A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Like most get-togethers with my birth family, my Chuseok was bittersweet.
On the day before Chuseok, we started the day with raw fish and sannakji for breakfast. As I turned around to see my mother hacking up a wiggly octopus first thing in the morning, I realised that Chuseok was going to be very unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
That day, we went for a drive around to more pretty places around Geojedo.
When we came home, Umma showed me photos of Umma and Appa when they were dating. Appa was quite the cool dude back in the 70s with chunky glasses, wavy hair and flares. Umma wore an extravagant hanbok on their wedding with long red silk tied to her hair and bright red lipstick. She was only 23 when they married.
The next day, I got ready for a glorious few days bonding with family over tradition and culture.
But that didn’t really happen. For one thing, the occasion seemed to bring out the reality of my presence among the family, which in turn affected my Umma in a pretty bad way.
Over the Chuseok holiday, Umma emptied my bags to clean them and wrapped up my shoes, complaining they were dirty. She snapped at me to brush my hair, that I had a hole in my sock, that I wasn’t wearing slippers (I constantly forget the customs around shoes in Korean households), to hurry up and eat my weird smelly fish soup. She always seemed to be shouting. Balli balli! she’d bark. Quickly, quickly! She forgot to speak slowly to me and I couldn’t understand what she was saying at all – which made her more frustrated and angry. My sisters awkwardly translated, pained as they struggled to remember their high school English classes.
I was horrified and wanted to go home immediately. The wonderful Chuseok holiday I’d dreamed of was off with an awful start. Where was all of this coming from? What happened to my Umma, the sweet lady who wanted to show me Korean culture and teach me Korean words?
Why am I here? I asked myself.
I quickly realised that my fascination with the cultural ritual that is Chuseok wasn’t shared with my family, who’ve been doing the same thing every year. It’s like Christmas – after slaving over cooking, shopping for gifts and dealing with relatives, the magic wears off after a few years. So I unfortunately didn’t get to wear a hanbok (“Hanboks are very expensive,” explained one of my sisters) or see wrestling or dances because everyone was too tired and couldn’t be bothered.
Look at it this way: do you still sit on Santa’s lap and put out cookies for the reindeer every year? Exactly.
But the real point of me going to Chuseok was to spend time with family and meet family members I’ve never met before.
Our first stop was at my Appa’s brother’s cool house built on a cliff on Tongyeong Island, with an amazing view of the sea and neighbouring Geojedo. I opened the door to a house full of relatives. The uncle greeted me enthusiastically. All the aunts in the kitchen putting down their cooking utensils to look at me.
The telly was blaring a Kdrama over the grand table set for Chuseok with fruit, fish and incense.
The uncle took me by the arm and pointed to various people around the room.
“This is your Appa’s hyung (older brother), your Appa’s dongsaeng (younger brother), your Appa’s hyung’s wife, your Appa’s nuna (older sister), your Appa’s nuna’s husband…”
I decided to stop listening so I just bowed and said hello. The uncle steered me into a room full of high school-age girls.
“This is your Appa’s hyung’s second daughter…”
Cousins. They were my cousins. They stared at me in confusion. I politely said hello and was led to another room with boys of the same age. More cousins.
I didn’t get a chance to say much because it was time for jesa – honouring our ancestors by bowing at the offerings on the Chuseok table. First, my Appa and my uncles lined up to bow together. Then the aunties. Then the girl cousins. Then the boy cousins. My sisters whispered instructions to me. Kneel down so your head is close to the ground. Stand up and bow again.
And then of course it was time to eat. Appa’s siblings didn’t say too much to me. Most of them were much older – and older Koreans don’t speak any English. I ate in silence, failing to understand anything they were saying. Why am I here?
Soon after lunch, it was time to go perform charye. This is a Chuseok ritual where Koreans visit their ancestors’ graves to respect their memories and make offerings of food and wine.
My almost home
Umma drove us back to Geojedo through sparse paddocks and fields.
We entered a small, dirty-looking town.
