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

Oh, to be more like…Daphne Odora Aureomarginata

  • seductive– despite Daphne’s reputation for being temperamental and capricious, gardeners simply can’t resist her wiles
  • elegant – well-dressed in all four seasons, this Daphne is evergreen with dashing variegated edging, and is in bud or bloom for months and months
  • a tease – dark pink flower buds start to form in the dead of winter, months before they coyly open to blossoms of the palest pink in March and April
  • unforgettable –  the fragrance of Daphne flowers is entrancing…intoxicating, but never cloying
  • steadfast – she’s demanding, but if you give her what she wants, she’ll beguile you for years

Weekend Snapshots

We bid a fond farewell to our friends Hiroshi and Naho, who return to Japan this week after two years in Charlottesville:

Helping Hands wrapped up its winter session. This is how much money we’re donating to some of our favorite organizations:

Soccer season began:

My sister and parents made the trek to C’ville, partly to see my son’s school play and partly for the bubble pancakes at Taste of China:

I wasn’t sure what the quickest route to my son’s school from the restaurant would be, so I asked my friend Siri. You know, the one who likes to mess with my head? (Lost) :

My mom said, “I can’t believe she called you a dummy!”

I can.

We somehow made it to Back Pain Candidate for Gloades School without Siri’s help. Café 007  is an annual event at Tandem Friends School. It’s a series of skits, poems, musical numbers, and short films written and performed by the seventh graders, who are all required to take drama for the second half of the year. To me this is learning at its finest. Putting a show like this together involves creative writing, problem-solving, cooperation, and collaboration…It was hilarious and moving to watch the kids performing skits and songs they’d written themselves, dancing with wild abandon, and hurling themselves headlong into their goofy roles. You could tell they trusted each other and the support of their community.

Rite 13, Pt. 2

Continued from yesterday’s post

We did a run-through of the liturgy. While all the other parents read the words out loud, I adopted a glazed, unfocused, slack-jawed look on my face and pretended I wasn’t even there. After the rehearsal, a couple of the youth leaders (saints of the highest order!) pulled me aside to warn me not to look in their direction during the actual ceremony. They would definitely be crying and they didn’t want to set me off. Please! Did they think they were dealing with an amateur? I was totally ready for this!

During the sermon, my son kept giving me sidelong glances. I could tell he was worried. Finally, it was time for Rite 13. He was called to the front along with eight other children and their parents.

As I took my place behind my son, I disassociated. I’m not quite sure where I went, but I was definitely not in that sanctuary with the rest of those poor souls. The only time my concentration was broken was when I heard my husband start to choke up. At that point, beads of sweat gathered on my brow, but I redoubled my efforts and managed to scramble and claw my way back to the safety of my alternate reality!

Those Episcopalians really know how to work the drama. At the end of the liturgy, the youth who had been sitting with their parents at the beginning of the service now leave them and sit together with their peers for the remainder of the hour. It’s the final jagged-edged knife to the heart, symbolizing the youth’s journey to adulthood.

I made it safely through. I know what you’re probably thinking. It was wrong of me not to have shown up for this once in a lifetime event. I should have experienced it, no matter how wrenching…A couple days after the service, in the privacy and sanctity of my own home, armed with a box of Kleenex, I did experience it. I pulled the text of the liturgy out of my purse where I had stowed it away. I allowed myself to really read it through, and I wept.

Here are some of the words:

Candidates, by the grace of God, you have lived through the pains and joys of childhood and have grown strong as young men and women. It is given to you to share in the power of God’s creation. You are blessed with the ability to create new ideas, new thoughts, new hopes for the world, and indeed to create new life. [Cue screeching of brakes sound effect! WHOA! Just…whoa!!!]

(Congregation in unison):
God of mercy and love, enfold these parents with your grace. Fill them with the joy of your presence. Rejoice with them as their sons and daughters become men and women. Strengthen them that they may support their daughters and sons as they begin the journey toward adulthood. Uphold them by your Spirit, that they may comfort them, although they can neither walk their road for them nor shield them from pain. Carry parents and children together safely through this journey, so that one day they may stand side by side as adults and friends, a joy and a comfort to each other all the days of their lives. Amen [These were the killer words that were the beginning of my undoing the first time I heard them].

(Parents address their sons and daughters in unison):
We thank God for the gift of your lives. As you begin to carve out the life that will be your own, we will stand behind you and support you. May we be patient and understanding, ready to guide and forgive, that in our love for you, you may know the love of God. You are holy and wonderful and blessed, and we will not look away from you. We are your parents, and we support you on this journey.


That’s my baby:

Hope your weekend is wonderful!

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