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The Wandering Life: Childbirth Overseas, An Experience Like None Other

By Jan Childs

My son will turn 14 in a few weeks. He was born at the 121st Military Hospital at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, South Korea.

The staff was a mix of Americans and Koreans, and on that particular night – Oct. 10, 2001 – there were two Korean nurses on duty in the OB unit.

A note before we go further: Please keep reading. I am not going to bore you or gross you out with the details of my “birth story.” Those who have been through it know what it’s like. Those who haven’t shall remain blissfully unaware of the trauma and complete disgustingness that is childbirth.

He was born quickly, but not after some minor drama. At one point the nurses couldn’t hear his heartbeat any more and, in an attempt to shift him around they told me to change positions.

More specifically, they told me to “be a turtle.”

A turtle?

Having never birthed a child before and being more than a little freaked out, I tried my best to follow their instructions. I rolled on my side and curled up in a little ball, my hands and feet tucked inside what I imagined was my shell.

Nope. “Be a turtle! Be a turtle!”

I rolled as far as I could onto my stomach and tried to get in the same curled up position.

Still not right.

I flopped onto my back again, this time with my arms and legs curled on top of myself.

Exasperated, one of the nurses got down on the floor to demonstrate while the other jostled me around. The nurse on the floor was on all fours.

A dog. They wanted me to be a dog.

They probably had a good time later talking to each other about the crazy American lady who didn’t know what a turtle was.

That night was the beginning of a few mishaps we’d have with a newborn baby in a foreign country.

We didn’t realize, for example, that his eyes had to be open for his passport photo. He was less than a month old. What do little babies do? Sleep. A lot. It took quite awhile to get that photo just right.

Eight months later, when we were getting ready to PCS out of Korea, we realized we were missing a vital piece of paperwork. We had never gotten our son the required visa that allowed him to legally be in the country. They would not let us leave without it.

The application process was at an office of the U.S. embassy and we were told it was pretty straightforward. After taking the train there, then waiting in line for over an hour, we handed the clerk our paperwork. He looked at it, looked at us, and asked why we hadn’t gotten the visa immediately. We told him we weren’t aware we needed it.

He said the process might be complicated. He acted like it could take a long time, and in my still-hazy state of new parenthood I thought he might have implied that it might not happen at all.

Then he handed us a pen and paper and told us we must write a letter of apology to the official in charge.

Ten minutes later, we had our visa.

When he was younger my son would tell people he was a mix of Korean, American and German. Now he usually says he’s from Florida, where my husband and I grew up, where his sister was born and where he lived in the first house he remembers.

But I will always think of him as my Korean Turtle Boy who was nearly detained for being an illegal immigrant.

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