Volunteering orphanage style

There was only one time in my life I kept a journal, 1993-1994, the year I lived in Orphans’ Home of Korea (an orphanage in Uijongbu, 50 miles south of the DMZ).  I still can’t bring myself to read the words I wrote so many years ago.  I am sure most of the pages were about my pitiful adjustment to a country I could not claim.  It probably includes too many pages of my angst over losing a boyfriend and many friends who could not relate to the experience I was having.  I was foolhearty to think that I could do it alone and without support.  It still remains the single highest accomplishment of my life.  It was also the toughest thing I ever did but not for the reasons most people think of when volunteering in another country.

I went to Korea in lieu of the Peace Corps to “give back” and to “teach the children”.  How naive.  I quickly realized that I was the one getting more out of this experience.  After a couple of weekend visitors dropping off cartons of food or supplies, it became apparent that it kind of sucked to be on the recieving end of charity.  We all know what forced gratitude does to a person.  There was no joy for the children, they were neither grateful nor aware of the gifts as often times they actually didn’t get to see it, eat it or use it.  Things were doled out by the staff of the orphanage with such indignation that the kids just grabbed it and walked out of the room with little in the way of a gesture or word of thanks.  I felt contempt by the staff that the kids were getting things over and above what other children who were not orphans were getting.  I watched painfully as a child was reprimanded for losing her schoolbag and watched with horror that this child had to beg for a new one when I knew there was a whole closet of supplies waiting to be used.  I recall the epic battle to win the keys to the library so the children could study and actually use the books that were donated only to be told that their dirty feet were ruining the library and after only a month had to resign myself to giving back the key.  I watched a beautiful box of strawberries go bad because “the children won’t appreciate them”…in other words, why bother giving it to them.  The other Teacher (Sun) and I ended up making strawberry jam in hopes to salvage what was left.

It reminded me of a piece that got passed around among my friends last year…(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130998857).  In thinking about that year away, I was the beneficiary.  I got to give, to learn Korean, to learn about Korea, to travel, to feel like I was special and even got to meet my birthmother that year.  I walked away from that year with THE experience of a lifetime that culminated in a killer essay that I am convinced got me into Columbia University.  That year changed my lifepath and gave me purpose and drive to become a social worker.  It kept me focused and gave me a sense of accomplishment at a really young age.  It gave me the confidence to believe that nothing was impossible.

What was left in Korea was the same 52 kids who still stayed an orphan, never reunited with their birthfamilies and who grew up fending for themselves.  I would hope they would remember that crazy year with that American Unnie/Nuna who was nice and gave them some hope in their lives.  I hold onto the hope they remember the many attempts to bake cookies on the outdoor fire stove, paper chains and decorations that went up for the first time during the new year celebration, the outings to the movies and karaoke.  I really hope they remember the hours and hours of listening to their worries and concerns, the gentle nudging of their imaginations to hope and dream bigger and the feeling that there was someone who really cared about them.  Really though, I am sure they don’t think of me at all.  Their life path was set way before I got there and I did little, if anything, to change it in a different direction.

I have always been proud – almost covetous – of the time I spent in Korea maybe more because I haven’t met another adoptee who did what I did.  There are only a few people who have sat and looked at the boxes of photos and trinkets I collected.  I speak in cursory brushes about that time to as not to trample on the amazing memories I have of that year.  I have met those who have given back in smaller ways, for shorter amounts of time and through better funded organizations.  I admit, I judge.  After hearing presentations and seeing slideshows of photos of their time with the children, I look at them with judgment.  It’s not fair and all wrong.  I know the feeling of pride and sense of goodness that comes from such an experience.  I don’t have the courage to push to ask what has happened since for those babies and children?  What good did you really do?

I ask that of myself all the time.  What good did I really do?

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