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At the lake


I’ve been a bit of a lousy orphanage volunteer these days. I am taking a class 3 nights a week, and buy with some other appointments on 2 days, so I haven’t been spending the kind of time I used to at the orphanage.

In a way, that’s OK since I will be leaving in August, and to kind of gradually make my exit it probably the healthiest and safest thing for those kids. But on the other hand, I’ve really missed them!

During a recent long weekend, I planned to spend the whole day with the orphans. They were going to some nearby beach. However, my friend Josh and I had to leave separately, and subsequently got stuck in a enormous traffic jam. Because of the holidays that week, the roads were absolutely jammed. We left the center of 서울 at around 8:30, and by 11:30, had barely made it out of the city limits into neighboring , 경기도. We did have 2 kids with us in Josh’s car, but all 80+ other kids were on a bus. They managed to get out ahead of the traffic, but we were NOT so lucky.

We decided to give up on the beach that day, and instead took the 2 kids we had to a lake. We had some lunch and rented rowboats. It was certainly fun, and a great chance to spend time with those 2 guys, but I am a little sad that I missed all the others ㅠ.ㅠ

My class will be over in a few weeks, and I can once again reclaim my schedule. I hope to tell a few more stories about those kids before the summer is out.

Some days are more frustrating than others pt. 2

Last week I wrote about one particular day.  Here is what happened after dinner.

As it turned out there really was no one working in the elementary boys side that night. After dinner is usually shower time, and even with an 엄마 it can be hectic (it depends on which 엄마 is there)!

The kids don’t really wash every day. Often they do little more than splash some water around their waists.  Shower time is not managed well.  Granted, it is a big undertaking. Some parents struggle with just a few of their own kids, but 20+ kids is a whole different battle.  And only the oldest kids really do it themselves. 1st-3rd and sometimes 4th graders are washed by an adult. It struck me as odd when I first saw it happen, but it is indicative of an aspect of Korean culture, and perhaps living in an orphanage. Since no staff was around the fell falls to me. Of course, kids are also supposed to be doing some homework, but that definitely didn’t happen.

After cleaning up from dinner, Josh (my friend who also volunteers there) and I announce that it time to wash . Starting with 1st graders. One of them is obedient and goes right in, but the other tries to object saying he washed two days ago, so he doesn’t need to tonight. After much cajoling (forcing) he surrendered. It was slow going all the way up the line.
In the middle of all this one of the staff members finally appears with all of the pre-school kids in tow. Apparently there was a staffing shortage that night, and he would have to watch all of the kids for a time. So he brought the little ones over to the elementary boys house with a movie to pacify everyone. But his movie choice … Die Hard 4 is probably not one that I would show kids.

I don’t mind being a firm figure in their lives, they certainly need it, but I cannot do that for them 24-7.  Often I feel like I don’t have any solutions either, and staff shortages are a real problem! That day gave a bigger picture for the magnitude of their circumstances. There is nothing easy about their life. I can intersect it from time to time, but they need positive input on a daily and sustained basis!

Some days are more frustrating than others pt. 1

I arrived shortly before dinnertime, which is pretty normal when I go during the week. The boys were playing around, and some were even studying! But I couldn’t find any of the regular adult staff. It seemed like the boys were fending for themselves again. At dinnertime, someone (presumably an 엄마 from a different section made some announcement about dinner: “얘둘아..밥 먹으러 가!” (Kids, go and eat!) Most of the kids headed out for dinner, but a few were being stubborn. They claimed they weren’t hungry and they didn’t want to go to dinner. That really doesn’t matter, they are still supposed to eat at every meal, and they really should. Sometimes I think they try to skip dinner so they can whine later. Then they might get to pig out on some snacks….anyway I tried to round up the stragglers and send them off. Most of the conversations went something like this:

(Coincidentally, two days later, the lesson at KClass was about something I said. I also used another phrase from a few months ago. Both are linked in the dialog.)

Austin: 식당으로 가…밥 먹어라!
Go down to the cafeteria and eat dinner!
Bratty kid: 싫어 배 불러!
I don’t want to, I’m full!
Austin: 상관 없어. 엄마가 밥 먹으러 가래
I don’t care. The 엄마 said to go get dinner.
Bratty kid: 아니 안 그랬잖아 엄아 없어!
No she didn’t, there isn’t an 엄마.
Austin: 있잖아.. 빨리 가야 돼!
Yes there is! You need to go now!

–At this point they might run away…. to another room, so I chase after them, capture them, and carry them to the door while they scream–

Bratty kid: 아 찐자…먹기 싫다고!
Ah, really! I said I don’t want to eat!

Austin: 너 빨리 안가? 오늘 왜 그래? 니가 청개구리 같아! 신발 신어!
Get moving! What’s with you today? You’re being a real brat! Put your shoes on!

