A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
You all thought the dramatic goodbye at the train station was the conclusion of this insane trip, didn’t you? So did I.
I distract myself from my own weird feelings with sightseeing. I spend a few days in Seoul relaxing at the Dragon Hill Spa, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, a Korean cooking class (japchae’s surprisingly easy to make), visit Gangnam (with groan-worthy photo), loads of shopping and the hilarious Cooking Nanta performance.
Then I receive some good news. My umma is coming up to Seoul with my sisters!
I walk up to the cafe and feel a punch on my shoulder. It’s Umma, resplendent in a lemon tracksuit. No tears today.
We walk into the cafe together and there they are. Three of my four sisters. In Korea, they number siblings based on their age. The third-eldest sister is the one who supposedly looks like me. Sister 3. I’m flattered that people compare us both – she’s a stunner.
For a while we just stare at each other and giggle. I have absolutely no idea what to say.
“This must be so weird for you,” I say finally.
“Nah,” says Sister 1.
We make small talk. What do you do? Where have you been in Korea? What food do you like? I feel like I’m in a group of new friends. Except they happen to be related to me.
Umma says that she and the two sisters from the southern parts took the 6 hour bus ride up to Seoul. They got in at 3am.
“I feel bad that you travelled all the way from Geoje to see me,” I say.
“But you flew here from Australia,” Umma points out.
They bought presents. Gorgeous Korean picture books and a Korean name stamp. I brought Tim Tams and my favourite Lady Grey Tea. I explain to my sisters the art of the Tim Tam Slam.
“You drink it THROUGH the Tim Tam?!”
The sisters and I whip out our smartphones and add each other to a Korean social media app. They help Umma add me to the app too. Sister 3 has the same phone as me.
We walk to a nearby restaurant. Sister 1 and Sister 4 dutifully follow Google Maps.
I walk with Sister 3.
“Don’t you think you look so much alike?” says Umma.
“I think you’re prettier,” I say to Sister 3.
“I know,” she grins cheekily.
I suddenly remember a conversation I had years ago.
“Koreans are a good-looking race.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
We arrive at a posh Korean restaurant. Sister 1 and Sister 3 pick on Sister 4. She’s so quiet! She barely says anything!
Sister 4 says she always wanted a little sister.
“Well, here I am!” I say. “They can pick on me now.”
Sister 1 asks about my adoptive parents. It’s going well until I get to my Dad. “He makes a lot of Dad jokes,” I say.
“Dad jokes?” asks the translator.
“Er, you know. Lame jokes.”
“Well, they’re funny, but not really?”
I think of quiet Appa and realise that I have no idea how to explain Dad jokes to someone from a completely different culture. I don’t even think his crappy jokes would translate well.
I settle with, “he tells jokes that make you go ‘eeeerrhhhhh’.”
I cough painfully and excuse myself to blow my nose. I have caught a disgusting cold from Busan that was going round the group. The sisters are concerned. They duck off and return with a little brown bottle.
“How much should I drink?”
“All of it.”
I scull a revolting, bitter liquid.
“It tastes disgusting because it’s good for you,” says Sister 3.
And what do you know – hours later, the infection in my chest clears.
The sisters want to take me shopping so we go to Dongdaemun. Department store on the outside. Flea markets on the inside.
I snort at a mannequin seductively bending over. Sister 3 saunters past and casually smacks her plastic bum.
“What would you like? Ooh, how about that?” Sister 3 points to a frilly corset and stockings set. I shriek in horror and the sisters laugh.
We walk past rows and rows of Seoul fashion. Sister 3 and I don’t really need the translator as we point and laugh at spangly, rainbow, fantastically fugly clothes.
They want to buy presents for my adoptive parents too and we wind up in the liquor section to get something for Dad.
“How much can you drink?” asks Sister 3.
“I can drink quite a bit of beer, but not spirits,” I say.
“Do you like soju?”
“I can drink LOTS of soju.”
The other sisters giggle.
“All the women in our family can drink a lot.”
“Oh, really now?” Oh mate, it is ON, I think in my head.
They’re so friendly. Kamsahamnida, I say over and over. I wonder if they are actually completely freaked out but Umma has actually said “don’t be upset!” to them.
After wandering around and buying truckloads of treats, it’s time for me to go. We jump on a bus.
An ajumma boards holding an enormous rolled-up carpet. It’s taller than she is. Sister 3 and I catch each other’s eye and bow our heads to the side to giggle.
I invite them all back to a Chuseok party at the G.O.A.L office. They’re tired after a huge day and the late night bus ride, so they don’t stay long. But they stay long enough to do a saké shot with me.
“Kunbe!” we shout. Cheers.
“See you tomorrow!” Sister 3 says in English.
The G.O.A.L group have huge smiles on their faces.
“Your sisters look like you!” they say.
We eat, drink and try on hanboks.
The next day, I meet my sisters and Umma again near where I’m now staying in Itaewon. Sister 2 is with them today. She has been in hospital getting eye surgery and wears big glasses. I wonder if she, like many Korean women, has gotten plastic surgery.
We go into the winding Itaewon alleyways full if restaurants and settle on Thai food. The Korean version of Thai food is like no Thai food I’ve eaten before. In fact, it’s quite Korean. I suspect the Pad Thai is actually just japchae in sweet chilli sauce.
My sisters ask if I went out in Itaewon. I’d had a few drinks and a dance the night before. I ask Sister 3 where she likes to party.
“Gangnam,” she says.
She does the horsey dance at the table.
