Noona, Onni, Agassi–Names my Host Family Calls Me

This is how I want to remember my Korean host family. These brief sketches don’t do full justice to the wonderful people that they are, but hopefully capture the essence of their kindness to me. I am truly grateful for how deeply I have come to know and love them over such a short span of time (only about seven months at the time when I wrote this, now almost a year), thanks to their amazing acceptance of me into their family.

*I refer to all people in this post with general titles, or else I have changed their names*

Noona, Onni, Agassi–Names my Host Family Calls Me

[Sister (of a boy), Sister (of a girl), Young Lady, respectively]

Imo [Aunt]

“She’s coming on Friday. You have 24 hours to decide.”

I cannot imagine the conflicting feelings of curiosity, doubt, excitement and anxiety that my host mom must have felt that fateful Wednesday afternoon when she hung up the phone. My school’s host family arrangements had fallen through at the last minute, and in a desperate attempt to find me a new place, one of the teachers had called up her sister and given her this crazy proposition. Imagine this: a total stranger and foreigner who may not speak your language will come live in your house with you and your family for a year. You will have to share your personal time and space with her, cook for her, allow her to interact with and influence your children, and probably deal with not only logistical but also any physical, emotional, social or psychological problems she may have while adjusting to life in Korea. Sounds fun, right?

In what I can only imagine as a moment of spontaneity and tremendous grace, my host mom (or “Imo,” as she asked me to call her) accepted. I knew before I met her that Imo doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. Having accepted the challenge of welcoming me into her home three days before my arrival, Imo immediately directed the full renovation of her son and daughter’s shared room from floor to ceiling, redesigning it to the best of her ability to fit the unknown tastes of her new host daughter, including replacing half of the furniture. She chose green for the walls and white for the furniture, making the room feminine but not too girly. She selected a white bed and matching vanity desk and stool. A white carpet and white slippers added a nice touch of warmth to the room, and a little white cloth shade hanging over the door frame created an aura of privacy and welcome at the same time. A rolling chair with a firm back was also ordered to meet the needs of a new teacher’s busy lesson planning after school hours. Imo’s final touch was a soft, bright yellow blanket, patterned with big white hexagons, making the bed look something akin to a giant beehive. I imagine the yellow blanket was intended to make anyone feel like a queen bee coming home to sweet dreams at the end of a long day.

Besides moving my host siblings out of their childhood room, Imo also got rid of almost all signs that they had ever lived in it, presumably to really make the space feel like my own. She was reluctant only to take down the framed baby pictures that hung on the walls, I know, because she must have put them back after the re-papering. She mentioned at one point later on that I might take the baby pictures down and replace them with my own, but looked relieved when I told her I didn’t mind; actually, I rather like them because they make me feel connected to the family at all times. Moreover, they are a constant gentle reminder of the history that the family has had before I came and imposed myself on their lives, giant suitcase and emotional baggage and all.

During our first week together, Imo went very quickly through the phases of familiarization that were necessary to accept me fully into her life. First, the pleasant surprise that I was not so alien as she had imagined: “You know, I was worried about living with a foreigner, but you are like neighborhood lady!” Second, a comforting affirmation that I was a welcome presence in the house: “At first when I said ‘yes’ to having you come stay here, I was very excited. Then, I became very anxious, very worried. Now, I know I made the right decision.” Third, a crossing over from the polite refrain of acquaintances to humorously correcting my over-exaggerated “Korean” mannerisms: “You are so polite. Too polite! Like Joseon Dynasty woman.” Finally, we reached the positive declaration of friendship: “You have been here for just one week now. But it feels like I’ve known you so long!”

Over more time, I came to love her, but it happened first by allowing her to love me. I remember so clearly the day I came home in early November, distraught because of a frustrating day at school on top of the heaviness of homesickness that had just started to seep out of the seams of my pretended perfection. I had a sort of meltdown as I sat at the kitchen counter, sobbing through mouthfuls of pumpkin tteok, trying to catch my breath and explain five things at once, hardly understanding my own emotions.

My host mom cried with me. She spoke many words of reason and comfort, but what I remember the most is this: “I understand. You miss your mom. I have a daughter, and I am a daughter. When you are here in my home, you are my daughter too.”

Her unconditional acceptance of me, a total stranger for the last twenty-three years, as her daughter, even just for this year, shattered the walls I kept up between us out of politeness, or reserve or fear. I understood from that moment on that we were family.

