A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Yesterday, Tuesday December 3, I mailed a package to my parents in Geoje. My adoptive parents and i wrote letters to Umma and Appa. It is also Sister 4 and Sister 3’s birthdays this month. I bought a funky bike bell from Sydney for Sister 3 and a pretty necklace made from Western Australian iron ore for Sister 4. Buying presents for them was harder than I thought. What do you buy non-English speakers who live in the land of cool cheap fashion and gadgets?
On the same day 25 years ago, I flew with a social worker from Seoul to Sydney to meet my adoptive parents. I now know that my birth mother never knew where I had gone or even how old I was when I left Korea as a baby, up until I met her.
It’s been over two months since I came back from my first trip to Korea since birth.
A lot has changed in those two months.
Now, on my phone, I have another social media app to obsess over – Kakao. Kakao is Korea’s social media app, a mixture of chat and Instagram.
It is here where I communicate with my sisters and my Umma.
Texting my Korean birth family is no easy task. Firstly, I have to figure out what I want to say. Then I translate it into Korean. Then I translate it back to English to see if it still makes sense.
Usually, it doesn’t. Before I went out for dinner at Hong Depot, I nearly told my mother that I was “going to eat Korea.”
(with a side of kimchi)
I’ve learned something through this painstaking translation process. My everyday conversational grammar is appalling. I feel sorry for anyone learning English who has to speak to me.
But I’m not the only one. Umma’s text messages have crashed my Google Translate app several times. Upon closer inspection, I realised that she doesn’t put spaces between words. Like most mothers around the world, Umma isn’t very good at texting.
The grammar of her texts seems strange too. My sisters’ messages are easier to translate.
I figured it out while watching a Korean television show. It’s a sketch comedy I watched on the bus to Busan, and KBS have kindly uploaded episodes with English subtitles on YouTube. One of the sketches was called Geojedo – the island where my family is from!
Geojedo sketch from Gag Concert
I didn’t get the jokes and wondered if I should be insulted. Then I read a YouTube comment from a Korean. “Haha! The accents are so funny!”
Turns out the area where my family grew up speaks a different dialect to standard Korean. Some verbs sound like completely different words!
No wonder my Umma’s messages weren’t making sense.
I’ve never been interested in learning languages before until now. Since I’ve come back from Korea, I’ve spent my spare time listening to language lesson podcasts, watching YouTube videos about Korea, listening to Korean music and signed up for Korean language tutoring with Carly. Korean is an intimidating language. The subtle differences between pronunciation, topsy-turvy grammar and spelling rules are downright scary. But it’s worth it.
Learning Korean is like fiddling with an old radio receiver – mostly noise and static, but some words come through clearly. As you begin to hear more words, you can string together some kind of meaning. One day, I’ll get the frequency right and I’ll be able to hear the whole show.
Anyway, I learned the Korean words for love, boy, girl, crazy, I have, I don’t have, I want, don’t do it, don’t leave. Now I understand what’s going on in K-Pop songs!
G-Dragon – “MichiGO”
na (mu) neun – I
michi – crazy
ship-eo – want
na (mu) neun + michigo + ship-eo = I want to go crazy
My sisters and Umma helpfully correct my Korean spelling and teach me a few slang words. Umma is slowly learning English.
Slowly, I’m learning more about my family.
Umma sends me lots of photos of herself and Appa hiking around Geoje, visiting temples in the mountains. They have a favourite spot with beautiful multicoloured flowers and animal-shaped hedges.
Our age and cultural differences are vast. She sends me photos of herself doing things I don’t understand. Peeling little fish with my grandmother on Chuseok. Picking persimmons. Mixing a huge cauldron full of mixture with the other older folks in Geoje to make tofu.
The other week, she went to China.
“Why?” I demanded, wondering if I might have even more relatives.
“To visit temples,” answered my sisters.
Umma sent me a photo of herself in Hunan. She was with her friend from Geoje, climbing a long stone staircase to a shrine. I wonder about her religion, her beliefs, why she partakes in these rituals I don’t understand.
She often tells me to drink barley tea before bed. At first, the translation app got it wrong and I thought she was telling me to drink rum. You don’t need to tell me twice, Umma! Turns out barley tea is a very healthy tea commonly consumed in Asian countries. It’s good for teeth and digestion system. So I bought an enormous box from a Korean supermarket in Brisbane. I remember drinking it in Seoul and thought it tasted like burnt popcorn. Now I quite like it. I’m convinced this is the secret to how my sisters are able to eat Korean BBQ and noodles and French pastries all day and stay small.
Umma says my oldest sister is quiet, but she talks to me the most. She doesn’t look like me at all – tall, bony skinny, permed hair, freckles. She asks all sorts of questions out of the blue. She asked if I live with my parents, or in an apartment, and I wound up having to explain the concept of sharehousing in Australia. In Korea, you can rent an apartment quite cheaply – however, they are very small.
I sent my sisters a photo of my successful attempt at cooking japchae bulgogi.
“Your sisters are good cooks!” said Sister 1. “I’m just good at eating.”
That’s like something I’d say, I thought.
Sister 1 has a self-deprecating sense of humour. She jokes about being old and failing at dieting. But she takes her oldest sister role seriously, and seems concerned about how I’m going.
Recently, a Korean women was murdered in Brisbane. It was a huge shock to me. I usually feel safe in Brisbane. It was an awful tragedy, the result of a severely mentally disturbed man who wanted to kill someone, anyone. The mayor held a public memorial service for the woman. However, in Korea, this is being reported as a racially-motivated crime.
