A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Today marks the beginning of the three-day Chuseok holiday in Korea, otherwise known as Korean Thanksgiving. This is a time where everyone goes back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families and pay respect to their ancestors. My sisters are visiting the rest of my family on Geoje Island today and sending me photos of their day. I can’t wait to see what my extended relatives look like!
I’m back in Brisbane now. I flew in on Tuesday morning and napped for most of the day and night. The only thing motivating me to go to work was the thought of photographing my cycling commute to send to Sister 3. I’ve been looking at my sisters’ profiles on the Korean social media app they use. Sister 3, like me, is an avid social media user and posts plenty of photos. She is conventionally Korean-pretty with pale skin, big bright eyes and somehow manages to smile without her eyes going scrunchy.
It wasn’t until I saw a ridiculous photo of her wearing her own hair as a mustache that I finally saw our spooky resemblance. I think I actually have a photo of myself doing the same somewhere.
I can’t listen to or watch Gangnam Style anymore without feeling homesick and thinking of her. Totally ridiculous.
There are many things I still have to tell you about this Korea trip that I did not get time to write about while I was away.
Firstly, I am so glad I went with a group of adoptees and with the help of G.O.A.L, otherwise I would have no idea what to do and what was going on. I’ve never hung out with a bunch of adoptees before. We bonded over things I rarely talk about with anyone, even though we’re different ages and grew up in different cultures. Even though we’re all Korean, everyone in the group quickly fleshed themselves out as individuals in my eyes. Our voices, the way we dress, our jokes, the way we dealt with our family searches.
Some other adoptees reunited with their families. Some did not. Some were lied to repeatedly. Some of us met family but must remain a secret. Almost all of us found out that information on our files were falsified. The only false information on my file was the story of my adoption, but others found they had wrong names and wrong birth dates.
It was an intense journey for all of us.
Since flying home, I’ve missed them almost as much as my own family. We laughed, cried, ate, talked, drank and slept (not like that) together for two solid weeks and it didn’t feel awkward to me at all. They might as well be family.
I talked about Australia a lot. I missed my friends back home. In Australia, I am Korean. But in Korea, I am Australian. I thought Koreans might be confused by this Asian-looking girl who spoke English in an Aussie accent. Instead, shopkeepers and taxi drivers would put their hands out in front of them, Skippy-style, and bounce around delightedly. “Oh! Kangaroo!”
I didn’t tell many Korean people that I was adopted. Given the conservative attitudes towards family, I didn’t know how Koreans would react. I also forgot what the Korean word was for “adoptee” (It’s ib-yang-in, for the record). One night when we were catching a taxi to dinner, one of the G.O.A.L staff explained to the taxi driver in Korean that we were adoptees. He said he regularly watched the KBS show that reunited adoptees with their birth families, and hoped we would find our families too. Renowned Korean chefs at the restaurants we ate at were so welcoming of our little group and wished us well on our search.
Anyway, Koreans seemed mainly interested in asking me about food. What do you think of the food? What is your favourite? Food has tremendous power to bring people together across many cultures.
I am humbled and grateful. My new friends, my friends in Australia, the adoptee community, the Korean people and my family (both of them) accepted and supported me during one of the most important and turbulent moments of my life.
My main aim of going on this trip was to understand the country where I was born. Here’s what I took from it:
Korea and its people have been through so much. Invasion, colonialism, war, poverty. Families torn apart, reunions and secrets are a dominant narrative here.
It is a country of contradictions. There are huge plasma TV screens and WiFi everywhere, but you can smell the rancid stench from the poor sewerage system in the middle of Seoul.
There are women with impeccable makeup and effeminate pale men advertising snail cream with loads of plastic surgery. Then you see ajeoshis wheeling piles of garbage up the street by handcart, and ajummas cutting vegetables on the side of the road to sell.
You can get the tastiest, cheapest authentic Korean food from tiny stinky restaurants run by ajummas with nothing written in English, or tacos and pizza from a Western restaurant.
Streets away from the glitzy nightlife in Itaewon is a US army base, surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire. There are Buddhist temples and Catholic Churches. Monks and nuns. What I thought were ancient traditional villages were actually rebuilt – most of the original buildings were destroyed during Japanese occupation and during the war.
The number of high rises dotting the coastlines and nestled next to mountains were mind-boggling. They reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of American housing projects. My sister in Seoul lives in an apartment so small that my Umma couldn’t stay with her when she came up to visit.
It took me a while to understand the extremely high population in Korea and why things were the way they were. Why the traffic seemed to have its own system within chaos and it always seemed like peak hour.
Why you have to throw your toilet paper in a rubbish bin instead of the toilet, which is SO GROSS but there is a very real danger of the toilet getting clogged because the sewerage system literally can’t handle toilet paper. Why it’s perfectly socially acceptable in Korea to shoulder barge your way through a crowd and not say sorry. Why shops, bars and cafes are crammed into tiny boxes in every possible space, with their many products are arranged like a full Tetris grid.
Why personal space doesn’t exist in the elevators, the subway, the bus, and the communal showers. Oh yes, you read that last one right.
This mildly claustrophobic Brisbane kid found it all a bit overwhelming.
Korea is very Asian and it is very Western at the same time.
A bit like me.
Before I left on this trip, I came to terms with the fact that I am both Korean and Australian. I still think the same thing, but the Korean side has become stronger.
Learning which town I was born in made a profound impact on me. Carly kept singing “my island hoooome” at me when I found out. I finally changed my Hometown on Facebook from Brisbane to the right place – Geoje Island.
I was born on Geoje Island. Beautiful Geojedo, an hour from Busan and the second biggest island in Korea. I love saying it. I have never known where I was born until now.
Geoje is as contradictory as the rest of Korea. One part of the city is what I call Korean suburbia – a bit dirty, with markets and chain stores centred around a long main street. The other part of Geoje city is clean and modern, with K-pop blasting from mobile phone stores and McDonalds and Western bars lined up on the street. Gorgeous green mountains loom above lakes and high rises. My Umma and Appa live in one of those apartments and climb the mountains around them every day. Up in the mountains are temples, pagodas and remnants from the Korean War.
The confusion and frustration about my personal history has been laid to rest. I can answer all the questions now. When I say I am from Korea, I have images and memories in my mind to share. I can tell you what my hometown looks like. I can tell you that I belong to a clan of strong, beautiful, smart, funny women.
I will never feel like a Korean. There are many things about Korean culture that I like, but there’s also a lot that I just don’t understand because I didn’t grow up there. As I tried to communicate with Koreans and people from around the world, I realised how Australian I really was.
But that’s okay. I am a Korean-Australian adoptee, and that’s all there is to it.
This isn’t the end of the story. My birth family is in my life now. I don’t know them, but I’m looking forward to getting to know them. I have plans to go back eventually and spend some quality time with my family. The first step is to learn Korean – talking through a translator sucks.
They will never take the place of my adoptive parents. I just have two families in my life now.