 

Imobu [Uncle/literally Imo’s husband]

My host father, Imobu, is not a man of many words, but the few he does speak to me are always accompanied by a big cheesy smile and an even bigger effort to be understood through his thick country accent. Every night, just before going to bed, I inevitably catch a glimpse of Imobu stretched comfortably on the living room couch watching TV, and we exchange a friendly “hello” and “goodnight.” On weekends, I join him in front of the screen and we watch a program called “King of Mask Singer,” in which Korean celebrities don ridiculous masked outfits and compete in a singing contest. We guess who will be the winner in each round. Imobu is always right.

Imo told me from the beginning that “Imobu is allergic to English,” but that has never stopped him from trying to communicate with me. When the family took me to see Dosan Seowon, a historical Confucian academy near Andong, he used all the powers of body language and sheer optimism to convey to me that the walls were made with special materials, a clay tile of some sort. When I went home for the winter holiday, Imobu asked me repeatedly if I missed my dad and would be happy to see him again. In his question he showed that he understood a father’s love and empathy for a daughter far from home, and in his actions I understood how unreservedly he took on the role of a surrogate father for me while I could not be with my own. The weekend that I left Korea for home, our apartment elevator was under renovation, so Imobu woke up at six in the morning to carry my 50 pound suitcase down eight flights of stairs, and then drove me to the bus terminal, telling me all the while to enjoy my time with my appa, my “Daddy.”

 

Halmoni [Grandmother]

Halmoni is the boss. She’s the proper matron and patron of the family all rolled into one robust, curly-haired package. While the idea of an American grandmother is typically that of a cute little old lady sitting on the back porch knitting for her grandchildren or her cats, my Korean grandmother is a true force of nature. She dies her hair jet black and wears clothes that are undoubtedly more fashionable than mine, often getting mixed up by Imo in the laundry. At dinnertime, Halmoni eats and burps with the gusto and unapologetic manner of a teenage boy. She runs the household with her presence alone, not needing to say a word or even be here most of the time for the magic to happen.

In spite of her youthfulness, Halmoni values tradition, and blesses the family with her culinary hand. She is the reason we have a very traditional jjigae (Korean stew), rice, meat dish, and at least three or four different side dishes every night for dinner. Our house is one of the only ones in the ever modernizing Andong city to still have huge stocks of homemade doenjang and kanjang sitting in big brown earthenware pots on the balcony, soaking in the natural sunlight to help them age properly. I regularly come home to see Halmoni fiercely peeling chestnuts faster than my host sister can eat them, or sitting smack in the middle of the kitchen floor, legs spread in a wide ‘V’ and surrounded by mushrooms that she’s preparing for market. Halmoni has more friends than Imo and I combined. She is always out with them, exercising or making traditional snacks by hand or buying fruit to take home by the crateful. In November she even traveled to Japan for ten days, and we ate nothing but kimbap and sandwiches while she was gone.

Despite my ability to communicate fairly well with the rest of the family in Korean, for the entirety of the first semester I had no idea what Halmoni was saying to me most of the time or whether she was even addressing me at all. This was partly because of the heavy country dialect she speaks, and partly because of her big presence and resounding voice, which together often make it seem like she’s addressing everyone in the room at once. Still, I appreciate how often Halmoni makes an effort to talk to me whether I understand her or not. I recall one morning, when Halmoni pointed her chopsticks at a small dish of chopped green peppers that I was about to taste, and said something that I interpreted as “spicy.” I nodded and smiled patiently, “I know,” assuming that like many other well-meaning Korean ajummas I had met, Halmoni was simply being considerate of my foreignness and the correlating inability to tolerate spiciness. I proceeded to pop a piece of green pepper directly into my mouth. In the resulting crisis, I was almost late for school. For the next ten minutes, I downed half a bowl of white rice, two full glasses of water and a glass of milk, all to no avail. As I fanned my burning tongue in anguish, Halmoni simply chuckled and repeated, “spicy.” Now I understand; even if I think I know better, Halmoni knows best.

 

Namdongsaeng [Younger brother]

Young Ho is the quiet but hilarious brother I never had. In the beginning, our interactions were limited because he was a middle school third grader who spent all of his time studying at hagwon or shut away in his room playing computer games. I’d see him every day for about five minutes as he emerged from his lair to swallow his dinner whole before running out the door. On weekends, I watched him wake up at two in the afternoon, walk straight to the kitchen in his leopard print pajamas, down a bottle of soda and put ramen on the stove. Then he would wander sleepily back to his room, presumably to continue gaming. After a month of living together, I had spoken more words to his cousin at a single family gathering than we had exchanged the entire time.

