A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I wake up to the sound of construction work and briefly think I’m in Brisbane. Then I hear Korean tradies shouting at each other.
The G.O.A.L program doesn’t start until tomorrow, so Carly and I decide to explore the city.
The receptionist at the BoA Guesthouse recommends we visit the Trick Eye Museum. You know when people go to Italy and take photos of pushing the Leaning Tower of Piza? Think of that idea, but with famous paintings designed specifically to take photos of yourself doing silly things with them. It’s heaven for selfie and bad joke enthusiasts.
After the Trick Eye Museum, we catch the train to City Hall to visit the Namdaemun Markets. I’m expecting something quaint and folky, like the West End Markets. No.
It is an urban labyrinth of winding streets and laneways crammed with tiny shops and cafes vomiting their wares out onto the street. On closer inspection, there isn’t anything particularly exciting for sale – dodgy shoes and bags, saucepans, crappy souvenirs and a Psy socks.
Vendors and tourist information staff think we are Chinese tourists and greet us with “ni hao!”
“No. Australian,” I say firmly.
The street outside the market area is also crammed with street stalls. I buy a skirt for $5. We laugh as we bump into people and keep forgetting that Koreans walk on the right side of the footpath, not the left. But that’s the least of our worries. Scooters – the Vespa kind, not the razor kind – are allowed on footpaths. There are seemingly no rules to this madness and I’m always swearing and leaping out of the way. Some of the riders carry a dangerous amount of stuff on the back, including one guy with several trays of eggs stacked on top of each other.
We eat dumplings for lunch. $12 fed both of us three huge plates of dumplings.
Then we visit a fantastic coffee shop with fruity iced tea and delicious things like shaved ice deserts and cheese fondue buns.
“Annyeonghaseyo. Red berry tea, chuseyo. Kamsahamnida.” (Hello. I would like the red berry tea. Thank you.) I’m stoked that the girl behind the counter understands me and smiles, even though my accent probably doesn’t sound right.
The Namdaemun Markets experience leaves us disoriented and we’re not sure how to get to the Seoul Museum of Art. Luckily, an English-speaking Korean woman sees us whimpering over a map and offers walk with us to where we need to be. Turns out she lived in Sydney when she was a student.
“What I noticed about Australians,” she says, “is that nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Nobody is to blame for anything.”
We laugh as this funny, fast-talking woman navigates us through the streets leading out of Namdaemun. There are still loads of street vendors everywhere spilling out onto the footpaths, including this fellow doing a cooking demonstration using a Slapchop.
But we walk down a wrong street to the art museum and get lost again. This time, a Korean businessman takes pity on us. I point at the map but it turns out he doesn’t understand English and the map only says “Seoul Art Museum” in English. He motions us inside a building, which I think was a bank. He asks people around him and points to the two Korean-Aussies giggling behind a row of pot plants. We end up talking to an English-speaking bank teller who sets us straight.
The Seoul Museum of Art features works by avant-grade artist Kim Gu Lim. He was a body painter, sent thousands of strange letters to newspapers and burned triangles into grassy landscapes.
“Your last name was Kim, right?” asks Carly.
“What if he’s your dad?”
“Awesome. My dad, the avant garde artist.”
We make it back to the hotel, exhausted. My eyes are bleeding from the everything everywhere they’ve seen today.
The rest of the adoptees in the group arrive in the hotel lobby. It’s an interesting group. They’re from the US, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. Carly and I are the only two Aussies. I’m the second youngest – the youngest girl is 19. Most of the others are older, married, with kids. Kids asking questions.
We have dinner in a tiny restaurant near the hotel. An older man is our waiter, bustling over with endless tiny plates of food. Nothing in the whole place is in English but the G.O.A.L staff speak Korean and explain to us what we’re eating. There are some Weird Foreign Things like marinated ferns, spicy plums, a pile of red goo that turned out to be an octopus and tiny fish. I stick to pork, vegetable kimchi and beans.
Some in the group have never tried kimchi before, but everyone likes it.
“It’s in our genes,” we joke.
We talk about stuff I have never talked about with anyone else. Do we look alike? Do we look like Koreans? Do Koreans think we look Korean? No, they think I’m a Chinese tourist. We don’t feel Korean, but we are. It’s weird.
“Kamsahamnida!” I say to the old man as I leave.
I’m beginning to really enjoy seeing people smile when I say that.
After dinner, we go through the nightclub district of Hongdae for a drink.
Hongdae is like the Ekka. Bright lights and even street vendors selling enormous stuffed toys. I dance along to K-pop blasting from the shops. We pass a large public art display.
The G.O.A.L volunteers take us to a pub called BEER WHOLESALE!
There are no bartenders. You simply go to the fridge, drink your beer then pay at the end. I drank a Korean beer that only cost $2.50. Imagine if something like that was in Australia! The place would literally explode. The bar offers beers from all around the world. I am bitterly disappointed that VB is representing Australia.
Over a beer, we talk about the birth family search. Stories we’ve heard about the different ways families react to a reunion. Falsified and lost adoption files. Happy coincidences. Secrets and shame. The G.O.A.L staff are professional and give us some advice on what to do, how to cope.
The purpose of this trip starts really sinking in. Any of these stories could happen to me. I could meet my mother! Or she could be dead. Or she might not want to meet me. Or I could have brothers and sisters. Or I might not find her at all.
I finish my beer before everyone else.
“It’s okay. You’re an Aussie.”