stories for two reasons: there is always something new to learn, and you're a very talented writer.

I'm not Korean, but your kid is so adoreable that I'd also hug him and kiss him right away!

Take care and God bless you all :-)

Emily said...

It must be hard coming from an individualistic society to one of collectivism. The ajummas crack me up. I spit coffee all over my desk when I got that part. Too funny.

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