Bratty kid: 신발 없거든!
I don’t have any shoes!
Austin: 거짓말! 오늘 학교 안 갔어? 학교 갈때는 신발 안 신았어?
That’s a lie. Didn’t you go to school today? Weren’t you wearing shoes then?
Bratty kid: 신았는데 지금 어딘지 몰라!
I wore them, but I don’t know where they are now!

–Of course all the shoes are right by the door. Lousy excuse–

Austin: 너 빨리 신발 신고 식당으로 가. 내 말 안 들려?!
Put your shoes on and go to the cafeteria. Do you hear me?!
Bratty kid: 알았어…..
Alright, fine.

You get the message. Some kids took longer to convince than others. All the while laughing at their disobedience and my increasing frustration! And even so, some of my efforts may have been in vain as kids came back too quickly to have really eaten. But I considered it a small victory that they finally obeyed and at least WENT to the 식당.

Part 2, which chronicles the second half of the evening will be posted next week!

외식 (Eating out)

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Last week all of the kids and staff went out for dinner. Hence “외식.” 외 literally means “outside” like in 의국인 “foreigner” or literally “outside-country-person.” 식 means food, or a meal. You may remember a culture class from a few months ago where the KClass crew showed us what a typical “희식” looked like. 희 in that case means company, so 희식 is a meal with your co-workers.

The orphanage does this at least once a year, and by good fortune I happened to be there this year again. It’s really just a fun time with the kids, and I get to seem them in a different setting. I think it’s a pretty good day for them, and one they really enjoy. It is one of the rare occasions when they really get to do something special with themselves that doesn’t come from some outside organization.

I made this video so you can see some of the kids. This isn’t everyone. They split all the various sections up among several different restaurants since more than 100 people would completely overwhelm any restaurant! The meal was 삼겹살. And it was more than I really should have eaten…but the mean kept coming! And since kids have small bellies… well, I got to eat an awful lot!


Remember how the boys were being punished last week? Well, they were in trouble because some of them apparently went in to the room where their dog was giving birth! That night, just after dinner, the dog went into labor, and the boys were told not to go in. I thought they were staying out, but I guess the excitement got to them. I happened to have my camera, so I could record a quick movie about the incident. There is actually a lot of footage from that night, some of it is apparently inappropriate, and other things are just downright hilarious. Today, watch one of the real versions, and later, I’ll share the sillier ones as well.

I didn’t subtitle it because the conversation is simple enough that I think you’ll be able to follow. But I’ll give you a rough sketch of what happened: “Dooley” is the dog’s name. I was trying to get them to explain who she is and everything, but you’ll see as he’s talking that he clearly expects you all to know who Dooley is. In this video, the boy uses the word 새끼 to refer to the puppies. Be careful with that word, because it is also a very strong insult…unless you are referring to baby animals! I bet you can imagine how strong the insult is though!

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Important words:

강아지 - dog (yes, 개 is “dog” but people refer to their pets as 강아지)
새끼 - baby animal
낳다 - to give birth
설명하다 - to explain (in this case, I say “설명 해 줘” (설명 해 주세요)
아직 - not yet
(이름을) 정하다 - to decide on (a name)

For a listening exercise, see if you can figure out how many puppies were born. Remember the counter for animals is “마리.” As an example “모기 10(열) 마리” is 10 mosquitoes.

Or, if you are really adventurous, go ahead and try to make a transcript! (English or Korean!) Go over the forums so that we can take advantage of the spoiler tags, and so that everyone can participate!


Just a little while ago, I wrote about two pre-school boys who were going to graduate to the elementary house. I said that these kids were pretty tough. What became clear last night was that they are absolutely on the bottom rung. Now, they might not take it from the 2nd graders, everyone else will be dishing it out in a big way.

This is 한규 who cries pretty easily. He usually cries for an extended period of time in order to get what he wants. His little brother pulls this trick ALL time and it works for him. That kid is spoiled beyond belief..but that’s a different story! 한규 just cries and cries.. you know what I mean, when the crying is just for effect, and not because he is still hurt.

Anyway, last night just about everyone got into trouble going into some room they weren’t supposed to (I’ll explain next week). So, with the adult who was working their night night missing (I don’t know where they went) the freshly-minted 6th graders were in charge of the discipline. Physical discipline is pretty common in Korea. These kids are doing something that both the army and gangsters are famous for! One of the 6th grade boys shouts “엎드려!”


For some reason only the 4th grade boys had to do this…but can you recognize the boy in the chair reading a book? That’s 이나라. If you are relatively new to KClass you might not remember this lesson from several months ago which inspired me to make this video. Yes, 나라 is still not listening!


I am not very familiar with the financial side of things at the orphanage.  The are working on a new building, and apparently still fundraising for it.  But periodically lots of other gifts show up.  Occasionally, all of the kids will have new shoes…the same kind.  Right now, there is a stack of roller blades.  One of the first graders showed me his pair (which is really twice the size of this foot) and got very defensive when I asked him if they were really his.  I tried to ask about the size thing, and he started screaming..


