A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Note: I have omitted specific details I was told the other day out of respect for my family. I hope you understand.
I have an awful night’s sleep the night before I meet my birth mother and father. I keep waking up with a new thing to panic about.
What if they think I’m an idiot?
What if my sisters are filthy rich and married and they are disappointed in me?
What if they don’t like me?
A volunteer translator takes me on the longest walk to a cafe I have ever taken. A G.O.A.L staff member is meeting my birth parents as they park somewhere else in Busan and taking them to meet me.
To pass the time, I assemble a quick gallery of photos on my iPad of my most impressive moments. Graduating from uni. Playing guitar in front of the school. Panelling a radio show. I pull up the website of the radio station I work at.
“They’re here,” says my translator.
A tiny woman barrels into me. For someone so small, she hugs me so tightly that I don’t think I can escape.
We are the same height. We burst into tears on each others’ shoulders.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she keeps saying.
“Don’t be sorry,” I say. “I am happy to meet you.”
My father walks slowly behind her. He is more calm and reserved than my mother.
He smiles and hugs me briefly.
Umma and I sit down and immediately snap off our crying. Time to get down to business.
My mother is not like the mad ajummas in ridiculous glittery visors. She barely wears any makeup, wears a floaty lavender shirt with a little flowery scarf. Umma is all class.
The first thing she says is that I look so much like my third sister. We dress the same. We wear our makeup the same.
“You are pretty,” she says.
“And you are beautiful,” I say.
They open an envelope and bring out a family photo from a long time ago. They point to my sisters. The youngest one is wearing a rainbow hanbok. My father has a funky 80s haircut.
“Cho a yo,” I say awkwardly which means “I like.”
The first question I ask is “what happened when I was adopted?”
The story is more complicated than my parents simply being poor. Half of my family was sick. Relatives died. My mother was exhausted trying to look after everyone.
“Every day was hard,” she says.
Then she got pregnant with me. My mother was taking her young daughters to to the hospital all the time so no one noticed that she was pregnant. She saw a doctor in secret about her pregnancy. Umma was under a great deal of stress. Her heart was hurting, she says. The doctor said that it was too hard for her to look after so many people, and that she needed to let something go to make life easier. She decided it was easier to send me away as a baby so I wouldn’t know anything about the family’s problems.
“I’m sorry,” she keeps saying
“Please don’t be sorry,” I say. “It sounds like life was really tough. I understand why you did what you did.”
I pull out loads of photos of myself growing up. I explain to them that my parents sent me to a good school. I graduated from a good university. I have a job.
Appa points excitedly at the photo of my adoptive parents holding me as a baby when I came to Australia. “They look great,” he says.
They tell me to thank them for looking after me.
Umma and Appa gasp at a photo of me as a toddler, rolling around on a tricycle.
“You look exactly like your third sister did when we was little!” they say. “And she loves riding her bike.”
“I don’t have a car, but I ride my bike to and from work,” I say.
“So does your third sister!”
Appa is particularly impressed with a photo of me wearing a dobok from when I used to do taekwondo.
“You are very brave,” he says.
I tell them they can keep all the photos.
They bring out more photos of themselves and my sisters. Appa is fiddling around with a smart phone. He has more photos of them but can’t figure out how to use the phone. Umma points and tells him what to do.
“You’re like my dad in Australia,” I say.
I see a more recent photo of this third sister they keep saying looks like me. Wow. She has a different haircut but otherwise, she’s (a much prettier version of) me.
I write down my sisters’ names on the backs of the photos so I don’t forget. I know a little bit of Hangeul. “I am trying to learn Korean, but it’s hard,” I say.
“I should try to learn English,” says Umma.
“Your pronunciation is good,” says Appa.
I show them all the Impressive Photos of me doing cool things and explain that I work at a radio station. The translator is laughing as she explains their reaction.
“Your third sister used to work at a TV station,” they say.
After we exchange photos, Umma and Appa ask what food I like.
“Beef, pork, chicken… And noodles! Jap chae!”
They laugh again. The third sister cooks a mean jap chae.
We walk to a Korean BBQ restaurant and order beef. Umma squeezes my hand tight as we walk. Then it’s all business again as she takes over the BBQ.
Surprisingly, she knows some words in English. “Eat!” she says.
I clumsily pick up a piece of beef. “Sorry,” I say. “I am bad at using chopsticks.”
“So am I,” Umma says. “Just use your hands.”
I can’t stop looking at her. I barely know her, but she looks so familiar.
“I think we have the same nose and mouth,” I eventually say.
I find out more things about my family. My parents do not work anymore, so they spend their days hiking the mountains around Geoje. My oldest and youngest sisters are very quiet. The second sister speaks English, which I’m hoping will come in handy in the future. This third sister, who basically my doppelgänger by now, is talkative and laughs a lot.
