A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
My irrational fear on my first ever Lunar New Year with my birth family was that I would bow to my grandmother wrong and she would kick my ass.
There’s no beginner’s guide to celebrating Lunar New Year with your recently reunited Asian relatives who you can barely speak to. Someone should get on to writing that. But at least I was getting used to being plunged into the unknown and simply nodding along with whatever my relatives wanted to do.
So Umma, Appa and Sister 4 picked me up from Jinju a few days before Lunar New Year and off we went to Geojedo.
I woke up from a nap in the car to “we’re going to see your Appa’s older brother.” No one else simply says “your uncle” in Korean families. In Korean, I technically call him “keun abeoji” – big Dad. I shall refer to him as Big Uncle.
We went to Big Uncle’s swanky penthouse in Tongyeong again, the same place we went to on Chuseok. His wife cried out in surprise as I emerged from the darkness of her front stairs.
“I thought she was Sister 3,” she laughed.
The relatives chatted at the door as I struggled to unzip my boots.
“She went to Beijing,” said Umma.
Big Uncle was impressed. “I’ve been to Beijing three times!” he said.
Before I could ask him any more, Umma and Appa presented him with an enormous giftbox full of samgyetang (Korean chicken soup). Then we abruptly left. I zipped my boots back up again.
Just keep nodding.
We came back to Umma and Appa’s apartment. This time, I was determined to stay awake instead of passing out from emotional exhaustion, so I ate big Korean strawberries and watched bad K dramas on the big electric blanket.
Umma had more photos to show me on her phone. Old black and white ones of her sisters. “Not smiling,” she said, pointing to their grim faces. “Hard life.”
She flicked through more as they progressively got older, until she got one last picture of them all middle-aged, decked out in ajumma hiking gear – smiling.
She pointed at her teeth and made pulling motions with her hands, lifting up a corner of her lip to show me a gold filling.
I nodded and pointed wordlessly – but with enthusiastic sound effects – at my own teeth, drawing lines across. I tried to explain that had braces when I was 12.
“Woah!” Umma seemed excited by this news. “Same as Sister 4. And Sister 2.”
Sister 2 came through the door close to midnight, carrying a big square box.
“Is that pizza?” I asked.
Inside was a set of ridiculously enormous Korean pears. According to Korean tradition, these big pears on New Years are supposed to symbolise how beautiful your children will be. I reckons it’s because they are the size of a babies’ head. We took selfies with them.
“What are we doing for Seolnal?” I asked my sisters as we waited for further instructions the next day.
“We will go to our Uncle’s house to perform charye and visit our grandparents’ graves for jesa,” said Sister 4. “Then we’re going to halmeoni’s house.”
“So… same as Chuseok?”
Great! This time I was prepared! It was like a second chance.
Later that day, Umma bundled us into the car to visit another one of Appa’s brothers.
“He has cancer,” one of the sisters mentioned on the car ride over.
I didn’t know how to feel as we sat in a little apartment with Appa’s brother, weakened and hunched under a blanket. I shifted between the sadness of someone suffering from cancer, feeling emotionally disconnected from a stranger, and regret that I only met another member of my family at such a sad time.
One of the sisters whispered something to the other about Umma, who I realised had been speaking the whole time we’d been there. Umma talks like she texts – a barrage of sentences with no punctuation marks, no pauses or breaths in between. Then Umma finished her spiel, we gave my poor old Uncle a big envelope of money, and it was time to go.
Later that night, we headed back to Big Uncle’s house. It was time to perform charye.
We bowed deeply to the offerings of food for our ancestors, then sat down to eat. Big Uncle waved a big bottle at us.
“What is it?”
The sisters and I all took shots. It didn’t taste like strawberry wine at all. More like straight vodka.
“I made it myself,” said Big Uncle’s wife proudly.
I suddenly had flashbacks to sampling my friends’ dangerous homebrew concoctions.
“Would you like another?”
My male relatives roared with laughter. They seemed impressed. After another dizzying shot, I suddenly gained the confidence to talk to them in Korean. Funny that. So I tried to figure out who they all were. It turns out most of them weren’t my uncles, but rather the adult sons of my uncles. Some of the kids I thought were cousins where their kids, which they said I could refer to as joka – meaning niece or nephew. It was terribly confusing.
