A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
As Umma drove Sister 2, Sister 4 and I to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, she was rambling on about eggs. Eggs, Sister 3, Sister 3’s boyfriend, aunties and uncles.
Sister 2 saw the confused look on my face. “Sister 3 is getting married,” she explained.
The Korean word for “egg” is gye-ran 계란. The word for “marriage” is gyeol-hon 결혼. Later, Umma mentioned something about visiting a town called Gengju. I couldn’t find it. She meant Gyeongju. No wonder I can’t understand what she’s saying half the time – the way she pronounces vowels in her accent is completely different to everyone else.
Everyone was in Geoje to celebrate Appa and Sister 2’s birthday. Which I stupidly got mixed up with Sister 1. It was Sister 1’s birthday recently and I owed her a present anyway, but I was mortified. With all these sisters with similar-sounding names, it was really only a matter of time before I’d screw up their birthdays.
We wandered down a picturesque stream in Jinhae with the cherry blossom flowers lightly falling from the trees. It was magical. Except for having to dodge couples taking selfies every few minutes or risk a selfie stick to the eye.
The festival, much like every tourist trap in Korea, targets romantics – with heart-shaped archways and lanterns built along the street. It would have been nice to walk through Jinhae with my boyfriend. He’s coming to visit me in Korea next month. I can’t wait to walk down the Cheongyecheon Stream, make a lock at Namsam Tower, take selfies in pretty places, share bingsoo and generally be disgustingly cute in public with him like all the other couples here.
But instead I was walking hand-in-hand with Umma, who charged through the starstruck lovers like we were in a hurry to get somewhere.
Older Koreans always seem to be rushing around to get somewhere. “Balli, balli!” you hear mothers shout at their offspring, children or adults, while taking a leisurely stroll around town. Quickly, quickly!
“Where are my unnis?” I asked suddenly. Sisters 2 and 4 were somewhere far behind us, leisurely meandering about and snapping photos of the pretty flowers.
“Your sisters are too slow!” grumbled Umma.
“You’re too fast,” I joked.
I thought a lot about why older Koreans are always balli-balli-ing around. They grew up in a time when Korea was rebuilding itself after the war and when food and money were scarce. Who has time to smell cherry blossoms when you’re trying to survive each day? Younger Koreans with their selfie sticks and smartphones and Instagrams just don’t understand.
Sister 1 and 3 later joined us for a late lunch at a fancy restaurant. Whenever I eat with my family, we either go for beef BBQ or weird fish. Unfortunately, lunch that day was the latter. I despaired over the fact that I can’t stand seafood despite my family being island people, and got bits of crab all over myself.
“Are you okay?”
“I smell like a fish,” I said sadly.
“Let’s go to a cafe,” said Sister 2 after lunch.
All of the sisters piled into her car. Umma and Appa went to another restaurant. I assume they were having a romantic date away from their ridiculous daughters.
At the cafe, Sister 3’s otherwise cheery face was troubled as she vented about something. The sisters translated for me.
Wedding planning was stressful. Firstly, Sister 3 was going to have a traditional Korean wedding. This meant arranging food, ceremonial items and hanboks. Who was going to make the food and buy the stuff? Where were the hanboks to be made? Both families had – to put it delicately – different ideas. Gossip was raging between families, neighbours and friends.
“I’m so stressed that I have a rash!” groaned Sister 3.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I think every couple in the whole world goes through this with their family when they get married.”
I woke up before everyone else did the next morning, so I sat in the kitchen with Umma as she made lunch. Without everyone else around, it was easier for Umma and I to talk to each other.
“Is your Mum in Australia a good cook?” she asked.
“Yes. Good at making Western food, anyway. She doesn’t make Korean food.”
Umma suddenly remembered that my teaching contract was finishing soon and asked what I was going to do. My plan is to stay in Korea for a little while, say goodbye, travel through Asia and eventually get back to Australia. So we got onto talking about travel.
“Travelling by plane makes me sick,” she said. “But I will go to Australia.”
“When you get married!”
“Woah! I don’t know if I’m getting married.”
“If you get married, I’ll come see you in Australia.”
I laughed. “Well, you’ll have to wait a while,” I said. “Australians take a long time to decide if they want to get married or not.”
“Because it’s scary!”
I suddenly realised how vastly different romantic relationships are in Korea and Australia. So many people around my age are children of divorce, or at least seen how it’s messed up their friends’ lives. Most people I know date for at least a few years and try living together first before getting married. I guess we’re all trying to be careful. Plus, our lives are different in this era. We want to travel, to get ahead in our careers, to pursue our dreams. Marriage is not high on everyone’s list of priorities anymore.
In Korea with its family-centric Confucian culture, the pressure’s on to get married – and people marry quickly. Sister 3 had only been with her fiance for 6 months when they started talking about marriage. She explained that once Koreans hit their 30s, they don’t want to wait around too long. When they decided to get married, Sister 3 and her fiance introduced each other to their parents for the first time. Gifts have been exchanged. Awkward conversations about finances and the future were had. Even though Sister 3 doesn’t live with Umma and Appa – which is quite uncommon in Korean society – Korean parents typically buy an apartment for the newly-wed couple. Korean marriage is very serious business.
“You will have pretty children,” said Umma.
“I don’t want to have children!”
“I… I just don’t. I’d be a terrible mother.”
“You’d be a good mother!”
I suppose all of this stuff was on my mother’s mind right now. I finally understood all those times my friends complained about their family’s comments when their siblings got married. You’re next!
“No. I want to be an auntie. I WANT NIECES AND NEPHEWS,” I said loudly as Sister 3 entered the room.
She snorted. Lunch was ready. Umma presented me with a bowl of crabs and her delicious galbijjim marinated beef ribs.
Everyone else sat down and the conversation about marriage went on and on. Sister 3 suddenly steered the conversation towards Sister 1, who burst into giggles.
“She wants a younger boyfriend,” explained Sister 3.
“Very trendy in Korea right now,” said Sister 1.
“But younger men are idiots!” I protested.
“Yes… well… Case-by-case basis,” winked Sister 3.
Sister 1 is in her mid-30s and single. With all this chatter about relationships, I understood why she conveniently arranged her laser eye surgery on the last Korean family holiday.
I’m not sure if I’m invited to Sister 3’s wedding. To be honest, I totally understand if they don’t want to explain to Sister 3’s fiance’s family who I am. But I hope it all works out for them. And I might pass on introducing my boyfriend to Umma when he comes to Korea, for now.