“This is where we grew up,” said one of my sisters.
Umma and Appa currently live on Gohyeon. Gohyeon is a modern-looking city and the capital of Geojedo.
But this town was a bunch of crumbling shacks with junk scattered in almost-dirt streets. No neon lights or noraebangs here. I was shocked.
In the middle of this little town was a brightly-coloured traditional Korean house.
“This was our house,” said another sister.
“No… I mean… our house used to be here.” She pointed to the dirt parking lot next to the house.
I tried to imagine my sisters as little girls, playing amongst the debris and rust and dirt. I tried to imagine growing up here myself in this town that looked like it was about to crumble into the earth in the middle of nowhere, instead of suburban Brisbane.
I couldn’t. I gulped back tears.
The car stopped halfway up a mountain and I saw my uncles and cousins again. We trekked through an overgrown path through a forest.
We emerged from the foliage to see several sets of grassy mounds. Korean graves. An ajeoshi with his arm around his son sang a solemn song to their ancestors’ graves. Further down from them were two mounds which were my Appa’s mother and father – my grandparents.
My uncles and my oldest sister peeled fruit and laid it on a small altar in front of the grave. They sprinkled rice wine around the gravesite. Umma pulled out weeds.
After some time, it was time to perform the deep bow again. It was a shame that I never got to meet my paternal grandparents in person. But this was as close as I could ever get. It was amazing that I was here at all.
Back through the forest and into the car, and this time we went to a Buddhist temple.
A monk chanted loudly in the temple as families came and went, bowing at the altar. My sisters bowed once or twice, but it was Umma who bowed deeply several times. Lanterns and name tags hung above us. I saw my Appa’s name. I wasn’t sure what was going on. But then we had to pile back into the car again.
“Balli balli!” shouted Umma. Quickly, quickly!
We returned to Geojedo for everyone to collapse in exhaustion in Umma and Appa’s apartment for a few hours. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. We’d done all the “Chuseok stuff” within a day. I hadn’t gotten to know my cousins. It wasn’t like an Australian family get-together, where everyone sticks around in the same place all day.
Why am I here? I was confused. I had a headache.
“You have a headache?” Umma grabbed my hand and pinched my middle finger, hard. I screamed.
She whipped out what looked like a pen, and popped off the cap. It was a needle. I screamed again.
“Hmm… don’t look,” advised Sister 4.
Umma pricked the tip of my middle finger. I yelped with shock.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” I howled in Korean, holding my finger.
“Traditional Korean remedy for headache,” explained Sister 4. “Bleeding out the finger improves blood circulation.”
“Do you still have a headache?” asked Umma.
I mumbled that my headache had indeed gone away. Umma looked pleased, and I vowed to never tell her that I had a headache ever again. I hid in my spare room in horror and texted my boyfriend about my ordeal.
“Have you considered that your Umma may actually be a witch?” he joked.
In the evening, it was time to go to my grandmother’s house in Tongyeong. She lives in a valley on the edge of the lake.
I bowed low to my grandmother – Halmeoni. She was a tiny, frail little thing with a weather-beaten face. She reached up to clasp my face in her little hands. Then she spoke with an unexpectedly authoritative voice that commanded attention.
“What’s her name?” she asked my sisters.
Halmeoni bowed back, and I walked into a house full of more relatives.
“Hello! Wow! Come in, sit down! Please eat!” My aunties – Umma’s sisters – squealed and clapped, their eyes sparkling with excitement. They squeezed my cheeks and slapped my back and touched my hair.
“You look like Sister 3,” they said, like everyone else says. “And Sister 4’s eyes.”
They served up more of those tender beef ribs I love that Umma makes. Must be a family recipe.
My uncles greeted me loudly from the end of the dinner table. They were halfway through a bottle of soju and, funnily enough, that’s when I finally felt a touch of family familiarity.
After dinner, I was led outside to the side of the lake where my cousins were setting up picnic blankets, fruit and beer. The huge full moon shone above the mountains. Umma, halmeoni and some of the older aunties sat in a little courtyard at the house to talk amongst themselves.
