(Originally Written 1/25/2010)
Unevenly cut hair and freckled faces were what I have become accustomed to volunteering at the Songjukwon Orphanage for girls in Seoul, Korea. While the general public tends to refer to these girls as simply “the orphans”, having gotten to know these girls as individuals, I am keenly aware that each girl has her own story and aspirations.
Of my time spent at Songjukwon, there is one day that remains especially vivid in my memory. It began with the girls calling out loud and cheerful hellos to me as I walked toward the main building. Excited, I scurried down the road, barged through carelessly painted doors and into a room redolent of the familiar scent of ramen noodles and old socks. I demonstrated particularly impressive balancing skills that day, carrying a set of bongos in my right hand, while clutching three phonics books in my left, all the time weighed down by badminton rackets hanging from my shoulders.
It was a long summer day and much too hot for my students to concentrate on our daily grammar lesson – prepositions. In the midst of class, we decided to take a break. I then noticed that one of my students, Yerim, was crouched away from the other girls. She was thirteen years old, often wore baggy jeans and sported a heavy set of bangs that framed her freckled face. I glided over to sit close to her so I could casually strike up a conversation, but was careful not too come so close as to be obvious that I had done so on purpose.
“Hey Yerim, your birthday is coming up soon. Are you excited?” I asked. She first responded with slightly widened eyes. Then she managed to cough out, “No.” I started a light conversation with her as I poked her stomach.
“That tickles!” She looked back, a smile sneaking out of the corner of her mouth.
Beneath her smile, she hid the pain of times when she was locked in her room for days with packs of ramen, or was beaten for hours. Without the parental love that every child deserves, she could have easily fallen into hopelessness. Thankfully, she was able to join the Songjukwon community, but nonetheless, she has had a difficult time transitioning.
Although she was shy, she stood out to me. Unlike other girls, she knew what she wanted. No matter what life threw at her, she clung onto her hopes of becoming a famous singer. She often printed songs off the Internet that she practice on weekends.
Suddenly, the light went out. I carefully walked towards a wooden door on the wall next to the TV. My hands searched the wall for the doorknob, opened the door, and made a hand gesture. Through the door, three girls strutted out in a row, two girls each hugging a bongo and a third holding a cake with fourteen brightly lit candles. We began to sing,
“Happy birthday to you…!”
We were off key and off beat, but we were there to bring birthday cheer. Perhaps we were better than I suspected, since our birthday girl broke into the biggest smile that I had ever seen. The ends of her mouth stretched to her ears, and her eyes sparkled with tear droplets. In her smile, I saw her fears, loneliness, and cries of frustration melting away. I was so glad. At least for the moment, she was not masking her pain with a smile. She was happy. I hope that through our small celebration, Yerim realized that there are people who love her, so she may throw aside any fears and stand strong to continue to pursue her dreams. Yerim wanted to be loved, and she wanted to have hope. For one special night, we reminded her she had both.