Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Asia (02/26/09)
TITLE: Where Are You Now, Kim Chin Wook?
By Jan Ackerson
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And sometimes a letter waited for me when I walked in the door, right next to my plate of sugar-dipped molasses cookies. I’d pick it up ever so carefully, mindful of the tissue-thin pages attached to an air mail envelope. My mother called it onionskin, and I tried to imagine Kim Chin Wook, meticulously peeling onions and stretching the peels, somehow, into this beautiful, nearly transparent paper. How lucky children in Korea are, I thought, to have such fantastic stuff to write on.
My own awkward penmanship, on manila papers printed with thick blue lines, was always hastily shoved into folders and book bags, wrinkled and smudged by my unruly left hand dragging across the page. But Kim Chin Wook wrote in exquisite, black ink letters, each row marching neatly across the unlined onionskin as if commanded by a barking sergeant. Children in Korea don’t have to use their left hands, or to write fat round letters, I supposed. Korea is a delicate place.
My mother told me that Kim Chin Wook wasn’t really his name at all, this little Korean boy who visited our home with his monthly letters. They say their names backwards in Korea, she said, and Wook is his name, like yours is Cindy. Or maybe she said his name was Chin, which thrilled me; Korean children were named for body parts.
What if I’d been named Elbow, or Belly Button? What if my parents decided to name me Bottom? The thought of answering to “Bottom” at school both delighted and appalled me. There were three Cindys in my grade, but I was sure there were no Bottoms, not even in the whole school.
Kim Chin Wook wrote to my parents in wonderful, grown-up English, thanking them politely for school books and pens, for food and clothes. I understood that he was an orphan, one of an exotic species of parentless children who was never told to brush his teeth for a full minute or to change his underpants every day. I wasn’t sure why my parents bought him presents every month, when I got gifts only on my birthday and Christmas. Perhaps Korean children get Christmas all the time—those lucky Korean children. If I was Kim Chin Wook, though, I wouldn’t ask for school books. I’d ask for an EZ Bake Oven, and bake some Korean cookies.
Kim Chin Wook wrote to my parents about his classes in the Korean orphanage school, and about the Bible stories he learned there. Korean Jesus had almost all of the same stories that American Jesus did, and I imagined that He looked a lot like our pictures of Kim Chin Wook: round-faced, solemn, with dark eyes and a cap of straight black hair. Korean Jesus would still have a beard, though, and that white, belted bathrobe.
He was one year older than me, Kim Chin Wook, and sometimes in his letters he called me sister. How exciting to have a Korean brother! How much nicer than my real older brother, who jumped out at me with a shout from hidden corners, making me cry with rage.
I studied the pictures of Korea in my Children Everywhere book. Korea was full of happy children eating noodles. I liked noodles, too; my mother knew to put my soup in a cup so I could drink all the broth first, then suck up the slippery noodles. The children in Korea ate noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, without the bother of soup.
I would go to Korea some day and visit Kim Chin Wook in his orphanage with the upturned roof, saying Hello, Chin. I am your sister, Bottom.
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