Sister 1 texted me, worried. “I heard a Korean girl was murdered,” she said. “I heard there is racial discrimination in Australia. I’m sorry you grew up with this.”
It was all very hard to explain my side of things, especially using Google Translate. Yes, racism occurs in Australia. Racial violence occurs, although I’ve never personally encountered it. I was conflicted between my strong opinions on racism in Australia and not wanting my sister to worry about me. An odd predicament.
We talked one night about our lives growing up. A topic far too hard for two near-strangers who don’t speak the same language to really delve into.
Sister 1 tells me our family’s life was hard at first. She was sad as things went wrong around her.
I found out another crucial part of my adoption story. See, I’d heard that Appa was sick. As I remembered him slowly walking around when we met, I asked what he was sick from.
“He had a stroke,” said Sister 1. “Umma became his full time carer.”
A lot of things were starting to make more sense.
“Wow,” I said. “But Appa seems healthy now. He moved slowly when I saw him, but other than that he seemed fine.”
“Thanks to Umma,” said Sister 1. “She looked after him. And then he got better and could go back to work.”
That little old Korean woman keeps getting more badass the more I get to know her.
She asked about my childhood. I said it was not as hard as hers. But it is strange being adopted, what with your family not looking like you and being treated differently. I explain that I used to be very quiet and shy.
“Just like all of us,” said Sister 1. “Well, except Sister 3.”
“I think I’m more like her nowadays,” I said.
Sister 3 is incredibly busy at work and doesn’t talk to me much. But sometimes on a Saturday night, I receive dark photos of plates of BBQ and soju and laughing friends in pubs. So I send photos of chips and beer and laughing friends in pubs.
Drunk texting your long lost sister is weird.
When I was in Sydney for a conference recently, I made sure to take photos of the Opera House and the Queen Victoria Building and the markets to show them.
“I am coming to Australia!” she texted me very late on the Friday night, after I’d had a few drinks with the conference delegates.
“Nothing is confirmed. But I miss you. I want to see you and I want to see Australia.”
“I miss you too, unni. What are you doing right now?”
“Dinner with friends in Gangnam.”
Broken English, the fact that it was 1am in Seoul, knowledge that Korean pubs always serve meals with drinks (and vice versa), remembering Sister 3’s claim that she can drink loads of soju – I was starting to understand the context and (not) seriousness of these messages. Still, I appreciated that she thought to direct her boozy emotional texts to her little sister.
Sister 3 likes using social media, like me. She posts Korean memes, her sweet jogging and cycling gear, blurry dark noraebang sessions, food, and selfies of herself covered in paint, wearing cool hats or making a face.She also posts flowers and gifts with vague descriptions. Who are they from?!
“I’ll tell you if you give me 50,000 won,” she says coyly to a guy asking about it (who OBVIOUSLY likes her, geez).
She recently posted a photo of herself wearing mismatching shoes. She went on a work trip and packed two shoes of the same colour, but different designs. She didn’t notice until her workmates were on the bus with her and pointed it out.
“Omg,” she commented.
That’s like something I would do.
Sister 4 is the quiet one. But she’s sweet. She comments on all the photos I post, says hello, is amazed and impressed by everything I tell her about my silly life. I remember her saying she used to wish she had a little sister. I remember Umma saying that Sister 4 barely speaks. She thinks a lot and deeply.
Sometimes I feel like that too. I wonder what she thinks about. The only other thing I know about her is that she likes one of my favourite K-pop groups, 2NE1.
Sister 2 hasn’t been on Kakao Talk because she broke her phone. As someone who has smashed every smartphone screen I have ever owned, I totally understand. But she recently fixed her phone and started talking to me.
“I went to a department store and there was an exhibition on Australian products,” she texted me. “The sales lady said this was a traditional Australian design.”
“That doesn’t really look Australian,” I said.
Google Translate turned my message into “Australia is invisible.”
When I eventually got it right, she laughed. “She tricked me!” she said.
I’ll have to find her an Australian-looking bag for her birthday.
There are many things I want to know about my family. Silly things really, like what did they like to do in school and university? Who was the first person they had a crush on? What was their first job? What are their thoughts on Korean social issues and politics? What are their greatest joys, their biggest fears? Did they feel confused and uncertain in their mid-20s like I do?
Then I wonder what they think of me, their funny little sister from Australia dresses up as an octopus for Halloween and tried to hip hop dance the other week (it was a dismal failure).
My sisters, my unnis. My Umma and Appa from Geoje. I talk about them often and am probably boring all of my friends to death. It’s my strange way of getting used to the idea that the parents I wondered about – plus bonus sisters – are part of my life now. Because it’s still very, very weird to me. I’ve always had family, but not like this. They’re part of my history, but we’re only just catching up. There’s language and cultural barriers to navigate which is frustrating at times, but also a fascinating learning experience to better understand their world and my roots.
Many adoptees refer to dealing with their adoption as a “journey”, and I guess I thought that meeting my family would be the end of the journey. But it isn’t. It’s like climbing to the top of a mountain then boarding a spaceship. I’ve never been someone’s sister before. But I’m learning.
I’m hoping to see them again sometime next year. My goal is to know enough Korean by then to be able to talk to them without a translator. I want to hike up a mountain in Geoje with Umma and Appa. I want to cook and eat food with my sisters, and really see how much Sister 3 and I can drink. You know. Family stuff.