One fine Sunday afternoon a few years back, when my daughter, Anna, was a few months old, I found myself wandering through the electronics department at Emart. There was a ten-year-old girl singing for a small crowd and I stopped for a minute to listen. Difficult to ignore, she was singing along in nearly perfect tune with the greatest singer-songwriter of the 1980’s, Kenny Rogers. It was a good opportunity to relax during the exhausting task of grocery shopping with a young child in tow.
I stood there listening to that elementary girl singing in perfect harmony with the bearded one, occasionally brushing away the hand of a curious ajumma eager to touch the milky white skin of my child. The young singer made me think more deeply about being a father in Korea, and what lay ahead. Koreans’ karaoke skills often amaze me, but this girl really stirred some deep thinking about fatherhood.
By the third time the girl belted out the chorus “…daytime friends and nighttime lovers, hoping no one else discovers…”, I thought out loud 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 mistook my pantomime to mean that she should touch her leg instead of her cheek.
Before my wife, who hails from England, gave birth to our daughter, we knew that foreign babies were an uncommon sight in Busan. In fact, Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, so babies in general are not too common in Busan at all.
How things change. According to the World Bank, the birth rate in Korea in 1971 was 4.54. By 1988, when Seoul hosted the Olympics, the birthrate had declined to 1.54 and has steadily gone down to 1.2 – the world’s lowest.
The way I figure, with so few babies to go around, it gives the grandmothers and grandfathers, or halmonies and halabogies, 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-hippie backpack on the front carriers (called Ergo, for those in the market-know) halmonies would literally come to me and stick their hand right in her face and touch her cheek. Should I attempt to discourage an elderly woman, she would slyly move to another portion of skin, however minimal, she found exposed. My cries of ‘aneyo’ or ‘hajima’ pretty much went ignored. Never mind dad – I could almost hear them think, “Stupid man, does he know that I am a grandmother?”
From my own experience, and the shared experience of other foreigners with children in Busan, I still believe that in ajumma 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, that 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, until it became cute with those that saw her regularly.
Just about the time that I decided to start touching the ajumma’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, perfect choking-sized candy, even though at that point she only had one tooth. What business they thought she might conduct with candy, I do not know. At the end of a round trip from Guseo-dong to Haeundae, my wife and I might hold a dozen pieces of candy between us.
To be fair, people did/do not always try to touch or give her candy. 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 make us feel welcome.
One of the more groovy measures the elderly choose to express their love to our little girl 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 she tried to eat it.
Now two years old, Anna still gets touched, but her hands work well enough to occasionally give a hair pull or smack of a touch in return to the unwanted advances. When anyone invades her personal space, she utters something in Korean to them. This often causes them to pull back and laugh.
Ah, my little girl. They grow up so fast.
For more on parenting in Korea read Oh, Baby! by Daegu Pocket’s Craig White.