Reflections of my #TenYearAnniversary to Korea :
I believe I’ve shared this story once on Facebook several years ago, and have only told a few people prior. I often struggle with sharing this particular story because this one feels very sacred to me. It is perhaps the only story that I’ve written where I’ve openly wept, and unable to bring this story on a storytelling format. So here’s a recap from that post with my own updated version:
“Back in my old teaching days of Korea, I dealt with the weekday chaos and blessings of 700 middle school boys, and somehow lived to tell about it. During break time, I would see students playfully wrestle and chase one another in the hallway, nearly knocking me as I’m bringing my laptop to the next classroom shortly followed by another student that decided to do the “ddong jim” (a common prank where a student puts 2 fingers together and pokes you in the butt). Of course, this would elicit a very agitated, soul-grabbing takedown of that student from me. Nevertheless, I felt like a big brother to many of my students even though there were many days where I wanted to just throw them out my classroom window. At the end of the day, I wanted to run back to my apartment, turn on my iPod and rest my voice for the next day.
One day when I was in the school office, I saw one of my students crying to my Korean co-teacher. I later asked her what happened.. She told me that he had been living by himself in his own home. His mom disappeared, and his dad would only come home twice a month. As a 7th grader, he was home alone and had to make meals by himself, and do his own housework. One day, his father changed the entry lock into their home. My student called the police, and when they confronted his father, he told them that he didn’t know who he was—right in front of his own son..
My student tearfully told my co-teacher that he had no future, and didn’t feel anyone loved him. I was so shaken hearing this. I knew in my mind that there had to be something that i could do. I remembered just randomly blurting out to her, “I can take him out for dinner after school sometimes.” My co-teacher paused and looked at me, and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I became a little hesitant because it was not my job to be a savior and rescue him out of a terrible situation. Then I remembered the impact that a few of my teachers did for me when they took me under their wings when I would get bullied by my white classmates and when I was secretly contemplating suicide after dealing with not just the bullying, but also the constant shaming from my dad. For my student, I was hoping to at least give him a reason to trust an adult when the ones in his life were abandoning him. I was concerned about what his situation could potentially lead him down to.
My co-teacher complied and she asked him if it was okay for me to hang out with him. He would agree to my request.
I never had him in my class since he was in a lower-level English class. He barely spoke English, and I was not exactly conversational in Korean either. During my first dinner with him, I took him out to a Korean barbecue place, I was amazed by his mannerisms and politeness despite the absence of his parents. We mostly communicated by hand gestures and one word replies in English or Korean. He was shy yet so kind. Each week, I took him out to different local places nearby. We never had a full conversation, but the food we had, at least made us feel comfortable with our limited interactions.
One night, his father threw him out of the house in the middle of the night and he was forced to sleep in the school playground. My co-teacher found out about it and he had to be moved into an orphanage. I would still continue to do my once-a-week dinner with him. Despite his own challenges, he still remained the ever-so-kind, gentle, and polite kid each time I was with him. I remembered the excitement he felt when he did well in his English class that I didn’t teach in. As time went on, he became like a little brother to me, but then, less than a year later, I made the decision to not renew my contract with my school, and I was ready to go back home.
For me, to tell him that I was going back home was personally devastating to me. It’s not just that we would no longer be able to continue our routine, but that “going home” was not an option for him, as it was for me.
In our final dinner together (frankly, I couldn’t even remember the restaurant or what we had for dinner because I was dreading to say my goodbye to him). I gave him my farewell gift which included a notebook, pens and a short thank you letter written in hangeul. I escorted him to the subway station. As I was about to say my goodbye to him, I saw him wiping his tears. The first few tears came down on one side of my cheek as I quietly uttered “goodbye’ to him. I briefly hugged him and I quickly walked away without ever looking back. As I did, those tears continued and they never stopped until I reached home 10 minutes later.
It has now been 7 years since I’ve seen or heard from him. The beauty of social media has allowed me to keep in touch with several of my students, but with him, I still don’t know what has become of him. I often wonder if he was still able to carry the same kind mannerisms he had, and if he is able to find a way to be on his own, or whether he was able to have a relationship with his parents. Those are questions that I may hope to have answered one day, but as I reflect on this particular chapter in my former expat life, I am grateful that I was able to have that connection with him, and that despite his own barriers, he never lost the ability to be loving and kind. I am fortunate to be on the receiving end of his kindness. I’m just hoping that someone will offer that to him.