Most often the donations are food.  One day a box of mini ice-creams from Baskin Robins arrived.  Another time it was Dunkin Donuts.  Occasionally, each kid will get a veritable treasure chest of junk food.  Crown Bakery is a chain bakery in Seoul.  Last Christmas they delivered about 90 crates stuffed with all sorts of goodies - each kid got his or her own!  That’s pretty awesome, isn’t it!?

Some really interesting things happen though.  I watched the first and second graders open their boxes and shout with glee as they pulled out the various treats.  Then the oldest boys came in and said something I couldn’t understand, but immediately, all the little kids pulled something from their box and gave it to the older kids!  It was like they had to pay tribute!

For the next day or two…yes, they eat it all that fast…wrappers and crumbs from those treats were everywhere.

There are two issues all of this brings up.  Let’s try discussing them  in the comments:

1.  These kids have nothing, so giving them things is OK, but should they get so much junk food?

2. They already don’t have good habits, and these kinds of gifts come right before bed, after they “supposedly” brushed their teeth.  They rip into them right away and never really get around to brushing their teeth again.

Another issue

Today I’d like to share something else that sometimes bothers me about the orphanage. Last time, I talked about the sanitation of the home. Thanks for your replies!

Living in Korea has certainly taught me to look at things with different eyes. So much of what goes on here is related to culture, and it is easy to draw conclusions about right or wrong. I am trying to figure out how to walk the line.

Today’s issue though is as much about culture as it is about staffing crunch at the orphanage.  Social services isn’t a very glamorous job anywhere in the world, and I’m sure it is hard to find high-quality employees to care for the children at the orphanage.  Ideally there would be 2 adults to watch the 22 elementary boys that I work closely with.  However, this doesn’t always happen.  If someone is sick, or unable to come in, often the kids are on their own.  Then the 6th grade boys are in charge.  I should say, that when they run the show, at least the younger kids eventually do their homework, shower, pick up their clothes, etc.. but it’s not always smooth.  Sometimes they resort of rather strange enforcement measures!  One day one 6th grade boy had a a spray bottle!  He would tell a younger boy to do something, and then spray him like a dog when he wouldn’t do it right away!

Or sometimes the 10 preschool kids (birth - kindergarten) are left alone with  5th grade girl to watch them!  Now, I know some 5th graders could handle that, but not many can.  And the girl who gets that responsibility isn’t known for her tenderness!

Children in Korea have substantially more freedom than their American counterparts.  Really young kids criss-cross the city on bus and subway to go back and forth from school to 학원 (tutoring centers) all day long.  Groups of kids can be found in the busiest parts of the city with no adult chaperone in sight.  I think this plays into what happens at the orphanage, and coupled with the staffing issues gives the kid a lot of independent alone time.  That can be a good thing, but these kids who don’t have parents, or have very poor relationships with their parents desperately need adults to guide them!  Those kids really are just raised by slightly older kids!

What do you think?

Today I want to start sharing with you some of the “struggles” at the orphanage.  By that,  I mean the kinds of things that go on that I don’t think would happen in a similar environment in the Western world.  Some of it is cultural for sure, but other things are just a function of the situation.

The floor at the orphanage is dirty.  There is no other word to describe it.  They have a few dogs that do all sorts of unspeakable things on it (including the one that is currently in heat).  The kids are always eating in the living room and spilling things, leaving crumbs and the like for the next guy to find.

It gets cleaned each day, but “clean” seems to have a very different definition.  It isn’t cleaned with soap - ever.  Usually just a broom, and on a good day, a vacuum cleaner.  From my perspective with 25 boys living in the same space, that really isn’t acceptable.  It is a ripe breeding ground for all sorts of things to get passed around.

And yet, Josh and I have tried to suggest real cleaning (like with bleach) but it seems to fall on deaf ears.  There are a bunch of excuses for why bleach isn’t appropriate.  I wish I understood this issue better.  I suspect that it is cultural, because it is  the same way at my school. The school is so dirty, it would have caused the custodial staff from the school I taught at in America to blush.  Each day the kids sweep and mop the floors, but it really just amounts to pushing the dirt to a different corner, and using water to help.  Soap isn’t part of the process!  I know I’m not alone in this.  Most of my friends report similar practices at their schools too.

So, when it comes to the orphanage, health is a big concern.  The kids suffer from a lot of infections that are easily spread in communal living.  It seems like this could be managed a bit better.  Just this week, the dog bled all over the floor since she’s in heat…and the solution seemed to be using tissue to wipe it up!!  Josh had the day off, so he went to buy some bleach and cleaned the floor….probably the second time in a year that the floor has been cleaned like that…but then the dog came back inside and bled everywhere again!

It isn’t our job to tell the staff there how to do things better, in fact that’s kind of taboo in Korea to begin with, so what do you think about it?  What would you do?