Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Korea Toastmasters Conference 2011

The readers who occasion this blog from time to time are funny, smart, handsome and/or pretty. Or so I assume. They're also a forgiving bunch who digest awkward opening paragraphs with formidable skills of intellectual gastronomy. Thus I feel quite comfortable beginning this post with a tangential thought that I had, upon awakening at 4:30am this morning. You see, I didn't buy an air-conditioner for our Seoul residence because I tend to leave important purchases until they become painfully necessary. Heather and Ashley have various forms of temperature control at mother-in-law's house in Busan. But I'm not so lucky here. So I awoke, rather warmly, a little early. I think I'm a sensitive sleeper.

Anyway, that tangential thought.

If you're familiar with the blogging world, you'd probably know what a tag cloud is. It's a bunch of words, usually in the sidebar that have varying font sizes showing which words are used most frequently by the blog author. Do I have one? Wait. No I don't. Anyway, in molecular biology, we have a machine called a microarray. What a microarray can tell you is which of your genes are at different expression levels when compared to somebody else's. For example, one of your hair genes could be expressed at a higher activity level than your friend's, while your sweat gland gene could be lower. A microarray tells you what biological differences there are between you. If I was a blog and you were a blog, and genes were words, then a blog microarray would tell us how different our tagclouds appear. 

Does that make sense? I hope so.

So here's my tangential idea: Imagine all the spoken vocabulary that Koreans use in a day and translate it into English. We'll call that the Korean vocal tagcloud. Also imagine an Australian vocal tagcloud (already in English). Now compare the two using a microarray. What we'd see in the results would be the words that are more frequently used in one culture than the other. My guess is that some conspicuously overexpressed words in Korea would be ones like 'burden,' 'endure,' and 'delicious,' while Australians would overexpress 'G'day,' 'mate,' and 'relax.' 

We'd probably use the word 'barbecue' equally.

So the main point here is that the words 'burden' and 'endure' are a curiously frequent part of the Korean lexicon. During my time in the Korean tertiary education system, I've often felt that some of my fellow students are enduring some kind of burden. This causes them to pick subjects they're not particularly interested in, and study harder than they'd like to. Perhaps a more preferable alternative is to navigate life through intrinsic motivation.
So this all leads to the Toastmasters National Conference, that I attended a little while ago. You see, Toastmasters is an education system built purely on intrinsic motivation. It's a whole bunch of volunteers helping each other improve public speaking in their spare time. Amazing? Well, not everybody thinks so. 
In the photo above is Kiminari Azuma, a public speaking champion and our special guest from Japan. Kiminari told us a few useful things that day, one of which was his habit of always accepting speaking challenges by default.

Everything gets better with practice. I remember my first day giving a speech. I had a tail between my legs and waffled on about something that was of no interest to anyone.

We held the event at BEXCO in Busan and it was attended by a few hundred members from around Korea.

Here's our club, the South River Toastmasters. Quite possibly the finest club in the universe. I've just finished six months as president, which has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

The winner of the national speech competition was Frank Lev, from Sincheon Toastmasters. Members reach their zenith at the nationals, and it's an inspiring show.

The other half of my education comes from the lab. In the photo above are the boys of the Tsang Lab: Professor Tsang, Akechai and Dr Vahlberg. Our professor just finished his annual 3 months in Korea and is now back in Ottawa. Actually, I have to video conference with him in approximately one hour (8am every Tuesday). 

The only thing I dislike more than 8am Skyping, is 7am Skyping.

But we still manage to have our fair share of fun. Nothing says fun more than green bottles and shot glasses.

We've been going out a fair bit recently. Saving money via cheaper alcohol tends to cause an increase in the amount spent on Tylenol. But if I buy cheap Tylenol, then it kind of balances out.

Oh look, it's Ashley. Me and Ashley are already best friends. She's busy developing a personality and is now nearly two months old. 
Some people have pointed out that my legs are hairy in this photo. 

Hey, man. Stay focused on the cute baby, not the hairy legs.

She gets very excited by milk. When she's about to be fed, she opens her mouth and starts hyperventilating. And sometimes she smiles when she dreams.

I assume it's because she's dreaming about milk.

