I’ve never been one of those people who were accosted by strangers. I assume a blank stare and a closed-off expression when I go out, perfected over many years of living in large cities. In fact, when I was living in New York, nobody would ever stop me to ask for directions. But if I was with a particular friend of mine, everyone would ask her ― she’s one of those people with an open, warm expression. Here in Los Angeles, I often grab lunch with co-workers, and one of them especially radiates niceness; people stop her to ask for directions or just to chat. Every time we step out, a slightly mentally unstable person will stop her to tell her about pigeons or try to sell her something she doesn’t need.
But the wall I carefully constructed to ward off strangers collapsed when I had a baby. Harried moms would toss over their shoulders, “It gets better! I promise!” People stopped me to ask the baby’s name, how old she was, and what developmental milestone she met. The elderly in particular loved to coo at her. We started walking to the local farmers’ market every Sunday, where vendors offer fruit or bread samples, and we became friendly with a Korean couple selling apples. We always pass a homeless man who yells, “Good day to YOU, baby!” Whenever I bumped into a woman with a baby of a similar age, we would exchange vital stats: gender, age, name. To moms with newborns, I started saying what others had said to me: “You look GREAT! It gets better!” even though they really just looked plain exhausted and sometimes it doesn’t get better for a long time.
I expected things to be similar when we went to Korea ― it wasn’t. I had never realized how much Koreans enjoyed babies. On the plane, each time the baby screamed, a gaggle of flight attendants appeared out of thin air, holding a toy, playing peek-a-boo, offering to bounce the baby on her knee. The bulkhead seats were amazing not just because of the extra space, but because people in line for the bathroom would entertain my daughter, offer to hold her (a little strange at times), and tried to feed her (even stranger). When she walked up and down the aisle, people looked away from their screens and books, said “Hi,” waved, and talked to her. It was mind-blowing.
People stopped us on the street to talk to her, and gave her encouragement (when she toddled: “What a good walker you are!” when she ate something: “What a good eater you are!”). Everyone, whether they were other moms with babies, grandparents, young kids, businessmen, teenage boys or young soldiers, waved at her (“What a good waver!”) and entertained her. On the subway when she fussed, a man flipped open his phone to show her a photo of his dogs; on the elevator when she waved, a man on crutches laid one aside to wave back; in the park, teenage girls practicing a dance routine allowed her to join in; when she toddled past a beauty parlor, a woman inside rushed out to pick her up and give her a hug. Of course, the baby loved it. My dad even gave it an official name: managing her fans. Every morning, she would wake up and insist on going out, and my dad would go out with her, only to return sad because it was just too early for any fans to be about.
It made me wonder why Korean society was so child-friendly, while American society felt less so. Unlike in most of the United States, in Seoul I spotted parking spots for families, seats on public transportation for those with young kids, and nursing/pumping rooms in major subway stations, bookstores and other public places. For such a large city, Seoul felt like a small town. I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but I remember witnessing adults scolding children when they did anything dangerous or didn’t get up for an elder on the subway. Maybe that tendency still exists. In the United States, saying anything to someone else’s child risks an altercation with the parent. Of course, that might happen in Korea too, but my brief experience as a parent there made me appreciate the different ways kids are treated in these two cultures.
Then again, despite the fact that my daughter was wearing head-to-toe pink or purple most of the time, everyone in Korea thought she was a boy because she didn’t have long hair or a bow on her head. The baby, now that she has had a taste of the grand life, is on the hunt for fans to manage. Unfortunately for her, Los Angeles is much less dense than Seoul, and the fans she tries to engage mostly ignore her. It might be her first lesson in life: you can’t get everything you want.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at email@example.com or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.