Slowly, however, I got to know my brother without ever really having a conversation. Like his dad, Young Ho spoke sparingly, but he was always bluntly sincere without being mean-spirited, and his face was forever telling stories. He made me laugh at dinnertime, pulling exaggerated faces while declaring the food to be too hot, too spicy, too unsavory (masi-eopta) or all three at once. Despite all his complaints, he still ate more than anyone else and thanked his mother afterwards. He blew me away with his patience, gentleness and self-control. His little sister sometimes bragged about her grades and teased him for not being as smart, or drew comics about him getting into trouble with their parents, but Young Ho never spoke a mean word or even showed any annoyance toward her, which is more than I can say for myself. One day in October, the furniture in the living room was rearranged. When I asked, Imo told me that Young Ho had asked to have the computer removed from his room because he wanted to study harder. In December, we got a kitten that for some unfathomable reason hated only Young Ho and bit and scratched him viciously. No matter how much it mistreated him, however, Young Ho loved the cat and was always playing with it, taking pictures of it and even trying to kiss it.

This year, Young Ho started high school, and I see him even less because he returns from hagwon after I’ve gone to bed, and leaves for school in the morning before I’ve woken up. Still, in the brief moments that I see him, he never fails to deliver that self-deprecating laugh and shy “Hello,” which somehow always brightens my day. On weekends he shares not only his ramen but also his precious free time, patiently explaining words to me from his old picture books, and never asking anything in return.

 

Yeodongsaeng [Younger Sister]

Ji Eun is my best friend and my biggest burden. Ten years old, she is an endless fountain of warmth, chatter, and creativity. Raised on Disney channel and her mother’s determination, Ji Eun speaks English with more confidence than my top middle school students. We banter daily about a wide range of topics, from the “boyfriend” she’s too embarrassed to talk to at school to the incredible tales of her Lego friends, to the stickers she collected when she was “young.” She runs to the door when she hears me punching in the code to enter our apartment and squeals, “Victoria sister! I’m waiting for you!” She hugs my legs and I laugh, half-pleased and half-wary that she expects me to spend the next two hours playing with her when all I want to do is lie on my bed in peace. When I do make it to the bed some days despite her puppy eyes and not-so-subtle Do you have times and What are you going to dos, she asks me why I sleep so much and I respond, half-joking, “Because I’m exhausted from playing with kids like you all day!”

Because she is the person that I talk to the most in all of South Korea, sometimes I forget that she is only ten years old, that she doesn’t understand many things and that I have to be patient. Sometimes I am surprised by how well she understands, by how instinctively she gives me a hug when it looks like I’ve been crying, how hard she pounds her little fists into my back when I say I’m sore after too much computer work today, how comforting her presence is when she quietly sits on my bedroom floor reading comics while I lesson plan. She begs me to teach her English but cannot sit still for more than five minutes; she promises to read a whole page but gives up on the second word. She makes me laugh more than anyone else with her ridiculous high-pitched impressions of Pororo’s friends—one of whom she insists is my boyfriend—and general excitement about everything life has to offer. She makes me proud when she talks nonstop about the book of dog-hero stories I got her for Christmas and when she understands that she did something wrong and quietly apologizes. Ji Eun is the only person who makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time, as she twirls around my room in a pink princess costume, one moment delightedly declaring that this room will be hers after I leave, and in the next sighing in regret that I won’t be around when she turns eleven.

 

Hanguk Gajok [Korean family]

My homestay family means so much more to me than a place to sleep and three meals to eat, or even a unique cultural experience, though I am grateful for all these. When I’m frustrated by miscommunications at school or in the convenience store or taxi due to the language barrier, I am encouraged by Halmoni’s persistence in talking to me despite my probably non sequitur seeming answers. I can go to school day after day with a smile on my face regardless of how well I get along with my co-teachers or how poorly my students behave, because I know Imo will always welcome me home with a smile and a plate of fruit. I am never bored for a second because Ji Eun is always thinking of something for us to do together and parading it before me whether I asked her to or not. On the longest of days I am amused by the quiet comedy of Young Ho’s facial expressions as he commiserates with me over the cruelty of schoolwork. When I stay up late at night working, I am comforted by Imobu’s presence in the living room, his kind greeting reminding me of my own dad, who used to stop by my room every night and ask when I was going to bed. My host family helped me get past my initial homesickness and taught me to love Korea by becoming my hanguk gajok, my courageous, generous, thoughtful, patient, loveable, irreplaceable Korean family.

We still have a few months together,* but I am already starting to miss them.

//

*Now the countdown is ten days. I have no idea how to say goodbye. I want to cherish every moment we have left together.

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