A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I’m bashing out this blog post in the BoA Guesthouse internet cafe and my hands won’t stop shaking. I just found out something mind blowing about my family. You might want to sit down and pour yourself a drink.
But let’s backtrack a little bit. If you wanna just skip to the juicy stuff, scroll down and look for my note in bold.
Thursday morning I wake up early to go to the G.O.A.L office in Mapo-gu. The G.O.A.L staff prep us for the birth family search and some things to remember in Korea.
The director of a DNA testing company gives a presentation on how they can help us match our DNA with our family. There’s a presentation with closeup pictures of sperm and graphs. Then we line up to have our hair ripped out and our spit collected.
A camera man from KBS, Korea’s national broadcaster, is filming our trip.
We go to lunch across the road and eat from an enormous buffet of bulgogi (yum), japchae (yum), kimchi (yum) and Spam salad (what?).
The camera man films me slurping japchae, being crap at using chopsticks and asks what I like about Korean food. I ramble on about how I really, really, really, like chilli.
He’s starting to piss me off, so I film him back.
We go back into the G.O.A.L office for a crash course in the Korean language. We’re given signs with a Hangeul character on it, told to line up and shout it in sequence. Turns out we’re shouting “Happy Chuseok” – Korea’s Thanksgiving. We’re going to be on a cheesy Chuseok Holiday special. At this point I worry that my family will see me on telly, think “what an idiot” and not want to meet me.
We learn how to say things like hello, OMG, thank you and how to talk to your friends. In Korea, it’s not rude to ask people how old they are when you meet them. Then you call your friends things according to how old you are in relation to each other. ‘Unni’, if you’re a lady and have an older lady friend. ‘Oppa’, if you’re a lady with an older male friend. I’m sure we’ve all heard ‘oppa’. I knew ‘unni’ from a K-pop song I was listening to last week.
Although they’re used colloquially, they translate into ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.
The camera man asks the language teacher to teach us the word for “family”. Ga-chok. I hear an angry sharp intake of breath behind me as he gets all the adoptees to say “ga-chok” in front of the camera. We’re being exploited. Just a litle bit. It’s like some kind of cross between a reality TV show and a K-drama.
“I bet he’s your brother,” jokes Carly as we leave.
“Ugh. My annoying oppa.”
Dinner that night is at a fancy restaurant.
The endless side dishes keep coming – I’m told that the more fancy you are, the more side dishes you get. Then there’s barbecued meat. And a bowl of noodles. And soju.
After a few rounds of soju, we decide we need more alcohol. The group decide on beers from this venue. Very Korean, right?
I end up on the rooftop of the hotel with two other adoptees and a can of Hite. We talk about our stories, fears and questions. I talk about the dreams I’ve had, of having a sister and that walking around Seoul feels like a big deja vu. They tell me they were both abandoned and weren’t adopted until they were 4. They remember being in the orphanage. When I was 4, I was in Australia and I remember playing in the backyard in NSW. My heart breaks and I go to bed at 2am.
Then I’m up bright and early and hungover the next morning to visit our adoption agencies. I’m unsure of whether I feel violently ill from beer and soju or nerves.
The chair of ESWS talks to us about the organisation, and explains that Korea was a country in extreme poverty following Japanese occupation and the war. She’s trying to get us to understand why our parents adopted us out.
My country has a very sad history.
We go on a tour around ESWS and end up in the nursery with babies being put up for adoption. I’ve been told by some people who have seen it that they found it very emotional. But I see these super cuite babies smiling, rolling around and playing with loving social workers in a clean nursery full of toys and I am glad they are being looked after properly.
Then it’s time to meet with a social worker to go through our original adoption files.
(Note: THIS IS THE INTERESTING BIT)
Mine is boring at first. I wait patiently as the social worker goes through my medical history and papers my adoptive parents sent to ESWS. I’ve seen most of this before.
Then we get to the part about my birth family. I show her my file that tells the story of my parents, who weren’t married and broke up before I was born.
“Is this true? Does this match up with your files?”
She flips through some files in Korean that I’ve never seen before.
“The real story… is very different.”
My lip trembles.
“Your parents were married when you were born.”
My brain explodes. My mother wasn’t one of the many single unwed mothers who give up their children for adoption after all.
“They had children.”
My eyeballs are popping out of my head.
“You have four sisters.”
I burst into tears. Then I laugh. And cry. And laugh again.
The social worker tells me the rest of the story.
My family lived on an island near Busan when I was born. Koje-do. It’s known for its shipbuilding industry. Like the ESWS chair said, Korea was a very poor country – not the affluent, modern society it is today. My parents didn’t earn very much money. When I came along, they couldn’t afford to look after me as well as their four other daughters. So that’s why I was adopted out.
Four sisters. Four unnis. The oldest is ten years older than me, the youngest only 3 years older than me. I laugh and cry and jump around and squeal.
The social worker is going to try and track down my parents and ask if they would like to meet me. But we’re going to Busan tonight and will be staying there for the next few days. It’s an hour away from Koje-do.
I always thought that if I met my family, it would be only be my mother. Alone. I grew up as an only child.
But I have a big family to meet. And sisters. It wasn’t a dream after all.