Kimchi and Doenjangjjigae (soybean paste stew) may be some of the signature comfort food for Koreans, but not for pregnant marriage immigrants, as the foreign nature of the dishes may lead to malnutrition and in worse cases cause newborns to be underweight, a recent study showed.
Female marriage immigrants are 1.3 times more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies than Korean women, apparently due to poor nutrition during pregnancy, not being used to Korean food and coping with cross-cultural stress, the study by Dr. Cho Geum-jun at Korea University Guro Hospital showed.
The study also found that 2.6 times more foreign-born wives live in remote regions that require them to drive at least an hour to visit a medical facility to give birth.
A total of 10.6 per cent migrant wives lived in such regions in 2012, while only 2.6 per cent of Korean women were residing in the areas.
Cho also quoted a study by Kyungpook National University which found that female marriage immigrants from Vietnam ― the university surveyed 180 ― hardly gained any weight while pregnant, and often did not show up for their regular checkups during and after pregnancies.
"Showing up for your regular checkups while you are pregnant is extremely important, because it lets your doctor detect any problems early on," Cho told The Korea Herald.
"At the same time, it's hard for pregnant women not to gain weight. Not gaining much weight means the mother may be suffering from malnutrition or severe morning sickness. Those two findings tell us that these mothers do not have either enough money, information or family support for their food and medical needs."
In fact, a 2013 study by professor Kim Young-mee at the Red Cross College of Nursing at Chung-Ang University found that 35.9 per cent of Korean husbands and 54.6 per cent of Korean mothers-in-law of 120 immigrant wives were not aware of or had little knowledge of postpartum culture in the women's home countries.
Kim, who is also a professional nurse, has taught many marriage immigrants as well as their Korean family members the importance of nutrition during pregnancy.
She has witnessed many foreign-born women being forced to eat Korean food only while suffering from morning sickness and after giving birth, as their in-laws and spouses wanted them to assimilate into Korean culture as soon as possible. As a result, the women sometimes ended up skipping meals.
Some in-laws simply didn't like the smell of non-Korean food in their house, she said.
"Many of the women told me that it was especially hard for them to cope with the smell of Korea's fermented dishes, such as kimchi, as well as the smell of garlic when they are dealing with morning sickness," she told The Korea Herald.
"One of the women I know was from Mongolia, and she had never eaten any seafood before moving to Korea. And all of the sudden, she was expected to eat miyeokguk ― a seaweed soup traditionally served on birthdays and to women who have just given birth. I was also told that many of the in-laws don't even explain what miyeoguk means in Korea's postpartum culture, and simply force their daughters-in-law to eat it."
Kim said mutual understanding and assimilation is very important in multicultural households.
Infants born with low birth weight ― often caused by insufficient prenatal care, poor nutrition of the mother as well as preterm birth ― carry a higher risk of infection, developmental delays and even obesity, according to Kim and Cho.
"It's disheartening to see cultural conflicts in households negatively affecting the newborns' health," Kim said. "All pregnant women should be allowed to eat what they would like to eat the most."
About 70 per cent of multicultural families in South Korea consist of Korean husbands and foreign-born wives, mostly from Southeast Asian countries and China.
The women on average marry their Korean spouses at age 26.9, and 80 per cent of them become pregnant within the first two years of marriage.