“Mmm, this is delicious,” I say in between mouthfuls of BBQ beef.
My third sister also makes a lot of noises when she eats food, I’m told.
I have THIRTY-TWO COUSINS.
I’m fascinated as Umma slices and dices through the BBQ like a pro. They order some cold noodles. My parents plow through the next-spiciest food I have ever consumed in my life while I quietly gasp through the tangy chilli sauce. Later, I tell my best friend and she reminds me of the time I cooked the spiciest pasta she has ever eaten when she came over the dinner.
We’re not sure what to do after lunch. My parents want to take me back to see their house in Geoje, but it is an hour and a half drive away and my translator has to go home at 6. So we hop into my parents’ car and drive off to a cafe near the beach. They’re confused by the crazy streets of Busan and bicker over the GPS.
“I keep getting lost, and it drives me crazy!” Umma says.
We sit at another cafe. I’ve thought of some more questions.
I ask where I was born.
Geoje. Not Jinju or Busan. Geoje, in the suburb of Go-Hyeon. I was born on the pretty, mountainous island I visited the day before.
My parents live in an apartment. They explain that they were very poor when I was born, but Appa got a better job and things got better for them. I’m relieved.
The conversation goes back to these four sisters of mine. They don’t live in Geoje anymore. They all graduated from university. The third sister moved to Seoul, presumably because she is super cool. When my mother talks to them on the phone, the quiet oldest and youngest sisters just say “hi, I’m good, yep, yep, bye.” The third sister tells loads of stories about her adventures in Seoul.
My sisters don’t know I exist.
“I want to meet them,” I say. “But I don’t want to freak them out.”
Umma says she is going to tell them about me as soon as she can.
“Will that upset them?”
“I will tell them not to be upset.”
Basically my Umma is saying that if my sisters freak out over finding out that they have an extra sister, then that’s just tough bikkies.
I ask if Umma looked like me when she was my age.
“I don’t remember,” she says. “I was very thin. But I was also tough. Are you tough?”
I flex my muscles. “Yeah!”
They laugh. I love making my parents laugh.
My Appa asks, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” I say.
“None of your sisters are married.”
“Your father’s friends say, ‘your daughters aren’t ugly or anything, what’s wrong with them?'”
We laugh and laugh.
“Maybe they’re like me,” I say. “We can’t seem to find a good one.”
“Do you want a Korean boyfriend?”
“Hahaha! Maybe!… Are they doing okay by themselves?”
“They are busy with work. They do not feel lonely.”
Time is getting away from us before I have to go to Seoul and rejoin the G.O.A.L group. They want to spend more time with me, but not now. It is too shocking for everyone to handle. Umma is getting emotional. “Please keep healthy,” she says. “Be positive. We are behind you in everything you do.”
They don’t think I’m an idiot after all.
We walk back to the car. Umma hands the translator and I some gifts. It’s an envelope full of money.
“I wanted to give you a gift,” she says. “But I don’t know what you like. So you can buy whatever you want with it.”
The translator and I say “no! We can’t take this!”
“You helped us talk to our daughter,” Umma says to the translator.
“And I wasn’t able to raise you,” she says to me. “Please.”
Now the translator, Umma and I are sobbing in the car.
“You are so smart for finding us,” both my parents say. “One day, you can come back and we will spend more time together and you can meet your sisters.”
“Although you are far away in Australia,” says Umma through tears, “don’t worry. We are under the same sky.”
When someone else is emotional, my first instinct is to keep calm and stay strong for them. Not this time. The sobbing turns onto crying.
“My daughter,” soothes Umma. “Don’t cry.”
We arrive at Busan train station. While the translator buys my ticket, I just stand there and hold my tiny mother with the iron grip. She is frantically saying something in Korean. Then I recognise something else she is saying.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she says in English.
I shake my head and out-squeeze her.
I give my father my email address and my postal address. I tell them that I have Korean friends who can help me translate, and to send me messages whenever they want. They can just call G.O.A.L if they are having trouble contacting me.
Then we’re standing on the train platform. “I love you,” I say to my parents in Korean.
“I love you too.”
I sit on the train and my mother is watching me through the window. She is distraught and shouting something. The translator mouths the words at me.
I love you. Go well.
My face scrunches up as I try not to lose it on the train. My mother stops shouting and crying. She pulls up the corners of her mouth.
Smile. Be happy.
The train leaves. I lock myself in the bathroom and cry violently. I wish I could stop crying and be all business like my amazing mother. But I sob for hours on the train back to Seoul instead.
I think about my mother who has been through so much. My sister who is so similar to me, even though we grew up apart from each other. The strong women in my family. And even though I have a headache from crying so much, I am happy to finally understand who I am and where I come from.
I will come back. I will see them again. And I will meet my sisters.