By Annie Lee
My husband Seungyong and I left the small clinic near the beach motel where I was living and stood outside the door in the blistering cold for a good minute. He hugged me tight (knowing that seeing the implanted egg in my uterus was a great relief after a week of positive pregnancy tests with no other proof). We walked a few blocks toward the Haeundae train station where I caught the city bus for work every day. After we ate lunch, he was going to ride with me then part ways and go back to his mandatory duty in the Korean army. We walked down the long line of tiny, cheap restaurants where the taxi drivers eat, slightly bowing and greeting the cheery women calling for us to try their delicious foods. Those are the places I always know will be good. He taught me that.
We decided on (국밥) gukbap for lunch (guk- soup and bap- rice). It’s a thin-broth soup served with a perfect portion of rice- meant to be added to the scalding mixture, along with other seasonings. He ordered (돼지국밥) dwaeji-guk-bap, a hearty pork-parts soup and (뼈다귀해장국) bbyudagui hae-jang-guk, (bbyudagui means bones) a spicy broth soup with pork (back) meat on-the-bone (with boiled down sesame leaf and cabbage). That one’s first spoonful always reminds me of Mexican pozole.
Our hands met in the middle of the table barely touching. I was at-peace, drowned in after drama-hormones. We took turns admiring the small photo of our little black dot. Seung took a cheesy snapshot of me, but only to capture the man wearing a hospital gown in the background: he and his buddy, barefoot, at a table on the elevated floor, drinking soju and smoking cigarettes right next to three nurses on their lunch break. Two old ajjhumas in an open kitchen looked like sisters: stirring huge pots; chatting about Kim Jong-il’s death the day before; cursing and gossiping about South Korea’s lack of insight on the whole situation. Most of the updates we got here came from American newscasts.
One of the sisters slowly made her way over with two blistering, black stone bowls and set them down next to all of the accompaniments (marinated radish; hot chilies; hot paste; bean paste; marinated spinach; tiny, pink shrimp used for saltiness; and of course- kimchi). She grabbed the picture and grinned. Clamping her empty tray near her body, she reached out and touched both our forearms, mine then his, warmly congratulating us: “chukkhahaeyo.” We said “kamsahamnida” (thank you) and began to eat. At 5 1/2 weeks pregnant, I liked the smell of Seungyong’s bone soup more than my pork-parts. So, despite both women’s concern about the spice level for my condition, we traded. He’s sweet like that.
We finished our meals and walked toward the door to pay. I said “masheesoyo” (it was delicious). She was satisfied and as she handed us our change, she said: [Good, good. If you want to have a beautiful child, you have to eat beautiful foods.] My husband translated for me. “Wow, how cool was that?” I thought, as we left the still spellbinding smell of slow-cooked pork: “So profound!” We got on the bus just across the road and took it 20 minutes to the school where I was teaching.
As philosophical as the wise words sounded, I learned shortly thereafter, the old woman meant them quite literally. Being a pregnant woman in Korea has given me an inside perspective into Korean culture’s particularity about a woman’s behavior and habits during pregnancy. I learned that according to Korean tradition, there is a direct correlation between a woman and her baby that I never considered before. And though the times are changing and belief systems aren’t quite as stark as they used to be, the old ways of thinking have not been forgotten. In fact, they’ve been interpreted in a way I find funny and incredibly contageous.
I’ve been told that traditionally, pregnant women were taught never to look upon or focus on bad things and to only notice the good, the beautiful, and the desirable (and even to disregard dead flowers and insects). To ignore or to simply not see disagreeable things would guarantee purity and goodness in an unborn baby. These days, even watching thrillers makes my heart race. And considering the increased volume of my iron-rich blood, that exertion can’t be healthy for my heart. I’m a feel-good-type-of-movie girl anyway. It may be naïve to focus only on the pleasant and agreeable, but doing so does benefit my pregnant mind, which is prone to uncontrollable mal-infestation. These are all matters of mentality.
Matters of the physical, such as diet (not just in regards to nutrition) have been brought to my attention by many people, even by my husband who lived in America ten years before we met and by his mother who still lives there.
Expectant moms shouldn’t eat “broken” foods, such as broken crackers and cookies. Eating tofu also falls into this category because it crumbles easily. Quite literally, the theory is that broken foods would potentially jeopardize the strength and structure of the baby. Weak or broken foods might make a weak or broken baby. In addition, we pregnant ladies need to avoid bruised or scarred fruits to protect our babies from being born with bruises or scars. Typically, a young woman’s mother or mother-in-law will take great care in peeling and carving the perfect apple or pear with a sharp knife. It’s fascinating to watch. Hot and spicy foods, like the soup my husband traded me, should also be shunned from the diet, as pregnant women are already considered “hot” in temperature. Like one should avoid the sauna, she should avoid hot and spicy foods. I was even once told to stay away from duck meat for fear of the newborn having webbed feet. Though, that was said with a sly grin.
A culture so deeply rooted in tradition and centered on good food, peace of mind, and companionship: that is what made me fall in love with Korea. It isn’t a far stretch to take literally those philosophies and apply them to the powerful physical and mental connections between mother and child. Modern times cause for the dilution of unwavering beliefs and give rise to charming eccentricity. I once asked an elderly woman how she grew so old and beautiful. She told me she eats kimchi and drinks soju with every meal. And she meant it. It’s the undeniable tie to culture and food and tradition that captures me. It may or may not be what steers me away from over-ripe strawberries or suspenseful plotlines. But I know this much is true: I feel at ease depending on such old counsel and being in a place where the new meets the old and bows in reverence.