There is a side of Korea that remains hidden behind
the shadows of success, behind the towering skyscrapers, snappily
dressed men and women, the brand names (albeit probably almost all
of them are imitations), ubiquitous cell phones in the latest, hi-tech
miniscule models. For awhile, Korean society had been able to maintain
its image as the miracle of all economic miracles – once a country
left in shambles after a horrific civil war, and in just two decades
transformed into an economically competitive nation in the international
market, with cosmopolitan, bustling cities.
With the 1997 Asian financial crisis, however,
the once well-masked cracks began to show. Society suddenly fell apart
– for the first time in a long while, there were homeless people
on the city streets, wandering the subways with their newspaper blankets.
Families began to disintegrate. Wives were leaving husbands. Parents
were leaving their children. According to an article in the Korea
Herald (Aug. 16, 1999), 9,292 children under 18 were placed into state
care or deserted by parents in 1998 – a 38 percent increase
from the previous year.
I was astounded when I first read about children
being abandoned and the rising number of single parents (many fathers).
How could this happen in a Confucian society where family values,
such as filial piety and loyalty, were so important?
This led me to a journey that summer to an orphanage
located 30 minutes outside of Seoul. Founded in 1959 by the United
Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief to care for children orphaned
by the Korean War, 20 years later, it grew to house and care for mentally
and physically handicapped boys along with the orphans. Today, there
are about 100 disabled children and about 50 non-disabled children
(before the financial crisis there had only been about 15 non-disabled
children in their care.) This particular orphanage has an on-site
special school that serves close to 500 children with disabilities
during the school year, counseling and training them. According to
its fact sheet, the orphanage exists "to provide the physical,
emotional, and spiritual needs for all its members." Here, I
saw the side of Korea that was hidden and hurting; when I actually
saw it for myself, I was speechless. It’s an image of South
Korea you don’t expect to see. I was only able to go about once
or twice a week, which amounted to six or seven visits, but each time
was a humbling, challenging experience – particularly when I
worked with the disabled group. They ranged from 5 years old to a
quite a few of them near my age (late teens, early 20s) or even older.
I would help out with the dinner shift and play with them. Other times,
I would be with the non-disabled children, teaching them a few English
words here and there. All were needy and poor, wanting love and attention.
Here are a few snippets of my experiences as documented in my diary…
(the names of the children have been changed, and I’ve left
out the organization’s name for privacy purposes).
July 16, 1999
Yesterday, I went to the orphanage. Found it after
a 30 minute bus ride and a 10 minute hike up an asphalt hill. It was
an eye-opening experience, to say the least. The facilities were actually
quite large – there were several buildings, classrooms and living
quarters. The volunteer coordinator, who happened to be a 1.5 generation
Korean American, gave me a quick tour in English and immediately put
me with the disabled children. I was caught off guard, unprepared
and nervous…but what else did I expect? As soon as I entered
one of the rooms, I stood there for a moment, motionless. I really
was unprepared to see what I saw.
It was a room full of little mentally handicapped
kids – a couple down syndrome kids, one mute, another boy who
couldn’t walk or talk. Each room – there were several–was
organized by small "families" with about 6-8 people under
the care of one um-mah, or mom. Immediately, I was assigned the task
to give the little boys showers. Scrub them, rub soap in their hair,
cleanse them with water. For the most part, the children could understand
simple commands in Korean and we would show them the action they were
supposed to do (like raise your hands up, turn around).
The smallest boy in the room–named Min-oo,
was soo cute. I watched him while he ate his mat-dong-san cracker
snack–he ate so slowly–as if it took everything in his
entire body to chew. It seemed that he even blinked fewer times while
he chewed…kind of like a computer trying to multitask and it’s
running out of RAM, so things take a lot slower to process and to
run. I was there for a couple hours, and we listened to Korean dong-yohs
(children’s songs) and I would dance with them. The kids for
the most part jumped around, mumbling sounds like the lyrics once
in awhile. The boy who couldn’t move or talk just looked around
listlessly. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do…but
the most difficult part came when the "mom" asked me, "why
don’t you play with the kids?" I momentarily froze. What
was I supposed to do with them? I couldn’t talk to them or play
games that they could understand. All I could do was copy along and
watch them "play" with their toys–which was to take
all their toys out (random plastic blocks, trucks, fisher price people),
scatter it out on the floor, and throw them back into the basket.
Then again. They would dump their toys out and throw them all back
in again, one by one. At one point, there was an older child with
down syndrome who was very possessive and headstrong that started
fighting with the mute child over a coloring book. But the mom took
care of that. Many of these "moms" are workers that for
the most part live on-site at the orphanage to raise and care for
these children. Just three hours was enough to tire me out. These
women must have an incredible amount of patience and love that can
only come from a divine source.
July 23, 1999
Today, I worked with the non-disabled children.
It’s a lot easier working with them. I taught a few of them
English. Or tried to teach them, rather. I gave them English names,
like Brian, Michael, and Julie. There was this one kid that clung
onto me. These children wanted to be loved. They wanted attention.
It broke my heart to see them all here. And I felt so helpless because
how much could I actually do, just coming for a couple hours a week?
July 30, 1999
After Korean class, I ran over to the orphanage
to help out with the dinner shift in the disabled dorms. I helped
carry food from the cafeteria–today it was a huge pot of soup
with some fish, and of course, rice and kimchee. I was in a different
room today. I spoon-fed one person who was my age…he could chew,
respond, talk rather simple and incoherent phrases to the untrained
ear, and understand Korean spoken to him. However, he did not have
any control over his motor skills.