I awkwardly introduced myself in Korean. To my immense relief, a few of my cousins knew a bit of English.
“I’m the number 1 cousin,” boasted one of the cousins, who was a bit older than Sister 1. “The best cousin!”
“No, I’m the best cousin!” interrupted the second oldest male cousin.
“You’re not the number 1 cousin because you’re the best,” scoffed Sister 3. “You’re just the oldest.”
The second oldest boy cousin tried to get his younger siblings to talk to me in English.
“Show her what you learned in school!”
They giggled and hid behind their hands.
“Hello, my name is ___. I am ___ years old. Nice to meet you,” they said robotically.
“Oh noooo,” I groaned. “Don’t do that. I’m not Ellie Teacher today. I’m Cousin Joo Hye.”
One of my uncles walked over and started chatting to me in surprisingly good English. He talked about how he likes tennis and wanted to know if I’ve ever been to the Australian Open. He talked about how he has a job matching people with companion pets. I played tennis when I was a kid and I love animals! I was loving all of these little similarities, tenuous as they were.
He mentioned that when he was a little boy, my Umma and the second oldest sister cared for him because times were tough for their family. That would’ve been in the 1960s – not a very nice time in Korea.
One of the youngest aunties and her three daughters walked over to sit with us. The two littlest daughters alternated between playing games, fighting and hugging each other.
“Show us your dance!”
Sister 3 played one of my favourite Kpop songs of 2014 – Orange Caramel’s “Catellena” from her phone. The girls stood up and performed the entire dance, move for move.
There was a school talent show coming up in December and the girls were already practising hard.
Another aunt closer to Umma’s age came down to sit with us. She smiled at me a lot.
“Sing us a song!” she said.
“I can’t sing!” I said. “I can only sing at the noraebang. After drinking soju.”
She roared with laughter. The young auntie turned to me to chat, translated via my sisters. She said she worked in the navy. Her littlest daughter said she wanted to go on a Korean reality show called “Real Men / Real Women”, where celebrities get a taste of army life through training and challenges.
“You should do it!” I said.
“Yeah!” She pumped her fists victoriously.
My inner feminist swelled with pride.
For a few hours, we talked, showed each other photos and cheered on the two little cousins dancing and playing games. As we headed inside halmeoni’s house, one of the little cousins grabbed my hand.
“Picture?” she asked, followed by a sentence in Korean that I didn’t understand.
“She says you’re pretty and wants to take a picture with you,” translated Sister 2.
So I took selfies with my two little cousins. I won’t share them on this blog to protect their privacy, but I assure you that they’re very cute.
Halmeoni gestured for me to sit down and looked at me closely again. I looked like Sister 3 and had Sister 4’s eyes, she said, echoing my aunties. She spoke to my sisters and gestured towards me. I heard Umma mentioned a few times. They nodded solemnly with grave expressions on their faces. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I had a feeling that she was talking about my adoption. I didn’t ask for a translation.
I noticed there were now three empty bottles of soju at the table where all the men were sitting. One of them was asleep in a chair, snoring. It was almost midnight and time to leave.
“Come visit again,” said Halmeoni.
My aunties held me and touched my face once more. We all shouted “goodbye” and waved as the car pulled away.
Umma still seemed agitated, ranting about something to my half-asleep sisters. I could only understand halmeoni and imo (Korean for “auntie”). I wondered what happened, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then I fell asleep myself.
We all spent the next day asleep. I was especially tired. A full schedule, my Umma’s nagging and trying desperately to communicate using the little
Korean I know was very draining. It seemed easier to just be unconscious than to deal with any more.
Then we woke up in the afternoon to play Go Stop.
Go Stop is a very confusing Korean card game. It’s basically matching cards, but the scoring is a complex system based on various elements on each picture card.
I watched Umma, Appa, and my sisters play with W100 coins. They slammed the cards down and cursed when they didn’t get a match. Through their screams of horror and satisfied cackling, I tried to figure out how to play.
