I crouch down to be eye level with a small girl. For the thousand time I attempt to say her name 열완 (Ryeo-won). It comes out a mess of vowels and sounds, tumbling over my tongue, expelled in chaos and very far from how you say her name. 열완 stares at me, blinking several times in exasperation before slowly and loudly saying each syllable. If she could roll her eyes she would, but I think my title as teacher is the only thing saving me from her letting loose the full barrage of attitude. I repeat after her, painful slow. “Okay.” She responds equally as slow and loud as before, giving me her approval of her butchered name, her disbelief at my struggles plain displayed on her face. Our interaction ends and she goes back to the other children. I once again schooled by a 8 year old child.
(The feeling or 기분 (Gi-boon) chat. How are you feeling today?)
This is a daily occurrence at my work site. I am constantly in awe of the children’s use of simple English sentences to communicate with me, when I can barely manage to say their two syllable name the same way twice, let alone a full thought. Mostly they speak quickly in Korean at me, not waiting for my struggling brain to catch up. Alternatively they snicker openly at my poor attempts of piecing together a sentence.
(What did you do last week? Did it involve butterflies and rivers? )
I am volunteering at a Children’s Center called Saeum. It is on the outskirts of Deajeon, a mere 50 minute bus ride for me. The site provides homework help, extracurricular activities and a hot meal after school to children living on or below the poverty line. All the children family’s receive welfare and make less then a certain income. The center is run by a pastor, 목사님 (pastor in Korean, Mok-sa-neem) and his wife 사모님 (Soe-sa-neem). The two of them have such love and passion for the work that they do, that I am constantly finding myself honored to be a part of their organization. I think caring for members of one’s own community is such important work; work that is frequently overlooked. Often when people think of helping poverty they ignore their own communities and backdoor poverty, instead look to far off countries to “save”. Ironic then that I have fallen into this same paradox, serving communities outside of my home and country. Living and working in Korea, has made me begin to think of ways that I can continue to serve whatever community I am living in.
(What starts out as a meaningful activity pretty quickly turns silliness.)
Some days the language gap between the children and I is less. The days in which a Korean “Buddy” Volunteers with me. On those days we lead games and lessons together, hoping to make the children laugh. Other days, it is just me and we end up playing games that take little language to communicate or tried and true favorites. My children’s favorite words are “Outside” and “Poor Kitty” (a game in which you pretend to be a cat, and attempt to make other laugh.)
(Sometimes is really fun to draw silly pictures together!)
Laughter is universal. People are born knowing in their heart how to laugh. Its the small moments of watching a ten year old crawl around meowing while the seven other children roll on the floor laughing that reminds me the spoken language is but one of many ways we build relationships. A helpful and convenient way, but not always required.
We have also been playing theatre games and music. Recently we have been miming extraordinary adventures with balloons, bikes and ladders and creating rhythms with our bodies. I am discovering each day the joy of learning to express one’s self without spoken word.
(Music is one of the most universal languages!)
I get to spend time with three different groups, a younger, lower elementary group of roughly 7 children, an upper elementary group of 8 and 3 lovely middle school girls. The younger children have taken it upon themselves to teach me all the outside games that are the most enjoyable. Using over exasperated motions, cutting over top of each other they explain.
(My Monday Buddy 수휘. We spend a lot of time laughing on the bus together, or just waiting for the bus that we missed…..)
As weeks go by,I have begun to realize that its not just games they are teaching. All the children are teaching me about Korean life. They are teaching me the rules; the expected behaviors and customs of their life and world. ( I was loudly corrected for putting the wrong piece of recycling in the wrong bin by one of the youngest students.) I am a stranger in their land and they have graciously taken me in. At times I see them look at me in confusion, wondering how I ever managed to get so big and still have so little understanding of the basic things.
I have entered their world; I am more of their student then they are mine.