Normally, our weekends in Ulsan tend to be jam packed with one new adventure after the other. Having just finished the first week back at school after our Chuseok break (more on that in the next post), I know that I, for one, decided to have a more “low key” weekend. To this end, I decided to sign up to volunteer at the Eonyang orphanage for 2 hours on Sunday with some other native English teachers. Run by an organisation called “T-Hope”, this afternoon activity seemed like a good break in an otherwise quiet Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure what expectations I had going into the orphanage, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the hour and a half of absolute joy and inspiration that awaited me.
Having signed up to go on a hike with the elementary aged kids, I was a bit disappointed when our walk was rained out and we ended up doing arts and crafts instead. I have to remember never to judge a situation ahead of time, you would think that up and moving to another country would have taught me that by now; well, even though I already knew this piece of advice to be true, it’s always good to be reminded of it once in a while. This once in a while turned out to be a bigger reminder than you could imagine.
About 7 native English teachers walked into the elementary craft room, and were welcomed immediately by the sound of happy kids chattering, and the sight of craft supplies being excitedly handed out and bickered over. With the vague instructions that we could “do whatever we wanted”, the woman who worked at the orphanage left us to our own devices. Very quickly, we all settled down into mini craft stations; while some (like Kelleen) are much craftier than I, and made lovely origami birds with the kids, I dug up my grade 5 memory and got busy making some butterfly masks for the girls. Very quickly, the craft “stations” turned into the teacher visitors making all sorts of fun goodies for the kids (helmets, shields, masks, swords, flowers, you name it), and the kids grabbing at them to go and let their imaginations run wild. I was more than happy to be the set builder for the myriad plays that were going on around me. Joy in chaos, there’s nothing quite like it.
Toward the end of our visit, I was busy making a sword with the intention of giving it to one of the young boys busy “shooting each other” with their paper pistols. I’ve read one too many fantasy books lately, and the sword seemed a much more noble weapon of choice. In the end, this particular weapon ended up being chosen by an even younger girl of about 5 or 6. Out of nowhere, she scampered over to me with her pig tails and pink dress, and with the biggest smile I have ever seen, held her butterfly mask in one hand and reached for the sword with the other.
Extremely pleased with this turn of events, I decided that no fairy queen (as it seemed to me she undoubtedly was) is complete without a crown; so of course I made her a pink one to match her dress. Very soon, the little girl was sporting the crown, and making every teacher volunteer there die a gallant and dramatic death. Of course, all of this noble fighting took its toll on the sword, and with much concern she approached me to fix the handle so that her sword didn’t bend. At this point, I should add that most of the kids there didn’t speak much English, and I don’t think she and I spoke more than one or two words to each other that we both understood, but her facial expressions and sheer imagination eliminated whatever barrier of understanding there may have been.
When I next found this warrior queen to return her new and improve sword to her, she had acquired a spiderman mask that I helped her put on under her crown. Meanwhile, she switched the also new rose to the hand holding her shield and butterfly mask, and brandished the sword once more in craft triumph. What a sight it was to see. There was so much personality in this one child, that both myself and Uri couldn’t help but smile and laugh at her amazing attitude.
What really pushed me over the edge was the moment when I felt a little hand tugging at the front of my shirt. In the midst of all the wonderful chaos, the zipper on my top had slid down an inch or two…and there was the ever gallant, fair, warrior queen reaching over to zip it up again for me. So we add modest to the ever growing list of attributes in this wonderful child. As I sat with her, I felt that I was looking at her untapped, and what could only one day be fully realised, potential.
Then, something happened that reminded me that despite the gallantry, the sword, the crown, the butterfly mask, and outgoing smile, this was still a little girl at an orphanage…and life must not always have been kind to her. As I sat crouching down next to another child to help them with their batman mask, the warrior queen walked up beside me and crawled onto my knees and wrapped her sword wielding arm around my neck as tight as it would go, and didn’t let go. I ended up spending the next five minutes just holding this little queen in my arms, my heart crushing under the light weight of her tight hold. For an hour and a half, she made me remember how much wonder and potential there is in the world, and for 5 minutes she reminded me of how lucky I am to never have had to wield a sword and hold on tight to a stranger’s neck for comfort.
It may seem like such a small thing, but the image of that little girl’s small, somehow too mature smile under the spiderman mask and crown isn’t one that will easily be erased from my memory.