Give a little something back; the rewards are unforgettableOur ultimate Frisbee team was in Wonju, Gangwon province, a few weekends ago to play a team from the Yonsei University campus there. Saturday afternoon, since we had some free time, a friend of mine who lives in Wonju arranged for us to meet a group of kids from an orphanage where he volunteers as an English teacher twice each week.
A pair of vans brought about 35 Korean children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers to an elementary school’s field. For a couple hours we taught them how to play Frisbee, kicked the soccer ball around, played on the monkey bars and merry-go-round and generally just gave them some badly needed attention.
A few of the children were disabled, but most were perfectly healthy, both physically and mentally. This reminded me of a passage from one of Kim Dae-jung’s books, where he mentioned that one of Korea’s major exports is babies. I realize that no society is perfect, but it broke my heart to see so many abandoned children with such great potential.
And what might become of all this prospective talent? One of my less sensitive Canadian chums summed it up callously, but perhaps accurately. Referring to the teenage girls he said, “Their future is somewhere in a room salon or juicy bar.”
He may be right, but it’s not because the girls don’t have the intellect or drive to succeed. It’s because their circumstances leave them with little chance in the competitive world of Korean university admissions.
While most of their peers are either studying abroad, attending “cram schools” or studying with private tutors, the orphans are keeping each other company playing simple games or studying on their own. So, while they might actually be enjoying their youth more than kids who spend countless hours under fluorescent hagwon lighting, the sad fact is that the orphans have little chance of scoring high enough on the all-important university entrance exams to get into college. Even if they do get in, who will pay their tuition? The deck is definitely stacked against them.
My plea to English teachers in Korea is to find an orphanage near you ― there’s bound to be at least one ― and volunteer. Hopefully you can help the kids with their English or other academic skills. But if nothing else you can give them a little attention and show them some affection. I find the orphans more interesting than “normal” Korean kids; they haven’t been spoiled by PC rooms, shopping malls or walking down the street like zombies with their eyes glued to comic books. Even if you’re only here for six months or a year, take the time to give a little back. The smiles on the kids’ faces will be a reward that you’ll never forget.
by Shane D. Berg
Shane D. Berg works as a travel agent in Seoul.