Things feel like they’re getting dodgier on the Korean peninsula given so much talk about military options rather than diplomatic ones for ending the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Friend Ben and I were chatting about this and he got philosophical when I asked him whether he thinks I should leave. The response ended up being rather poetic, now that I look at the way the lines broke:
hard to say
if you leave
on the other hand
what is risk?
you face it every day in one form or another
crossing the street
climbing a stepstool to change a light bulb
We were walking home from dinner one night when Friend Mike picked up a glossy, full-color business card with a woman’s gigantic posterior on it and a phone number. As we continued walking, it was clear that was just one of many cards like that which had rained on the street.
Upon more investigation (read: asking more experienced Korea dwellers), it turns out we live pretty close to an area with many “love motels,” which are hotels you can rent for an hour at a time. Many young South Koreans who still live with their parents use these as a place to hook it up, but they would also be convenient for entrepreneurial exchanges, I assume.
At one party a few weeks ago, a group of us started talking about these cards and how the women you get probably do not look like the ones advertised on the business cards. That’s when one of my Korean-speaking American friends called up the number. There wasn’t a long exchange, so the main things we learned were logistics and pricing.
You book a room, then tell the service where it is. The woman will show up at the love motel at the appointed time and location, and you must pay the equivalent of $150 per hour. There was no elaboration as to what you can do with your hour, so presumably it depends on the professional who is sent to you. There have been other advertisements around that use the Korean “tteok” or “dok” (depending on how you want to romanize) to describe these ladies … Dok is the word for a white, doughy rice cake. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they’re called dok girls, but this is the kind of question I still have about the ol’ love motel sex business.
While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.
Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.
Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.
Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.
Right now it’s Tuesday morning and my infant daughter is off in slumberland, freeing me up to write about Jeju Island, which the Koreans say is the “Hawaii of Korea.” There ARE some things it has in common with Hawaii, like natural beauty and parts of the island so untouched that four way intersections have no stop signs or traffic lights, leaving you to your own devices.
I saw a UFO themed restaurant. I saw a waterfall without water falling. I saw a beach where everyone took off their shoes and lined them up on the boardwalk before stepping onto the sand. I tried a burger concoction that was a foot tall. I smelled fresh Jeju black pork on the barbecue grill, before quickly eating that, too. I visited a three-story Hello Kitty museum made complete with a Hello Kitty family portrait. I passed horses milling about near the highway. I went to a completely empty theme park the size and scale a large city zoo. The place called itself ‘Psyche World’ until it changed its name to something equally puzzling: Ecopia. There was a butterfly exhibit with only three butterflies. There was a giant castle displaying a jewel museum with likely fake but famous jewels, like that blue one from Titanic that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end. There was the promise of the ‘CSI EXPERIENCE: JEJU.’ There was an empty concert park with futuristic white seating in the grass, next to a display of two crocodiles. There was vastness in the emptiness. Store clerks and ticket punchers appeared when we walked past, but if you went back five minutes later, they were gone.
I have learned that if you travel with the kind of friends who will agree to go to a weird place like Jeju Island with you on a week’s notice, you will undoubtedly have a great time, despite feeling like you’re in a vortex. They are the Yau family, who are also American expats in Seoul who also arrived here in March. Who also happen to have a preschooler and an infant. When it came to kid supplies like diapers, water bottles and sunscreen, as Joe Yau said, “There’s so many built in redundancies this way.
The people who don’t frequent Jeju island are people who speak English. The eight of us spent the four day weekend speaking ‘hand Korean,’ which is generally just wildly gesticulating and getting responses we couldn’t understand, until the point the Korean speakers simply throw their arms into a giant X formation, which is the loudest silent rejection I’ve come to know in Korea. Since the GPS navigator was similarly in Korean only, a hotel employee had to come out to our car each morning and program in a destination for us and we crossed our fingers we’d wind up somewhere discernable. Considering many streets don’t even have names down there, it was a wonder we had a navigation device at all.
Here’s the thing. To me, vacation explorations are not just respites from routine but a chance to make yourself purposely uncomfortable or weirded out a little. It’s in those situations you learn and grow and laugh. There is so much laughter in the absurdity of a place like Jeju Island. We survived. Neigh, we thrived.
