A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I waited for Umma and Sister 3 and 4 to meet me at Seoul station, sitting on the stairs and watching a preacher (?) shouting at passers-by from a boombox.
I’ve been imagining seeing them again for months. Here was the plan: I’d make small talk in the limited Korean I knew and pick up the gist of what they were saying from the various words I knew. No sweat.
I happened to turn around just as they walked out of the subway exit. “Annyeong!” chirped my sisters.
Then a flood of fast Gyeongsang-accented words poured out of Umma’s mouth and my heart sank. I had absolutely no idea what she said. What’s more, all the small talk conversational Korean I knew went out the window. I knew how to ask “how are you?” and “how was your trip to Seoul?” but I just couldn’t remember anything.
They led me to a restaurant at the station to eat an enormous feast of bibimbap, bulgogi and noodles. I don’t have any photos of this delicious occasion because I was in a state of acute panic. I barely said a word as I thought oh my god, what have I done? We can’t talk to each other without an interpreter. How am I going to deal with this for a year? What did I expect? I’m a giant idiot. I was too self-conscious to even try talking to them in my bad Korean around other Koreans. I mean, what would they think? That I was an exchange student? Just like in my adoptive family!
But to my surprise, Sisters 3 and 4 started talking to me in English. They weren’t fluent, but they know more than they let on. They acted as interpreter for Umma. Umma herself has been studying English and knew a few basic words too.
Still, I was relieved when we finished eating.
“We’re going to cook japchae!” announced Umma, and they led me to Lotte Mart, a grocery store.
Lotte Mart was pandemonium. Completely packed with people. Korean stores in general seem to look like they have too much stuff than they should. Lotte staff members were in almost every aisle shouting about something – free samples, cooking demonstrations, sales, etc. Other staff members restocking the shelves were nonchalantly bowling through the crowd with carts stacked full of stuff. Everyone was shouting – even Umma, who was trying to be heard over the cacophony as she discussed with my sisters about what they needed. It was hilarious. Definitely not like shopping in Australia.
We bought our food and walked over to Sister 3’s apartment a few streets away. But Umma urged me to come upstairs.
A skinny ajeoshi answered the door and invited us into his messy apartment. He gestured towards cushions on the floor to sit on.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to Umma in Korean.
“Your Appa’s sister’s husband,” she said.
Umma chatted to this man and gestured towards me. I heard a few words that I recognised.
Here’s how I think the conversation went:
Umma: “This is my daughter. I put her up for adoption when she was a baby. She grew up in Australia. Now she’s back here in Korea to teach English in Jeonju.”
Uncle: “Holy crap!”
They chatted for a while, then Umma gestured to take me downstairs back to Sister 3’s apartment. We sat on the floor and ate “special Geoje corn”. It was brown, chewy and sweet, which sounds gross but I quite liked it. This time, Umma spoke more slowly so I could understand her. Surprisingly, I did. And all the Korean words I’d learned over the last few months started to come back to me. She wrote down some of the few English words she knew and their Korean equivalent, determined to teach me.
Without an interpreter, I heard my mother and sisters’ real voices properly instead of noise thrown into the air, waiting to be translated.
Sister 3 finished her corn and promptly fell asleep, snoring loudly. So Umma showed me photos of her side of the family. My grandmother, rocking a bright fuschia coat and smiling a gappy smile under enormous rainbow sunglasses. Umma has 2 brothers and 4 sisters. She’s the oldest. I started losing track of all the cousins she showed me. Their age ranged from a cute little toddler, to an adolescent girl dressed up as a witch, and up to a fellow in his early 20s who’d just started his mandatory military service.
“Nice hair,” I said, pointing to his dyed blonde mop.
“He works in fashion,” said Sister 4.
Several photos of a golden retriever appeared on her phone.
“That’s your aunty’s dog,” she giggled. “Your dog cousin.”
Graduations. Holidays. Skydiving daughters. An uncle singing at a noraebang.
“Your Appa likes going to the noraebang,” she said. “He likes trot music.”
I mentally added “sing with Appa at a noraebang” to my bucket list.
Sister 3 awoke from her slumber and it was time to cook japchae. Within a few seconds, Sister 3’s stovetop was groaning under the weight of boiling and sizzling pots and pans. Spices and sauces I’ve never seen before flew through the air.
Sister 3’s apartment is small – just a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchen barely more than the width of her fridge. She pulled out a short Hello Kitty table and set it up in her bedroom with all the vegetables and chopping boards. I went to chop into a mushroom that felt as tough as a steak, so Sister 3 showed me how to gouge out the stalk.
We threw all the vegetables into the mix of noodles and spices. Umma made us taste-test. Sister 3 gestured towards a soy sauce bottle. Those who know me well know that I eat a vast quantity of soy sauce on everything.
Umma slopped half a cup of soy sauce into the noodles. The sisters screamed in horror.
“Surprise!” laughed Umma.
Sister 4 started opening small plastic bags full of something smelly and red.
“This is my kimchi,” said Umma.
Finally! I was going to taste the authentic handmade kimchi of my family.
Plopping a rice cooker next to our table on the floor, we sat down to eat everything.
To me, Umma’s kimchi was perfect. Not too vinegary, garlicky and a slow-burning spice that made my nose run. I breifly wondered about genetics and sense of taste.
The topic of conversation turned to boyfriends. I showed them a photo of my boyfriend back in Australia, a ridiculously tall man who can rest his chin on the top of my head. Sister 3 suddenly remembered something interesting about her boyfriend.
“He went to university in Australia,” she said. “Griffith University.”
“NO. WAY.” Griffith University is a short drive away from Brisbane. I attended Griffith for a year myself.
My friends and I joke that there’s 0 degrees of separation in Brisbane and that anywhere in the world, you’re bound to bump into someone who’s lived in Brisbane. Sometimes it gets a bit ridiculous.
“He lived in Australia for 6 years. He wants to live there with me sometime.”
“You should do it!”
After eating a bright green rockmelon for dessert, it was time to go back to the guesthouse and collapse in exhaustion.
By now, I’d recovered from my little language problem. I said I’d meet them at Myeongdong at 11 o’clock the next day. All in Korean.
“또 봐요!” I said. See you soon.