Written by Jason Gilmore

"Over the Hill" by Neal Singleton. Taken in Seoul.

“Over the Hill” by Neal Singleton. Taken in Seoul.

It happened on Saturday, October 13, at 11:35 a.m.

Looking back, there were signs. First, the red blush of 2-year-old Eun Hyeok’s cheeks as he strained, followed by the deft shift of hand into diaper. Only then did a sudden, incontrovertible sense of wrongness settle in my stomach. I turned just in time to see a small, brown-clad finger reach out and smear something across my bare knee.

The world stopped. I sat there too shocked to understand what had happened. My gaze snapped back and forth between the expectant look on my host brother’s face and the poo stain on my leg.

Then all at once time sped up and I flew to the bathroom and washed and washed, but no amount of soap would make me feel clean. I glared into the bathroom mirror.

“This was not in my contract.”

Things I learned during my grant year:

1. Hide breakable objects on shelves
2. He can still reach there – place them even higher
3. All snacks brought into the house are Eun Hyeok’s snacks

The summer before I came to Korea, I was flipping through a stack of childhood pictures in search of something to show my new host family. I found one picture facing the opposite way from the rest. “Sept. 1993 – First day of school” was written on the back.

Turning it over, the first thing I saw was a bright smile. Attached to that smile was a little girl with platinum hair, a checkered button-up shirt and khaki shorts that stopped just above a pair of knobby knees.

I followed the straight line of her arm to where she held a little boy’s hand in her own. There I was, a grimy ball of pudge with a crop of untidy brown hair, my smile more cheek than tooth. It was a deep smile. A little brother smile: the kind filled with unabashed joy that this older person thought I was worth her time.

Still looking at the picture, my eyes moved back to my big sister’s smile. I understood my own smile, but what about hers? Was she really that happy to drag her grubby little brother to school, or was her grin just for the camera?

Perhaps these questions seem trite, but they were important to me. The youngest in my family, I’d always thought I’d be a good older brother if given the opportunity. However, at the ripe old age of 23, I figured I wasn’t likely to get that chance.

Two months later, little Eun Hyeok took my naïve dreams of older brotherhood and quashed them with one casual swipe of his poo-covered hand. There was nothing I could say in English or Korean that could settle him down when he decided to pitch one of his screaming fits, nothing that could stop the jolt of annoyance I felt at breakfast when he pulled a drool-soaked hand from his mouth and reached into my cereal.

Day after day, I fought to endure the maelstrom of infantile chaos that raged around me. What can you do with a tiny person who cares nothing for the grown-up boundaries you stake out? What do you do when the structured world you build to cope with change comes crashing down to the tune of high-pitched laughter that ends in giggles and hiccups?

Things I learned during my grant year (cont.):

4. Give Eun Hyeok cat: distract for 10-15 minutes
5. Give Eun Hyeok iPod: distract for 20-25 minutes
6. Sit down and play together: satisfy indefinitely

Some weeks after The Poo Incident, I was on my way out the door when Grandmother called my name. She came hobbling around the corner with Eun Hyeok  in tow, then placed his tiny hand in mine and grumbled a command.

“Go wait for the bus.”

I looked down at Eun Hyeok and stifled a grumble of my own. Taking his hand without comment, I led him down the driveway, shoes crunching on gravel as we went.

Eun Hyeok was surprisingly quiet, silent like a prisoner on the way to the gallows. He looked back at Grandmother and then up at me.

“Hi?” he asked.

“Hi,” I answered.

I lifted him onto my shoulders, where he wound his hands through my hair and tugged this way and that, trying to steer me. I felt a twinge of annoyance but played along, veering all over the driveway making car noises and earning a storm of giggles for my efforts.

When the nursery school bus finally pulled up, I set Eun Hyeok down and watched him waddle toward the opening door. He clambered up inside the van and had time for one big smile and a stiff-armed wave before his teacher shut the door and he was zoomed away.

I stood there until the van turned out of sight, and only then realized that I was smiling.

Things I learned during my grant year (cont.):

7. After your worst day of teaching, he will like you anyway
8. Exasperation is what love looks like in an older brother
9. The best lessons aren’t cultural; they’re human

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Jason Gilmore is a 2012-2014 ETA at Gongju University High School in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.