Poop-lyson

With a door shut in my face, kids laughing and yelling in Korean on the other side, the Korean volunteer who came with me that day looked at me hesitantly and said, “He said, ‘go home.’ He was very rude.” One of the 12 students at the center, this small seven year old boy had not spoken to me much until this point. I could see the distrust in his eyes whenever I spoke to him. This was weeks into my time at Gospel Happy Home School Children’s Center, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this student. He was rough and didn’t get along well with the other children. The older boys would bully him, but he also frequently tried intimidation tactics with kids he felt he could get away with.  It was tempting to just say he was going to be a problem child and leave it at that. But my teachers assured me that it took time for him to warm up to people. He was very shy, and the things we did to show we cared were not lost on him. It would just take time.

I wondered if time or effort would change his distrust of me – a foreigner assigned as his teacher, but I was willing to find out. And so I kept at it – still including him and trying to joke with him. Jokes were not received well. I could tell by his tone and body language that he thought my efforts were juvenile and he was above those things. I did my best to intervene on what looked like unfair horse-play by the older, bigger boys, though I was missing cultural and conversational context and hoping I wasn’t embarrassing him. Eventually he spoke to me more – calling me 똥리슨 (which is like Poop-lyson instead of Alyson). I decided to take this name calling as optimistically as possible – after all he was talking to me. I kept at it, trying to including him in games whether or not he played.

Slowly but surely I saw him warm to me. I captured his attention with spinning coins and sleight of the hand tricks my dad used to do with me. The kids were taken by my ability to draw on demand, and he impressed me with his English vocabulary of fierce predatory animals he wanted me to draw for him. He always made sure that each predatory animal had big sharp bloody teeth and claws. Perhaps he decided at some point I wasn’t so bad. By mid-year, this small boy, who slammed doors in my face and told me to go home was coming to me to play tag. Though he never stopped calling me 똥리슨, I can still hear him yelling, “Can you? Can you?” his way of asking “Can you catch me?” so I could run after him – always calling “Time!” right before I caught him. It didn’t matter to me that he always “won.” I was delighted that we were playing.

When the new school year started he stopped coming to the center. I asked the teachers about him, and they said he wasn’t doing well academically and would be back later. I wasn’t sure I would see him again, and I wondered what was going on in his life. Sure enough though, months later as summer break started for the kids and a few weeks before my work at the center ended, I was relieved to see him show up again – spunky as ever and calling me 똥리슨 again. I told him I missed him and he asked me to catch him again.

~~~~~~~~~~

This has been expanded and edited from a 3 minute speech

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Until Next Time, Korea


My roommate Linda and I recorded a little something to say good bye to the people who made this year really special for us.

I finished worked the last Friday in July, and July 31st was my last day at Hannam Church. I apologize for such a late good bye post. The last month of our working life in Korea was hectic from beginning to end, including what you know of moving twice and caring for a dying kitten. There were a number of other things that definitely threw us off, including the normal things that keep people busy when they are leaving a country they’ve lived in for a year including packing up and saying good bye to everyone. My last month in Korea may have been the most challenging month of my time as a YAV.

After packing up and leaving Linda and I then went on a two and a half week trip to Singapore and Shanghai. We stayed at my cousin’s house in Singapore, nearly got deported from China upon arrival, and spent time with my best friend in Shanghai. Everything being quite a whirlwind!

We arrived again in Korea just yesterday, and just as the song says, we will be leaving Korea for good for the year tomorrow. This year has been life changing in many ways I don’t think I’ll be able to articulate for a good long while. I am so thankful for all the people who have supported me during this year monetarily, as well as as a community, through prayer, and emotional support. Thanks those who have been reading, commenting, or sharing my blog. I’m thankful for the people who have opened their homes to me, and fed me, and just been my friend. This year would not be the same without you. Each one has reminded me, and renewed my faith in humanity especially amidst some of the more difficult times.