This photo is from when we were still in the maternity ward. Heather and I are proud parents. Having a kid is definitely no easy task, but a good thing to do. Hat tips go out to all the other parents and those who appreciate them.

And now it's time for me to start the day. 

Have a good one, everyone. 

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Our Daughter's Birth

Our little one is just over a month old now. She's with her mother in Busan, and I'm heading down there every second weekend to visit. The past month has been a rainstorm of activity with KTX bookings, diaper changes and all manner of things in between.

Things are going fine now, with a lot of support received from friends and family. Heather is seeming comfortable and is an excellent mother. The birth itself though, was a stressful event.

This is the story of how it all happened.

We entered the Areum Women's Hospital on Monday the 23rd of May at 10pm. The ETA was actually May 20th, but we wanted to wait for a natural birth if possible. By that time our little one was already a menacing 3.6kg, a big baby for a small mother. Taller mothers tend to have easier births, so say the midwives. The head of our daughter was 10cm wide, considered a large lump to pass. Bigger is not always better, in the world of births.

After some deliberating, we decided to choose labour induction via intravenous drip. The baby could be out in a matter of hours, they said. But every ward-wisened midwife knows only too well that every pregnancy is different.

Monday night passed with contractions a few times per hour. All I could do was attempt the act of sleep on a chair next to the lady of the day, as she lay uncomfortably on a hospital bed. Tuesday morning arrived, with the advice to walk around. Heather and I trolleyed her various drips (shown in the photo above) out into the corridor, and we shuffled slowly up and down the hallway. By this time she was feeling a fair amount of pain, and receiving what I could only imagine to be a very bad stomach cramp every 15 minutes. 

Tuesday morning passed excruciatingly slowly into Tuesday night, with mother-in-law ferrying food from home. Heather was not allowed to eat, and I was feeling very uneasy. The feeling could be described as riding a rollercoaster for the first time, backwards, while blindfolded. Deep down you're pretty sure that things will turn out okay, but that doesn't make it any less scary.

At 6pm, the nurses told us that the baby wasn't coming anytime soon and to retire to a hospital bedroom and return if there were further developments. Heather and I went to another floor and I fell asleep at 8:30pm. Heather rang my cell phone at 10pm, telling me she had gone back to the birthing room again.

If there ever were an understated euphemism in the world of medical nomenclature, 'labour' would be it. Heather was in an extremely uncomfortable state, twisted in an unnatural posture of pain on a delivery bed. Her toes bundled up and shuddered every 5 minutes, as labour reared a nasty dose of all-consuming pain. Attempting what reassuring conversation I could, along with hand-holding, it became clear that the pain experienced was not a regular knife-in-the-gut kind of jab, but some kind of blunt-edged sword inserted into the stomach and twisted slowly for 90 seconds at a time. At the end of each extended contraction, all she could do was gasp for breath and wait for the next one.

Heather had been in labour since late Monday (although her water wasn't breaking), but the nurses on night duty weren't particularly alarmed. They gave me a blanket and put on some piano music on a CD player. There, in that overwarmed maternity ward, holding the hand of a wife in pain and utterly unable to do anything but wait, I listened to a recording of a single person playing a piano. I have no idea what the meaning of it all was, but that's exactly what happened. The nurses told us to wait until 8:30am, when the doctor would be back. That was around 4am. For Heather, it was turning into a matter of whether she could survive the intensity while remaining psychologically stable. We kept conversation going, but anytime I asked her a question before a contraction started, she was physically incapable of replying for two minutes. At the end of the contraction, she had usually forgotten the question. We both did what we could to reassure each other. From time to time she would bang her wrists on the bed rails, repeatedly and hard, to try and distract herself from the pain.

Babies get born every hour in the Areum Women's Hospital during the daytime, but almost none at night. The longest hours that I've ever experienced passed, before the doctor came in, performed a cervical check and pulled back with a concerned expression. The cervix was dilated but the head of our baby was not where it was supposed to be. We then had two options: keep waiting or choose surgery.

There are a few things that are useful to discuss beforehand between a mother-to-be and her closest ones. Those would be: whether to induce labour, whether to use an epidural,  and in what scenarios a Caesarean will be chosen.

