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What child-rearing customs reveal about Korea

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By Tim Alper 

As any resident of Korea will attest, there are few occasions quite as notable as a dol, a child’s first birthday. The grandeur of this day can eclipse even that of a wedding. However, the dol is only the very tip of a large iceberg when it comes to early child-rearing customs in Korea. 

Although Westerners may find certain similarities between their own cultures’ celebrations of childbirth and child-rearing and Korea’s, there are, in fact, a plethora of unique differences. 

Namely, baby showers, common in North America and parts of South America, do not exist per se in Korea. People here instead tend to save the festivities until after the baby’s birth, in part because in the past so many women died during late pregnancy and childbirth. 

On a similar note, high infant mortality rates of the past are often cited as a reason why people now make such a big deal about a child's first birthday. Certainly, prior to the 20th century the economy was relatively undeveloped and healthcare was fairly rudimentary, which meant that many children never lived to see their first birthday. 

To think of this as the sole reason for the exuberant dol celebrations, however, is incorrect. During the neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), for the most part only members of the yangban, or ruling class, were allowed to hold large, public celebrations for a child's first birthday. For ordinary folk to celebrate in a manner that might upstage their feudal overlords was considered a faux pas. Peasant classes thus tended to hold low-key dolcelebrations at home. 

The feudal system disappeared in the early 1900s, but the emerging middle class, still attracted to the yangban’s grand dol celebrations, began to develop what has essentially become the modern ceremony. 

Indeed, contemporary dol events have become a mesmerizing fusion of the grandeur of the yangban’s showy ceremonies and the humble home-based celebrations of the poor. 

Examples of the former can be seen in the child’s attire at the dol. For instance, baby girls celebrating their dolare supposed to wear gulle or jobawi hats. The gulle was once the preserve of the yangban, while the jobawi was also worn almost exclusively by ruling class women. 

However, the centerpiece of the dol – a fortunetelling event called the doljabi – is firmly rooted in peasant tradition. During the doljabi, infants are supposed to pick up one object from a tray of objects. These include, most typically, household items: a small amount of money, a needle, a woven thread and a book. 

The item that a child picks signifies the kind of characteristics it will supposedly go on to develop. The money represents financial acumen, the needle talent, the thread longevity and the book intellectuality. 

Even today, many families on the morning of the dol pray and prepare food offerings to Samshin, the shaman goddess of life and birth, as part of a ritual that quite possibly predates the arrival of Buddhism in Korea in A.D. 372. 

In the West, however, the dol has no direct equivalent. Celebrations tend to focus on the newly born or children’s passages into adulthood. Catholic and Jewish traditions, in fact, put an emphasis on both. Catholics hold baptism ceremonies shortly after birth and confirmation ceremonies at around the age of seven. Jews, meanwhile, holdbris ceremonies when a male child is eight days old to celebrate the boy’s circumcision. They also mark Bar Mitzvah coming-of-age ceremonies at the age of 13. 

Also quite different from Western tradition is the dol’s younger sibling, the baegil or 100-day event. This occasion has now become a small family gathering for immediate family, but it also incorporates elements of folk religion. 

Like the dol, the baegil sees some parents pray to Samshin for their child’s wellbeing. White and red tteok, or rice cake, is set on the celebratory table. The color of this food is highly symbolic. White represents the child’s purity and innocence, while long-held East Asian superstitions maintain that red has the power to ward off evil. 

It is not just large set-piece events like the 100 day birthday and the dol that so distinguish Koreans' post-childbirth traditions. Postpartum care centers are exceptionally hard to find in the West, but in Korea an overwhelming majority of women check into such centers for up to two weeks after giving birth. 

Known in Korean as joriwon, such centers are staffed not by medical professionals but by experienced lay nurses whose job it is to teach mothers the basics of early child-rearing. For most women, it gives them a chance to rest after giving birth and the opportunity to ease into motherhood. 

Differences between Korean and Western early childhood rearing habits are myriad. Although many Korean child-related customs are steeped in shamanist ritual, at their core they are essentially secular. Timing is also unique. The first year of a baby’s life is full of events in Korea, and pre-natal or coming-of-age rituals are rare. 

For anyone interested in exploring the subtle ways in which aspects of modern Korean society have survived the country’s long and tumultuous religious and political history, examining child-rearing customs offers some fascinating insights. 

Tim Alper is a writer and columnist, originally from the U.K., who has lived in Korea for the past ten years.