Sunday, May 22, 2022

Meeting President Biden and Second Gentleman Emhoff

Normally when there is a major visit by a U.S. official to a foreign country, almost everyone at the U.S. embassy in the country pitches in by working directly on the visit or covering for their colleagues' normal duties while they work on the visit. Because I am on maternity leave right now, I got to enjoy some of the fun parts of two recent visits without stressing about the extensive work behind the scenes I would normally be involved in if I weren't out of the office.

I was fortunate enough to attend two events called meet and greets, which are exactly what they sound like: an opportunity to meet a high-level visitor. If there is space in the schedule, visitors will often do meet and greets with employees and their families serving overseas, including military service members and diplomats. Since M wasn't particularly interested, he stayed at home with baby S while I attended both meet and greets: one with Second Gentleman (i.e., the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris) Doug Emhoff and one with President Joe Biden.

The Second Gentleman was very down-to-earth and kind to everyone regardless of rank. He answered one of my questions and shook my hand, but I ended up kicking myself later for failing to request a photo with him. I would've liked that memento of the event, but I'm glad I went anyway and got to hear from him. It was also a nice opportunity to catch up with friends and coworkers I haven't seen while I've been on maternity leave.

The President of the United States (POTUS) had a much larger meet and greet, and as someone with a newborn at home I was grateful the event was outside while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. I scoped out a spot close to the front early and had a great view of the President's speech. He apparently loves children and spent quite a bit of time with Embassy employees' kids, taking photos and talking to them.

I was hoping to get a photo with him, but unfortunately I was unlucky and just a few people took up all the time he had in my section, with one even shoving me out of the way. I thought about trying to press my way to the front, but after getting pushed around a bit I decided I was not willing to fight people for just the possibility of a photo.

Oh, well, even if I didn't get a photo with either the Second Gentleman or the President at least I got to be a part of the events. It was fun to experience an official visit that way without having to organize or support any of the events myself. Next time, I'll make sure to strategize better and leave with a photo!

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Our First (and Possibly Only) Guest in Korea: Hosting My Sister!

My sister C came to visit us in South Korea all the way from Colorado! She stayed for 10 days, and due to the pandemic she was our first and possible only guest we will be able to host during our time here, as there are only a few months left in our tour before we return to DC. C was such a huge help with baby S, and it was so nice to catch up with her and talk excitedly about her upcoming wedding. (What can I say? It's a big year for our family!)

C's visit coincided with multiple relevant holidays. Together with our Korean extended family, we celebrated Orininal (어린이날, Children's Day) at home. My family was kind enough to bring gifts for the baby and fruit, cakes, and drinks to share. It was a great chance for both C and I to practice our Korean language skills and spend some quality time with our family. We haven't been able to see them nearly as much as I would have liked during the COVID-19 era, but I'm so grateful they got to see us and C and S.

Later that week, it was also Korean Parents' Day and my first U.S. Mother's Day as a mother myself. My heart is so full with the joy our child brings to me. Postpartum recovery is very tough, but simple things like seeing his smiling face or holding him close or washing his little fingers and toes make every challenge and sacrifice worth it. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be entrusted with his care.

It was also that wonderful time of year each spring in Korea leading up to Buddha's birthday when all the Buddhist temples and streets around them are decorated with lotus lanterns. C and I took advantage of the opportunity and went to Jogyesa Temple (조계사), where we took the first photo of this post, and to Gwangjang Market (광장시장) together while M watched baby S at home. The Temple was gorgeous as ever, and the market was wonderful. We had some delicious lunch of mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok, 빈대떡), dumplings (mandu, 만두), and pig's trotters (jokbal, 족발). The bindaetteok (pictured below) was the best I've ever had.

When we were done eating, we walked by the stall of Cho Yoonsun (조윤선), made famous by the Street Food show on Netflix. We were only gone a few hours, but the mom anxiety was real! I kept texting M to reassure me S was okay even though I knew he had everything he needed at home including plenty of refrigerated and frozen milk. Now I understand so much better why my new mom friends always said leaving the baby in the beginning was so hard.

My confidence built after that excursion, I decided to accept my friend J's offer for two free tickets to a musical performance by a group called the Young Ambassadors from Brigham Young University (BYU) at Yonsei University (연세대학교) in Seoul. I didn't realize Yonsei University was so close to the Seoul Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my church. There were more missionaries gathered together at the Young Ambassadors show than I've ever seen in one place in Korea. Several of them were joyfully hugging when we arrived, and I guess they hadn't seen each other in a while. The vibe of the whole event was energetic and wholesome, and it really recharged my emotional and spiritual batteries to enjoy performing arts in person: something my sister and I have always loved.

I saw the show with C while M took care of the baby again, and S did so well we even had a chance to grab bingsoo (빙수) at a local cafe together afterwards. The area around the university was very hip, with tons of cute shops and street performers, and the walk was delightful on a warm spring evening. It reminded me a little bit of my own college days. Now that S is already over a month old, I hope being apart from him once in a while helps ease my transition back to work in a few more months.

