A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
A few weekends ago now, I briefly left Jeju to visit Geojedo for the weekend.
The first and only time I’ve been to my birthplace of Geojedo was to search for my family.
This time round, Umma and Appa with Sister 2 picked me up from Gimhae Airport and drove me to their apartment in downtown Gohyeon for the weekend.
We were celebrating my birthday and Umma’s, only two weeks apart.
Umma arrived in her new Hyundai with the seats still wrapped in plastic. She slipped on some driving gloves, popped on big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and snapped little bubbles in her chewing gum. What a lady.
The rest of my sisters greeted me at Gohyeon in their pyjamas and showed me to a little guest room. It was filled with nostalgia and childhood detritus: graduation photos, toys, friends’ messages handwritten on gifts, an old piano. Sister 2 mentioned that she used to play. I learned how to play piano when I was a kid too. I looked at all of these mundane household things with childlike fascination.
Umma bustled about the kitchen making lunch, with about five or more pots and pans sizzling and boiling at once. The sisters scooped rice, soup, kimchi and banchan into little bowls. They insisted that they didn’t need my help, so I sat down in the loungeroom.
Appa, who I haven’t seen recently or spoken to often, sat on the couch and watched an American baseball game. His graduation photo hung up on a liquor cabinet filled with Asian whiskies. After some translation to-ing and fro-ing, I learned my father was unable to go to university as a young man but later attended as an adult to study economics.
The first item on the agenda was to eat seaweed soup, traditionally eaten on your birthday. The sisters brought out a birthday cake and we sang happy birthday – but, strangely, they put it back in the fridge and we ate lunch.
Umma’s beef galbi (ribs) fell off the bone. I tried clam soup with fresh, juicy flesh. It was unlike anything I’ve had in a restaurant. This was real homecooked Korean food, hearty and strong.
After stuffing ourselves, my sisters announced that we were going to Oedo Island.
“Annyeong!” Sister 3 was lagging behind in the apartment carpark. She was saying hello to a neighbourhood cat.
I do this all the time myself. If I see a cat walking around the street back home or a dog waiting outside for its owner at a shop, I usually stop to say hello.
All four sisters worryingly piled into the backseat with me in the front. Korean car laws are a bit different here.
I heard plastic rustling behind me. One of my sisters was tearing off the plastic seat covering. Then the plastic covering the door handles and the seatbelts. Tape on the roof and on the doors.
“Umma!” scolded Sister 3, and suddenly the car was filled with the sound of 5 girls laughing while peeling tape and plastic.
Umma drove through downtown Gohyeon and around the mountains of Geoje. She showed me her favourite hiking track.
I saw a sign with a picture of a pig on it.
“What’s that?” I asked in Korean.
“There are wild pigs here,” said one of my sisters.
“Woah! I wanna see a pig!”
Umma giggled. She parked the car at the top of the mountain and pointed out the surrounding islands.
We hopped back into the car and arrived at a small beach, where Umma bought ferry tickets.
We had to wait around for a while for the next ferry to Oedo, so we sat back in the car. I yawned – I’d been up since 5am that morning to make the flight. Then I noticed Sister 3 had fallen asleep on Sister 1’s back. So I stretched out and had a nap in the car.
My busy schedule in Korea had taught me a valuable life skill – the ability to sleep anywhere, any time.
I woke up to Sister 1 crunching on my favourite cheesy-flavoured taco chips and sleepily shoved a handful into my mouth. It was time to catch the ferry!
The ferry captain welcomed us through a booming, reverb-heavy karaoke microphone. The boat sped off towards the islands, faster than any ferry I’ve ever been on before. The captain kept talking. I’m still not sure if he was being a tour guide or doing a standup comedy routine. Sometimes the people on the boat looked out the window, laughed or shouted answers to his questions. At one point, everyone in the ferry ran outside at the same time, jostling each other to get a photo of this rock.
Then he stopped and played some Korean trot music as the ferry sped along amongst little islands on the way to Oedo.
Unlike any other tourist destinations I’ve visited in Korea, I realised that everyone going to the island with me was Korean and nothing was translated. In most places, you can see translations in English, Chinese or Japanese and most people are obviously foreign tourists. But from buying the tickets at the beach and catching the ferry, everything was in Korean. So I realised that I was pretty lucky to be with my Korean family to be able to go to this special place.