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” Sister 2 groaned, handing over most of her winnings.
“I very lost,” she said in English.
In the next game, Sister 2 pointed at Sister 1’s hand and laughed. She slammed down another card and collected the winnings.
“Nooo!” Sister 1, who’s in her mid 30s, rolled around on the floor and kicked her legs about like a dying cockraoch.
“She didn’t realise that she won. But it was too late. And now I win!”
“No no no no noooo!” whimpered Sister 1.
It was nearly dinner time. I braced myself for more stinky fishy Korean food.
“Hey,” said Sister 4, tapping at the Dominoes app on her iPad. “What flavour pizza do you like?”
After we ate all the pizza, the sisters picked up the Go Stop cards again.
“Can I play?” I asked shyly.
They explained the points and the rules. It didn’t seem as confusing as I thought. So we played a round. I matched a few cards together, slamming them down onto the floor victoriously.
“Oooh… you won!” cried Sister 2, pointing at my hand
The next morning it was time for me to back to my apartment in Jeonju.
Umma drove Sister 1 and I home together because our towns are close.
As I got out of the car, Umma lifted loads of bags out of the boot. Oh dear.
“I don’t need any of that…”
She barked at me in angry, fast Korean, cleaning every centimetre and rearranging everything my apartment. The way I was doing things was wrong, she was saying. A dustbuster, towels, a hairdryer and containers of different kimchi suddenly took up residence in my tiny apartment.
Why am I here?
I’d reached the end of my tether.
“Umma…” I grabbed her shoulders as she was charging around the room and looked into her eyes. I do this with my students when they are being naughty. I took a deep breath as I slowly articulated the Korean words in my head.
“Umma. I don’t have time for this. I have work to do and I am very tired. Please stop.” I said slowly in Korean.
“I love you, Umma. Thank you.”
Eventually, she smiled and slapped my back. “Okay. Okay.”
She finally left and I collapsed onto my floor-bed.
I was sensitive over the next few days. What had I done wrong? Was coming here to spend time with my birth family a mistake?
I decided to ask Sister 2 what was going on.
“Is Umma angry at me?”
“No!” said Sister 2. “She was very tired. Lots of cooking to do and lots of relatives to see! She does this with all of us. We all have messy apartments and she cleans them whenever she comes over. She gives us too much food.”
“She was shouting a lot…”
“That’s just how she talks,” laughed Sister 2. “The Gyeongsang dialect doesn’t have emotion. She shouts at me, SISTER 2! EAT DINNER NOW! HURRY UP! She isn’t angry at you.”
I also talked to some other Korean adoptees who had also reunited with family. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit frazzled from spending time with them.
“Older Koreans don’t understand why you’re different,” one of them said.
“My Korean American friends say they have overbearing Ummas too!”
“You don’t remember her. But she remembers you.”
“She’s trying to be your mother.”
After I calmed down, I realised what was happening.
Yes, Umma was overbearing and bossy, treated me like a child and was fiercely intolerant of my Western way of doing things.
But I’ve been so wrapped up in my own emotions as an adoptee that I’d forgotten that meeting me was an emotional experience for her too. After all, she had to break the news to the entire family – including her own mother – that she secretly put a baby up for adoption 26 years ago. And they were going to meet that baby as an adult, who was a complete stranger but somehow family, who didn’t speak Korean very well and acted like a foreigner. At an occasion that involved honouring ancestry.
It’s important to remember that Umma’s guilt over putting me up for adoption did not vanish the moment she met me. Trauma isn’t that easy to deal with. Behind the eating, drinking and joking around at birth family reunions is healing from the past. Which was going to take some time for all of us.
I imagined Chuseok to be this glorious cultural event with hanboks and tradition, but it was more like Christmas multiplied by seven. Stressed parents, drama, drunk uncles, gossipy aunties and too much food.
Why was I here? To be part of my birth family. And that’s exactly what I did.