I seem to have left my blog in Korea along with my senses. Last I wrote, I had not come to the meat of my journey, the real reasons I was anticipating my trip with so much enthusiasm. The last three days of our trip was spent with my other family, the third one, the one connected to my orphanage. My time at the orphanage is unmeasured and remains a mystery. There is no one who is alive anymore to tell me where I was, who I was with and for how long. I am unfinished about how I feel about those missing 2.5 years, but that time of “transition” must have packed quite a punch in the creation of me. I can’t seem to forget about it and yet it no longer burdens me or terrifies my dreams. Instead, I have been filling that hole with memories of people who have taught me that family can be a choice.
By week’s end, we said goodbye to the luxurious Lotte Hotel and began our weekend with S and W. I can’t quite seem to find the right words for who they mean to me in my life. W is from my orphanage and so my “little brother.” The year I went to live in Korea, in the orphanage, S was a teacher there. We spent so much time together talking and sharing the load of caring for the kids, it created an intimacy I have with no one else. She was the only witness to a transformation that left me permanently connected to Korea beyond birth and culture. I left Korea 20 years ago having found a soul mate in her. So when S and W got married, it solidified in my mind the notion that they were my family. Their children call me “Como” (Paternal Aunt). And now, my children call them “Samcheon” and “Seungmo”. Every person has a name depending on how you are related, so these are really special.
First priority was food for us and then for our visit to the orphanage. My love for grocery shopping has not waned. There are some things I hope will come to the States. For one, there is a huge fridge of yogurts and instead of four packs, they come in twos and you can pack any multiple of two into a sealed bag – 10 for… Same goes for ice-pops among other things. Nice. Second, the ramen selection was AMAZING. I wanted to skip through the aisle singing “Food glorious food!” Third, all my favorite K-drama stars advertising everything and anything in full splendor and color. For our trip to the orphanage, we pre-ordered pizzas.
Our trip to OHK was long, updated, modern and very familiar. Things have changed a lot in the actual inside of the Home after the much publicized scandal of suspected abuse. There was a complete revamping of the first floor of the two floor building. Most apparent was the aesthetics of the place. There were paper flowers and cute signs everywhere replacing the barren walls. Second were the closed doors to the residential wings of the floor. You can’t just indiscriminately walk around. There were flat screen tvs in each wing replacing the one 16 inch that was in the cafeteria. There were bunk beds in each room with only two or four kids per room. I cannot believe the kids sleep in beds now, remembering that I had the only bed in the Home the last time I was there. There are more boys than girls here so the girls are upstairs. Bars and screens cover the windows now too. CCTV and a high tech security system is in place now. AND the kitchen! In 1993, the kitchen was still open to nature’s elements with the girls waking up early to built a fire to cook the rice in a cast iron cooking stove that looks just like what you will find in the Korean Folk Village or an historical drama representing thousands of years ago. The floor of the kitchen was made of stone and a hose was the source of COLD water to cook and wash dishes on the ground. Now, there is a proper enclosed kitchen with fridges, range and oven, countertops and tiles on the floor. That was a total OMG moment for me.
There seems to be an intention to humanize the children more too. Each child has a box for shoes with his/her name on it INSIDE the home. I cannot tell you how meaningful that was to S and me as we recalled the rubber house slippers the kids would wear, often mismatched. S talked about how the shoes would be frozen as they used to be outside of the residence. There is a photo of every child in the main office. Necessary and at first glance a little jarring, but I liked it. It acknowledges the existence of these children, something that was always missing when I was there.
And then there was much that didn’t change. The room to the “study” was locked and unused. Not a single kid was studying, reading or on the many computers lining the large community room. What kid doesn’t want to be on a computer these days? Something was wrong here. The “library” was locked because of “water damage to the ceiling”….and yet on closer examination, the books look like they were the exact same books from when I was there 20 years ago and untouched. What books would look so neat if 40+ kids were rifling through them even with the littlest amount of enthusiasm? The inaction spoke louder than the pretty tour and words we were given.
Most of all, the Home was still so eerily quiet. Visit any institution housing children and you will be startled at the silence. It is always so quiet. No laughing, no arguing, no talking. The empty looks on the kids’ faces have not changed either, leaving me with that feeling that I must do something, but not quite sure what would be of any use living halfway around the world and knowing my next time to Korea is always just a wish amounting to lots of hope. I forgot I could speak Korean and only stood in front of the kids, embarrassed at the grand introduction, and cried. We ate together though. Not one of the ten pizza pies went to waste. One group of mischievous boys decided to deconstruct the pizza instead of eat it. After a quiet round of elders looking at it and reprimanding them, I notice they begrudgingly sat down again and ate the entire pie. As always, the elder boys and girls dictated the younger ones.
I am unsure as to how the rest of our little family felt about this visit. We haven’t talked about it since that day. I will just wait to hear when they are ready. The boys went outside pretty quickly. The shrimp, cranberry, pepper, sausage concoction of a pizza was not remotely appetizing to them. S told me her own son rarely comes inside and her pre-adolescent daughter is less willing to stay inside and hang out with the kids as she connects the dots to this place that once was her father’s only home. We promised them a chance to swim and play in water so our visit was short. It was enough.
We brought kites, I couldn’t come empty handed. This was fine as it was the little boys who were the only talkative bunch and they seemed to genuinely like the kites. They must have known we were coming though. I was amused that the only person they talked to was George. The minute he got out of the car, they questioned whether he was indeed American and challenged him to say something in English! Hilarious.
Our day ended with hours of fun by a stream that was supposed to be waist high for swimming. Instead it was ankle deep, perfectly cold and enough entertainment for the kids to really bond and play. We went from a five star hotel with $7 coffee to sitting on the floor eating over a butane powered flame and some cold beers. The bathrooms were sketchy but brought back some funny memories for me. My big boy was mortified when he learned that he needed to fill the scooper with water to “flush” the toilet but grateful he was a boy so he could remain standing! No matter, it was good fun. We sat by the water, S and me, talking talking talking. Two ajummas now but laughing like we were still in our 20s.