We finally arrived at Oedo Island and started hiking upwards through impeccably-sculpted hedges that looked like melting spaceships.
Gentle classical songs piped through speakers in the trees. We stopped to pose with statues – futuristic modern shapes and imitations of classic works like Michaelangelo’s “David”.
Architecture inspired by Spanish mission and Greek styles with Roman columns in gardens in Korea made Oedo seem surreal and dreamlike. The sisters and I kept stopping to take photos.
“Hurry up! The ferry leaves in an hour!” Umma charged on up through the island.
The last building on the island showed photos of a couple. The sisters explained that this couple moved to the island many years ago and created the entire garden themselves.
After seeing every part of the island, we hopped back on the ferry to Geojedo. The comedian/tour guide boat captain barked his spiel at us again. As the boat approached Geojedo, he switched on the TV to show a very old karaoke video for Korean folk song “Arirang”.
It was time for dinner. We piled back into the car and arrived at a hweh restaurant.
Hweh is raw fish. It draws comparisons with sashimi, but I think hweh uses different types of fish and it’s prepared in a different way.
This particular restaurant served hweh in an enormous plate, bibimbap style with vegetables, seaweed flakes and spicy gochujang sauce. We rolled it up in lettuce leaves, BBQ style. I loved it. It was a winning combination of light and spicy. It also came with a side fish of nakji – raw octopus. Having eaten the live version before, it wasn’t too much of a drama to eat the non-animated version.
That’s when I discovered something about myself. See, I don’t usually like seafood. Apart from fish and chips (with plenty of batter), I find the smell and texture revolting. I’d eaten a small cooked octopus a few days previously. It felt like a spider in my mouth and thought I was going to throw up. But I found raw fish and raw octopus delicious. The octopus was juicy and tender, marinated in a light soy and gochujang sauce.
Later, we we drove through Geojedo past many more hweh restaurants and even a museum chronicling Geojedo’s history of fishing. I wondered if my taste for raw fish was somehow linked to being born here.
The sisters stopped to pick up some food for Appa. They returned with something wrapped in butcher’s paper. It smelled exactly like Australian beer-battered fish and chips. Could it be…?
But we returned to the apartment and unwrapped it to find whole tempura prawns and pumpkin. We drank Korean beer and watched a K drama as we nibbled on our fried fishy treats. The whole scene felt oddly Australian… but not.
Umma tugged on frayed threads hanging off the end of my dress. When I got out of the shower and changed, I found her in the corner with a sewing kit.
“You don’t have to do that…”
She waved her hand at me and sewed up the entire hem.
As I went to bed, I realised there was only one bed out of the two rooms we were all staying in.
“Oh, we’re just going to sleep on the floor,” said Sister 2 casually.
“What! Are you sure you don’t want the bed?”
“Nah. We sleep on the floor all the time.”
Only in Korea.
The next morning as we got ready to leave to our respective airports and bus terminals, Sister 4 showed me a big family photo album. We also finally ate the birthday cake while flipping through the pages.
It started with Sister 4 as a baby with the other sisters playing with her. Sister 1 holding her protectively, Sister 3 making funny faces behind them. Elementary school. Field trips. School dance performances in colourful costumes and cardboard hats. Trips to the beach. Karaoke with cousins. Cuddling pet dogs. I saw the resemblance with Sister 3 that everyone talks about – she looks like me when she was younger, before she moved to glamorous Seoul.
I took a photo of the photos and sent it to my adoptive Mum in Australia. She later talked to me on Skype.
“I showed your father,” she said. “Sister 4 looks exactly like you when you were a baby! You have the same thick hair that sticks up. I showed my friend from Dubbo – she thought I was joking and was showing me a picture of you!”
Umma and Appa drove me and Sister 4 to Busan. Appa turned on the radio – the equivalent of Classic Hits. Cheesy keyboards and singers wailing “saranghae, saranghaaaaaeeee“.
“Ugh,” groaned Sister 4. “Appa music.”
I secretly enjoyed it. Korean trot music is very silly, but it was like Kpop for my parents’ generation and I’d never heard it before.
I bid them farewell at the airport and made promises to see them for Chuseok – Korea’s national “Thanksgiving” holiday, leaving with a big grin. I may not have grown up on Geojedo or with my family, but I felt honoured to be related to them in some way.