What to Expect When You’re Expecting in Korea, Pt. 1

When I found out I was pregnant, the feelings of excitement, joy and of course some nerves washed over me.

My expectations for pregnancy came from movies and growing up and hearing stories. The stories were more about my grandmother rushing to the hospital and getting pulled over by a police officer at 2 in the morning and other equally amusing things though and not at all about what giving birth or the preparation actually entailed. All of the stories were from people who had been in the States though and getting pregnant in Korea or anywhere else for that matter can be quite different. From cultural norms to expectations and how one would prepare, so many things, we discovered, prompted a conversation rather than an easy “yes” or “no” response. Here are some things to expect, if you get pregnant and decide to have a baby in Korea.

Rub My Belly

pregnant womanUnlike the States where it’s almost a given that family, friends and even a random passerby will just rub your belly without invitation to do so, in Korea this will not happen. Coming from a place where people seem to be constantly rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly and all of the blogs written by pregnant women have at least one post complaining about this practice, not having anyone rubbing my belly felt strange. My husband’s friends would stare and I would invite them to go ahead and touch my belly but each time they asked my husband first if it was really okay. He explained that where I come from, people do that so to me, it was fine.  Were I in the States, I may have gotten tired of the constant touching. Living here though, I ended up looking for people to touch my belly. They definitely got a kick out of it, sometimes literally.

You can change doctors many… many times.

There are hospitals and birthing centers all over this city, if you live in Seoul, and though they operate at generally the same level, though some will be more expensive than others, you need to find the right place for you. Don’t be worried about locking in a doctor early. You can switch as many times as you’d like and you can do it until quite late in the pregnancy. We went from my gynecologist to a doctor in a big hospital and finally settled on a doctor in a smaller birthing center near our home with no issues switching. You may think that English services will be far better at the bigger hospitals and thus head towards those, but they will also be more expensive. Doctors at many of the birthing centers we visited spoke English just fine. They were shy at first, but who isn’t when speaking another language? Take the time to look around, compare places and find something and someone that is right for you.

No Lamaze Classes

August On The Go: PregnantSome bigger hospitals or clinics that cater to a large foreign clientele may offer Lamaze classes or other preparation lessons, but in general and if you’re going the route that most Korean women go, there are no classes. As my second and third doctor put it, most here work under the assumption that as a woman, your body will know what to do to get you through the pregnancy and the birthing. It’s after the baby is born that you might need some help, but before that, no classes necessary. I should say, there are no specific birthing classes. There are prenatal yoga classes offered at community centers and birthing centers commonly though. This seemed contradictory to me as I am a planner and since I’ve never gone through a birth before, aside from when I was born, I wanted as much information as I could get.

“But, I don’t even know how far apart my contractions should be before I come to the hospital,” I went on.

“Oh, if you feel three or four contractions at a steady pace within an hour just come in and I’ll check to see how dilated you are. If it’s still early, I’ll send you home,” the doctor explained.

“And then when would I come back?”

“We would go over more information then, but you should just listen to your body and come in when you think you need assistance and we will be here. Call when you are on the way and we will be ready for you. Try not to worry so much about exact timing.”

“What position or positions should I be prepared  for? Can I stand, squat or sit depending on what is most comfortable for me? Should we practice?”

“You can just do whatever is most comfortable for you at the time. Sometimes the nurses will ask you to get into a specific position so that they can monitor the fetus, but other than that, we will just be there to assist you in however you feel comfortable.”

And that’s pretty much how that conversation went. Information is provided when it needs to be. Also, assumptions are that after you give birth you will either have your mother or mother-in-law come stay with you or you will stay with her for a time to learn what you need to learn and to be taken care of. If you don’t do this, many women in Korea stay in a postnatal hotel (산후조리원) of sorts. They may stay there from 2 weeks to a month to recuperate and to take classes on how to take care of their new baby. (I will provide more information on postnatal hotels in a later post.)

