Dear Korean people,
I came to your country about a year ago, and have found it to be for the most part a delightful place. My friends and colleagues here have shown me incredible kindness and loyalty, the dynamic city of Seoul has kept me entertained, fascinated, and amazed with its rich mix of high technology and modern and ancient culture, and the natural beauty of the mountains and forests can take my breath away. So, it is with deep respect and admiration that I offer you the following (admittedly unsolicited, but hopefully not unwelcome) advice.
I read today, not for the first time, that the birth rate in Korea is among the lowest in the world, which is leading to rapid aging of the population, and fears of associated social problems in the years to come. While the reasons for this trend are complex, and cannot be addressed using a quick fix, I nonetheless recommend that if you are interested in increasing the number of women interested in having children in this great nation, you adopt the following policy: stop being so mean to pregnant women.
By mean, I don't mean the alternative (older) definition which is to be stingy or ungenerous. While many people have noted in public communication spaces that the prices of baby-related goods in Korea are absurdly high (to the point at which my Korean birthing class instructor and my Korean OB/GYN both recommended buying such basics as car seats and strollers overseas and bringing them here), I am enough of a believer in the power of the market to rest assured that an entrepreneur will soon notice the opportunities available for the first business to market low-cost, high-quality baby goods here, and solve this problem. Rather I am referring to the everyday practices of jostling and pushing pregnant women, pushing the "close doors" button on the elevator in blissful disregard to the pregnant woman shuffling toward the door as fast as she can on her swollen feet, elbowing pregnant women in the belly to encourage them to take up less space in the elevator, and denying even the most heavily pregnant women seats on the subway.
I know that my descriptions of these behaviors may come as a bit of a surprise to you. Do you really jostle and push pregnant women? Well of course you do. You jostle and push everyone. While I understand that this behavior is considered acceptable (although not necessarily polite), what to a normal person is a slight inconvenience can be a real danger to someone who is suddenly burdened with 10-15 extra kg, has had a dramatic shift in their center of gravity, and has the softening ligaments associated with late pregnancy, throwing their balance off, and rendering their movements distinctly wobbly. Just today, I was knocked over by someone, apparently someone in a hurry, as I walked down the street and fell so hard that I have badly bruised my wrist and shoulder, and skinned my knee. Luckily, I twisted during the fall, and managed to avoid landing on my huge pregnant belly. However, the fall was shocking, painful, and frightening. To add insult to injury, as I lay on the ground gasping for breath, not a single bypasser (and there were many) bothered to check and see if I was OK, or to help me up. Now I'm no expert on human behavior, but I would have thought that seeing an 8-months pregnant woman fall flat on her face should cause witnesses to feel some kind of concern. However, it seemed as if I could die or miscarry right there on the pavement in a busy public place without anyone being much disturbed.
Then there's the subway. Now I know that nobody likes to stand, and that seats are distributed on a first-come first-served basis. However, I noted with admiration on my pre-pregnancy trips on the subway that special seats are designated for the use of the elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant women. This is a wonderful design feature of the Seoul subway, and one of which the public transit system should be proud. However, it is now apparent to me that many of the people of Seoul are apparently unaware of the purpose of these seats, as just yesterday, I, a hugely pregnant woman, was forced to stand on two separate subway rides while young healthy families sat in the handicapped seats. On the second trip, I tried to gently remind one young family of their civic duty by pointing at the sign indicating that these seats are reserved for the elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant women, then pointing at my belly, and then pointing at the seat. The family thought that this was a very good opportunity to enjoy a detailed conversation with their young son about the fact that I am this funny shape because there's a baby in my belly while resting comfortably in their seats. Now I'm a big fan of education, and do believe that this was undoubtedly an important and special moment in their parent-child relationship. However, I nonetheless was somewhat disconcerted by their obvious comfort in sharing this happy moment while I stood on my hugely swollen ankles right in front of them, fuming.
Now I know from my interactions with people with whom I am actually acquainted that the Korean people are by nature kind, generous, and loyal. You have much to be proud of in this great nation. Therefore, I am confident that a little more attention to the etiquette of pregnancy will address this problem, leading to positive effects on the feelings of women here about pregnancy and childbirth, and hopefully an improved birth rate.
With respect and friendship,