Endless plates of Thai food pile up. Sister 2 tells me about herself. Something about researching what farm animals eat.
“You know, people probably think you got plastic surgery because you’re wearing those big sunglasses,” Sister 1 says to Sister 2.
Turns out Sister 2 got corrective laser surgery. She takes off her glasses. Phew. She’s got her own eyes.
“We don’t need plastic surgery anyway,” I say.
Sister 4 shows me photos of them all when they were little. They had the same crazy baby hair I did. She accidentally flicks over to a photo of herself with a boy.
“That’s her boyfriend!”
“Ooooh!” I say.
She blushes and hides her phone.
Umma grabs my hands, then Sister 3’s. She is comparing them. I always thought my hands had way too many lines, but Sister 3’s are the same.
“Can you do this?” My middle and ring fingers are double-jointed and I bend them.
Sister 3 wiggles her double-jointed fingers at me.
The sisters sometimes answer me in English and I sometimes say a few words in Korean. I promise to take up Korean classes when I go back to Australia, and maybe take language classes in Korea someday. Sister 3 is hatching a cunning plan.
“We will learn English by hanging around foreigners in Itaewon,” she says. “In the nightclubs.”
Sister 2’s eye is hurting so I hug her goodbye. The weather’s nice so we decide to go on a cruise up the Han River. My cycle geek senses tingle as I see a huge bike hire facility with cute vintage bikes and wide, lengthy bike paths. Sister 3 shows me a photo of her bike. It’s a black and white vintage fold up bike. I’m so jealous! I show her mine too.
“Sometimes I go on 40km bike rides,” she says.
Damn. That beats the hell out of my 7km work commute. My family is super fit. I’d better step up my game.
The cruise up the Han River is peaceful except for morbid commentary from the boat captain. A creepy now-abandoned island where ancient sinners used to be banished. A Catholic Church where priests were beheaded. Then there’s another island shaped like a cat. Legend has it that a wizard once walked on it. Koreans: they don’t muck around.
Sister 1 is punching Sister 3 in the legs. “Aargh! Nooo!”
“She ran a marathon today,” explains Sister 1.
“I ran 10km,” says Sister 3. “And my legs are sore.”
At first I think the translator has gone wrong when she says my Umma is telling Sister 3 to eat lemons.
“Old ajumma remedy,” says Sister 3.
Sister 1 is saying something disparaging about the size of her thighs.
“All muscle,” winks Sister 3.
I ask Sister 4 about her boyfriend.
“Umma doesn’t like him,” says Sister 1.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” says Umma. “I haven’t met him!”
“Is he nice to you?” I ask, suddenly feeling protective.
“Yes. He is kind. And gives me gifts.”
The boat cruise ends and Sisters 1 and 4 have to go on a bus back to their towns.
“See you!” they say in English.
There’s a big gold building nearby and Sister 3 says you can go up to the 63rd floor to see the whole city. The entrance looks like a government building. Inside are cafes, art galleries, a cinema and an aquarium. I wonder what more freaky fish I can see on this trip and we go into the aquarium.
There are real live penguins and seals! I feel like a little kid as my Umma and sister and I coo over penguins waddling and diving into the water.
Umma, when not emotional, is a total ajumma. She grabs me with her iron grip and barges through crowds to show me fish.
“On Geoje, we eat those,” she says, pointing to a pretty stripy fish.
After the aquarium, we visit the 63rd floor. Umma, the hiker, is fascinated by the mountains surrounding Seoul. Sister 3 points out the TV station she used to work for.
When we get down, we buy chocolate croissants and Sister 3 writes a sweet letter to my adoptive parents with the help of our translator.
Then it’s time for dinner! I wonder how Koreans eat so much but stay tiny. A wave of exhaustion mixed with panic washes over me. I am going back to Australia tomorrow. Away from my new sisters. I tell my Umma and my sister that I am sad about going. Umma basically tells me to harden up.
“Take your feelings slowly,” she says. “We will still talk. We will see each other again. And you must learn Korean!”
And then after slurping more japchae, bulgolgi and kimchi, it’s time for Umma to go back to Geoje Island. I hug Umma a hundred times and tell her to be careful in the insane Seoul traffic.
“No crying!” she says sternly.
I fight back tears. “No crying.”
I point to Sister 3. “And you! Next time I see you, we’re drinking soju.”
We hug. Saying goodbye is still tough, but I’m not as sad as I was last time. After my sister and mother leaves, we send messages to each other online. I look up how to say “thank you for today” in Korean.
At first, I can’t see it when my friends say my sisters look like me. Later, I stare at the photo of four us at the party.
I see glimpses of my smile. My nose. The familiar arches of eyebrows, chins and lips. We all have thick hair that goes a bit wavy at the end without a straightener.
Then there’s that mouthy, bike-riding, arse-smacking, soju-swilling, double-jointed, Gangnam-stylin’ Sister 3 of mine. We don’t even speak the same language, but somehow we have the same sense of humour.
I don’t have the words to describe how overwhelmingly bizarre it is to go from being an only child to finding out that I have four older sisters. It probably sounds like a soapie or K-drama to you, but now it’s my life.
I panicked when I came home because I have no idea how to be someone’s sister – especially one they don’t know and doesn’t speak the same language.
Being adopted has always been a weird experience, and I suppose reuniting with your birth family doesn’t make it less weird. But I somehow survived the all plot twists on this bizarre trip, and now I have a posse of sisters and a tough Umma behind me. All I have to do is embrace the weird and keep going.