The First 100 Days

After the 21st day of life, the next important Korean milestone is the 100th day of life, or baek-il. This is a relic of the days when infant mortality rates were high, and it was truly an occasion to celebrate when a baby made it to 100 days. On that 100th day, a family would traditionally pray and give food offerings to thank Samshin Halmoni (Birth Grandmother), the Shaman spirit of childbirth. The legend goes that a fifteen year old girl was seduced by a monk and became pregnant. Her scandalized and sanctimonious brothers locked her in a box and left her to die. Fortunately, her mother was able to free her, and she gave birth to triplet sons. Because of this heroic feat, she became Samshin Halmoni: the patron spirit of babies.

A party and feast are traditionally held for a baby’s baek-il. Samshin Halmoni is honored with prayers and food offerings. Red bean cakes are placed at the four compass points around the house to bring good fortune to the baby. It is also the custom to share rice cakes with 100 people to ensure long life for the baby.

The first time I learned about baek-il was when my first son was born. My mother called to tell me we should have a party to celebrate. And so we did!

We had a party for my second son too:

I was looking for photos of my daughter’s 100 day party and sadly realized that we must not have done this for her. This is the fate of third children. I know. I’m a third child myself. I did manage to take pictures of her on her 100th day:

This is a girl who knows how to celebrate, party or no party!

Today I’m leaving for New York City to celebrate my son’s 13th birthday. We will be meeting up with one of his best buddies, who is also turning 13, and his mother, one of my best buddies. I’ll be back some time next week with more birthday stories and pictures to share!

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63 Bowls of Seaweed Soup, or: The First 21 Days

In Korea the 21st day of a baby’s life (Saei-rye), the 100th day of life (Baek-il), the 1st birthday (Dol, or Doljanchi) and the 60th birthday (Hwangap) are considered important milestones. Long ago, when infant mortality rates were higher and average life expectancy much lower than they are now, reaching these milestones was truly something to celebrate. Today, though life expectancy has greatly improved, these milestones are still marked with age-old traditions and celebrations.

A Korean mother and her baby are basically in solitary confinement (samchil-il) for the first 21 days of the baby’s life. They are not supposed to leave the house, and no one (except maybe the mother’s mother) is allowed to visit. Traditionally, a straw rope would be hung across the gate in front of the house to announce a baby’s birth and gender, to warn people away, and to ward off evil spirits. If the baby was a boy, anatomically suggestive red chili peppers or tassels in the shape of peppers would be entwined in the rope:

Does this remind you of anything?

Remind you of anything?

Pine twigs, representing longevity and virtue, would announce the birth of a baby girl. Bits of charcoal, representing purity, would be interspersed with the chili peppers and the pine twigs to chase away evil spirits.

When each of our nieces and nephews was born, my siblings and I were dying to go visit the baby right away, but were strictly forbidden to do so by my mother until the baby was 21 days old. When she found out that I had gone to a book fair with one of my own babies only days after giving birth, she was positively apoplectic. During the period of samchil-il, both the new mother and her baby are supposed to stay at home bundled in warm clothing to rest and recover from the ordeal of childbirth.

My son’s birth was indeed an ordeal. After 20 hours of labor, he was born with an alarmingly pointy head, jaundice, and a fever. I had a broken tailbone that left me unable to sit for 10 weeks and was a physical and emotional wreck. When we were discharged from the hospital, I was panic-stricken. Couldn’t the doctors and nurses see that I had no idea what I was doing? I was astonished at how irresponsible they were being to entrust this poor, helpless babe to someone as obviously unfit for motherhood as I was.

Those first weeks were a time of constant anxiety. I was given strict orders to nurse my baby every two hours to clear up his jaundice, but because of the jaundice, he was extremely sleepy and lethargic. I was instructed to do whatever I had to do in order to wake him up to nurse. A visiting nurse suggested that I wake him up by putting a cold wet washcloth on his face, but even that didn’t work. Trying to keep him awake, nurse him, and keep him wrapped in the biliblanket that was also supposed to help clear up the jaundice felt like a Sisyphean task.