Plans for the Future

It has felt very similar to the end of college. The question everyone wants to know is “What are you doing next?” Immediately next I’ll be heading back to my home near Chicago and looking for a job. I’ll be in Chicago for the next year to help my dear friends, Spence and Jessica, with their wedding next summer. I’m hoping to return to Korea the following year. I plan on continuing my education in Korean and getting certified to teach English. I’m looking into opportunities both for the following year and for my time in Korea after that. My tentative plans are to start graduate school following that hopefully pursuing a dual degree in Theology (MDiv) and Social Work (MSW). I realize that plans can always change, but it sounds like a pretty good one to me so far.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any good opportunities (job or otherwise) for a person with my background for the next year in the Chicago area! (Just thought I’d throw that out there)

Do you have questions for me? Are you curious about something I never answered? Want to hear stories I never posted on my blog? Want to invite me to your church to talk about the YAV program? I am also happy to talk about my YAV experience for anyone who is curious.

This blog is not dead also! Please keep a look out for my transition experience back to the US, and perhaps some reflection or memories I didn’t post during the year.

Roofus

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Roofus when we came home from the doctor’s office

“Alyson, Roofus went home to Jesus.” I stared at Linda in disbelief. It sounded like a really bad joke gone horribly wrong. Walking home from work I had just been talking to Emily about the little ward in our house, a tiny orange kitten that was too sick to move much other than the occasional flop to one side. I had wondered if Linda remembered to reheat the saline packets to keep him warm.

“Are you serious?”

“I’m serious. I’m so sorry, Alyson.” I had him in a cardboard box with some towels on my bed and had spent the previous night sleepless making sure we would hit the 5 feedings in the day, fending off mosquitoes, and making sure he was still breathing.

How did we get here? It also sounds like a bad joke. It started with a truck hitting our house while we were on our final retreat to Yang Yang and Seorak Mountain. It rolled off the hill next to our house and hit our kitchen wall.

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Thankfully no one was hurt. No one was in the truck and no one was in our house, but this prompted a premature farewell to our YAV house and an impromptu move to the house next door.

The house next door is usually used for important guests to stay during a short visit to Hannam, so there aren’t any drawers, but there is nicer furniture. It also had resident kittens who live on the roof of the house. They would cuddle together right on the corner of the roof. They would run away when we got near, but eventually stopped running when they realized we weren’t going to try to eat them. The little one would shove itself under the gutter and sleep. He reminded me of the kids at my site.

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Then two days ago, Emily and Alexis went out only to come back in the evening to the little orange kitten laying in the bush in front of the house not moving. They were sure it was dead, but I went out to check one more time and the little guy tried to lift his head. It had been raining, and his friend kept him company as best as he could while trying to hide from us at the same time. I arranged a shallow box with towels and put the kitten in it. We have strict rules about not feeding the cats and not having any pets in the house, especially the fancy guest house, so at first we kept him under shade from the rain, but still outside. I ran to a convenience store for some cat food, which the little guy did attempt to eat but struggled to keep his head up. I worried he might drown in his food.

Alexis’s coworker helped us find a 24 hour animal hospital, called ahead so they knew to expect us, and Emily and I were off. I held the box close to me in the taxi and checked every couple minutes to see that his little chest was still moving up and down.

The doctors office was clean and bright. There was a small mop headed dog limping around the office to greet us. After some initial forms the doctor looked at the cat and told us it was a boy. He said he would take some x-rays and left. While we waited, Emily and I weighed the merits of naming the kitten. Originally I said no. Naming things makes them mean more. Naming things makes you attached. But here we were and I was already attached. We talked about what we would name him if we were to give him a name. Given his circumstances with the roof, Roofus seemed appropriate. His friend could be Fiddler.

A good long time later the doctor returned and with the help of google translate said that they hadn’t taken x-rays because the kitten was in shock and it was an emergency. The kitten’s blood pressure, glucose, and temperature were extremely low and he could die.

After more waiting he returned with x-rays. No broken bones, but it was likely head trauma. He needed really expensive treatment or he would likely die. We had a friend of ours help translate as we went through the options. He wasn’t a candidate to be put down because he was eating and was alert despite what the doctor had just told us. He gave us some food and saline packets to keep him warm and told us how to care for him.

