Myeong Hoon’s Story
This was an interview that Love Beyond the Orphanage had with him on May 10, 2020 to follow up on his accomplishment of receiving his Master’s degree.
Q: What was it like for you growing up in an orphanage?
A: I remember distinctly the day I realized I was different from other kids. We were on a field trip, and I saw children with their families, calling Mom and Dad. I was in the third grade. The shocking discovery that I was an orphan turned me mute for two months, and I have never been the same since. We always had 30 or more kids sharing a room, and if I wanted privacy to cry or needed time alone, I used the storage shack as an escape. I was transferred to another orphanage, and then back to my original orphanage during my upbringing. Each time I moved, it was frightening, and I felt tremendous anxiety because I not only had to adjust to new rules and the environment, but I also lost friends and familiar faces of nuns and staff which we called “Mom.” There was constant fighting, stealing, and many other misbehaviors present at the orphanage, but I was a quiet boy who tried to stay invisible and avoid trouble. Living by the rules was a way of life in the orphanage, but they provided security, education, and we were well cared for. I started taking viola lessons in middle school from a volunteer teacher.
Q: What was it like for you after you aged out?
A: Because the orphanage assumed that our best future would be to get a job after high school graduation, everything was directed toward gaining labor skills, such as mechanical skills. I was not an exception. With the little I had, the orphanage found me a job at an LG factory, so I would have a dorm. Many of my orphanage alumni worked at this factory without any future aspirations. Many died or became injured from the dangers it posed. I was all set to work there indefinitely. I remember the exact time I realized this. It was 11 hours and 30 minutes after I arrived at the factory. I realized that I didn’t belong there because my passion was to learn the Viola! All I had was $500 I saved from secretly working during high school (we were not allowed to work) and $100 which the orphanage gave to each aged-out student. With the $600, I took a train to an area in southern Seoul I believed would provide me with opportunities to learn the Viola.
Q: What job did you have during this time?
A: I found a small room I could afford at $300 per month, and I worked three different part-time jobs, restaurants, and a convenient store. The rest of the time I devoted to studying English and practicing the viola. I literally had no social life. After passing the TOFEL test, I applied to a music school, the New England Conservatory. I was rewarded with a full tuition scholarship for four years.
Q: How were you prepared to face the world?
A: After having moved so far away from my hometown, and leaving the factory where my friends were, and just living in a tiny room, I was deeply depressed and lonely. I developed insomnia and cried all night for four months straight. I was used to having people around me all the time at the orphanage, and now I was left with no one to talk to. It was the hardest adjustment I have ever experienced. My determination to escape the misery of being orphan in Korea gave me the endurance and motivation to study and practice the viola every second I could find.
Q: Who do you mostly hang out with for friends?
A: Of course, I am far more comfortable being around aged-out friends because we share the same past. So, I have more orphan friends. I am very cautious about making friends who are not orphans. I have had many experiences where non-orphan friends found out I was an orphan, their attitudes and demeanor immediately changed, and I felt discriminated against and judged. They stopped being friends with me.
Q: Do people know you aged-out from an orphanage?
A: I do not share my background with anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, there are good people who express their admiration for the courage and accomplishment of my work, but there are far more Koreans who immediately shut down. All they see is an “orphan.” Consequently, they distance themselves from me.
Q: Do you have any birth family?
A: The orphanage told me that my mother gave birth to me at the orphanage. I have no access to any records. I hope that someday soon I’ll be allowed to see my original records.
Q: How was your experience attending undergraduate college at New England Conservatory for four years?
A: I was scared at first. My ability to speak English was bad. So, I did not speak much, so I would not embarrass myself. I had an American roommate, and he was exceptionally kind in teaching me conversational English. I liked the culture too. During the course of my four years, I returned to Korea each year, and I ended up undergoing three surgeries during consecutive years to address problems with my digestive system. Also, I worked part-time jobs to save money to pay my room and board. My orphanage helped pay the expenses my first year. I was under a great deal of pressure with all my health issues and trying to study at the same time. I lost a lot of weight. I had a professor who understood my circumstances and often took me out for food. This really helped save me from starvation.
Q: How did you hear about Love Beyond the Orphanage?
A: I learned about Love Beyond the Orphanage through my orphanage director. The director knew that the organization supported the needs of age-out adults, and that it might be worth my attending their holiday event. I did not know what to expect. This was my very first holiday celebration since I left the orphanage! Around this time, I was looking for employment, and I was in the process of figuring out how to study abroad again.