There was one small kid–really cute, but
couldn’t understand a word I was saying to him…just kind
of ran around like crazy, making high shrilled screams once in awhile.
Another one, named Tae-Hyoung, really got attached to me. He loved
the attention. His head’s a little deformed in a Neanderthalic
way and understands very little. His speech is incoherent, and he
repeats things over and over again. This room was generally of an
older age group than the other one–one Down syndrome guy who
must have been about 20-some, another 25-ish guy who was an ahn jung
baeng-ee (one who can’t use his legs), and a couple older guys.
What affects me the most when I go there is during their meal time–when
they all say grace. It’s humbling to watch them. I was listening
more carefully today (saw it for the first time last Tuesday)–and
for some, it’s just a time of repeating some sounds really loudly
and somehow, by unison, they all end with a loud and bold "a-MEN!"
I wonder what they think about that. If they feel anything. If they
know what they are really doing, to whom. Sure, they don’t know
theology. But I think that probably, God lets them know who He is,
somehow, somewhere. And in some ways, I think they can experience
God’s love in more "pure" ways than I ever will. These
people really live moment by moment–they mostly remember by
the minute…and there are those times when they are all of a
sudden filled with happiness, with joy. But they also know pain in
an incredibly difficult and debilitating way. Yet their hearts are
always childlike, I think or have a greater capacity to be. I have
been given a lot more in abilities in comparison to these people,
but I think they might better use what they’ve been given, and
to the fullest, more than I can. And their lives are just as precious
in God’s sight, no more or no less than anyone else.
It’s tough trying to communicate with people
that do not understand what you’re saying half the time, and
to be patient and loving throughout the whole process. You can’t
use normal, day-to-day language, Korean or English. Sometimes, it’s
all through sign language. Sometimes, just copying their motions brings
a smile. Sometimes, you have to ask them again and again–other
times, they will tell you again and again without you having to ask.
Last Tuesday, there was one boy nicknamed Jjang; I felt like I connected
with him a couple times. He latched right on next to me and sit there,
drumming the floor. Then he would grab my hand and lead it to the
floor. I didn’t know what the heck he wanted at first–and
as kind as I tried to be, I was initially repulsed by his smell. There
is a subtle yet pungent jji-rin-nae stench that I recoiled from a
couple times upon entering some of the rooms. However, I can’t
let that stop me…I said a quick prayer, then I started to copy
his actions. I drummed the floor. A huge grin spread over his face
as he cricked his neck and closed his eyes. He had this wide-toothed
blue comb practically attached to his hand, and he ran his finger
across the teeth, making a grating sound. He grabbed my hand and brought
it to the comb. I repeated his action. We did this for awhile.
There was another kid I played with that day–we
were playing marbles with rough-edged, chipped baduk pieces. Again,
I was communicating by his example…or trying to figure out what
he was doing. He could understand all I said, just couldn’t
talk. When I understood, and started to flick baduk pieces at each
other and hit one, he gave me a thumbs up and a smile. He was a real
sweetie. After playing that, he sat me down and he brought his green-greyish
Jansport backpack, and carefully took out a couple of his precious
pictures. One of them was of a group of guys–singers, I think,
wearing Star Wars shirts…he liked it for some reason. The other
photo was of a guy and a girl, and when I asked him which one he liked,
the guy or the girl, he eagerly tapped at the girl and smiled. As
I laughed, he gazed into it deeply–holding the picture with
both hands… I wondered, what was he thinking? Why did he choose
those photos? What did he see that I didn’t see? Why that one–not
August 3, 1999
So, today, was yet another challenge–a challenge
that tests all the things I take for granted, as well as my patience
and lovingness. Today, I spent a lot of time with Tae-Hyoung. I said
"hi" to him, and he "hi"ed me back. We started
to communicate by giving high fives, which then turned into kind of
a patty cake session. Then, started the flood of incoherent phrases,
random words, and repeating, looking into his eyes, trying to understand.
He kept on repeating "movie," "gongyong" (and
doing some dragon-like firebreathing action–I’m assuming
he meant dinosaur? dragon?), "together," "stawa"
(Star Wars?)…I couldn’t understand, and he didn’t
completely understand my questions. Sometimes he would shake his head
vigorously yes to some of the things I said, then he would get all
confused, and I would get all confused.
For awhile after, we looked at the newspaper, and
he kept on pointing to things and I read to him what they said and
he would imitate me–like SBS. He could recognize LG, KBS, pointed
to pictures of soccer players and said it in Korean…things like
that. He firmly grasped my hand. After awhile, I started to lose my
patience with him because he wouldn’t let go of my hand if I
didn’t sit next to him; he would not understand no. He would
only grab harder and it would hurt. There was some pushing of limits.
But I just ended up sitting next to him, and holding his hand. Because
I think that’s probably one of the best things I can do…human
physical touch is so important, whether you’re mentally disabled
or not. At one point, he leaned his head against my shoulder, and
I patted his head. The Down syndrome guy started tickling my feet,
and I tickled him back. He was a smiley one. There was the ahn jung
baeng-ee who started to fold stars–so , of course, I folded
a crane. We talked a little about origami.
I had to leave around 7:20…Tae-Hyoung followed
me to the door, and he called out noona (older sister) and I said
ahnyoung (bye). He said, "noona," and I said "ahnyoung"
Even as I walked out into the hallway, the echoes
of his call, "noona" would follow me, and I would respond
into the hollow passageway, "ahnyoung." Even as I walked
out the building down the concrete hill, I heard a faint "noona"
coming out of an open window. I said an audible final "ahnyoung"
as I walked away toward the main street to catch the bus.
Janice Yoon ’01 is a Cabot House resident
and is concentrating in Social Studies.