Early Thursday morning, I awoke suspecting something was … off. It was exactly a week before Hu-Stiles #2: Electric Boogaloo’s due date, and my inability to go back to sleep indicated maybe I was in labor. When actual contractions came on around 4am (just like with Eva), I called my mom, who wasn’t supposed to arrive from Taipei until Saturday, and told her I wanted her to get on a plane ASAP. Spouse Stiles started his husband-coaching and labor was ON, man. Contractions were getting moderate, but nothing I couldn’t handle while also getting Eva ready for school.
By about 8am, things were getting uncomfortable, and my Korean birthing center’s midwife wanted us to go ahead and go in because second babies tend to come faster (Teaser: This was NOT the case for me). We dropped Eva off at school along with my Dad, who is town for babysitting help, so he could take charge of picking her up later.
Now that we are home as a family of four, I can blog about the experience!
A Birth in Korea: Stray Observations
We chose Mediflower, a natural birthing center in Seoul’s Gangnam district, because I like things as un-medicalized as possible and Eva was born without any pain interventions to great results for mom/baby, so we wanted a repeat experience, if possible. Medical interventions during labor & delivery actually tend to be high in South Korea, which has a higher C-section rate than the U.S., even. So we really had to find a place that wasn’t going to take the control of the birth out of my hands.
That said, the experience wasn’t completely Western.
Take off your shoes. The center makes you take off your shoes, like any Korean home, upon entrance. They offer a wide array of slippers at the center entrance but each labor and delivery room had a slipper rack, too.
There’s an obsessive focus on meal time and meals. (This is not a complaint.) My midwife Suyeon, or “Su,” checked us in and immediately presented us a menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. If you’ve given birth in an American hospital, that is not a point they let you chow down, if they let you eat at all. You can choose Western style meals or the Korean meals, which feature lots of banchan and some sort of main soup, stew or noodle dish. My spouse Stiles chose Korean. I went with a cheeseburger, which I had to eat between contractions and just after laboring in the tub for awhile.
Koreans believe Miyeokguk is the elixir of life. At the hospital/birthing center, Miyeokguk is available at every meal. It is seaweed soup, and Korean moms who abide by the traditional “confinement month” or “sitting month” after having a baby basically have to eat this every day, nonstop, to help in recovery and to get milk flowing for baby. Seaweed is an alkaline food which helps with pH balance and it’s full of iodine, which the Koreans say you need for getting your lady parts healed. I like it well enough, but I can see how you could easily get sick of it.
As in any part of the world, labor and delivery is not a walk in the park. I just had to accept that this was going to be a long day, and that contractions get more painful and intense and the breaks in between them get shorter until you face the daunting part of pushing out a small human. At one point between contractions I tried bouncing on the ol’ ab ball and this started an impromptu singing of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” (key part includes ‘Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce’). This was fun until it got a contraction going again. I knew Matty was being especially forgiving while I was in labor because he usually doesn’t ever let me sing in front of him, ESPECIALLY not Ignition Remix.
The tub and rope setup was pretty handy. Every two rooms share a water birthing tub with these 50 Shades of Gray-looking ropes to hang onto. You can dim the lights and work your way through the contractions, or even deliver in the tub. I just used the tub to get through contractions and got in and out of it a few times during labor day. It felt nice but I wanted to move around too much to stay in there for baby.
My mom made it before the typhoon. Mom wasn’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday, but I didn’t think I could go through with the pain of delivering a baby naturally without my mom being with me for the birth. She got on one of the only flights from Taipei to Seoul left (and among the last before they started canceling them in anticipation of Typhoon Chanhom), and made it to the birthing center with TWENTY MINUTES to spare. I was pushing, despairing and at the ultimate nadir of the labor process by the time she got there. It’s pretty amazing that the baby took her sweet time and didn’t make her appearance until her Oma (grandma) was by my side.
After the hospital staff encouraged me to eat dinner (BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID), Isabel arrived at 7:12pm Thursday night at a healthy 8lbs, 4oz and 21 inches long. I shared a quick pic on social media, returned some emails and then went to bed for the night. Mom roomed-in with us so she did the overnight rocking and diaper changing when Isa fussed and I nursed the baby a few times while half-asleep.
