By Isabel Moua, a second-year ETA in Cheongju
“Your host mother wanted me to tell you that your host brother is disabled and hopes that you won’t be scared. I hope that’s okay,” she intoned. I replied with a quick, “Of course that’s fine.” She seemed relieved and said, “That’s great.” I didn’t know quite what to make of her reaction. Was she relieved because she thought my host brother having a disability would make me reject the host family? Was she worried because she thought a disability would affect my experience with them? She had worked with enough foreign teachers to know that host families had to devote time and resources to their hostee. Maybe she worried that I wouldn’t be taken on trips like other hostees. Or that I would be neglected if it turned out that my host brother needed a lot of care.
My mind continued to race through possibilities and eventually started filtering through the information I knew about Korean society from my studies and my time as an exchange student in the country a couple of years prior. She was worried. Maybe it was because of her expectations of a host family. But then, I remembered the way that people with disabilities are viewed in Korean society. As a general rule, disabilities and those who have them still aren’t quite understood by the general public.
As I settled back in my seat, I filed the information about my host brother away in my head. It wasn’t a red flag and rather I looked at it as another thing to keep in mind as I adjusted to their lifestyle. But, for a brief second, I wondered, just who was this boy?
They were almost all there to greet me when I arrived: mom, daughter, and him, the son. My host father was at work. Hiding away in the back of the group was their cousin. She was slight and skinny. Her glasses seemed to take up most of her face and she greeted me in English. My co-teacher was surprised to see her. She also seemed relieved, again. It seemed like she was also meeting the family for the first time face-to-face. My co-teacher introduced the teen to me as one of our students, a third-year at my new middle school. Facing each other in the kitchen, we struck up a conversation. She was good at English and played translator for me and my host mom.
I thought that curious since she was doing the translating and replied, “What language are they comfortable with?”
She said with a deadpan expression, “They’re most comfortable with Korean.”
I felt embarrassed and said, “Ah, of course. They are Korean.”
She said, “Yeah.”
I didn’t feel my six-week Korean course had prepared me for daily Korean usage and so with nervous undertones, I said, “Okay, so Korean it is.”
“Okay. I have to go now. I have hagwon, private academy lessons,” she declared.
She talked to my host mom and translated, “She said that he won’t bother you and that he’ll be fine. You don’t have to do anything. I have to go now. She said you can unpack. Bye.”
As I went into my room, I looked at the tells of a person with a disability around the house. The physical therapy ramp that ran the length of the living room veranda. The walker that stood in the corner of the kitchen waiting for Ha Neul to use. The standing equipment with straps to harness him in. And lastly, the plastic braces that could only have been Ha Neul’s shoes.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by my host mother and cousin’s words. I was sure that whatever relationship we developed, my host brother and I wouldn’t have a “normal” relationship.
My host mom called from the kitchen, “Isabel, it’s time to eat!” I stopped unpacking and made my way to the kitchen. My host brother was already there, seated in his wheeled chair with a tray. He wasn’t making any noise but his eyes carried undeniable curiosity. My host mother noticed and said, “Ha Neul, this is Noona. Your new older sister. Say it with me, Noo-na.” He looked at her, repeated the word, and then continued staring at me. I didn’t know how to react so I tentatively smiled at him and quietly ate my dinner.
The next morning I went into the living room where everyone was getting ready for breakfast. My host brother sat in his chair playing with toys but stopped to look at me when I entered the room. “Imo!” he cried. “No,” my host mother chided, “Noona. Big sister. Not Aunt.” I smiled. Regardless of the name, today he acknowledged me without his mother’s help. Maybe we will have a relationship.
Hearing his parents call out for him again, I waited for him to listen to them. Instead, he ignored them and came closer to my desk. Using the table as leverage, he hoisted himself up to a standing position and waved his hand at my phone. Getting up, I opened the door and told him in Korean, “Come on, let’s go back. You have to go.” He followed me to the door. But, instead of going back, he tried to push me back inside and close the door again.
Torn between confusion and amusement, I picked him up off the floor and straightened out his tall, wiry body. He was unsteady on his feet so I tried to compensate for it with my own center of balance. We walked together for a few steps and then he suddenly got excited. He stopped, let go of my hands, and started clapping. I quickly grabbed onto his hips, but I was too late. He lost his balance and started falling. All my arms could do was help cushion his fall.
On the floor, he looked up at me in shock. His expression was like that of my youngest sister’s after she would stumble and fall as a toddler. I worried that I had broken him; that the rods in his hips and legs had fractured and would now prevent him from walking instead of supporting his ability to stand. He tilted his head at me and started laughing and clapping his hands. I sighed in relief. He wasn’t an easily broken porcelain doll.
I paused in my regaling to think about the question. “No, he can actually understand quite a lot,” I replied. My mind flashed to a memory from a week prior.
The whole family sat in the living and dining area hanging out. My host parents were watching a drama. My host sister and I were making dresses for her dolls on the dining table. My host brother stood, leaning on the table, watching. All of a sudden my host sister stopped what she was doing, looked at her brother, and said, “Ha Neul, go get Noona’s phone. It’s on my desk. Next to the laptop.”
I watched in blatant wonder as he got down on his hands and knees and crawled to his sister’s room down the hallway. I hadn’t seen her tell him to do anything other than simple commands like “eat” or “stop.” I waited, curious to see what would happen. When she heard him rummaging around, she shouted out one more descriptor. In my limited language capacity, I didn’t understand what she said, but he did. And to my surprise, he confidently returned with her phone, pushing it across the table towards his sister.
Looking back at my friends I said, “Yeah, he can actually understand quite a lot.”
When we got back, dinner was nearly ready and my host mom said to my aunt and uncle, “Make yourself at home.” My host brother was seated in his wheeled chair again. My host mom had put blocks on the tray to occupy him while she cooked. I rolled him around to face my aunt and uncle better as I went to help my host mom in the kitchen. My aunt called out, “Does he talk at all?” They hadn’t heard him say anything yet. As I stopped what I was doing to tell them that he does, my uncle waved at him and enthusiastically said, in English, “Hi!”
Cocking his head to the side, my host brother repeated, “Hi?” My aunt looked on with a smile as I stared, slightly dumbstruck. “Yes, hi,” my uncle repeated. “Hi!” My host brother said again, this time with a big smile and shout. My aunt continued their interaction, “Hi, Ha Neul!” My host brother now yelled in glee and hit the table with his hands, “Hiiiiiiiiiiii!” He had just learned his first English word! “Yes,” I proudly said to my aunt and uncle. “He can speak.”