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I just returned from the States," my friend Myun Joong announced the other day when we bumped into each other on a Seoul street.

I hadn't seen Myun Joong in a couple of months, so his news surprised me. "Great!" I said. "How was it?"

"I wasn't there very long," he said. "Maybe seven days in all."

"Why so short?"

"I just went to drop off a baby."

An engaging 25-year-old, Myun Joong is like most young Korean males: He wants to see the world, get a job, find a girlfriend. His interests range widely: watching the films of the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, listening to the music of British rockers The Cure, reading consciousness-raising essays and drinking prodigious amounts of beer.

I didn't know baby-sitting was another.

In a nearby coffee shop, Myun Joong explained how it happened.

A college student in Seoul, last spring Myun Joong was accepted into an exchange program with a university in Thailand. The hitch: He would have to pay his own way to Bangkok and back, and the best way he knew to do that was to earn air miles. Early last month, Myun Joong went to an international adoption agency in Sinchon. "I wanted to see if there were any escort jobs open."

"Escort jobs?" I asked.

Sheepishly, Myun Joong said, "You escort an adopted baby to the United States and then hand the baby over to the new parents."

"People are actually hired to do this?"

"Sure," said Myun Joon. "I've done it before."

"You're kidding?"

No, he said, he wasn't.

Three years ago, Myun Joong was hanging out in Seoul, waiting to go into the army. With time on his hands, he remembered something his uncle had once told him -- that Korean adoption agencies provide some American couples with the transport of a baby the couples had adopted. A few parents, said Myun Joong's uncle, apparently cannot afford to fly to Korea to pick up their new child. His uncle didn't know much more about the service than that. Intrigued, Myun Joong thought he'd find out more. Eventually, he located the office of one of the agencies, in Sinchon. There he sat for a couple of interviews and evaluation sessions. "They wanted to see how responsible I was. They had to trust me."

The agency also checked him out physically. "They told me I had to be strong," Myun Joong said, "mentally and physically. I kind of laughed. I was thinking, 'Strong for an airplane ride?'"

A short time later the agency called Myun Joong and told him he was scheduled to go to the United States, to Philadelphia, the following week. He went to Gimpo Airport where he met a foster mother cradling a 6-month-old boy in a blanket. As she handed Myun Joong the baby, named Ji-hoon, the woman wept. "I will never see him again!" she sobbed.

The flight to Philadelphia, which included plane changes in Tokyo and San Francisco, took nearly 24 hours. The agency had given Myun Joong additional clothes for Ji-hoon and a couple of pages of instructions -- "How to Prepare a Bottle," "How to Change a Diaper," two tasks Myun Joong had never done until he boarded the plane. Changing his first diaper in turbulence was an adventure, he remembered. "I was very scared." Fortunately, an ajumma sitting nearby gave him a hand.

But no one could help him stop Ji-hoon from crying.

"He cried the entire trip. I think he knew what he had left. He was crying sadly."

Myun Joong held Ji-hoon on his lap and lightly bounced him. He gave Ji-hoon a bottle of barley water, as the agency had instructed. He burped Ji-hoon. He made faces at the little guy. Nothing worked. Mostly, Myun Joong walked up and down the aisles of the plane, clutching the wailing bundle against his chest, hoping the shrieking would stop. Once in a while a flight attendant would hold the baby -- if Myun Joong had to use the bathroom. But most of the time, Myun Joong never let go. In-flight movies? Forget it. A beer? No way. Like Ji-hoon, he never slept.

Said Myun Joong, "It was the hardest thing I have ever done."

When they landed in Philadelphia, it was about 11 p.m. A young couple, flashing a video camera, met the two weary travelers and much excitement ensued. When the fuss died down and the couple had left the airport, Myun Joong suddenly realized he did not have a place to stay that night. He spotted a Korean woman near an airport exit, introduced himself and she invited him to sleep at her church in downtown Philadelphia. Myun Joong quickly accepted and for the next three days he barely moved.

Later, he visited an aunt in Washington, D.C., then took in New York City, where he saw Times Square, Greenwich Village and went to the top of the World Trade Center. Then on to Chicago to see an American girl who had once taught English in Seoul. Then to Seattle to spend time with another friend. After a month's stay in the United States, he flew home.

"A great, great trip," he told me.

After his army service, Myun Joong returned to his university. Early in this past summer, hoping some frequent flier miles would get him to Thailand and back, Myun Joong returned to the adoption agency and asked if there were any jobs for escorts to the United States.

The agency remembered him and a few days later informed him there was a flight Sept. 30. This time a bus from the agency took Myun Joong and five or six other escorts to Incheon International Airport. Before the bus left Seoul, the foster mothers had their final meetings with the infants, all of whom were about 6 months old.

"They met with their babies in this private room," Myun Joong said. "When they came out, not one had dry eyes."

This time Myun Joong would be escorting a girl, named Bom-bee. She had been born in Daegu, to university students who gave her up. Soon, Bom-bee would be on her way to Boston and her new home.

Myun Joong steeled himself for another long, exhausting flight with hours of nonstop howling. But Bom-bee, he soon learned, was different. "She didn't cry," he said. "Well, maybe she cried a little bit when we landed in Tokyo and San Francisco. You know, the ears. She was wonderful. She just slept." He even got to watch the in-flight movie, "About a Boy."

And this time, Myun Joong even got some sleep.

In Boston, an older couple with two high school-age children met the plane. As he did before, Myun Joon wore a yellow sticker that identified him as working for the adoption agency. More video filming, more hugs, more thank-yous. This couple even gave Myun Joong a box of chocolates. After good-byes were said, Myun Joong headed for a youth hostel in downtown Boston. He stayed there for a couple of days, toured the city and Cambridge, then flew to New York City where one sight struck him: "There was no World Trade Center."

After New York, he flew to Los Angeles and then to Honolulu, where he spent three days on Waikiki Beach.

He would have spent more time in the United States, he said, but he had to come back to Korea to prepare for his college exchange program.

Each trip cost Myun Joong $300. In return, he received a free round-trip ticket. Plus, the agency paid the airfare for two or three of his side trips.

"Nice way to take a vacation," I remarked.

Myun Joong set down his cafe latte. "O.K.," he said. "I did both of these trips for the free travel. I admit it. I was supposed to be a volunteer, but I really wasn't. I signed up for the jobs for selfish reasons. I felt guilty about doing that -- for a while."

Staring out the coffee shop window a moment, Myun Joong said, "Things changed when I saw the looks on the faces of those parents. They looked like the happiest people I could imagine. I couldn't feel any more guilt. I was glad to have a small part in their joy."

Myun Joong changed in another way, he said.

"Each time when I dropped off the babies, I went to where I was sleeping -- to the church in Philadelphia, to the youth hostel in Boston. And each time when I got settled in, I immediately drew pictures of the baby I had just escorted. Not fancy pictures, just tiny sketches of their faces. See, I hadn't taken photos. Ji-hoon was crying when I dropped him off. So in the picture, I drew him with a big smile. Bom-bee? I think she'll always be smiling."

Then the drawings meant what? I wondered.

"They're memories," Myun Joong said. "I was only with those two babies for one day each, but I grew really attached to them. I was like their mother. I never show tears, but you know something? I miss them."

by Toby Smith

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