A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
병원 byeongwon = hospital. “Disease room”.
As my superior at work discussed my bowel movements with my recently-reunited Korean parents, I thought: this is it. This is the peak of my life’s embarrassing moments.
On Sunday night, I was violently ill with food poisoning. When I got home from Seoul, I immediately [TOO DISGUSTING TO POST ON THIS BLOG]. So I called in sick to work.
“Oh no! We’d better take you to the hospital,” said my mentor teacher.
In Australia, you generally go to the doctor at a medical centre if you’re feeling sick. You only go to the hospital for an emergency or something serious. In Korea, the medical centres are the hospital. Different floors in the hospital offer different services – from checkups to tests to overnight stays. Before I knew this, I thought Koreans were just being overdramatic.
Me: “I have a cold.”
Sister: “Oh no! Have you been to the hospital?”
Me: “Uh… No.”
My mentor teacher came with me to the doctor to act as translator. After explaining what horrors my bowels had put me through in the last 12 hours, the doctor decided to keep me in hospital and monitor my disgusting body for a few days. Which I thought was odd. I’ve had food poisoning before. All I did was sleep it off, drink loads of water and I was back to scarfing down entire wheels of cheese a few days later.
Then I was told to strip off my clothes and put on some ugly pyjamas so I could be scanned by a machine. A nurse thrust a cup at me and simply said “Pee.” Multiple needles were jabbed into my arms and the sides of my bum. As I lay down to rest on the rock hard hospital bed, I was woken up by a nurse who promptly lifted my top and attached electrodes to my lady parts. I wasn’t allowed to eat for 24 hours.
“Does it hurt here?” asked the doctor, jabbing me right in the hunger pains.
“We’d better keep you in for a bit longer.”
Scary medical things were happening to me and I wasn’t entirely sure what’s going on. My amazing abilities to talk about food, time and sing half of Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose Lips” in Korean was quite useless in a hospital. What was going to happen?! I was already having trouble with figuring out which clothes to take off and where exactly that needle was going to go.
My mentor teacher – a Korean woman in her 40s who coordinates the entire school’s curriculum, teaches English, has 3 children and is entrusted to look after me while I’m in Korea – knows all about my adoption situation. Like most Koreans, she first reacted this information an “Oh! Okay” and not much else. Then every so often when I talk to her, she’ll ask a question or two. Not like overexcited Aussies who usually react by asking 10,000 questions at once.
“I think you should call your parents,” she said.
“My Australian ones or my Korean ones?”
“Your Umma and Appa.”
“But I don’t want them to worry about me.”
“I think they would want to know that you’re in hospital.”
Who am I to argue with a Korean mother? Plus at this stage, I was still slightly delirious from dehydration.
I fell asleep and woke up to two people bursting through the door.
Umma and Appa had driven 4 hours from Geojedo to see me in the hospital. Lying in a hospital bed, half-conscious and with an IV hooked up to my arm. Umma exclaimed something in shock and clasped her hands to her chest.
“It’s just food poisoning!” I wanted to say. But I couldn’t.
I then realised that only Umma and Appa were there. No other family members with a vague grasp of English to help me communicate with them.
I burst into tears. Umma, mistaking this for some kind of terrible medical pain, hugged me and cried “it’s okay, it’s okay! Don’t cry!” in a panicked voice that did not sound okay.
I fumbled for my phone and tapped on Google Translate.
“I’m sad because I can’t talk to you,” I typed. “And I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Umma pressed her head close to my chest and held me tight. A little whimper escaped her – and I swear for a split second she wiped away a tear. She grabbed her phone too.
“I’m sad too,” she typed back, and promptly turned away to unpack her bags.
She offered me a thermos of her homemade soup.
“I’m not allowed to eat,” I explained, thankful that I’d covered how to say I can’t____ in my last Korean tutoring lesson.
I must’ve fallen asleep again, because I woke up to my mentor teacher detailing my toilet habits to my parents.
They started chatting about other things. Like about how I was (apparently) a good teacher at school, and that I was learning Korean.
“You need to study hard!” said my mentor teacher.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but in my half-conscious state I was extremely upset by the whole conversation. What were they really saying about me? (I really doubt I’m a good teacher). What had she told them to make them drive all the way to Jeonju? She knew NOTHING about our situation and… the final straw…
“They want to know if they can stay at your house,” said the mentor teacher.
I think I successfully tricked them into thinking my muffled scream were something to do with my sickness.
My apartment was a mess because, to be honest, I’m a bit of a slob. I haven’t quite worked out how to live in a tiny Korean apartment yet, so my stuff was lying around everywhere. There were also half-unpacked bags from Seoul strewn around the place. Plus it was the grisly site of where [TOO DISGUSTING TO POST ON THIS BLOG] occurred and it smelt bad.
I don’t know about you, but showing my filthy living dwellings to my parents is like saying “I have failed as an adult.”
And being my parents’ long lost daughter made the situation seem so much worse.
“Um, it’s probably best that you don’t,” I said. “The place is a mess.”
“We’ll clean it!” said Umma.
Where I come from, having your parents clean your room as an adult is a sign that not only do you fail at being an adult, but you’re a spoiled brat too.
I held my hands over my face and groaned.
“I think they will be happy to stay there,” explained my mentor teacher.
“But it’s so messy. I’m embarrassed.”
“Look… my apartment is a mess too. But when my mother visits, she wants to clean. It is the Korean way. Maybe you don’t understand. But do not feel ashamed. It is not shameful.”
I wasn’t ashamed. I was FURIOUS.
Appa opened the window. Thick clumps of snow fell outside.
“We can’t go back to Geojedo right now,” said Umma. “Too much snow.”
Sending my parents out to drive in dangerous conditions seemed a bit cruel.
“Okay,” I sighed. “You can stay.”
I woke up the next day to a nurse giving me what looked like overcooked rice in too much water. It was all I was allowed to eat for the day. Gross. It actually looked like vomit.
Umma and Appa arrived to take me home.
My apartment was pristine. Everything I owned was stacked in neat piles and folded into little rolls in every drawer, shelf and cupboard space. How?!
Appa proudly pointed at the drawers, which he’d labelled in English personally. And an empty honey peanut tin, where he’d stashed my random 100 won coins rolling around the place.
Umma scooped piles and piles of goopy vomit-looking rice soup into takeaway containers. That’s all I’m allowed to eat for a few days.
But I was still in bratty sick child mode. I said “yep, yep, yep yep” hurriedly to Umma as she lectured me on all the little things you’re supposed to do to keep a Korean apartment clean, and hastily bid them farewell.
But I felt bad when I later looked out the window. The sun was out, but the roads were still icy from the snow.
“Please text me when you get home,” I texted Umma, like a worried mother.
After a very long sleep and lots of goopy rice soup, I woke up and began that period of processing what the hell just happened that usually follows after seeing my birth family.
I still don’t understand Korean families and I don’t understand Korean parents.
But if driving for 4 hours to see me and cleaning my filthy apartment is how Umma and Appa chose to express their love, then who am I to reject that?
I don’t feel angry anymore. In fact, the whole situation would’ve been a great Korean drama.
Hospital setting? Check. Sickness? Check. Long lost family? Check. Dramatic public sobbing? Check. A comedy of social awkwardness, cultural differences and mistranslation? Check. A cheesy ending where I learn the true meaning of family? Check, check, check.