Two-year-old Kid 1 with our student Young (February 2008)
Hello from Korea!
Our Korean family
We’re here in Korea to visit family. But we’re not Korean, and the family we have here isn’t related by blood. Instead, they’re related by the bond we’ve built over nearly 12 years of knowing each other. We came to know our Korean family through a lovely student by the name of Young.
In June 2007, Young arrived in Vancouver to study English and experience life with a Canadian family. But unbeknownst to any of us at the time—Young was joining our family on the brink of a very difficult time in our lives.
The hard times begin
Soon after Young’s arrival, I became pregnant with our second little boy. Kid 1 was only two at the time, so we were still sleep-deprived and new to parenting. On top of all that, my mom (and very involved grandma to Kid 1) was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
It was devastating news. We were inconsolably sad, exhausted, and probably not in the best mindset to host students.
But it seemed as if Young was meant to be with us. For one thing, she was older and more mature than our typical students. She was also very maternal—she’d grown up helping to raise her four younger siblings. Young also spoke excellent English, so it was possible (and so wonderful) to have deep, meaningful conversations with her.
During Young’s 14 months with us, she and our family went through several major life transitions together…
Young’s plan had been to stay with us for a full year while she studied English and took on some volunteer work. However, a family emergency cut her stay with us short.
Young’s mom, brother, and one of her sisters had been living in Tallahassee, Tennessee. Her sister was an aspiring golf pro and was there to train. Her brother, only 17 at the time, was attending the local high school. Their mother was there to cook, clean, and chauffeur her children around.
Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that their mom’s visa only gave her so much time to live in the US. She was sent a letter informing her that she had overstayed her visit, and had to leave the country immediately. She wouldn’t be allowed to return for at least six months.
Being the eldest, poor Young was ordered to take her mother’s place. She was heartbroken and furious. She loved her life in Canada. She had a routine, and was doing well with her English studies. She did not want to leave.
But she knew there was no other way. Her sister’s rigorous training schedule meant she couldn’t look after their younger brother. And he couldn’t cook or drive himself around. So it was up to Young.
(I know what my fellow feminists are thinking, and I agree: this situation was totally unfair and would largely be unconscionable in western countries. But Asian cultures are still quite traditional. Family—for better or worse—always comes first.)
When Young left, I was several months pregnant, and my mom was going through some heavy-duty chemo. We decided it was a good time to take a break from hosting students.
During this time, Kid 2 arrived, and the postpartum depression and anxiety I’d experienced with Kid 1 reared its ugly head again. And all the while, my mom’s health continued to deteriorate. It was for the best that Young was called away. It wasn’t a good time to be in our home.
After about six months, Young was finally able to return to Vancouver and resume the life she’d started here. But we were still in the thick of the newborn phase and supporting my parents through my mom’s cancer battle. So we told her we didn’t feel fit to host.
Instead, we recommended a family we knew to host her. They seemed nice enough from what we knew of them—but behind closed doors, they were another story.
Young felt unwelcome in their home. She had the use of her own private bathroom, but she’d come home each day to find all her things rearranged. When she wanted to have a cup of tea before bed, the host mother told her she’d need to charge her for the teabag. There were lots of other things, and Young was miserable.
We had no idea what Young was going through until my husband M happened to drive past her (the homestay was close to our house). He pulled over to chat with Young, and all of the horrible stories about her homestay poured out.
We were aghast that anyone could treat our lovely Young this way, and told her to move back in with us. Within days, she gave her notice to the other family, and was back in our house.
A blessing in disguise
We weren’t sure how we’d handle hosting a student amidst all the chaos we were dealing with, but we felt so bad for Young. We felt there was no other option.
We soon realized how special Young was to us, and how lucky we were to have brought her back into our home. Young intuitively knew when we needed support or space, and was always very respectful of what we were going through.
Unexpectedly, she also insisted (frequently) on helping out by cooking or folding laundry. We never, ever expected the help or asked, but Young wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most of Young’s life had been devoted to being a second mother to her many siblings. But instead of resenting it, she accepted the role and took pride in being good at it. Unlike any of our other students to that point, Young was an accomplished cook and knew how to run a house like a boss!
We never let her help us more than once or twice a week as we wanted her to focus on her English studies. But Young was persistent and treated us and our parents to many of her delicious home-cooked Korean meals. We were so spoiled!
Often, M would return home to find me and Young folding laundry together. She even taught us a clever new way to fold M’s boxer shorts. (Nothing says family like folding underwear together!)
