The classroom at the English kindergarten one floor down from my office was a study in multiculturalism in practice. Which is to say somewhat messy, loud, and hard to organize, but very well-intentioned. I found myself seated between a man from Pakistan and a woman from India in gorgeous traditional clothing, feeling a tad under-dressed in my Traditional American Blue Jeans (Made in China).
The occasion was the visit of a group of orphaned children from a local orphanage to my Saturday morning Korean class. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep the night before, even after my first experience at a Korean public bath house and the relaxation that afforded me. I woke up every hour on the hour until I finally got up at 8:30.
It poured all day yesterday, to the point that my umbrella was more for show than for remaining dry. I took the wrong bus by mistake and had to walk three blocks to the next stop, rivulets of rain forming on the inside (the inside!) of my umbrella and dripping on my head. I was still the very first to arrive at the class.
We spent the next hour struggling through places in Korean, with me feeling like a total idiot. At one point the teacher looked at me and said, “First class?” when it was clear that I had understood exactly nothing of what she’d just said.
“No, second class.” Not much of a better claim, really. Whatever, at least I can read Hanguel. I’ve nearly managed to extinguish the desire to respond in Spanish to everyone and simply nod politely. I call that linguistic progress.
When the orphans finally arrived, they were even more beautiful than I had imagined. I found it really hard to believe that anyone would give up such children, but then the pressure to conform to the societal pressure to only have children under wedded bliss is immense. Abortion is illegal, and access to contraception is not particularly easy. It’s not hard to see where that combination of factors leads, and South Korea contributes a large amount of children to the number of orphans in the world.
The children were all under the age of ten, and they were scattered around the room and loved on by all. I had brought a large map of the US and stickers for them, and sat next to a cute girl with a freckle on her nose the whole time. The leader of our classes gave a far-too-enthusiastic quiz to them, yelling and standing on the table with a bag of lollipops in hand. After an hour and a half, I was as bored as the children and tried to keep their interest by teaching them words for animals in English.
I don’t have any photos, because I felt like it was hollow to volunteer with orphans and then post fifty photos on Facebook. Everyone else blanketed the room with cameras and seemed to be more focused on getting the right shot than on spending time talking to the kids. Except Varsha, from India and very matronly in her sari. She pointed at my nose ring and complimented me for incorporating part of her culture. One pat on the back to the kids around her showed that she was no stranger to giving kindness to children.
“How many countries do we have here?” yelled the caffeined-up organizer.
India, Pakistan, the USA, Canada, Poland, Finland, China, Yemen, England, and Rwanda were all represented. One of the boys yelled, “A hundred thousand!” and the clever girl across the table joked with remarkable tact for a five-year-old, “One! 외국 (foreign)!” Everyone laughed and they were both showered in candy. I’ve rarely felt as a part of humanity as I did then, with so many ideas and languages and cultures jammed into one room. We all managed to set aside deep running confusion and cultural misunderstanding to just be people in a room with kids for a day.
I believe that I will adopt one day, but this was my first contact with orphans. I thought of those in my family’s history who came to the US without parents, fleeing situations that I can only guess at as their descendant. I thought of some of my Chilean students who lacked one or both parents, and especially of the one raising his three younger siblings in the absence of his mother. They are so resilient, so deserving of love and attention.
I know now more than ever that I will one day provide a stable home to kids like those. In the meantime, some packs of stickers and a couple words in English had to do.