Written by Kristen Bialik, ETA ’12-14

Here is what I knew: my host mother and I would be volunteering, my 12-year-old host brother would be coming along, and that’s about it. Accepting the fact that I’d find out when we got there, I sat in the front seat and tuned out all but the patter of rain as we drove through the countryside, my host mother and brother chatting boisterously between the front and back seats. This was not the first mysterious drive to an unknown destination or vaguely defined purpose; this was simply how my host family and I had come to operate. “가자!” (Let’s go!) my host mother would declare, and I would follow, waiting for clarity to unfurl in timid blossoms.

We pulled up to a large, solitary building in a dampened forest, its isolation a striking departure from the densely populated cities of Korea. The long and gravelly half-road half-driveway reminded me strangely of home as we wound through the woods. A sign outside the building read 재활원: Rehabilitation Center.

I’m hanging 30 feet in the air from the branch of an enormous oak tree. I’m in Michigan, volunteering at a tree-climbing therapy program for children with disabilities. An elaborate system of ropes, pulleys, karabiners and harnesses allows the children to practice their fine motor skills as they hoist themselves up into the foliage. I watch as a boy in a wheelchair is placed into a harness and lifted skyward, his mother waving to her son and choking back happy tears. She shields her eyes with her fingers. She can barely see him for the sun.

We walked farther into the rehabilitation center and entered a large room. It looked like pediatric hospitals I’d visited in America — with self-consciously cheerful décor that failed to mask the atmospheric sadness. Beneath the wallpaper of bright yellow sparrows, a boy nearly my height lay naked, shaking on the floor.  Another boy banged the cupboard doors against his head. Three more children lay on a 요 (Korean-style bed): one had a foot twisted into his mouth with the collapsible dexterity only newborn babes and master yogis possess.  Another peered out the corners of her eyes while her tongue lolled out of her mouth. The third child lay completely still.

My mind reeled as I stood dumbstruck in the middle of the room. Where are the parents? Do the children live here? How old are they? How long have they been here? I walked straight to a corner of the room and tried to mask the visible horror on my face, the tears in my eyes, my runny nose. I remember feeling a sense of shame that my nose was running, like I was too leaky and disgusting to be helpful. I feared my host mother would see me and think I couldn’t handle being there, or worse, that I didn’t want to be there.  I feared the children would see that the mere sight of their vulnerability brought me to tears. But most of all I feared that, despite my volunteering experience in the States, maybe this time was different. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

I’m standing in a crowd of hundreds. I’ve been standing for 29 hours, with the tantalizing promise of sitting just an hour away. Feet aching, I try to remember why I’m here: to raise money for children’s therapy programs. A boy in a wheelchair is on the stage before me. He can’t walk or speak because a babysitter beat him with a telephone when he was an infant. Each year, he attends a music therapy camp and learns to play the xylophone. And each year, he chooses a song to perform at this event. It’s his way of speaking, through the lyrics that echo behind the wooden ping of xylophone bars. This year he plays Five for Fighting’s “Superman.” I cheer until my throat burns while his song surrounds me: “Only a man in a funny red sheet / Looking for special things inside of me…”

My host mother motioned for me to join her. My first job was to dress a little girl who had just been bathed and then to dry her hair. I was terrible at both, gentle to the point of inefficiency. Minutes later, while I was still trying to pull her arm into her sleeve, a boy who had been swaying in the middle of the room pulled off his clothes, reached into his diaper and began to eat his own feces.

My hard-earned composure evaporated as I watched the severest form of mental incapacitation I’d ever witnessed unfold. As the boy smeared the brown matter across his face, I gagged from the hot, rancid smell wafting up from the 온돌 (Korean heated floor). Caregivers rushed over to bathe him and sterilize the floor. It wasn’t until he was being carried to the bath that I realized he was blind. They called him Jin Soo, meaning the essence, the spirit, the soul.

When the caregivers sat Jin Soo back on the floor, freshly clothed and clean, I was asked to watch him until lunch. I picked him up and let him rest against my shoulder. Immediately, he wrapped his arms around me and fell asleep. When my arms began to hurt, slowly, I lowered myself to the floor with Jin Soo in my lap. In his half-somnolent state, he held my hands in place, his tiny thumbs resting between my pinky and ring fingers, the others wrapped around my index finger. If I adjusted my arms and he lost his grip, he’d reach back to find the line of my arms, feeling his way down my elbows and wrists until he came to my hands. Then he’d grip tighter, squeezing with a fierce determination. I marveled at his tenacious grip and wondered when he’d last had hands to clasp. We sat like this, Jin Soo holding my hands and resting his head on my shoulder for well over thirty minutes, until it was time for lunch.

When I put Jin Soo back down, he scooted along the floor, searching desperately for the arms and hands he’d found so easily before. I watched him recoil from tactile disappointment after tactile disappointment: the cold, metallic spokes of a wheelchair, the flat cupboard doors and the sharp, square legs of a table. Meanwhile, the caregivers, my host mother and I frantically orbited around the other children in the room, tipping spoons of package curry into open mouths. After lunch was finally served, I plopped back down on the floor and let Jin Soo sit in my lap while I rocked him back and forth. He melted into our previously arranged position: eyes closed, thumbs intertwined with pinkies. In the calm that washed over us both I thought of moments like this, moments that transcend culture, language, distance and identity. People are people. We yearn for prehensility, for a hand to grasp, for a simple touch that says, “I am here. I know you, because I know myself.” With his fingers linked tightly in mine, Jin Soo was like a spirit that lived up to his name. I felt so lucky to hold that little piece of soul in my arms, however briefly, before heading back out to the long and gravelly road.

It’s the 29th hour one year later, and I’m in the crowd again. Spotlights shine down on the boy who plays the xylophone. He’s in high school now, and after a decade of intensive therapy he speaks into the microphone for the first time to introduce his song. My heart swells with a hope bigger than I’ve ever experienced as the music of wooden bars rings out behind the lyrics he has chosen: “I’d like to make myself believe / That planet Earth turns slowly / It’s hard to say that I’d rather stay / Awake when I’m asleep / Because my dreams are bursting at the seams….”

“빨리, 빨리! (Hurry, hurry!)” my host mother said, rushing to the car. We drove back through the forest, back into the bustling streets of Korea where I watched children on sidewalks slap each other’s hands for lost games of rock-paper-scissors. My host mom pulled one of her usual U-turns into traffic, and other Koreans honked their horns as we sped down the street. Next week, I’ll go back to my school and chuckle at the physical intimacy of platonic relationships here, watching my middle school boys sit on each other’s laps and skip through the halls holding hands. But for the first time since coming to Korea, their “skinship” will not seem like just another cute cultural difference. It will seem deeply, almost profoundly necessary. I’ll smile at these expressions of friendship and think of Jin Soo, that little piece of spirit in this human chain linked through palms and fingers.