Giving thanks, far from home

I awoke to familiar sounds on the morning of Nov. 23, 1967. Someone was pumping water into a metal bucket in the courtyard. Pots banged in our small open kitchen, and a large block of charcoal scraped against concrete as it was pushed under the floor where I slept. A dog barked. The door to the outhouse banged, and I heard soft voices through the paper wall that separated me from my host family.

The floors were heated in my Korean home. At night we rolled out padded mats and heavy comforters, and radiant heat rose through the layers of paper flooring and warmed the bedding. It was difficult to rise and face the chilled air, but I had classes to teach and a long walk to school. I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

Breakfast was rice, with a pickled cabbage dish called kimchi. Huge clay pots in the courtyard held special kimchi for winter and summer use, and red-pepper paste dried in flat clumps on the roof. Rice was the main food at each meal, often dipped in broth with bean curd or wrapped in seaweed. I learned to hold chopsticks and a large spoon in the same hand, alternating their use with a slight turn of the wrist.

The walk to school took me through the market area of Chunchon, and I could smell fish and spices and chestnuts roasting. Men carried huge bundles of cabbage in woven A-frame baskets on their backs, and boys on ancient bicycles balanced turnips piled high on the front and back to sell. Brass pots and rubber shoes sat in tidy rows, and the black market openly stocked chocolate, eggs, and jellies. Bustling activity filled the dusty, early-morning streets, and I greeted people I knew and sometimes those who stared.

A young American woman was a novelty in my town, and even more so in my school. I was assigned to a boys middle school, and each of my classes had more than 60 students lined up in small wooden desks. The winter stoves had not yet been brought into the classrooms, and the cold November air held the promise of snow. The boys wiggled in their seats to keep warm, gripping pencil stubs with near-frozen fingers to write their exercises. Broken windows let the breezes in freely, and with their shoes left outside, many students had only thin socks or none at all.

Looking out over the rows of shaved heads in obedient readiness, I suddenly asked the boys to stand up. Curious and expectant, they watched as I began to do jumping jacks while calling out, "This is a pencil! My name is Kim! May I see your book?" They were stunned. The formality of teachers was shattered, but they soon followed my instruction to join in, happily jumping and stretching their arms, repeating English sentences after me. And warming their bodies.

While not exactly an international incident, this wild change in classroom behavior did cause a stir. Teachers from nearby rooms poked their heads in to see what was going on, frowning at the sight of laughing students and a jumping teacher. And my principal, always sedate and proper, came to me after class and said, "The students like you," nodding his head as if responding to a distant call. A certain order prevailed in student-teacher relationships, and I had disrupted established customs.

THAT afternoon, many at the school came together to fill gift bags for Korean soldiers who were then fighting in Vietnam. We huddled around the warmth of the teachers' stove, putting soap, toilet tissue, razors, and small personal items into cloth bags. The boys were respectful, deferential, always bowing, extending both hands to receive an item, and participating eagerly in the activity. My students gave me sideways looks with sparkling eyes and broad smiles, and I saw in their faces the promise of peace and hope for the future.

As we finished tying the last bags, one of the teachers turned to me and slowly chose the words to ask, "Isn't this the thanksgiving day?" I had not realized what day it was. The rhythm of my routine was set by patterns of Korean life, and the holidays of home were shades of memory. I certainly did not expect my country's day of thanksgiving to be noticed 3,000 miles away.

For a moment I thought of pumpkin pies, cranberry relish, and moist, golden turkey. My family would be gathering with friends and neighbors to share gratitude for many blessings, and I had never been away from them on this day before. Thanksgiving was a day of feasting and football, but also a time to pause and give thanks for the opportunities and good in our lives and the efforts of those who paved the way for us.

I looked around the room at my fellow teachers and the faded uniforms of the students, and I was grateful for the hard work and strict discipline that kept the school going. What were primitive and harsh conditions to me were daily life for them. We shared a common purpose to educate and inform, to build community. Our caring might be expressed in different ways, but we were building with the open heart of gratitude.

"Yes," I replied. "This is Thanksgiving."

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