In general, natural births are a good thing, in a scientific sense. Passage through the birth canal can clear the airways of the child, and although damage occurs, it is not as bad as getting surgically eviscerated. I maintained my previous opinion, which was that the choice of surgery would always be up to Heather. Mother-in-law wasn't particularly keen on anything but a natural birth, but developments had left us little choice. Heather had been for 2 days without food, endured 36 hours of pain and there was no guarantee that further labour would orientate our daughter in the womb properly. Labour is also an extremely stressful experience for the baby. Heather chose to go under the knife. 

I concurred, and resigned myself to the skill of the doctors on duty.

Her mother was still under general anaesthetic when this photo of our daughter was taken, exactly 12 minutes old. She was placed slightly upside-down in a baby bed, to drain the mucus from her airways. Shortly after this, I was allowed to hold her with carefully washed hands. She was clearly awake, and for a brief moment she stopped crying, but was shivering from the temperature drop.

How did it feel?

Well, I was expecting some strong waves of emotion, but mostly I felt relieved, tired, happy and still a little worried all at the same time. It was definitely a good feeling, but in every sense of the word, I was exhausted.

Heather was out of action for a few hours, but mother-in-law and I were allowed to stare at our baby through the large windows of the intensive care unit. Baengy was awake and yawning every few minutes.

She was looking peaceful, but also as if she'd had a bit of a rough time. The first things I noticed were that her ears and mouth were exactly like her mother's.

After writing down the birth details, the first thing that the nurses of the Areum Women's Hospital do is to record a tiny ink footprint and handprint of the baby. It's a good way to avoid baby mix-ups in the intensive care unit.

Heather couldn't walk for a day or so, but was eventually back on her feet. My professor gave me some time off and I was allowed to stay at the hospital for a few days. One major difference between Korea and most western countries is that births in Korea occur at special birthing clinics, which also have accommodation options. Most mothers will choose to have an extended stay at the clinic for a couple of weeks before going home. This provides the benefit of being looked after with meals cooked, and the babies are taken care of by nurses while the mother recuperates.
Breastfeeding occurs whenever the baby awakens, with the nurses ringing each mother's bedroom. It's an interesting system, and one that I've come to appreciate.

The food is designed to be very mild and bland. It also serves a secondary purpose of getting everyone looking forward to going back home.

We soon named our daughter Ashley Farrand. Her Korean name is 이은서 (Eun-Seo Lee), suggested by her Korean grandmother. So her registered name is Ashley Eun-Seo Farrand, a delightful ethnographic mix of names. 

Ashley means Ash tree meadow, and Eun-Seo is from the Chinese characters which mean rising to, or achieving, dreams or aspirations.

Each day immediately after her birth it was clear to see her becoming visibly healthier and awake for longer. Very satisfying. Viewing times were in the afternoon, which were always the highlight of the day.

In Korea, they wrap up infants in these little sausage roll type affairs. Besides making the babies look hilariously cute, it also prevents them from injuring their fragile bones.

This video is of Ashley on her third day of life outside the womb. She's looking around because she can sense the movement of her bed, but newborns are actually blind for quite some time. They start seeing simple shades of black and white after a few days, but it takes longer for their brain to figure out what all the information means.

Heather took this photo of Ashley on her phone camera. 

I distributed it accordingly.

Here's one of the responses that made me chuckle. Rebecca is also pregnant, and due to give birth in early December. I wish both her and her husband loads of good luck.

Ashley is feeding and growing normally. All the medical tests were passed with flying colours and she's received her first vaccination shots already. 

She doesn't like needles - that's one thing she has in common with her parents.

There are a lot of things I like about this video, from the slow yawn to the expression of annoyance that subsides after the nurse repositions her head. 

Diaper changing, breastfeeding and crying during the night are the main activities going on these days. Newborns are a 24 hour liability, and Heather is performing marvellously. I'm doing what I can to participate, but the real action starts when they both move back to Seoul, which will probably be in a month.

In the end, I can only describe the process of birth as an ordeal, to which males can only ever participate at the periphery. It's a worthwhile ordeal to go through together; stressful, but of epic value. Some fathers tend to wait outside the maternity room or at home, but I imagine many women would appreciate their partners close by and staying, or pretending to stay as positive-minded as possible.