A Migrant’s Tale: Visiting the Namsanwon orphanage

by Kris Adam Santos
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If there was something I learned in the past week of being back on vacation in Korea, it's that sometimes the best way to spend your vacation is not to spend a cent on a hearty meal or on a bunch of clothes.” I don’t know how I let that slip. Rather, it would be best to give your time to children that have the future ahead of them.

I decided to join my mother, Josephine, and her coworker, Karen, to volunteer at Namsanwon. Namsanwon is an orphanage in the hills near Myeongdong.

According to history – a history albeit generalized by my own impressions and the questions I asked Karen – Namsanwon is one of many orphanages that was founded in a post-Korean War period. In a country where war was once waged, a generation of children had become parentless. Naturally, the existence of orphanages in South Korea is akin to that of many countries afflicted by war in the past.

The beginning of this travelougue begins at the Samgakji metro stop. My mother and I arrived from Ichon, and we met with Karen. She brought with her a couple of grocery bags, which my mother and helped her carry. From there, we hopped on the 504 Bus bound towards Myeongdong.

During the commute, I felt an interesting parallel to the former city that I had lived in for the past year: New York City. I noticed how the traditional buildings in their crusty infrastructure synthesized with the modern architecture boasted in the Myeongdong neighborhood.

When we arrived at the stop, we walked by one of the oldest banks in Korea. Karen led us past the Shinsegae building, avoiding the mopeds that zipped by us on the sidewalk. All the while, I paid attention to Seoul Tower, enraptured by the its magnitude in the morning fog.

We walked along the green and yellow sidewalk that bordered the highway exit. The sidewalk gradually ascended. Once we passed by the Republic of Korea Red Cross and crossed the street towards the Seoul Cartoon Museum, Karen told us that the orphanage was nearby.

We advanced further until we reached a narrow entrance that was between an art school and Soongeui Women's University.

I immediately heard loud cheering and laughter. It was the children that attended the art school painted in bright yellow [the school buses included]. It must have been lunch recess – something that  every child holds dear to their heart.

“The orphanage is located at the back of this school,” Karen said.

When she revealed this to me, I assumed that the orphanage had an older building compared to the school we walked through. The fact that it was physically hidden led me to believe my own assumptions. However, as soon as we arrived, I was proven wrong.

The Namsanwan Orphanage was a three-story brick building. A white pebbled yard stretched out from its front side. Green trees swayed around its exterior.

The first floor glass window to the right of the orphanage’s entrance revealed the children's playroom. From where I stood, I could see a woman interacting with a little girl. The left side was the same design, which revealed the administrative office.

Taking off my shoes, I followed Karen into the entrance as she presented herself and us to the administrators of the facility. Bowing down and greeting  them with our customary “Annyeonghaseyo,” we sat in their offices while they served us ice cold coffee.

Karen opened up the bags that we helped her carry. She brought mosquito repellent and sunscreen for a camping event that was to happen the in July. The event is to take place outside in the pebbled yard out front. According to Karen, mosquito repellent and sunscreen are expensive commodities.

“It’s also Korean tradition to give and not to expect anything in return,” she added.

Next, we entered the play area, which consisted of a restroom, napping room and feeding room. A small room with a library was also in the corner.

Inside the main room, there were babies from 1 to 2 years old rolling around, crying, smiling and laughing. Volunteers sat on the colored playmat while they played with the babies. The volunteers encouraged me to interact and play with the children, and so I did. Many of volunteers were college students specializing in social work. Many were also there on their own time.

Near the glass window that I had previously looked into from the outside, I approached a little fellow that was separated from the pack. He played with the toy sit-and-step [the kind that a baby sits in the center].

I attempted to get a response from him by tinkering around with the plastic piano keys. I played an out-of-tune song, but the boy did not respond. He continued to stay still.
I tried again by twiddling my fingers on a sphere that spun on a pole. Still no response.

It wasn't until I fiddled with the pieces of the abacus did the little boy copy and repeat my motions. He laughed when I did it faster and faster.

While I kept the little fellow amused, I noticed for a moment that he stopped playing with the toy and squatted down. He looked focused, and then, he grunted.  Suddenly, he walked to the plastic slide nearby and hid underneath. I motioned for him and he stared at me with big brown eyes.

Thankfully, one of the volunteers came by to check up on us. The little boy smiled and giggled. When the volunteer checked his diaper, it was apparent what had happened. She took him away to the other room to clean him up. I went to the playmat where most of the other volunteers [my mother and Karen included] sat.

As the morning expired, our time at the orphanage was coming to a close. We greeted our farewells and retraced our steps towards Myeongdong.

Before exiting the school grounds, I asked Karen why she made the firm decision to volunteer and what was rewarding about it.

“It gives me joy. That's the only reason," she said. "When I talk to the kids or interact with them, they smile. They stop crying, and that is what gives me joy."

She added: “I hope the kids grow up to do good in society and give back.”

Although this travelogue covers an unorthodox kind of journey, I wanted to cover something other than the usual shopping and eating that an individual would do while on holiday.

I wanted to learn about the Korean people to a further extent. I imagined what it would be like to be left at a stoop of an orphanage by my parents if they decided that they did not want me. For many children, my imaginary thought is their story. And if you ask me, this is a story that needs to be addressed.

Perhaps there is a generalized sentimentality or moral takeaway while writing this piece, but it has to be stated. Although my visit to Namsanwon was not in technicality the typical vacation destination, it has driven me to explore what it means to have the support of parents or loved ones. The crippling reality that I had to mull over is the fact that the children at Namsanwon were parentless. But in that moment of volunteering, it was their smiles that erased my own knowledge of that.

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