Saturday, March 26, 2011

Korean Grandmas, Grandpas and Feet: Volunteer Work at a Retirement Home.

Yesterday I had one of the best Saturdays in Korea yet. I didn’t climb a mountain, there was not a market visit nor did I eat any BBQ. Instead, it was solely comprised of Korean grandmas, grandpas and feet. Yes, FEET.

Not long ago, while out to coffee with my friend 은영, I mentioned the desire to do some volunteer work here in Korea. Specifically, I want to volunteer with animals because I miss mine dearly and I love them almost, if not as much, as I love children. So when 은영 stormed into my office at work one day (because that's usually how her immensely bubbly personality makes it's presence) announcing that she had an idea for volunteer work, I was thrilled. Then she mentioned it would be with her church group and they would be working at a retirement home.

Two things immediately crossed me mind. First, that the church group is going to want me to attend their services, which I'm not interested in and second: "Do these old folk want me there?" Here in Korea, the majority of people have made me feel very welcome and accepted. This majority, however, excludes the older generations that stare expressionless at me when I cross their path (literally, the path on my way to work). It doesn't usually make me angry because I understand that they have had a difficult past and westerners have not always played a positive role in that past. None the less, I was nervous for the response I'd receive upon entering their home. Then, another in the room jokingly said: "And you'll be massaging their feet." I thought she was joking about the massaging and hesitantly accepted the invite. Following my "yes" 은영 added: "My friend will meet you at the subway station because I cannot go." "What! ...."

Saturday afternoon, I arrive at the subway station exit and confusingly look around for someone that also looks like they are confusingly looking around for somebody. A girl approaches me and says: "Are you Lara?" Not yet sure of how much English she speaks (It always take time to determine and I never want to overwhelm new people with too much, too fast), I say: "I'm Lana. What's your name?" She tells me that her name is 미 하 and quickly jumps into a full blown conversation in English. I learn that she lived in Iowa, U.S.A. for two years for her dads engineer work. I ask her what we will be doing at the home and she says: "Massing grandmas feet!" From then on the elderly folk were referred to as grandmas and grandpas, as that is what is appropriate in Korea. She must have sensed the nerves in my voice when I said: "I thought someone was joking when they told me that's what I would be doing." because she responded with: "Don't worry; I'll teach you how to massage." Little did she know...I wasn't afraid of not knowing how to massage feet, I was afraid of massaging, especially those of people I wasn't sure would even want me there.

From the subway station, a guy named 강원 picked us up in his car. We drove to the retirement home and met the rest of the church group. Everyone greeted me with hellos and smiles. A few others of the 20 or so spoke some English and the others asked questions about me in Korean to the bilingual volunteers. We dressed ourselves in some Winnie the Pooh aprons and headed upstairs. I would be going to the 4th floor, the floor with grandmas and grandpas that are still very much conscious and in relatively good health. Once in the 4 floor commons areas, residents began walking and wheeling in one by one, starring in awe. With each that sat down with feet in a bucket of warm water, I'd greet with an "Annyeong Hasseo!" and bow. They were welcoming and warm! Some of them I'd hug and others would grab my hands and hold while speaking to me in Korean that was translated back to me by
미 하. Many wanted to know where I was from, if I'm married, and what I do in Korea. Others just wanted to say thank you and they did this over and over with their body expressions showing exactly how sincere they were.

Massages consisted of the grandmas and grandpas soaking their feet for 15 minutes. After the soak, we dried their feet, wrapped one in a towel, while rubbing cooling cream on the other. I watched others around me to learn some of the best food massage techniques and mixed these with what felt comfortable to me. It didn't take long for me to realize that it was as much about the techniques as it was simply getting comfortable and feeling confident about what I was doing. After the cooling cream massage came the lotion massage. This part often went beyond just the foot and included the leg and knee. To be honest, at first the idea of touching the feet of the grandmas and grandpas repulsed me. After getting started, though, it was the perfect way to connect with someone that doesn't speak that same language, but that I needed to show my deepest level of humility. After each massage, us volunteers pulled out a piece of jelly ginsing candy and gave it to the grandma or grandpa. Total, I massaged three sets of feet, the last set belonging to a 95 year old dear.

The emotionless stares that I had previously experienced from the elder generations of Koreans had disappeared. Here at the retirement home, they were replaced by smiles, laughs, and curiosity. When
미 하 later asked how I liked the experience, I shared that I had been afraid because I was not sure how elder Koreans felt about foreigners. She shared that they often feel nervous and that may be the reason I felt that way. I am now left to wonder how many of the elder Korean individuals that I have felt disliked me were really just nervous. There's a wall that exists between foreigners and elder aged Koreans. Saturday I feel that I broke down the barrier at a very small level with my volunteer work at the retirement home. My humility removed the threat factor that I believe foreigners often posses and which may also be the reason I feel I often receive the emotionless states in a country where staring is, indeed, considered rude. We fear the unknown, so to get rid of the fear, we must know- them, us and us, them.

Two new friends also resulted and it was a wonderful experience that I will continue every last Saturday of the month. After my volunteer experience in Thailand and this one, I have become a firm believer that volunteering in a foreign country is the ultimate way to learn about a culture and community. You make yourself vulnerable and you see the vulnerable... and in the end you feel you have received more than you have given. 

My animals via a wonderful Sunday Skype session:


Richie and Luigi. Richie is sick these days :/

Mario was being a bit shy.

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