Here we were with a kitten on death’s door step for us to take home. I volunteered to care for him. I put his box next to me in bed so he wouldn’t be far. He was so frail – all skin and bones, perhaps from being a stray. Just a little baby – he didn’t even have all of his teeth yet. During feedings he couldn’t keep any food down and could hardly move, but in the night he kept trying to jump out of his box so I was hopeful he could make it. During the day while we were apart I felt like a protective mother, making sure he got what he needed and nothing would happen to him especially since we weren’t supposed to keep him in the house. We thought about posting on the local foreigner Facebook group for someone to foster him in case he stuck around and got better. I was looking forward to dealing with what to do with him.

He died in Linda’s arms as she was feeding him while I was at work. He looked just like he was sleeping in the box, but his little chest didn’t move with his breath any longer. We picked a spot in the backyard to bury him. Linda dug the hole. We said some prayers and final words.

Perhaps in most circumstances loving someone or something would not have such immediate repercussions, but I feel that the act of reaching out to love someone else is inherently a vulnerable act. To care for someone else is to put yourself at risk. It is to say that something other than yourself is important to you. Everyone without exception will one day die, and unless it is you who dies first then the act of love is also inherently a painful one. Even if they don’t die, their suffering is one that hurts you as well. With Roofus perhaps it was foolish to name him, and perhaps we could have left him in front of our house, or perhaps we could have just made him comfortable and let things happen as they do to strays of the world. It has been painful to experience this the past two days. I cried myself to sleep last night. And I supposed we didn’t have to do what we did, but given the alternative it wasn’t an option we were willing to take. I feel that sacrificial, inherently painful love like this is what I’m called to do with my life. Perhaps what I feel we are all called to do for one another, but also I worry that one day this kind of love will break me – that the suffering of those I love will one day be too great for my heart to handle any longer.

Roofus was just a little kitten that lived on our roof. Rest in peace, little guy.

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Art Projects Galore!

One of those big questions that college graduates have when they graduate is “Will I ever use my degree?” As someone who graduated with a B.F.A. in Industrial Design, but is currently volunteering as a YAV in Korea, this is definitely a question that plagues me some. I still get questioned about why I’m not doing Industrial Design, but that’s a whole other topic all together. The point being that my degree has not gone to waste even though I am not actually an Industrial Designer, but rather a volunteer.

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A few weeks ago I had the chance to speak at English Chapel in front of a mostly sleeping crowd of students (it’s a mandatory class). I had free reign over the topic, I just needed to provide a verse and try to make my speech about 25 minutes long. So of course I take the chance to use the verse Isaiah 2:4 –

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

…and talk about design! Specifically “Peace through Transformation and Design”

You can check out my wordless presentation in the link above. It’s probably less interesting with me talking for 15 minutes over it, but knock yourself out. I argued that we should be using our skills and the gifts we’ve been given not as weapons but as tools for peace. It’s very easy to bring up examples from Industrial Design, but any skill you have can be used towards peace for people within your sphere of influence.

And while I may not be doing Industrial Design work, my ID skills have influenced my work in a lot of ways throughout this year.

Within my house I made our chore chart for the year. We divided our chores for the 5 people who live in our house.house3.jpg

This hangs on our wall in our kitchen. The back wheel with our names written in Korean rotates every week so that we all switch chores once a week. Probably the most useful thing I made this year.

For our house I also made us some cute ornaments for Winter and Spring. The photos inside are left over photos we had from getting our foreigner ID cards. The photos are removable and replaceable so you can switch them from one ornament to another.

The flowers are currently in a bottle on our living room table with paint brush stems. Hopefully bringing our house a little joy.

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I’ve also made my own Halloween costume which were just some cat ears I could bobby pin into my hair.

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Occasionally I’d do my own relaxation with art projects as well and I made some cute little doo-dads that don’t really do anything. I was pretty happy I found googley eyes.

