If I was to receive one of those Facebook memes that ask when the last time I cried was, I'd have to say that I indeed got a bit teary-eyed last Thursday night. At a Starbucks, of all places.
It was there where the twelve host families and our South Korean exchange students had gathered to bid one another goodbye, and as the ten minute farewell turned into a 40 minute so-long-forever, there was hardly a dry eye in the store. Hyeon Ju never got emotional. She's not that type of kid. She was the one going around telling the other kids everything was going to be okay, and that they shouldn't get upset. She hugged us goodbye and we took a final farewell photo, then she was gone. Darting back and forth from one forlorn kid to the next. She was the mother hen to a half-dozen heart-broken teenage girls. And, to be honest, her lack of emotion or tears actually made us feel a little sad. Why is she not crying like the other kids? We wondered briefly if she ultimately didn't really like us or if it's just not her nature to get emotional. Looking back on the 5 weeks she spent with us reveals a bit of the latter. She always seemed far more businesslike than the other kids. She would laugh and smile and man did she love playing Rock Band 2 every night with me, but she never expressed any sense of homesickness. Even at the parties we would attend, when all of the girls were in one room doing little teenage-girl gossipy things, she was in the other room, drumming some steady beats on Rock Band. She never acknowledged missing her family, her brothers, her dog. Never mentioned her father. She is a sweet girl who we really enjoyed sharing our home with, but she had her defenses up and, even if only on a subconscious level, probably knew that it was best to not get too attached.
Kristin and I wondered if because we didn't have kids made it easier for her to keep a distance between us. The families that had teenage kids were certainly much more emotional at the goodbye; their students were almost inconsolable and many all but refused to go. The teenage daughters of the families were clearly upset at losing a friend. It was very, very somber. Nobody likes saying goodbye, and the sadness in the room was suffocating.
On the other hand, Hyeon Ju was smiling. She was happy for the experience, happy to meet friends, and was very much looking forward to seeing Disney Land and the Grand Canyon, where they were headed before flying home to South Korea. She seemed to see these 5 weeks not as a display of a life she'll never get to lead, but as a simple experiment in travel. She made some good friends -- numerous Mt. Si High School students signed a tee-shirt she was given and included email addresses and very nice messages -- and took tons of photos, but rather than dwell on not ever playing Rock Band again or going home to parents who don't play games or to a place where the choices are fewer and the schoolwork never-ending, she seemed to enjoy it for what it was.
I mention the differences between her life in Gangjin and the life she saw here only because it was something Kristin and I tried hard to not flaunt while she was here. Some of it was unavoidable -- like my willingness to play Xbox with her or Kristin's desire to take her to the zoo and movies and just the sheer volume of choices of food in our pantry and at our grocers -- but we didn't want to go overboard regarding how great we have it here. And we really do have it great, her wide-eyed astonishment at things we consider trivial proved this. This isn't to say that she's going home to some horrible land and will be left wanting for what we showed her, but more that we all know how different things are there. For example, even though she attended school here every day and did plenty of Korean homework at night, this was a vacation. Back home they are in school from 8am till 10pm five days a week and every other Saturday. They have it harder there, as simple as that. Back home she has two brothers and parents who love her, but I get the impression she lives in a house without much laughter and with little play. It's just a difference in our societies and perhaps even just our two homes.
Some of the students were keenly aware of this and cried and sobbed and pleaded with their host families to let them stay. A few of the students took turns standing on a chair in the Starbucks and made passionate, heart-felt speeches about the great time they had here, the love they had for their host families, and their desire to return again. One boy swore he would return to Snoqualmie to visit as soon as he could and anyone who could see the look in his eyes and hear the quiver in his voice knew that this was not an empty promise.
My eyes swell with tears even now as I type this just remembering the emotion of the goodbyes on display all around the room. Five weeks, as it turns out, is a magical amount of time. The first two to three weeks allowed the students to get over the culture shock, the homesickness, and for them and their families to get to know one another. The final two weeks forged friendships, bonds, and a closeness you wouldn't anticipate during those first couple weeks. Hyeon Ju really seemed to enjoy herself those final two weeks. She'd watch television with us in the evening, she'd help clean up from dinner, she'd play Rock Band with me every night. Instead of retreating to her room after dinner every night like she did the first couple weeks, she actually stayed downstairs until well past eleven each night. She became a member of the family. Five weeks was just enough time to really start to feel attached. And then she had to go. They all did.
Kristin and I will be headed to Gangjin in April and, as it turns out, I'll be speaking to Hyeon Ju's class about America and what it's like to be an American. I hope to meet her family when we get there and to tell her parents what a wonderful daughter they have and to reinforce our invitation to her that anytime she ever wants to return to the United States she has a place to stay.
The house has gotten a bit quieter since she left. I no longer turn on the television and find it set to Cartoon Network. I can use the bathroom nearest my office again. It no longer smells like exotic shampoos and perfume. The dogs miss her. We have an abundance of left-over Korean food in the pantry, food she brought with her in case she hated American cuisine, but never ate. We just finished the last of the ice cream she picked out and tomorrow I'll eat the last of the chili we made together last weekend.
I hope she remembers us.