Enforcing English During Visits

This goes mostly for the mixed couples in Korea. My husband, who is Korean, attended every appointment with me. The doctor we started with had been my gynecologist and spoke English and Korean and never missed a beat in switching between the two so that we were both in the loop. Ultimately we decided to go a different direction, and a closer one, later. With the second two doctors that we had, I had to be quite strict about the doctor using English and Korean during appointments rather than relying on my husband to interpret. I didn’t want the doctors relying on him to tell me everything. I certainly wouldn’t be speaking Korean when I’m going through labor, I thought. I could already foresee that issue cropping up and my husband isn’t a doctor and medical jargon is not something he has studied so relying on him didn’t seem like it’d be comfortable for him or me.

Doctor: (Korean) Hello. I’m happy to see you brought your husband with you. That will be very helpful.

Me: (Korean) Yes, hello.

Husband: (Korean) Hello.

Doctor: (Korean) How have you been feeling? Any pain or anything you want to talk about first?

Me: (English) Do you speak English?

Doctor: (Korean) Yes, but only a little bit. Since your husband came, he can translate if you don’t understand, right?

Me: (English) I would prefer if you spoke English. My husband isn’t an interpreter, he is my husband. You can imagine the day that I’m giving birth, he isn’t going to want to be interpreting everything as well as taking in the birth.

Doctor: (Korean) Ah, yes. I’m not very good in English though so it may be better if I speak Korean and you can ask questions when you don’t understand something.

Me: (English) Let’s try everything in English and see how it goes.

Doctor: (English) Oh… okay.

Ultimately, she did a great job. I understood everything she said and she was happy that I had written down any questions I had as it was easier for her to read them and answer them for me. I had to use my strict teacher’s voice, but at the end I told her she did a great job and we’d love to keep her as our doctor. Don’t be scared to speak up and explain your needs. Of course Korean would be easier for the Korean doctors, but you will be going through months of a very new and different experience so find a doctor that is comfortable and willing to speak English. They exist.

Medical Terms & Jargon

While many doctors have studied abroad and can speak English, their bedside manner might be highly lacking. Where doctors in the States understand that the general public is scared by hospital jargon and big medical terms, doctors in Korea who have studied abroad are not so aware of this and may not know how to dumb down information. Statements may be made without explanations. As this was my first time becoming pregnant, I had a lot of questions and even more when I realized the doctors were going through their information with no regard for the audience, aka me, and my lack of knowledge. If you have a question, ask away and remember, like my grandmother says, no question is a dumb question. After the first two visits my doctor was so used to me coming in with a list of questions that instead of me butting in to get them out, she started asking me if I had questions or needed more information on something specific. Our meetings were longer than the other couples we saw go in and out, but she made time for me to ask my questions and I am thankful that she became aware of my needs.

Have you been pregnant in Korea? Have your experiences differed from mine? Let me know what you experienced concerning these different topics.

This is the first in a four part series on pregnancy related topics while in Korea. Be sure to read:

What to Expect When You’re Expecting in Korea, Pt. 2

What to Expect After Giving Birth in Korea

What to Expect When  You’re in Labor in Korea

And if you plan on staying in a post-natal hotel, check out:

Secrets of the Korea Post-Natal Hotel, Pt. 1

Secrets of the Korean Post-Natal Hotel, Pt. 2

What To Expect When You're Expecting In Korea, Pt. 1, Seoul, Korea: An expat is pregnant abroad. From rubbing your belly, lamaze class and English speaking doctors to much more. What to expect when you're pregnant in Korea.

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10 Responses

  1. Amandine says:

    Hey there, I’m expecting in Korea too 🙂 But my due date will be in May so still quite a long way to go!
    I really enjoyed reading your articles, especially since you started talking about your pregnancy just before I discovered that I was pregnant / a nice way to have insights on my future 😉
    We struggled as well for hospitals, being really disappointed when discovering that famous and big hospitals (like Cha Hospital) offer very poor service in regards to english (which is already not my mother tongue). But finally we found our way, and I also decided to try to go ahead with a post-natal care center, that exists only in Korea as far as I know, as I want to be able to enjoy this great experience.
    I hope you will have (or had) a wonderful experience in welcoming your new child.

    • Hallie says:

      Congratulations! I just posted the Part 2 to this post on some other things I noticed which are a bit different about becoming pregnant here. I’m actually due this week and probably a bit after that I’ll post about my experience at the post-natal care center, so keep checking back for more information. I hope you find it helpful. ^^

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