Birth rituals

Jean is a Korean-American woman whose parents moved to the United States in 1966. She shared with me some customs and rituals that her family performed during her first pregnancy.
“I’d gotten an ultrasound and so was told that it was a 70% chance we’d have a girl [they did]. Mom insisted on my lying down, and then she held a string tied around a pencil over my belly and watched it turn slowly. When it stopped in a particular position, she then declared I’d be having a girl for sure.

“My non-Korean husband and I also wanted to give our daughter a Korean middle name, so my mom went to a name broker for a list of lucky names using the second syllable that would be part of it. In Korea, each generation of a particular branch of a particular surname shares one syllable in their first name. There’s literally a list of syllables for each generation (my dad showed me the family book, written in Chinese characters, which he owns because he is the first son of a first son and so on), and the list specifies whether or not the syllable will be the first or second part of the name. All of the male siblings and cousins in that family will have the same syllable. My dad even discovered he had a cousin very far removed because when they met for the first time, they shared the same syllable in their first name. Usually the naming happens after the baby is born because things like date and time of birth affect the naming, but because we were in the US and needed to put something on the birth certificate right away, mom and the broker used the due date. Since this naming is usually applied only to the males of the family, which may be why quite a few Korean people have commented that my daughter’s Korean name is more masculine than feminine.

Mom also made me a traditional after-birth soup, seaweed soup (mi-yuk gook), which I ate for several days, [one recipe available here:] and then she asked if I could please stay home and not go out with the baby for 3 months. In the olden times, the newborn and mom didn’t go out for that period of time, which makes sense because of cold weather, too many folks who might pass on sicknesses, and general infant mortality rate. We then had a 100-day party (small) to officially celebrate her birth, and then on her first birthday, my parents held a really big party to celebrate their grandchild’s coming out. My daughter wore a traditional hanbok, and at the ceremonial table, several items were placed in front of them. The item she grabbed first would mean something about her life to be. She picked up uncooked rice, so my mom said she would never be hungry. (Pencils represented a scholar; money meant she would always have money; string meant a long life, etc.)”

These traditions are interesting because they reflect beliefs shared by many cultures regarding the importance of birth in determining the way a child’s life will progress. For example, the family book containing the name syllables and the tradition of each member of a generation sharing a particular syllable is similar to the less ritualized Western traditions of “family names” that are passed on through generations- my father is Edward Alexander Jr. and if I had been a boy, I would have been Edward Alexander III.

The 3 months ritual and the 100 days party are very interesting because they are traditions carried over from a time without pre-natal care and obstetrics, yet they still survive. Also interesting to note is that because Jean and her husband were living in the U.S. and needed a name right away, they modified the naming tradition a little bit and had the broker use the due date for the baby. It is possible that future generations of her family will continue to do the same thing, if they continue to live in the United States.