“Are you getting married?” asked Big Uncle.
“Um. I don’t know?”
“When you get married, we’ll come to Australia to visit you!” laughed one of the cousins.
I doubted that all of these relatives I barely knew would jump on a plane to Australia to see me and my hypothetical future husband, but it was a nice thought.
Breakfast was homemade gukbap – a traditional Seolnal dish. It’s a meaty seaweed soup with chewy rice cakes.
Just before we left, my sisters ushered me into the loungeroom to face Umma and Appa.
“Bow like you did yesterday,” said my sisters.
As I concentrated on bowing right, my sisters said “Happy New Year!” in Korean.
“…se yo,” I mumbled at the end.
Damn! I got the timing all wrong. But Umma and Appa gave us all a crisp 10,000W. Cha-ching!
Back to Big Uncle’s house for New Year greetings. Big Uncle and my auntie were dressed in traditional hanboks and sat in the living room. The sisters got in position to bow. I stared at them, waiting to see when they were going to bend their knees and…
“Happy New Year!”
Crap. I’d missed it again. But it was okay. Big Uncle and his wife smiled and gave us all a bit more money.
“Please sit here,” said another auntie, gesturing to an empty bedroom. I think she was trying to be kind, but in reality there were so many cousins and cousins’ kids running around everywhere that she probably just wanted us to get out of the way.
Half an hour passed.
“Um… what is happening?” I asked the sisters.
“We’re waiting for everyone for bow.”
“Big family. “
Bored out of our minds, everyone played on their phones. We added each other to Instagram. Sister 3 pointed at a photo I took of some tasty bibimbap.
“We called that meokstagram,” she said. “Get it?” Eatstagram.
Another auntie popped in and looked at us all curiously.
“Hello. We’re the smartphone club.”
She laughed then whispered something to the sisters. They giggled. Sister 3 wandered out into the kitchen.
“Where’s she going?”
“Your cousin is getting plastic surgery,” whispered the other sisters, barely containing their laughter. “Sister 3 is going to have a look at her face.”
Sister 3 came back shaking her head. I was secretly pleased that most of my relatives seemed to think plastic surgery was a bit silly.
Half an hour later, we had to bow again. But then it was time to sit down and have some breakfast before heading off to perform jesa.
I watched the rest of my cousins bow. A 6-year-old boy in a silky hanbok briefly bobbed his head and thrust his hands out, a big grin on his face. Everyone cracked up – but he got away with it. What a baller, I thought.
Back up that familiar mountain we went to my grandparents’ tombs, offering fruit, rice, fish and cups of rice wine. Judging by how many family members had to perform this ceremony, I imagine my late grandparents were having a great time getting sloshed in the afterlife.
We popped into the apartment of Appa’s second oldest brother and bowed to him too.
“bok… man… dammit.”
To my surprise, he gave us all even more money. Seolnal was bringing in some serous income.
Fruit and snack platters appeared. Two tiny children appeared – the kids of my cousins. A little girl in a flowery hanbok picked up a strawberry, sang a song to it and demanded cuddles from Sister 3. I felt overwhelmed from cute.
Her brother, the little guy who demanded money earlier, charged out at her screaming “zombie!”
“Ya!” She ran at him, fists flying at her brother who was nearly double her height.
I heard their oldest brother, around 10 years old, whisper “Australia?” to his Dad.
“iPhone?” he asked me shyly, looking at my phone.
“Yeah! That’s right.”
“Hey, you learn English at school. Say something to her!”
He buried his face into his hands in embarrassment.
“Oh no, it’s okay. I’m not a teacher today.”
He managed to ask “do you like maths or science?”
“What is your hobby?”
“Umm… dancing and eating.”
Umma finally stopped talking to my aunties and we went on another long drive to the same temple as the one we went to on Chuseok. Umma went up to the altar and did some kind of ritual. I stared at a case full of tiny Buddhas with candles.
“Look…” said Sister 4. A row of Buddhas had my parents and sisters names on them.
Umma saw me looking at the Buddhas.
“I am sorry,” she said. “I don’t have your name here.”
“But whenever I leave the temple, I pray one more time for you.”
Back at the apartment, Appa opened a set of sticks.
“This is yut nori,” explained the sisters.