I gave the bear to my bosses’ son, Sahn, and the bunny to my friend Hanbyeol who used it as a guide for a craft when she did some volunteering in Cambodia. But these types of things aren’t really very useful, and I made them mainly for my own satisfaction. More importantly have been the things I’ve made with or for my kids – either at Sunday school, the Migrant Women’s Shelter, or my children’s center. My methodology for lessons definitely started out with what I know best, which is arts and crafts. One of my first big lessons at my children’s center was puppet making.

(Sorry for how silly this is, for the privacy of the children at my center and the women’s shelter, their faces will be covered by adorable stickers!)

My site has also hosted crafts. One of which was a cake decorating day. It was Peppero day, which many people have as a couples’ holiday, but I had a lot of fun decorating a cake with my buddy, Seong Eun.

One of the fun projects I did with the women’s shelter children (with my roommate Emily’s help) was a garbage bag fashion show. I made a few things myself, but the kids had a good time making their own  clothes.

Above you can see some photos from their fashion walk. Me on the other hand, I made a garbage hat for myself. Perfect for a fancy day out!

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We’ve done some origami together, and I’ve made them flowers.

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One of the girls at the women’s shelter brought out tweezers for this one so she could make increasingly smaller fortune tellers. It was quite a thing to see!

I also created a few English lessons around art projects.

The kids had a chance to make some of the paper food (and I provided some of it) and we made “Our Restaurant.” They took turns ordering the food we all made in English and filled up their paper trays. It was a nice mixture of Korean and American foods

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My roommate Alexis and I had a lesson on clothes where we filled a suitcase with clothes for a trip as well. The kids got a chance to made some clothes to put in the suitcase. If you notice there’s an inner tube for when they go to the beach up there.

I wish I had photos of the books I made with the children at my center too. One of my kids used his book to write a long list of Pokemon.

At church I’ve made some stick puppets and classic paper snowflakes with the Sunday school kids.

The thing I do the most in Sunday school though, is illustrate the Bible stories for the kids while they listen.

Maybe you can recognize the Bible stories I’m drawing? I’m sure there are a few projects I’m missing from the year. Though I’m not an Industrial Designer, a lot of the work I do involved my art background. Thankfully I’ve had the opportunity to apply my skills in creative ways. I do think it’s been an enriching part of my experience and a part that continues to give. I do think that we can all use the skills we have towards more peace in the world – whether it’s transforming swords into plowshares, guns into garden tools, or just using whatever skills we have towards peace.

Murphy’s Law

 

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“Murphy’s Law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen. What it means is whatever can happen will happen.” Interstellar

Excuse me for using an Interstellar quote, but it is a rather appropriate summary of what our YAV year has been like. That has meant that we got to go to the Philippines, and were here to witness a lot of political change in Korea like Korea and Japan coming to an agreement about the Comfort Women without the comfort women.

It has meant seeing protests in Gang Jeong village come to an end, and the birth of a Peace School as an alternative way to still work towards change amidst political pressure.

But in particular within our house we have had Murphy’s Law hard at work in our day to day lives. We’ve had the opportunity to have the Hannam Festival twice during one year, as well as the reunification run again which I will be participating in in June. Unusual as they are supposed to be once a year events, I guess in that way we’ve been lucky. We’ve also had two separate movies filmed at or near our house here, and a small bush fire.

We’ve definitely had our share of house conflict, something that is not unusual, but also things that completely blind-sided us with their severity. Mid-February we were all contacted by someone trying desperately to contact Alexis. We found out shortly after that her only sister had passed away in a car accident. Alexis was the first of the Korea YAVs to go home. None of us were sure if she was coming back or not, but thankfully she did.

We had the opportunity to continue working on our little community because of that, though intentional community is not easy. And again all at once in the Spring, once our bosses Kurt and Hyeyoung left for their month long US trip, Will and Alexis were in a minor car accident, and Will found out that his uncle had passed away within a two day span.

It was already scheduled that Linda would be going home for her older sister’s wedding, but before she could go, Emily slipped on wet ground and twisted her knee. You can read about this in her own words on her blog here. She had had a history of knee problems already, but this time it required surgery so before Linda left we went with Emily to the airport.

