3.4 Winter 2021-2022

January 21, Korean nuclear family

I had plans to meet S but due a death in the family, she had to travel south for the funeral. My plans to meet H, long lost 2019 H, finally solidified. The last time I saw her she was pregnant with her first, and now she has two little ones.

She picked me up from the massive train station. I use the term “pick up” liberally, as she met me in the main hall with her double-seater stroller.

Her toddler was in school so there was only one occupant in the massive stroller. Her daughter, only 8 months old, stared at me with disdain.

We wound through the alleys to get to her house, the bottom floor of a duplex across from a sprawling apartment complex.

“My husband wanted to buy one of those a few years ago but they cost 600,000 dollars. Now they’re going for a million.” She sighed.

“Please forgive my small, messy house,” she said, pushing through the metal door into the duplex that looked exactly like a set from Reply 1994.

She made lunch for me and after she put the baby to sleep, we chatted for several hours in Korean and English.

“Oh no, time went so fast! I need to pick up my son.” She roused the baby and I elected to go with them. Nothing like pretending to be a part of someone else’s family.

The daycare center was inconspicuously located at the bottom of a villa along another backstreet. H herself grew up in this area, which is hard for me to wrap my head around. Can city folk really say they’re living large if they actually have occupied the same square mile their whole lives? Isn’t that just country living on a micro scale? Granted, with more amenities in between.

I swiveled the baby in the stroller every time she hiccuped threateningly while H and the other parents gathered outside the front door to slowly collect their offspring.

Her son finally emerged. He was… so small. He still had the baby voice. I was the first non-Korean he’d ever met, so he hid shyly in the double seater. I offered to push so H could take a small break. It’s good to be nice. And moms never get enough of the help they need.

In front of us, another boy from daycare yelled and hit the empty stroller his mom was pushing. She ignored him and he started punching her in the back. The mom simply pushed forward asking in a baby voice if he wanted to eat.

I stared. No one in my family would have gotten away with that. Let’s take a moment to pity that kid’s future teachers.

We pushed up an incline past the park. I made sure to keep my heavy breathing quiet as I wrestled the double stroller with two tiny occupants up the hill.

“No one has every pushed the stroller for me,” H observed sometime later.

“Your husband?” I asked in surprise.

“He’s a man!” She said, laughing.

We passed a stiff-looking man pushing his toddler in a basic stroller. Earlier at the daycare a hot dad cheerfully picked up his young son and pushed the Lexus of child-movers down the alley.

But every relationship is different. H said her husband is gentle and patient and didn’t gossip about him once, except to say his boss doesn’t let him come home early. And that though he speaks English really well he’s afraid of doing so in front of native speakers lest he be less than perfect.

Her son, once he recovered from the shock of a stranger and had wrestled his socks off by the front door, had no trouble laughing at me blowing raspberries. I just had to say “poop” a few times and he fell over laughing. He ate the cream from the middle of a pastry and brandished the rest at me on his small fingers.

Looks like I solved the mystery of why toddlers are always sticky.

“I think the mom life would suit you,” she said, glowing while looking at her baby. I hummed thoughtfully. H hasn’t gone back to work since I saw her in 2019 as Korea has excellent maternity leave for teachers; perhaps less out of social justice and more out of panic from a steadily declining birth rate.

Her kids are cute but I was surprised at myself. I wasn’t struck with any baby fever. I just thought, this has to be so tiring. With the right partner it looks hard enough, but with anyone less? I thought of Yana, who works full time, cares for her children full time, and is the primary cook and cleaner. She told me that her husband was working from home for a time but that she had to prepare his meals in advance because he couldn’t cook.

“Can he order delivery?” I had asked, astounded.

“I do that for him.” She replied.

I can’t begin to be so bold to assume I understand the inside of anyone’s relationship but I do know I personally could not live like that. H seems to be enjoying her mom life, though she could use some help.

I had been playing with her two kids– well, playing with her son and making sure he didn’t step on his prone baby sister– as she cleaned up the kitchen. He and I chased each other with spiky plastic dinosaurs and toy cars. She came in while my stegosaurus was walking on his head.

“I feel like I should pay you for babysitting,” she said. She laid down on the floor with us and cooed at the baby.

“I’m thinking of hiring a sitter, maybe a foreign student from the university, who can just come here an hour or two a week and play with the kids in English. That’s all I need to just pick things up a little.”

Again, moms! Let’s give them more help! I imagine plenty of students would jump at the chance to play with a few kids for an hour or two for pocket change.

When our time was up, the four of us wound back through the alleys of her old and new neighborhood, past the train station where she dropped a bag of leftovers on a bench.

“There are a lot of elderly homeless here so I leave food.”

H, you big softie!

Seoul contains multitudes like that: the glittering behemoth of the train station, the elderly without a social net who sleep on the benches just beyond the towering glass windows. A dad who won’t push a stroller, and a dad who blows raspberries into the belly of his toddler while lifting him into one. Perfect English ability and the fear of speaking English. A sprawling city but a lived experience in one borough. The universal humor of poop, and the local quirks of the neighborhood. Friends that go, and friends that invite you over for dinner after two years apart.

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