Q: I heard you almost gave up on your dream. What was the reason?
A: After I graduated from the New England Conservatory, I returned to Korea. I did not have a job or place to stay. I applied for LH housing, which the government offers to aged-out orphans, but I was denied because I had attended school in the U.S. This left me “couch surfing.” Because of the instability with my housing, it was very challenging to find a place to practice my viola. I auditioned for two orchestra positions, but I was not offered either position. I had no resources available to me. At the same time, I was accepted into the graduate program in Viola at the Manhattan School of Music with a scholarship which paid for all the tuition. Time was running out for me to accept. I had to let the school know my intentions. How could I pay for room and board? There was no way I could attend this school! I was again feeling discouraged and depressed. After trying everything, facing disappointment after disappointment, I became tired of trying. I was tired of failing. I was tired of not having money to live. I was just about to give up the viola and work at a factory.
Q: When you heard the news of Love Beyond the Orphanage’s commitment to pay for your room and board, what was going through your mind, and what was your plan after graduating?
The hope of learning the viola in further depth was utterly amazing! They trusted that I was motivated to study hard. For an orphan to have the privilege to study higher education in the United States is almost unthinkable! I thanked God for this great gift through Love Beyond the Orphanage. I committed myself to help other aged-out orphans learn the viola. But, if I had my wish, I would prefer getting a job in the U.S., so that I would not have to face the obstacles my status creates in Korea.
Q: What was your greatest achievement during the last two years?
A: Last year in February, for the first time ever, I competed in the International Music competition in New York, playing solo, and I came in second place in my division! For most aspiring musicians, this might be an ordinary event to gain experience and build one’s resume, but these musicians do not have to struggle to pay the entry fee. For me, the $150 entry fee was a challenge. Becoming comfortable performing in front of an audience is a skill that requires a foundation of many other smaller performances. I finally had the opportunity to experience performing in front of a meaningful audience for the first time! I was very nervous but felt very proud of myself for the quality of my performance. In my heart, I was overjoyed, and this success gave me a boost of confidence!
Q: What are the challenges you faced these last two years?
A: Because I was given this opportunity to study at the Manhattan School of Music, which was nothing short of a miracle, I was incredibly grateful. Every morning, I looked out my window and had the feeling that I was so blessed that God had allowed me to live this dream! Of course, studying in a second language was a struggle. I did not socialize much because I rarely had money to spare. I spent much time studying and practicing my viola. This often made me feel lonely, and it was not easy. But, honestly, these were minor challenges compared to where I would have been without the support of Love Beyond the Orphanage and my school. My four years of college at the New England Conservatory taught me to be patient and have the strength of endurance.
Q: How has Love Beyond the Orphanage’s scholarship and this experience helped you?
A: Opportunity! Love Beyond the Orphanage gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming an accomplished viola player. They believed that even an aged out orphan deserves to have an equal chance at success. I met many wonderful people over the last two years! Spending an American Christmas with Catherine Oh’s family was very special. My professor who guided me was a huge comfort. Even after four years of undergraduate study, I still encountered many challenges studying in America. Before moving to New York, unemployment, lack of employable skills, lack of confidence, and the discrimination I faced in Korea made my burning desire to study abroad seem like an unattainable dream. Now, as I graduate with a master’s degree in viola, I am a different person. The embedded sense of fear, shame and incompetence I always carried have changed into self-confidence, empowered and pride. I feel I can be someone who matters and is respected.
Q: What is your future plan?
A: I am praying for another miracle because I would really like to attend the LSU (Louisiana State University) Doctorate degree program in Viola this fall. This would require another three and ½ years of schooling. The school granted me an 80% tuition scholarship. It would be yet another struggle, challenges, and hard work, but my passion for performing the viola motivates me to pursue what still seems an impossible road. The feasibility of having the funds to cover my living expenses is the biggest hurdle, especially with the Coronavirus pandemic impacting everyone’s economic stability. If I cannot arrange the funds, I plan to work one year to save money to support my goal of attending this doctorate program the following year. I hope that one day, whether I am blessed to have graduated from the doctorate program, or just living in Korea, my dream to perform with an orchestra will become a reality. And I plan to give back the blessings I have received by giving my time to helping other orphans. I want to be available for Love Beyond the Orphanage as they believed in me and supported me through graduate school. I want the world to know that orphans can achieve their dreams, and that we deserve equal opportunities!