By Heidi Little, ETA ’16-’18
“Il, ee, sam, sa, o, yuk…” I count up the numbers as I hear a rustle and giggle behind me, small, fast feet pattering across the wooden floor, a door opening. I know if I open my eyes I will see her, long black hair flowing, eyes shining, smile widening as she runs to find her hiding place. A minute ago, her small face looked up at me, coaxingly. “Soom-ba-kkok-jil, Hide-and-Seek,” she said. “Han beonman, just one time,” she said, delighted when I nodded my head in agreement.
I finish counting and start moving from room to room in my host family’s third-floor apartment, searching. In the living room, I glance at her futon bed lying in front of the TV, the place where she showed me Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby” and “Bang Bang Bang” over and over again. Her childish voice declared that G-Dragon was the most “sexy,” a word she probably doesn’t fully understand; I didn’t at five years old. The only figure watching TV now is a large, golden furball of a cat, relaxing as it knows the threat of being picked up and cuddled by small arms is temporarily suspended.
I glance from the living room into the kitchen, noting the familiar white rice cooker on the counter and heavy, red iron pot on the stove. Maybe we will have potato soup tonight. One of my favorites. Some nights when the family is busy, though, we eat ramyeon.1 Not much of a cook, and not knowing how to light the stove, the first time making ramyeon for her and me to share involved a call for help. I laugh as I remember handing her my phone, knowing she could speak to her mother better than I could in my broken Korean, recalling how she stood by instructing me as I prepared our food, dishing out noodles and broth into her small, metal bowl—child-size chopsticks, spoon and fork at the ready. Now, the kitchen is empty.
I pass into my host parents’ bedroom. Wooden lid piled with a disabling amount of clothes, an electric flyswatter resting on its bench, an upright piano stands in the corner of the room, inviting me to sit down and play. Finding myself living in a Korean home with a piano was a small miracle to me, and she liked it too. Standing or sitting next to me as I played, she would request her favorites from the song books I had carried with me from the States. “One, two, three,” happily beating her own tune on the keys above me to the waltz-like rhythm of the song. Now, the piano is quiet.
“Heiding!” I hear her yell, her special pronunciation of my name. She is getting bored and wants to be found quickly. I exit my host-parents’ bedroom, passing down the hallway to my bedroom. Stepping into the room, I enter one of my own hiding places. Here the worry and stress of adapting to a new country, a new culture and new people is assuaged by an eclectic, but cozy, ensemble of cream-and-baby-blue wood furnishings; a purple and blue, zebra-striped rug; tall, fringed floor lamp; Union Jack bedspread; and rainbow, pony print valance. My hiding place has been disrupted before though. “This isn’t your room; it’s my sister’s. This isn’t your house, it’s mine,” she said in Korean, her young words stinging more than she possibly could have known or intended, as I contemplated how I didn’t belong. But now, the words don’t sting, tempered by the hug she gave me after coming back from a long trip, the card she wrote me in misspelled Hangeul2 and scrawled English: “Saranghaeyo. I love you. Welcome to Korea.”
I find her. She is tucked under my bed, waiting to come out. As she emerges from her hiding place, she looks up at me again, coaxingly. “Han beonman, just one more time.” These words, now so natural to my ear, echo in my mind, and I too want just one more time; just one more year in Korea.
Heidi Little is a 2016-2017 ETA at Seogwipo Girls’ High School in Seogwipo, Jeju-do.