Two days later, Linda left. Soon after she returned Will left for his uncle’s memorial service. He is still currently gone, but scheduled to return at the end of the week. Life in the house in between these moments has been ever changing. I’ve had nearly every combination of roommate, and am still hoping that Emily will be able to come back to Korea.

I sit in a position of privilege having not had my own circumstances that has sent me home, so it is easier for me to say that I have learned a lot this year, but I don’t think that tragedy’s purpose is to teach us or that it even has a purpose other than being a part of life we must live with. I do think that my roommates have taught me a lot whether intentionally or not about how to love people that are not like me and that are going through things I will never understand. I’ve been given a chance to practice what I preach in terms of grace – to give it, but also very importantly to receive it from my roommates as well.

This year we’ve spoken a lot about what it means to have God with us in these times. Many times it doesn’t seem to make sense, and it frequently doesn’t feel like He is with us. I don’t pretend to know the answers or to know God’s role in all of this. Though I invite you to be with us in prayer as we sort through it all.

Caught in the inbetween

After some months of deliberation I finally decided to make a post on the local foreigner’s Facebook group to try to find other Asian Americans in Daejeon.

It went a little like this:

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A few white men decided that my desire to meet people like myself was distasteful. Which was really unfortunate, and a bit difficult for me to get past. I did, however, get good feedback following the trolls that commented first and was able to make some friends from the experience (Note: I have not been exclusively meeting with Asian Americans.) It’s been overall wonderful to meet people like me in Korea.

A young mother I met from this (Asian Australian) asked me today why I wanted to meet Asian Americans. What was my motivation? I had to think for a little while, aside from having been called a, “pathological extrovert” I realize I did have a deep longing to connect with people who related to the experiences I’ve had in Korea as an Asian American. While I’m certainly not lonely, there was something to hanging around with Koreans and white Americans every day for the past 8 months and almost no one who lived in that in between space with me. There is a need for a lot of explanation of my experience for those who don’t live it. I am the invisible foreigner – being able to pass as Korean until I open my mouth. Korean people look and speak to me in Korean before my white counter-parts which is a double-edged sword. I’m told that it’s easier to talk to me because I seem more familiar, and I’m not singled out for my foreignness. That means it’s nearly impossible to find people like me, or have them find me. It is its own experience to be visibly foreign in a country (one I’m familiar with at home) but it is certainly not the same as being foreign and white. And one that I am reminded of so eagerly by the people who troll my posts when I ask to meet people like me.

It’s been nice to have people who related to my day to day experiences, but my friend’s inquiry into my motivations made me realize that it was much more than that. With this year grappling with colonialization and privilege my experience is a lot less straight forward than people coming from the dominant culture. I carry with me American privilege and native English speaking privilege, but not white privilege. I carry with me Christianity and English, both of which have been used as tools of oppression on people who look like me.

In the context of Korea, English in particular has a special position as a language of success. It’s nothing like learning any other language when you are in the US. Speaking English is your ticket to success in life – your key to a good job and a good life. Christianity is widespread and very common. There are churches everywhere, and while not everyone in Korea is Christian it is mainstream and normal to identify as Christian. In Korea, depictions of Jesus are also almost always white men, even though the historical Jesus would not have been white at all. The US has been a huge part of both of those trends in Korea. It is pervasive, and has set up unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans.

Coming from the US gives me privilege, but having lived in the US as an Asian American comes with its own kind of experience. Being Asian and female also brings its own “special experiences.” Asian women are very often objectified and seen as exotic and submissive. Take for example okcupid data on race: While it may seem like a good thing that Asian women get more messages and more messages back to their messages and are generally very popular in the dating scene, it mostly means (in my experience) that Asian women are seen as sex objects more than anything else. Google “Exotification of Asians” and you’ll find plenty of people writing about the same sort of experience. While at the same time I’m told that my stories aren’t relatable. Someone with my face can’t act in a movie about people who look like me. Scarlett Johansson is playing a character in a live action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” a Japanese story, that’s named Motoko Kusanagi. Asian Americans are one of the most underrepresented minorities in American media. It’s hardly a new thing to happen as well.