The time flew so fast (I'm sure in part because M and I live our lives these day in 2-4 hour segments dictated by S), but the time with C was so special and has become part of my most treasured memories from our tour in Korea. I can't wait to see her again in a few months for her wedding and our own return to the United States.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Two Weeks in a Korean Luxury Postnatal Spa

I'm so glad we decided to partake in the Korean practice of postponing taking our baby directly home from the hospital and staying at a sanhu joriwon (산후조리원), or postnatal luxury spa, also known as a postpartum care center, instead. Many middle-class Korean women opt for these accommodations for 1-3 weeks after birth or they hire a postpartum domestic worker called a doumi (도우미) to come to their home. Korea places a big emphasis on the recovery of the mother after childbirth, so the focus of these services is to allow the mother to have a bit of a break and for her body to heal while the new parents are learning to care for the latest addition to their family.

We stayed at a joriwon called Versailles (베르사유 산후조리원) in Gangnam for two weeks. Most women seemed to leave their husbands at home (or perhaps their husbands weren't able to take the time off of work), but I was so grateful M was able to stay with me the whole time. As I was recovering, I needed his help for a lot of things and I was relieved to have his constant care. Our room at the joriwon was like a comfortable hotel room equipped with a few postpartum-specific additions including a bassinet, an endless supply of diapers and postpartum gowns, and a sitz bath machine in the bathroom. Someone came to clean the room every day, and we had a lovely springtime view outside to a promenade by a lake.

The food at the joriwon was delicious and came very frequently. My food, three meals and two snacks per day, was included in our booking cost and we just added Marwan's meals to our tab for 10,000 Korean won (less than $10) a pop. Thank goodness I love Korean food and especially miyeokguk (미역국), the iron-rich seaweed soup traditionally given to mothers who have just given birth. It was so nice not to have to worry about any cooking and cleaning for those first few weeks so I could focus on feeding our baby.

Anyone who knows me also knows how much I love massages, and the joriwon did not disappoint in that respect. All the women staying at my joriwon received daily breast massages to stimulate milk production and prevent clogged ducts and mastitis. There was also this awesome leg sauna device I could use whenever I wanted. (One of my friends back home said this photo made it look like I was about to launch into space!) In addition, my package included three full-body postnatal massages that felt absolutely divine. Labor, childbirth, and recovery are no joke and I appreciated the extra attention to my aches and pains in the early days of motherhood. It took all of my self-control not to splurge for one of the many extremely expensive additional massage packages. They also had some "slimming treatment" packages available, but I'm honestly not sure exactly what those entailed and whether they were safe because I wasn't interested. After everything my body had been through with pregnancy and birth, I can tell you getting my pre-pregnancy body back as fast as possible was the last thing on my mind.

As part of the photo package we already purchased that included maternity photos, the same studio also sent a photographer to the joriwon to take newborn photos of baby S. They said we'll get to see the final versions of those photos when we come to the studio for our 50-day-old photos next month. He was so cute during the photo shoot but also very confused about what was happening. I can't wait to see them! We grabbed a few photos on my phone as they were taking the professional ones, so the first photo of this post is one of those.

The joriwon also included twice weekly visits by a pediatrician to examine all the babies there. Every time, the pediatrician said our baby seemed healthy and (to my relief) gaining weight and eating well once I was able to start breastfeeding. I heard some complaints from expat women that they felt joriwons were not supportive of exclusive breastfeeding, but I had the opposite experience. The nurses called me every time S was hungry so I could feed him and let me know if he hadn't eaten enough so I could keep going. They also taught me plenty of techniques for ensuring a good latch and waking him up when he was too sleepy to eat. I felt a little envy in the beginning for the formula feeding moms who were sleeping through the night every night while the nurses fed their babies, but at the end of the day I'm so thankful that breastfeeding seems to be working well for us. I am also so appreciative of formula, which helped us in the beginning as my milk was delayed and which is truly a miracle of modern science.

Having a team of nurses on call for help was probably the single best part about the joriwon experience. They taught us how to change a diaper, how to swaddle properly, how to discern different types of cries, how to bathe our baby safely, and more. Whenever we needed a break or just a nap, we could send S back to the nursery knowing they would call us for the next feeding and take care of any dirty diapers and fussiness in between. Every day that we spent at the joriwon, my body felt a little bit better and less in pain, and I don't think I would have healed as quickly if we'd been thrust out into the world on our own right away.

I will say I don't think our stay at the joriwon would have been nearly as comfortable without any Korean language skills. Almost nobody spoke English at the hospital or at the joriwon, so after three weeks of communicating extensively in Korean my brain was very tired. The owner of the joriwon did speak English and I spoke to at least one expat couple who stayed at our joriwon and didn't speak any Korean, but I personally have a hard time imagining how that would work between all the little daily interactions with people who didn't speak English.

It's wonderful to be home again, and thankfully S has adjusted well to the new environment so far. I'll miss having the team of nurses to call for help whenever I need them, but thanks to their training I feel much more prepared. They even gave us this awesome receiving blanket and rolled up cloth that we use multiple times a day to help make S more comfortable when he's feeding. We're so excited to start our new, real life on our own as a family of three now. I hope you enjoyed this little peek inside the joriwon experience!