Yut Nori is a traditional Korean New Year’s game. I jokingly said to my boyfriend that “it’s like Yahtzee crossed with a board game but with sticks.” You throw a bunch of sticks in the air and move your piece around the board depending on how many sticks land on a particular side.
“Uish-aa!” cried Umma as she flung her sticks up in the air.
“Hwahhh!” I said.
Is making weird sound effects when you do things genetic? My team, Team Chocolate, was soundly walloped by Team Rocks. The punishment? Umma had to buy Appa a chicken.
Then it was time to go visit my grandmother in Tongyeong.
We lined up in her loungeroom. This time I was ready!
“SAE HAE BOK MANI BADEUSEYO!” I said confidently.
And my grandmother didn’t kick my ass.
We sat down to a table of seafood. Which sounds great to everyone else except me. I love raw fish, but if it’s cooked and warm and mushy – forget it. It makes me want to puke.
Still, when halmeoni kindly offered me what looked like a lump of bloodied organs and another inappropriate-looking thing which I think was an abalone, I ate it. They tasted great. But the texture and wondering “what the hell am I eating?” meant that I had to put myself in a weird Zen state to ignore what I was putting in my mouth, otherwise I’d retch violently. Which is quite rude.
After gulping down more freaky sea life, Sister 3 wandered off again.
“Where’s she going?”
“To meet a friend.”
I chuckled. So Koreans make excuses to bail on family gatherings too. Sister 2 had left earlier that day too, saying that she had to go back to her city for some reason or another.
All the cousins gradually filled a room with a big electric blanket.
“What’s your name?” I asked two of them.
“She’s ‘monsoon’,” said an older guy, pointing to his younger sister. “Monsoon face.”
“YA!” The sister smacked him in the back of the head.
“Woah! She’s crazy!”
I suddenly remembered that I’d brought the infamous Honey Butter Chips with me and opened a packet.
“WAAAAAAAAHHH!!” Another cousin decked out in a snapback, chunky hipster glasses and piercings dotting her ears shrieked in excitement as she entered the room.
“She’s really crazy,” snorted the guy.
“YA!” Another devastating blow. She turned to smile at me. “Thank you!” she said in English. I decided I liked her.
Another cousin arrived, one of the older ones who had her own children – two little boys under 6 years old. They’d brought a backpack full of toys, which all my older male cousins promptly stole and started playing with.
I said hello to their mother, who remembered she had a childrens’ book with her in English.
“Read it to your auntie,” she said to her youngest son, referring to me (what?).
He pointed to some of the objects in the book. “Television! Chair! Fridge! Monster!”
“Wow!” I was really impressed, but then I remembered that some of my ESL teacher friends teach kindergarteners. I wondered if he would be able to speak English some day and we would be able to talk to each other.
Meanwhile, his 6-year-old brother was intent on trying to beat up my 30-year-old cousin. And for a while, all the cousins played with the kids together. You don’t really need to say anything when you’re arm wrestling, throwing bouncy balls, hiding under blankets, having mock taekwondo battles, playing cards and even getting into a ssrireum (Korean wrestling) match.
Halmeoni sat quietly in the corner next to Sister 4 as they watched the cousins make a ruckus. She held my hands.
“Same hands,” she said, putting hers next to mine and Sister 4’s. “Small. Lots of lines.”
The more I see my family, the more I get used to their ways. But it’s still not like really being part of a family. I’m still somewhere on the outside of it all. It hurts my heart that I can’t understand what they’re saying. I know my Umma is very funny and makes everyone laugh, but I don’t know why and it kills me.
A sudden thought hit me halfway through Seolnal – maybe one day in the future, I will be fluent in Korean. But by then, all of these jokes and secrets of the moment will be lost and I’ll never know what they said anyway.
It’s not the first time that I’ve thought that this year of connecting with my birth family might have been a hopeless endeavour. When will the feelings of exhaustion, frustration and taking a long time to process all the little new things I learned about my family at the end of a family holiday go away?
Anyway, the next day I went to Busan to meet a friend for her birthday. Before I left, Umma insisted that I give her a big Korean pear, an apple, a capsicum, and a Korean rice cake snack.
“Your Umma is so nice!” squealed my friend as I presented her with the bag of fresh produce.
Then I proceeded to get drunk 3 nights in a row. A fitting end to a long family holiday in any culture.