A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
The baby-voiced “Kakao!” alert chirps from my phone.
“Hi. How are you?” asks Umma in fragments of English, without punctuation and sometimes forgetting “are”.
Umma is working through a kids’ English language book and is determined to talk to me in English as much as possible.
“좋아. Good,” I text back.
“And your Mum? Is she healthy?”
“그래~ 좋아. Yeah. Good.”
She always says to tell her to say thank you. Every time.
“Stay healthy,” says Umma. “Well, sleep.”
The Korean expression “잘 자” is 잘 meaning “well”, and 자 meaning “sleep” put together. She means “good night”.
In the package Umma sent me before Lunar New Year was a letter, card and a little makeup bag just for Mum.
“Thank you very much indeed,” said the card in Umma’s painfully neat handwriting.
Mum’s eyes filled with tears.
Mum and I meet at a café in East Brisbane and eat poached eggs for brunch.
“How is your elbow?” I fell off my bike in a rather dramatic way recently and grazed my elbow. It wasn’t very serious and healed quickly, but Mum still worries.
“I’m good, Mum.”
“She’s good too. She asks about you a lot.”
“I’ve bought some gifts and written a letter for her,” she says. “Can you read it and make sure it says the right thing?”
“I’m sure it’s fine. She’s just happy to hear from you.”
As I carry my Mum’s package home full of Aboriginal art-printed tea towels and letters to translate into Korean, I realise that relaying messages and gifts between two women I call “mother” is yet another new, weird part of my every day life I have to deal with now that I’ve met my birth family.
I’m relieved that there’s no animosity between them. I’ve heard of adoptive parents taking offence to their adopted child even wanting to find their birth parents. But my two mothers seem to want to form some kind of bond with each other. It occurs to me that they too are experiencing the frustrating barriers of language and culture between them. They’re only two years apart in age.
I wonder what it would be like if they met. They’re very different.
Umma, born on a little Korean island at the end of the Korean War, raising four daughters and rehabilitating a sick husband.
Mum, born and private schooled in inner-northern Sydney, unable to conceive a child, hospital visits and filling out paperwork to adopt one of her own.
But I think they’d get along.
Both polite in their Korean and Sydney private school ways, but also emotional and talkative.
Both who spent a lot of time swallowing their fears and made damn sure their daughters finished school, went to university and worked.
Both five foot tall with impeccably permed hair.
The forthright ajumma and the fiery half-Irish woman.
Nowadays I’m not sure which bits of me I inherited genetically from Umma or from being raised by Mum.
As a child who was generally confused about why I’d been thrust in this strange life situation, Mum painted this picture of Umma to me as a loving woman who had to make a difficult decision for the best of us.
“I have a lot of respect for your mother,” Mum always said.
And now she knows she was right.
There’s a term I learned about recently called “open adoption”, where adoptive family, biological family and adoptees all keep in contact with each other. I suppose that’s what’s happening now, albeit 25 years later than usual.
Knowing who Umma is seems just as important to Mum as it is for me. So I hope one day they do meet. With the help of a translator, I think they’d have a lot to talk about.