Keeping strangers’ fingers off your baby
BUSAN -- One fine Sunday afternoon when my daughter was a few months old, I found myself wandering through the electronics department of Emart. Fascinated by the singing of a 10-year-old girl, I paused to listen. She sang in nearly perfect tune with Kenny Rogers, the greatest singer-songwriter of the 1980s. Listening to that girl sing in perfect harmony, I occasionally batted away the hand of a curious ajumma, eager to touch the milky white skin of my child.
By the third time the girl belted out the chorus “... daytime friends and night lovers, hoping no one else discovers ...” I thought how I would ever explain those lyrics to my daughter when she reached a similar age. Then I made motions to another hovering ajumma, indicating that, yes, my daughter’s eyes are closed and she is indeed sleeping. She took my pantomime to mean that she should touch her leg instead of her cheek.
Before my wife gave birth to our daughter, we knew that foreign babies were not common in Busan. With our daily reading of the Korea Herald, we discovered that babies themselves used to be much more common in Korea. For the past 50 years, South Korea’s birthrate has been steadily declining. In 1960 the average Korean woman gave birth to about six babies. The rate has fallen so low that statistics from the last couple of years show Korean women can expect to birth just over one baby each on average in their lives.
With so few babies, it gives the grandmothers and grandfathers, or halmonies and halabodgies, plenty of pent up attention to lavish on my daughter. From the day she was born, she received no less than seven touches from strangers during even the shortest of subway journeys. While standing on the train with her strapped into one of those daddy backpacks on the front carriers (called Ergo, for those in the market - worth every pretty penny) halmonies would literally come to me and stick their hand right into her face and touch her cheek. Should I swat the elderly woman’s hand away, she would slyly move to another portion of my daughter’s skin, however minimally exposed it might be. My cries of “aneyo” or “opsyo” pretty much went ignored. Never mind dad. “Stupid foreigner, does he know that I am a grandmother?” one woman snapped back.
I still believe that in adjumma circles, bragging at the spa about touching a foreign baby trumps any other story shared in the scrubbing circle.
It made perfect sense then, that once my daughter started speaking a bit, her favorite word while riding the subway was “no.” When that failed to stop the touching, she switched to uttering her desires in Korean. Surprisingly, that worked quite well. That is, until it became cute with those that saw her regularly or for any journey that lasted more than 10 minutes.
Just about the time that I decided to start touching the adjumma’s face every time one touched my daughter, a new phenomenon began. People started giving my daughter candy and chocolate. Into her tiny little hand they placed perfectly wrapped, perfectly sweet, perfectly sized for choking, candy. She only had half a tooth. What business they thought she might conduct with candy, I do not know. At the end of a roundtrip from Guseodong to Haeundae Beach, my wife and I might hold a dozen pieces of candy between us.
Koreans can be incredibly kind and loving. Whether it be by offering seats on a train, telling her she is beautiful, or trying to help change her diaper, they do try and to make her feel welcome. One of the groovier ways the elderly use to express their love for this little “round eye” and “big nose” child - their words, not mine - is by giving her money. This happens much less often than the touching or candy giving. However, it always seems much more genuine and selfless. Money is healthier for her than the other two, as well. Except for those first few times when she tried to eat it.
Now 2 years old, she still gets touched, but now her hands work well enough to occasionally give a hair pull or smack in return. When anyone invades her personal space, she utters something in Korean to them. This often causes them to retract and laugh. My Korean skills are still minimal and mostly fatherly-daughter protection oriented, but I am pretty sure she says “Lay off the fish, I’m not just a cute foreigner, but vegetarian, too.”
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. - Ed.