You step off
of the plane and realize that you truly are alone. No mother, no
father to watch over you. Part of you is happy about that, but most
of you is sad that they sent you far away because they say that
you, at 15, are out of control. They keep repeating that you are
only going away to work for the summer. They tell you that they
love you and that they hope you come back a changed person. You
nod, you pack, and you leave.
The Seoul air smells like sweat, and the bumping and grunting of
the bus from the airport rocks you to sleep. An hour later you feel
a rough tap on your shoulder. At first, you don’t remember that
you’re in Korea, on your way to work in an orphanage run by nuns.
You think you’re at home, that your mother is shaking you awake,
so you slap the hand away. Then you snap to. Grabbing your bags,
you give the man who woke you a dirty look. Hearing someone mutter
about ungrateful teenagers, you make as much noise as you can and
get off the bus as slowly as possible.
Inside the orphanage, you tell the first nun you see that you are
the girl from America here to work for the summer. She nods and
shows you to your room. As much as you hate being there, the room
is not bad; it’s clean, at least, and there’s a little bathroom
with a faucet on the wall and a drain on the floor so you can wash.
It’s a little bit cooler inside. The building’s gray halls are dimly
lit. There are cutouts of flowers and smiling kids pasted everywhere
on the walls, and through slightly open doors, you catch glimpses
of children. But these aren’t normal children. They are slumped
on floors, in wheelchairs, and in baby carriers. You think bitterly
that the cheery cutouts don’t seem to be helping them any.
The next morning, a nun is at your door motioning you to follow
her. You learn there are three sections to the orphanage, and they
are named Love, Peace, and Happiness. She stops at Happiness, and
tells you very softly to go in. So you do. Inside, there are so
many children. None of them can walk or talk. But not all of them
are children. There’s a grown man sitting in a wheelchair in the
corner, and he is slapping his cheek and gnawing his hands.
Days pass, and you have a ritual. You get up at eight, go to Happiness,
stay with the children all day, and at night, you walk down the
long hallway back to your bedroom. You bathe under the faucet, wash
your clothes with soap, and hang them up to dry next to your window.
You sleep, tossing and turning in blankets on the cold cement floor.
You dream of Love, Peace, and Happiness.
There is a little boy who is eight years old. His legs are not formed,
so he skitters across the floor like a tadpole. This child has a
way of wriggling into your heart. He tries to eat a sock, and you
chastise him. But you can’t help the burst of laughter. You laugh
and laugh, and the boy coos and giggles. A month passes by, and
the walk from your room to Happiness becomes too long. You decide,
instead, to lie with the children all night, staying with them while
they cry and dream and sleep.
The man in the wheelchair is 23 years old. He is not really an orphan.
His parents are two of the richest people in Korea. When they visit
they speak not to you, but in your direction, as they say that they
would take him home if he would only show a sign that he knew them.
They are lying. Even you can see that when they come he stops slapping
and gnawing on himself.
The time to leave hits you like a cement wall against your face.
When the nuns tell you that they have called a taxi, that you don’t
need to take the bus, you thank them and walk mechanically down
the hallway to your room. You fold the blankets they provided on
your first night. You gather your things, put on your backpack,
and drag your suitcase to Happiness. You kiss all the children one
by one, crying. You go down the stairs and out the door leaving
Happiness behind, with all its blessings.
Gina Chung ’05
Gina Chung’s essay originally appeared in Fresh
Ink, the publication of Boston College’s first-year writing