How Austin Powers helped me bridge an international divide at summer camp.
By Chris Duffy
The first summer I worked as a counselor at Hidden Valley Camp, I’d never been outside the United States. Mine was a road-trip family. When college friends would come back from winter break with stories of Caribbean beaches, I’d share my exploits with squeezable butter and jelly at a Motel 8 in Ohio. So I was enthralled with Maine’s exotic town names. Where else can you jump in a car and drive to China (pop. 4,106), Paris (pop. 4,793), Mexico (pop. 2,681), and Poland (pop. 4,866)? As long as no one asked too many follow-up questions, I could present myself as a world traveler with a straight face.
“What was your favorite part of China?” they’d ask. “Fantastic ice cream!” I’d reply, knowing in my heart that I had not told a lie.
“I got a great t-shirt in Mexico! “The water in Poland was fabulous!” Friends and acquaintances alike would be amazed by my cosmopolitan sophistication.
What I didn’t expect was that I would get a legitimate international experience in the form of Young Min Park, an 8-year-old from South Korea assigned to my cabin. His parents had sent him to camp in Maine with the hope that he would learn English by immersion. Young Min was a short, chubby boy with black hair in a bowl cut. He was adorable. He was also absolutely insane.
Young Min spoke barely any English except for “sexy” and “yeah, baby!” which he learned from a poorly dubbed copy of Austin Powers. Young Min and I quickly established a routine where I would tell him it was time for lights out, and he would signal his understanding by jumping on top of a table, waving his shirt around his head, and shouting “Yeah, baby!”
If you’ve never looked for a crash course in Korean in rural Maine, let me be the first to break the disappointing news: it’s hard to find. Luckily for me, Young Min was excellent at charades and eager to teach me such important Korean phrases as “pangu kigima” (“stop farting”) or “ddungddungi” (“you are fat”).
As the summer progressed, so did Young Min’s English skills. He learned the word “bull,” which he’d helpfully illustrate by lowering his head and charging at me full speed. When I shared my love of Maine’s iconic town names with the cabin, Young Min latched on to “Ducktrap” and “Bingo,” which he combined into one phrase that I can’t imagine will help him much in the future. That said, Ducktrap Bingo sounds like a great game.
Despite our linguistic difficulties, Young Min was far and away my favorite camper. When he got a care package from home, he introduced me to the spicy heat of kimchi and candies flavored like the crispy rice at the bottom of a pot. I taught him the rules to tetherball and how to make a s’more.
One night, after all the other campers were asleep, I heard sounds coming from Young Min’s bunk. When I went over to investigate, I saw that Young Min was crying.
“What’s wrong, Young Min?” I asked.
“Homesick,” he replied.
For all my desire to see the world, I hadn’t really thought about how hard it would be to live so far away from home. Here was Young Min, just a little kid, thousands of miles away from his family.
I sat on his bunk and rubbed his back. “It’s going to be okay, Young Min. Everyone feels homesick sometimes. But you’re doing a great job here and you’ll be back in South Korea before you know it. Just think how excited all your friends are going to be to hear your stories about life in Maine.”
Young Min lifted his head and his face brightened. He pumped his fist in the air. “Yeah, baby!” he shouted.
Photo courtesy of Camp Little Wohelo