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01 Apr 2017 The Real Value of My Bridge Year: Understanding the Value of Family

As a foreigner coming into a small community, its difficult, isolating, and lonely. My Spanish was weak, my Korean features drew curious yet detached stares, and my fashion choices marked me as an outsider. I remember thinking by the end of the first month, why am I here? I don’t belong.

 

Especially going to the big,weekly family reunions, I sat there listening to the chatter and screaming laughter wondering why my host family had brought me here, to this intimate pig roasting party with people who have grown up together and have met up like this every weekend for the past forty years. I am an intruder.

 

After a long time reflecting, I realized how necessary and integral a sense of belonging is. The human spirit is meant for connections, and without them, we are lost. I grew up in the same apartment for eighteen years, one small suburban town over from where I was born. I attended the same school district Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and I was always very much involved with pretty much everything. This was my first time completely lost as to where I was. And I felt the pain in my heart, the distance from familiarity.

 

I guess familiarity is food. Familiarity is the table that I always sit at with an chai tea latte at the local Barnes and Nobles. Familiarity is hearing the conversations taking place around me spoken in my own language. Familiarity is knowing my way around. Though, mostly I’ve found that familiarity is having a group of people who love and accept you.

 

My first family here were my fellow Global Citizen Year fellows because they were the only ones who understood my loneliness and discomfort. This group of inspiring and beautiful people lifted me up when I thought I couldn’t finish the year, there for me and there with me through it all. I looked at them, and I could persevere.
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My second family was my little two-, three-, four-year-olds at my apprenticeship, CETAP-Lucy, an organization to support students with learning disabilities and financial circumstances. To everyone else in my community, I was “that chinita.” To my children, I was a Tia, or aunt, that showed them love care and affection, and in return, they loved me back. With every little kid that climbed into my lap, played with my hair, and asked me to peel their oranges, I felt warm inside. Wanted. Accepted.

During my time here, I joined a church in the nearby city called Cuenca Calvary Chapel where I joined the praise team. Through the practices, we sang a capella in weird voices together, ate pizza together, and most importantly we made music together. There’s something about music that speaks across the barriers of culture and language, and it united us. We looked after each other, and I know my last Sunday with my third family will be a tearful one.

And then I started volunteering at a second apprenticeship, a local school called Eloy Alfaro. The government recently mandated for all schools to give English classes starting at the age of six. Eloy Alfaro only had one English teacher to teach their equivalent of every class from first to ninth grade, and she did not have enough time in a day to teach everybody. And I became the English teacher for Segundo de Básica. I fell in love with the crazy group of thirty-six. I’ve grown accustomed to meeting a pack of my students calling my name and waiting to hug me hello at the gate of the school. I’ve grown comfortable with my fourth family, the ones who love it when I sing Five Little Monkeys Jumping On the Bed.

Last but not least, my host family has brought me so much joy in the past two months. I moved in with them after personal issues with my first host family, and from day one, even before I knew who she was, my host aunt gave me  a ride to my workplace, saving me a long mile on the dirt roads lugging my two suitcases, hiker’s backpack, guitar, and cardboard box. I fell in love right away after meeting my host family. I have two kind and thoughtful parents, a shy but affectionate eleven-year-old sister, and a crazy and silly six-year-old brother. Every moment since then has been a beautiful one: working out with my sister Paola, making food with my mom Maria de Carmen, going to beach with them for Carnaval, taking Jose David to the movies for the first time, and peeling potatoes with my grandpa for my grandma’s french fry business on the weekends. I feel at home. I feel at peace.

Dirt roads, a dozen dogs roaming them, cows blocking the path from time to time, the mountains peaking out from behind the surrounding communities. This has been my every day for the past seven months, and I’ll miss this place so much. But more, I’ll miss the people who have made this landscape so special to me. Though, there is so much ahead of me.

 

Truly, my time in Ecuador has taught me that above all, family is what makes a place home. Here, life revolves around the family, and the greatest friendships are found between the next door neighbor cousins who grow up together. I admire their dedication to family.

 

This year has taught me how to connect with people, understand them, and love them, and hold on tight to family. I think I’m finally ready to begin college. I’ve left behind my hyper-stressed, lost, and empty state from the end of senior year; I’m ready to make connections, find family, and live wholeheartedly.

 

And more fittingly, I’m ready to visit South Korea and meet most of my family for the first time. My parents immigrated to the United States before I was born, and almost all of my extended family has stayed in Korea. I grew up in white suburbia, hearing about my friends’ big family Thanksgiving dinners, not understanding one bit. I grew up very close to my parents, but I have been preparing myself for a while now to live halfway across the world from my them in a year and a half. But now I realize how integral the concept of family is to me, and now I know how to connect with family, my real family, immediate and extended.

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