So when it comes to big questions of responsibility and privilege I’m a mixed bag. There are privileges I have and clearly privileges I don’t have. A big question I’ve been wrestling with this year is about my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian organization abroad. Am I contributing to colonialization? What is my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian program abroad? These are big questions especially in regard to what I’ll be doing next after my program is done. While I currently don’t have clean pre-packaged answers to my questions it is comforting to feel that I’m not alone. Reaching out and finding people who live in this in between space means that I could talk with someone if I wanted to without having to explain my experience because they would be living it with me too. It doesn’t mean that they know any better than me, but at least we are living in this reality together.

Saenaru 새나루

Squatting over an empty rice pot roughly the size of a tire, I looked up at him sheepishly. “Jeogiyo?” (Excuse me?) With a big smile he repeated back to me. He looked to the woman next to him and repeated what I said to her and laughed. It’s been seven months since I’ve been in Korea, and seven months since I started working at Saenaru every Thursday, and I didn’t know what to call this man who had been the head of the kitchen since we’d been here. At some point it got too awkward to ask. He is shorter than me and dark. His glasses rest over the friendliest eyes I’ve ever seen. His hands are worn like someone who has worked hard their entire life, and definitely someone who has gotten the kitchen to work like a well oiled machine. I’d wager a guess that he’s in his late forties, but he still playfully pushes us or bangs pots just to make us look up.

Thursday is the one day a week where all the Korean YAVs work together. When we first arrived we were pretty clueless. It was trial by fire at Saenaru and we were just thrown into the mix. We gained the scorn of the other kitchen workers when we couldn’t understand them, or didn’t know how much food to put in each section of the food tray. Over time we’ve earned the respect of the kitchen staff and gotten used to occasionally getting some kimchi juice on our shoes or on our arms when the gloves don’t quite do their job. We know how much to put in each section and know what jobs to do – from washing dishes to sweeping the floor and all the jobs in between. We got into a rhythm there even if we still sometimes get chastised for putting too much food or being too slow at serving rice. Serving soup fast enough without making a mess is a job we’re all still intimidated to do, though our friend who runs the kitchen is always happy to encourage us with a thumbs up and a, “Very good!”

A harder job has been to recognize clients faces outside of Saenaru. Many of the kitchen staff were previously clients of Saenaru, which is a community center that mainly serves the homeless and the nearly homeless. Many of the people who come for meals live across the street in tiny one room accommodations the size of a walk in closet.

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Housing across from Saenaru

Because of their housed status the government no longer counts them as part of the homeless population even though they are a very thin line away from the same. The people who come in the door are mainly older gentleman, but there are young men and old women who come as well. We see many of the clients of Saenaru around Daejeon – in the train station, on the street, under bridges – that I must confess were once invisible faces to me in Korea. Some also are clients at the homeless shelter we volunteer at as well. It’s taken some time to recognize that some of those forgotten faces are the people we see every week at Saenaru.

Recently our kitchen friend at Saenaru has been occasionally absent which made me worry that something happened to him. I can’t even ask about him because I don’t know his name! I have no photos of him, how would I remember him? The mild panic was eased when he walked through the door again after a week or two of being absent. I asked where he had been (a new thing I learned how to say recently) and he responded in Korean which I didn’t really understand. What I got was that he was making money… probably. Regardless I was glad to see him again. Caught up in how to ask what title to call him and not what his name is (it is considered rude to ask to someone older than you) I didn’t ask anything at all. So I was embarrassed but relieved when he realized I didn’t know what to call him when I was squatting over the industrial sized rice pots while he was teaching me how to clean them.

He squatted by the rice pot to be able to look me in the eye and said, “Seo jipsanim!” He explained to the woman next to him whom we’ve also grown very close to that I didn’t know what to call them, and she told me what to call her as well – “Jo jipsanim.” and she went on to explain in Korean something I didn’t quite catch, though I appreciated the care she took to say something to me. Rice paddle in my sticky hand I repeated their names and titles over in my head until it stuck. They both chuckled at me mumbling names to myself, but I won’t be forgetting any time soon.