A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I wake up on the bus to Busan and wonder if everything that happened was a dream. Surely I’d heard the social worker wrong. Maybe my own mind was playing tricks on me. But I listen back to the recording on my phone of the social worker telling me my sisters’ names. Nope, it was real. I really do have four sisters.
I log into Spotify and blast Brisbane musicians Regurgitator and Jeremy Neale into my ears to get a grip on reality. Brisbane seems so far away now.
The next day we go as a team with Korean volunteers and go on a tour to a temple in Busan. A chatty Korean boy sits next to me. He recently visited Brisbane to train to be a flight attendant. He visited the Ekka and the Gold Coast. It’s nice to talk about home.
We arrive at the Hae Dong Yong Gung Temple just outside of Busan.
Stone statues line the pathways on the way to the temple; the symbols of the zodiac, Buddha bellies you can rub to give birth to a son, a monument to pray at for traffic safety.
“I guess that’s where all the scooter riders pray.”
We climb up and down stone stairs and through tunnels to get to the temple. The view is breathtaking. Mountains, ocean, statues and Buddhist temples spread out in front of me.
The high tech wonderland of modern Korea, war and poverty and ancient Korea are slotting together in my mind, pushing me further towards understanding this country. This is what I came here for.
In between snapping photos and gazing at ancient temples and statues in awe, Carly and I are on Visor Watch. The older women of Korea – ajummas – have a distinct personal style. Leopard print, bright colours, short perms and visors. Some of them are huge and look like motorcycle helmets.
“We need to buy one before we go.”
“One that goes a metre in front of my head.”
“Spelling out ‘I am the shit’.”
The Korean boys are laughing. “We’re ajummas in training,” we explain.
“Oh!” They point to each other.
“Ajeoshi!” one of them says.
That’s Korean for ‘older man’.
“No! I am not ajeoshi!”
In the movie Approved for Adoption, adoptee Jung visits Korea in his 40s and wonders if any of the ajummas and ajeoshis are his parents.
“I bet your mum has the biggest, glitteriest visor of them all,” I say to Carly.
We practise giving each other the stink eye.
The next day we look at a terribly-drawn map that leads us on an hour walk to a shopping centre that we thought was round the corner. It’s no ordinary shopping centre – it’s Shinsegae, the largest shopping centre in the WHOLE WORLD according to the Guinness World Records.
We start off in the mind-boggling food court. I wolf down a lasagne from the Western Deli. I miss cheese.
There’s an ice skating rink, an art gallery and a hilarious dinosaur-themed playground on the top floor.
There are little kids climbing on dinosaurs, jumping around in the sprinklers and giggling.
The visit to ESWS’s adopted baby nursery didn’t make me emotional. Seeing Korean families with their children does. That could’ve been me. There’s also the fact of the matter that Korean kids are incredibly cute and make my ovaries hurt. I’m not a kids person at all, but I find myself smiling at babies, saying “hello” to little ones running into my legs.
We catch a cab home. As soon as we get into the cab, another one cuts off ours. Our driver leans out the window and shouts abuse at the other driver. They exchange some heated words. I anticipate a cab driver punch-on, but ours says his piece and zooms out into the busy streets of Busan. He narrowly escapes crashing into a car and swings into the next lane. Then another. A horn beeps. Back to the other lane. He swerves out of the way of a cyclist. This trip is quite emotionally-charged but this ajeoshi’s driving is the first time I’ve felt like having a panic attack.
We make it back in one piece, and then it’s back on the tour bus again. First stop – Busan Tower.
Busan is an interesting city of paradoxes. On one hand, the place is filled with high-density high rises. Just thinking about how many people live in them makes my head hurt. But the mess of buildings is divided by mountains covered in thick green forests, beaches, and bridges stretching over wide stretches of ocean. It almost reminds me of Australia. Extreme Australia. Australia to the max.
The next stop is the fish market, with rows and rows of various edible marine life in shallow tanks. Mad ajummas running the markets are eager to show us their wares. They dangle crawling octopi at us and dance around with crabs.
I assume fish are mainly docile creatures, but these fish are particularly aggressive. Some of them try to jump out of their tanks. Prawns leap out of a basket and onto the floor. The group screams suddenly as a squid spits water at them and leaps out of its tank. I will never trust a squid again.
We go upstairs for a traditional Korean meal to eat the freaky animals that just tried to attack us. Bits of live octopus writhe around in a plate in front of me. I’m not an adventurous eater at all. I’m scared of prawns.
“When else will I get the chance to eat live octopus?” I wonder.
I shift through the tentacles with my chopsticks to find a good bit. The octopus moves more whenever I move it. Carly prods it more. “Come on, wake up!”
I scream as the octopus flails angrily. Then I find a small bit and crunch down on it hard between my molars.
It’s good! It’s rubbery with a weaker taste than sashimi. The sesame oil it was served in is the strongest taste.
I did it! I ate live octopus! I drown it with soju immediately to make sure it is totally dead. After a few rounds of soju and a chat about the next day, we hop on the bus and head home.
The next day, we are going to the towns where we were from to look for more information.
The search up til now has been an exciting adventure, but the gravity of the information I have received is starting to sink in. I had prepared to go to Jinju, not Geoje Island. I knew nothing about the place. I had prepared to meet my mother, not a whole family. More people to worry about. More people to impress. But I’m so tired that I fall asleep straight away.