Young also loved our boys like her own. Kid 1 loved her in return, and treated her like a big sister. He even granted her a nickname from his favourite movie—Cars. Everyone in the family had a Cars nickname: I was Sally, M was Mac, baby brother was Guido, and Young was (oddly) Ramone.
Meeting Black Bear
Near the end of Young’s stay with us, her boyfriend came from Korea for a visit. His nickname was ‘Black Bear’ because (it’s a bit rude!) he has darker skin than most Koreans. I’m not sure if this should be classified as racist, but they insisted we call him by that name so we went along with it.
Despite an enormous language barrier (he spoke very little English), we adored Black Bear from the start. He was warm, generous, and kind—and we could tell he loved Young more than anything.
During his stay with us, M and Black Bear bonded over Korean soju and the many dinners we had together with our families.
My memory’s a bit fuzzy at this point, but I believe Young finished her studies in Vancouver shortly before Black Bear arrived, then returned to Korea with him.
The intervening years
As the years passed, we kept in touch with Young. She mourned along with us when we told her of my mom’s passing, and we rejoiced when she told us she and Black Bear were getting married.
Several years later, they returned to Vancouver for a visit, and we insisted that they stay with us again. We treated them to a romantic getaway to the Okanagan (a belated wedding gift) and enjoyed many fun evenings eating dinner together and chatting.
After this visit, we lost touch with Young for a few years. Life just got in the way. But at some point, M stumbled across Young’s Instagram account and we discovered she’d had a little boy! We made contact with her again, and told her we hoped to meet ‘Baby Bear’ one day.
A second reunion
In March of 2018 we went on a trip to Japan which included a house swap with one of our other students. We contacted Young to see if we could meet up in Korea (we figured it was close enough to Japan for us to hop over for a short visit).
She was thrilled, and eagerly anticipated our arrival. Sadly, we realized that we’d jumped the gun and that we should’ve done some research before we told Young we’d visit. It turned out to be too costly and time-consuming to get ourselves from Tokyo to Seoul. So we told Young we wouldn’t be visiting after all.
Young was heartbroken and we felt terrible. We promised we’d come back for another visit to Korea in the future. But Young had other plans… to our happy surprise, just weeks before we left for Japan, we received a message from Young: she and her family would fly out to Tokyo to see us!
Just like old times
We made plans to meet up in front of the McDonald’s in Akihabara—the busy electronics shopping district in Tokyo. It was hard to find each other in the crowds, but when we did, Young burst into tears. We gave each other big hugs, and we finally met little Ji-Beom (Baby Bear).
Young told us she was incredibly sad when we said we wouldn’t be able to see them in Korea. We were her Canadian family, and there was no way she would let this opportunity slip away. Despite Black Bear’s hectic work schedule, they made the time to spend four days with us roaming around Tokyo.
Our boys adored Ji-Beom, and loved playing with him and making him laugh. On the second morning after meeting us, Ji-Beom woke up and asked Young where his big brothers were. We couldn’t have said it better—we were family, whether we were related by blood or not.
Korea, here we come
During our Tokyo visit, Young and Black Bear told us they had an opportunity to grow his business, but it meant they’d be moving from Korea to Singapore in December 2019. If we wanted to visit them in Korea, we’d have to go before they left.
We were torn—we’d just spent a small fortune on this trip to Japan. Could we really afford another trip to Asia so soon? Well, as I’ve written about before, we choose to live like we’re FI now.
I crunched the numbers, and it was clear we’d be able to afford it and still meet our savings goals. So we took the plunge and booked our flights.
Coming full circle
I find it hard to believe that we’re actually here in Korea with Young. When we first met in 2007, I couldn’t have imagined we’d one day be on this amazing adventure with her. Yet here we are, thanks in large part to our decision to start hosting students over a decade ago.
Young saw us through some of the darkest times in our lives. And now we’re together again, but in some of the most wonderful times in our lives. (Both for her and for us.)
And the most amazing thing? Our bond with Young isn’t the only one we have with our students. Many of them are like family to us. Several, like Young, are family (and not just to us, but to our large extended family as well.)
Launching The Homestay Series
In my roundabout way, I hope I’ve explained why it was so meaningful for me to launch The Homestay Series while we’re here in Korea.
Hosting students has been life-altering for us. Yes, it’s hard work sometimes—but the net gain from hosting students is immeasurable and exceedingly positive. That’s why I feel so compelled to share our experience with others. I hope you give it a try—it might just change your life too!
Check out the rest of the articles in the series to learn everything you need to know about hosting. And as always, feel free to comment below with questions or feedback. I’d love to hear from you!
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