January 26, 2010

Exchange

The following is a guest posts by my daughter Kelley. It is a presentation she gave at an oratorical event last year.

Exchange:
She was the room’s only occupant. A luxury that served to underscore how just alone she really was. Everything had changed. She was in an American hospital room. Her family was a world away in Korea. I saw her there, quietly overwhelmed by a Juvenile Diabetes diagnosis. Eating would become a numbers game with carbohydrate counts and syringe units. A host of medical terms would be yet another language for her to learn. Needles would become routine: four shots a day, one hundred shots a month, twelve hundred shots a year. That’s not hardly normal.

Which is why my loud, larger than life parents accompanied me to hospital. I had brought them with the hope that they could help define a new kind of normal. They knew what it was to be scared and confused in the wake of a Juvenile Diabetes diagnosis. They also knew how to move forward. We had done it before. Twice. Once with my younger brother, Connor, and again a year later with my sister, Delaney. Normal for my family has come to include all the things that had seemed so foreign to her then.

Immediately, my parents began conspiring with the nurses. As far as they were concerned, a sense of normalcy isn’t possible when hospital food is involved and so they arranged for a McDonald’s Asian Salad to be brought to the hospital. It was as they helped her begin the process of rebuilding, that I saw the impact of all the small, seemingly inconsequential decisions I had made in the hours, days, weeks and even months prior.

She was a fresh face in a sea of familiar ones. A shy, quiet native of Seoul, Korea, Young-Ji was unlike most students living in the Academy’s dormitories. She came to the school with no connections. She existed outside the intricate web of relatives and long term friendships that make up the Academy’s cultural structure.
She was completely unable to participate in the endless rounds of Bryn Athyn’s favorite game: “And your parents are?”

Her initial isolation was magnified by how difficult it was for her to communicate. A proficient English student in Korea, she struggled to keep up with the incoherent speed of everyday American speech. However, over time, the language barrier broke down as words and phrases became a kind of currency that we exchanged for favors and information.

She would give me Korean candy if I explained the meanings of English idioms that she couldn’t translate. I, in turn, would help with English homework only if she could teach me to properly curse someone out in Korean. When she was asked to write a phrase in Korean for extra credit on a test, I helped her work up the nerve to write something wildly inappropriate.

Language became a commodity we traded as we grew closer. Young-Ji became Jina.

She was still quiet and reserved, especially when compared to some of our more outlandish friends, but her general courteousness belied an underlying mischievousness. Jina regularly exploited others’ misconceptions about her. It was hard to suspect her of any misconduct when she tilted her head to the side and stared blankly at you. Feigning ignorance, in her sweetest Korean accent “The yogurt in my hallmate’s shampoo? Where did all my roommate’s socks go? How should I know!”

Helping her study for a religion test, I discovered she used her hand-held translator primarily to play Pong during class. In the spirit of our exchanges I offered up an explanation of Divine Providence for a turn at Pong:

“Basically, Jina, we are, in every moment, making choices. Choices with consequences. Choosing to play pong in religion class has a consequence. Providence, however, guides us. It ensures that there is value in everything we do. For example: I have to teach you the information the day before the test but now I get to play pong. So this was a valuable experience for both of us.”

In the spring, Jina, came to spend the night at my house. The visit marked the first time she had left the dorm to stay with local family. Now, my house isn’t what you might call a “starter house.” It is never quiet. There is always something going on. A dog barking. A TV blaring. A person laughing. More often than not a combination of all three. I was concerned that Jina would find all the commotion overwhelming.

I was wrong.

Immediately upon entering the house, she sat down on the kitchen floor and started happily petting the dog. She observed quietly as my younger sister came into to torment the new house guest.

Delaney never fails to make a production out of testing her blood. The sight of a third grader casually drawing blood from her own finger is unsettling for most people and she relishes in the discomfort of the uninitiated. Delaney’s mischievous tendencies are not hindered by her chronic illness. Unknowingly, she was acting as pint-sized ambassador of a new kind of normal because it was around this time that Jina began to display signs of being ill.

She was so tired that she regularly slept through classes. Despite her protests that all the greasy, American food was going to make her fat, she began to lose weight. We assumed that this was just part of adjusting to America. Surely, her symptoms were the result of the stress and exhaustion brought on by living every moment, of every day, in a foreign environment. If not that, they were certainly the result of exposure to new viruses or the lack of sleep implicit in living in a dorm.

After Delaney had finished her show and we settled in Jina mentioned she was thirsty. Really thirsty. Unquenchably so. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Have you had to go pee a lot?”

While Young-Ji had come a long way in becoming Jina, I clearly had crossed a line. Recognizing her embarrassment, I quickly backtracked. “It’s just that Delaney and Connor have Juvenile Diabetes and when they first got sick we noticed because they lost weight, drank a lot of water and used the bathroom constantly. Don’t listen to me - I’m just being paranoid. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Only it wasn’t nothing. Jina later went to the school nurse with the suspicion that all of her symptoms added up to only one thing: Juvenile Diabetes. The nurse immediately took her to the hospital.

In the months, weeks, days and even hours prior to Jina’s hospitalization, we had made choices. Our friendship was not a matter of chance. While we were two of many people who attended the same school and shared a schedule, we had actively chosen to become more than acquaintances. We had happily become friends.

The small choices we made moment to moment, even playing Pong during religion class, had consequences. In hindsight it became clear that our trading of language and culture provided Jina with surrogate family in her time of need. We became a living example of what we recognize as providence, “[that] even the smallest moments of our lives involve a series of consequences that extend to eternity. Each moment is like a new beginning to those that follow and so with each and every one of the moments of our lives.”