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A Haven Hidden in the Hurting City :
My experiences at a Korean Orphanage

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 others?

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" again.

"Noona, ahnyoung."

"Ahnyoung." Giggle.

"Noona, 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.



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