I was approached by a North Korean friend of mine here in Seoul who asked me if I would be interested in working in a home for North Korean children once a month. I was assured I would not require any special skills and the most important thing was simply to play with the children. I thought this sounded like fun and acquiesced to waking up early on the third Sunday of that month and travelling to the outskirts of Seoul where the home was located.
This was a home run by the Catholic church in which young children between the ages of 3-7 who had come to South Korea lived and played, supervised by nuns from the Church. The mothers of these children were usually from North Korea, their fathers were Chinese. The children had come to South Korea with their mothers, who had, more often than not, been forcibly married to Chinese men after escaping into China from North Korea. The mothers were usually very young, with little education and no way of making money or improving their lot in the South. The mothers lived in the countryside in South Korea, attending school and making money while their children stayed in the home. I was told the children saw their mothers two or three times a year. Once the children reached 7 years old, it was expected that the mothers would retrieve them and bring them up themselves. The home, therefore, offered a chance for the mothers to settle into South Korean life, to begin study and/or work, and if possible, remarry with a South Korean man, without the added burden of caring for their child 24hours a day.
It was a cold, dry winter morning when I arrived at the station and took shelter in the Dunkin Doughnuts where we had agreed to meet. Once a few others had joined, including my friend, we walked the short distance to our destination.
Located at the top of a hill, past half a dozen grocery shops and a few cafes, the children's home looked like an ordinary set of apartments, with nothing to distinguish it from any of the other medium sized buildings that dotted the area. Our small group of volunteers entered the building and walked up the narrow stair case until reaching the door of the apartment.
"Do you like children?" My friend asked.
"They're alright, but I couldn't eat a whole one." I replied. Confused looks greeted my statement. Thankfully the door of the apartment swung open, ending the conversation there.
Standing to the side of the doorway were two nuns, who greeted us and harried us in from the cold. The noise of children playing had, by now, become loud enough to make small talk between us and the nuns impossible. We therefore made introductions brief, before moving single file up the stairs to the playroom of the apartment.
I did not get long to take it all in before I was mobbed by one of the noise-makers. A little girl, who declared herself to be, "Almost five years old!", grabbed onto my leg and started to pull me over to the bookshelf, press-ganging me into a reading session. I saw that this had happened to the other volunteers as well and that everyone was suddenly engaged in building lego zoos, drawing murals on oversized sheets of cardboard and managing congestion in the model car world. I found a spot on a padded area of the heated floor and started to read a story to the girl who had kidnapped me.
Seemingly not worried by the fact my Korean was not perfect, she made herself comfortable, climbing on my back to listen to the story of a young boy who has trouble making friends at school. The story was going well until we were attacked by a six year old whose truck driving skills were, to be frank, atrocious. My little girl took offence to being run over by a dump truck and we had to abandon our position on the warm area of the floor for a less congenial piece of turf away from the continuously expanding model highway into which we had been engulfed- the perils of modernization writ small.
This did, however, allow me access to the lego pieces and, without too much persuading, story time became construction time.
While others were drawing and driving with drooling five, six and seven year olds, my foreman and I managed to put together the most impressive school house I had seen on the Korean peninsula. All was well until the leader of our volunteer group declared "Clean up time" and our bastion of progressive education was taken to pieces, symbolic, perhaps, of the value placed on modern education.
My first day at the children's home was a fascinating and fun experience. The children we spent the morning playing with and with whom I have built a relationship with over the last year and a half have had a difficult life, many of them will never see their fathers again, many will grow up not understanding why they had to leave China and come to a strange new country.
Volunteering in the children's home is another experience that makes me happy to be living in South Korea and to have met so many amazing people from both sides of the border.