I turned thirty here in Korea and was happy to have this incredible life of easy work and lots of free time. I could travel! I had time to exercise every day! I could have hobbies! I turned thirty-one and got a university job and MORE free time. And then it happened. Somewhere in between thirty-one and thirty-two, I started seeing babies and toddlers everywhere. What was happening? I wondered. Was Korea experiencing a baby surge? That couldn’t be it… the papers were reporting a steady decline in birthrate. And then I noticed a change in my behavior: upon seeing these tiny humans, instead of thinking, “Blech,” I would think, “Ohmygodit’ssocuuuuuuuuuute! I want to take it home with me!” I would pause in the middle of whatever I was doing to stare at said children and smile like an idiot. I stopped just short of grabbing mothers in the street to smell their babies’ heads. Somewhere between thirty-two and thirty-three, it peaked — full-on baby fever. When I saw any child under the age of three, my immediate reaction would be, “I WANT A BABY IN MY UTERUS RIGHT NOOOOOOOOOOW!” It freaked me the fuck out. At first, the fever only infected my uterus and not my brain, but eventually, it started getting so bad that I actually started questioning my choices and my path in life. For real.
Then last week, I invited a couple of the elementary school teachers I taught last semester over for dinner. I got a text from one of them: “Yes, Thursday is great! B can join us, and we’ll bring our children!” Oh, I thought warily. I didn’t expect that (I should have, in retrospect — babysitters aren’t really a thing here). I told them that I was looking forward to having all of them and decided on a child-friendly meal for eight. Yes, that’s right: five children were coming to my tiny apartment. Five children between the ages of four and ten. I child-proofed the apartment (or at least thought I child-proofed the apartment) and braced myself. The doorbell rang; as soon as the first two boys were in the door, they raced inside, immediately started climbing all over the furniture, running up and down the stairs, throwing things over my balcony (I live in a loft), and yelling at the top of their lungs, while their mom just watched, smiling. I quickly ran around the house and started shoving anything breakable or potentially embarrassing into cabinets when the door rang. Instead of answering the door while I was putting things away so her wildling children wouldn’t destroy them, my former teacher-student said, “Jo! The doorbell! B is expecting you!” I stopped, perplexed, and went downstairs to answer the door. Three more children rushed in and started to wreak havoc on my apartment. At one point in the night, one of them threw a rubber toy that I’d gotten as a gift off of the balcony, and it hit me in the head (I promptly put it in a drawer). I never got a chance to talk to the mothers, because the entire time we were either playing with the kids or watching them to make sure they didn’t suffocate or seriously injure themselves or each other.
My first reaction was one of irritation — when I was a kid and we went to a stranger’s house, we would never in a million years touch that person’s stuff without permission, let alone climb on his or her furniture! My mom wasn’t the type to spank us (I sure like to be spanked now, but that’s another story), but I have friends whose folks would have beat the stuffing out of them had they acted like this in a stranger’s house. I started relaxing once I started playing with the kids instead of freaking out about the way they were playing. It took me an hour to clean the place and put everything back after they left. The next morning, I tried to put a cultural perspective on it: In the US, we’re all about private property and private ownership. You don’t touch my shit. It’s an individualistic culture. Korea has a collectivist culture, so people share things. Everyone here is family. When I thought about it like that, I felt honored that the kids and their moms treated me like family… but still a bit rankled. Finally, I realized that the kids actually got to play and how valuable that it to them. In Korea, children study all the damn time. They never have the space or time to just be kids, and they got to be free for a couple of hours in my apartment, which is great. As they were leaving, their moms told me that all of their kids wanted to have their birthday parties in my house. “You couldn’t pay me enough,” I said, smiling.
Playing with kids generally makes me happy. I was a camp counselor for a long time, and actually enjoy running around with children — as long as it’s not in my house. They were pretty cute kids, and it was fun, but the best part of it all is that I no longer have baby fever. So, readers, if you’re experiencing this bizarre malady and wish to rid yourself of it, I recommend inviting five unruly children into your personal space.
*Actually, when I was a high school student, I fully planned on having kids some day… and then I became a teacher, and that ruined that.