The next morning I awoke to a living nightmare that was also hilarious. Remember how the water birthing tub is shared between two rooms? A laboring mom checked in next door while we were sleeping. I awoke Friday to the sound of what I thought was a slaughterhouse, but really, it was just the final moments of a water birth. Seriously, it was like the cows in Fast Food Nation. Mom and I started cracking up just hearing this ordeal because we really thought this woman was not going to survive, much less deliver a baby. I was flooded with memories of delivering Isa the night before and I shuddered at the thought. After a few really awkward and terrifying moments only HEARING what was behind door #2, we heard a baby crying. She did it!*
The lactation consultant was so pro that she seemed like a North Korean Olympics Coach. Before checking out, Isa got her first bath and I got a lactation consultation from an elite North Korean soldier. I mean, a South Korean lactation specialist. She was a bigger-framed lady, tough and stern and scary with her style. She could only coach me through a translator so we went through this elaborate dance of her jerking me around on the bed and squeezing my boobs and contorting the baby’s mouth and jaw to show me the ultimate positions for breast feeding. I was so bewildered that I’m not sure I got much out of it. But baby seems to be eating enough, so far. Her older sister loves her.
Isa got two birth certificates, one in each language. Next week she must go to the U.S. Embassy to declare herself as a U.S. citizen born abroad and to get her passport. The photo will be good for five years, which is going to be pretty funny.
*My mom later tried to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that if I thought the woman-next-door sounded bleak, that I sounded way scarier while delivering Isabel. I hope that’s not true…
We drove our Nissan up to my great-uncle’s and left it there in Potomac, Maryland, then took an Uber to the airport to make the great trek to South Korea. It was a trek indeed, as it included a false start: the first leg of our journey to San Francisco was canceled due to mechanical errors, plane de-icing taking too long, and timed-out pilots after we were forced to sit on the runway at Dulles for six hours. Pretty miserable. It didn’t make the next two days easy, in which we actually did fly to San Francisco and then on to Seoul’s Incheon Airport. But we are here now.
Since my life in Korea is largely for work, I’ll be blogging a lot at my new work-Tumblr, Elise Goes East. Please follow along and send me any suggestions. The posts will also be available on my public facing Facebook page. So those are two places you can easily reach me. Email or Kakao Talk (EliseHu00) are also methods.
It’s announcement time! I’m switching roles and becoming an international correspondent for NPR. That’s very cool. But what’s cooler is I get to open up a new Korea/Japan bureau for the company, based in Seoul. You know I like the beginnings of things.
For most of 2013, Friend Javaun and I would randomly yell “Annyeong” to each other from one floor to another at NPR headquarters, where the fourth floor overlooks the third. Never did I imagine that Annyeong could become a daily, non-ironic greeting.
I lived in Asia for a spell when I was 19 years old, with an all-male hip hop group that had just signed on with Warner Music Taiwan. The lead artist was an alum of a hot 1990’s Asian boy band called “L.A. Boyz” and my roommates were forming Machi, which went on to enjoy brief fame and a hit collaboration with Missy Elliott. The afternoon I went out for a movie with those boys in crowded shopping center was the only time I’ve ever experienced what it’s like to be chased by paparazzi and screaming teenage girls.
I think back on that time as a vortex. I know I lived those months in Taipei, but the experiences were so heightened and frenetic and strange that it still doesn’t feel real, even these 12 years later.
Now I live what is more akin to a “grownup” life. A real job. A spouse. A spawn. Two cats. My geriatric dog. And we’re about to uproot ourselves and charge into the Asian vortex, together.
We’re planning to move at the beginning of 2015. I don’t know what to do with our house yet. I am panicked about getting to see the final episodes of Mad Men without too much time delay. I worry about my 16-year-old dog surviving a cross-planet move. I am unsure of my own abilities to cover a place where I am illiterate.
But I’m also filled with excitement and wonder and gratitude for the chance to do this. I know how rare a privilege it is these days to get a chance to work overseas, supported by a large, well-funded news organization. As my friend and mentor Kinsey said, it’s invaluable experience that will change and shape our lives.