Fortunately for me, my mother didn’t wait 21 days to come visit. When she arrived, the clouds finally parted. It was Easter. The sun was shining and the flowers were blooming. I look at photos of this day and I can see the relief and joy on my face:

My mother came with a bag full of exotic ingredients with which she cooked a gigantic cauldron of seaweed soup (miyuk gook) for me. This is the traditional postpartum food that a mother is supposed to eat for the first  21 days after giving birth. Why seaweed soup? The new mother is not supposed to eat or drink anything cold. She is also not supposed to eat anything that is hard to chew, as the gums have been weakened. More importantly, the iron, calcium, and iodine in seaweed are supposed to aid in the recovery after childbirth and milk production. Koreans traditionally eat this soup every year on their birthday, because it is so closely associated with birth. My mother urged me to eat this soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I love Korean food, and my mother’s culinary skills are legendary, but there is no alchemy that can transform thick, rubbery bits of seaweed floating in broth into a palatable dish, especially when one is required to eat it three times a day. Every day she was there, my mother would heat up the soup and then sit across the table from me as I choked it down under her watchful gaze. The day she left, my mom made me promise to keep eating the soup until it was all gone.

I’ll never forget the utter despair I felt as my mom and dad drove away from our house to return to their own. I stood in the driveway clutching my baby and wailing disconsolately as I watched the car until it disappeared around the corner. I truly didn’t know how I could possibly manage without my mother there to help and guide me. I went back inside and ladled out a bowl of her seaweed soup with tears streaming down my face. My mother was no longer there, but I could taste her love in every slimy spoonful. I ate every last drop.

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Panoramic Sugar Eggs at the International Center

The Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the International Studies Office at the University of Virginia, is one of Charlottesville’s greatest treasures. The Center is located at 21 University Circle, in a grand old brick house built in 1914. When you enter you may be greeted by the cozy whistling of a silver samovar boiling up water for tea. The living room is filled with comfortable furniture and beautiful treasures from all over the world given as gifts by the many international guests who have stayed there over the years.

The International Center provides short-term lodgings for visiting scholars, meeting and reception space, and a variety of intercultural classes and workshops for the community that are almost always free. Subscribe to the monthly newsletter to find out what’s being offered and register in advance. Classes fill quickly!

Events coming up in April include: “Language Jumpstart: French,”  a lecture on “Chinese Medicine and Culture,”  “Step into Africa,” a Bluegrass Picnic and hoedown with live music, cooking classes on Brazilian, Singaporean, Chinese, Pakistani, and Southern cuisine, and a Zumba workshop. Ongoing, free English as a Second Language classes are offered throughout the year. Classes are led by volunteers, so if you have a special interest or area of expertise, it’s a wonderful way to get involved and to meet people from all over the world.

On Friday I took the kids to the International Center to make Panoramic Sugar Eggs. A tutorial and all the supplies were provided.

Here’s how you can make your own panoramic sugar eggs at home:

  • Whisk 2 egg whites until frothy. You can add food coloring to the egg whites if you’d like a colored egg.
  • Place 5 lbs. of white sugar in a large bowl. (Superfine sugar will give the eggs more sparkle).
  • Create a well in the sugar and pour in whisked egg whites.
  • Mix with hands 5 minutes until well blended.
  • Pack sugar mixture firmly into a mold. You can buy special egg molds, or just use a plastic Easter egg like this one with a flattened base:


  • Scrape tops of packed eggs with a knife to flatten, then remove from mold and place on a baking sheet flat side down.
  • Bake in preheated oven at 200 degrees for 20 minutes.
  • Hollow out the center of the egg halves with a spoon until the shells are about 1/2″ thick. (You can reuse scooped out sugar to make more eggs, just place in bowl and cover with damp paper towel).
  • Cut off the front of the narrower end of the egg and continue to hollow out the viewing window as necessary.
  • Let air dry for 2-3 hours, or put eggs on their backs into a 200 degree oven for another 45 minutes to finish hardening.
  • Gently rub two halves together to smooth edges.
  • Create a scene inside the egg by arranging small figures, candy, and “grass” inside egg. Secure everything with royal icing. (Beat two egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Add 4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar and beat for another minute. Add more egg white or sugar as needed. Tint with food coloring).
  • Pipe royal icing along an edge and press two halves of egg together. Run finger along edges to remove excess icing.
  • Use pastry bags filled with tinted icing to pipe borders and other decorations on the egg. A decorative border will hide the seams where the egg halves come together. You can pipe your own flowers onto the egg, or buy frosting flowers and attach them with icing.

A vertical egg can be made by cutting through the flat egg half, using the flattened area as a cutting guide to create the window. Try creating a base by packing sugar into the rounded wider edge of a plastic egg that opens vertically. Fasten the egg to the rounded side of the base with royal icing.

Eggs can be displayed for Easter, then wrapped in plastic and kept in a dark, dry place. Sugar eggs will last indefinitely.

Here are the eggs we made:

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Revolutionary Poetry

I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which traces the course of a friendship between two couples across decades. The husbands are both English professors and aspiring writers. One of them is a poet. In one scene the poet visits his then-girlfriend’s house and is drawn into a debate in which he is obliged to defend his wish to retreat like Yeats into a “bee-loud glade” to write poetry. “Poetry isn’t direct enough most of the time,” his soon-to-be wife protests, “It doesn’t concern itself with the vital issues. It may be nice to know how a poet feels when he looks out his window into a fresh snowfall, but it doesn’t help anyone feed his family.”

The same day I read this passage, I happened to read an interview with one of my favorite poets Li-Young Lee. He reveals that there was a period in his life when he wanted to quit writing poetry because he felt that writing poetry was inconsistent with the life of activism that he was trying to lead. He tried to set poetry aside, because it “didn’t do anything.”  (“The Totality of Causes: Li-Young Lee and Tina Chang in Conversation“).

Of course, this is a debate that has been going on for centuries. Does art have intrinsic value, or does it need to “do something”? Can we subject art to a value scale based on its utility? Where would utilitarian art or purely aesthetic art fall on such a scale?

I was delighted to discover the “Revolutionary Poetry” wall in Revolutionary Soup, a restaurant on the Corner in Charlottesville. Every time the door opens, the scraps of paper and napkins on which poems have been written flutter in the breeze. Some of the poems are quoted, some have obviously been written on the spot. “Leave one, or take one as you see fit,” says a card tacked up in the upper left hand corner. The poetry board encapsulates many of the reasons why poetry really does matter, and how it “does something.” Poetry inspires people to contemplate and interpret life through an aesthetic prism that demands a certain amount of concision. A poem’s brevity allows it to become a commodity or a gift that can be easily and freely exchanged. A poem may never feed a family, but, to quote the napkin poet, “the destination is filling.”

Here’s my poem scrap written long ago for my friend Amanda, who first introduced me to Li-Young Lee and many other poets…

For Amanda

My friend stores away poems as if they were glittering treasures.
On special occasions, she brings them out to show you.
She tells you their story, one by one
How they were bought, discovered, given.
But instead of putting the bracelet back in its velvet pouch,
Hanging the necklace back on its golden hook,
Or nestling the ring back in its jewelry box,
She hands it to you, and lets you wear it home.

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I am marking the occasion of my 111th post with a list of fabulous words that all have something to do with…words!

The first ones on my list all have to do with being too verbose, something I could easily be accused of after seven months of posting:

logorrhea/logomania – excessive wordiness

graphorrhea/graphomania – excessive writing

prolixity – excessive wordiness

If you were to drop some of these words into a casual conversation, you might be accused of being:

sesquipedalian, or using overly long, highfalutin words

And finally, a word that could be used to describe the act of writing a personal blog:

omphaloskepsis, or navel-gazing