Rok 'n Roll Radio

A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?

Conversations with Umma

Umma has a funny knack of knowing about places I want to go in Korea without me even mentioning it. I’d wanted to go to the Boseong Tea Fields ever since I came to Korea. Out the blue, she asked if I was free on the Buddha’s Birthday weekend and wanted to go.

I met her at Suncheon station as she screamed my Korean name from her car stopped in the middle of traffic. She was alone this time. No Appa or sisters. I’d talked to my parents without other English-speaking relatives before, but this was the first time I’d spent time with only her.

Whenever I’m in a situation where I can’t use English, an enormous sense of fatigue overwhelms me. I have to use 100% concentration to listen and formulate a reply, juggling nouns and verb order around in my head in order to make a sentence.

Umma now knows to talk to me slowly and knows what words I know and what words I don’t know. I can’t imagine how strange it must be for her to talk to someone in her 20s like a toddler. It’s common for birth parents to want to catch up on lost time with their children. I wondered if her determination to help me understand Korean made her feel fulfilled. Throughout the day she kept asking “Joo Hye, are you hungry? Thirsty? Are you cold? Are you hot? Do you want some ice cream?” She held my arms and legs, inspecting my eczema scars. “Do you have medicine? You should buy some cream. Be careful!”

We arrived at the Boseong Tea Fields. Hills of rich green ripples rose up before us, fading into dark forests. It far biggrer than I thought, and stretched out over the size of a small village. It’s one of the few places I’ve visited in Korea where I’ve felt really free and able to lose myself somewhere.

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“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Umma repeated, pointing at the trees and the flowers. Sometimes she’d stop me, saying “over there!” and snap photos of me with a sense of urgency.



As we wandered through the endless fields, Umma and I had a long chat.

It was the weekend after Namja Chingu went home. She knew I had a boyfriend, but had never really asked about him until then. Predictably, the first thing she asked was what job he had and stuff about his parents which I didn’t actually know, because I’d never met his parents before.

“Will you come back to Korea?” she asked.

“Of course I will.”

“Come to Geoje, with your boyfriend. I want to meet him.”

Back in the car, and suddenly Umma announced that we were going to the Haein Temple. Her little car snaked through the tunnels burrowed through the mountains, round and round hills, through tiny little villages.

“You’re going back to Australia,” she said.


“You have to come back and visit, okay?”

“Of course I will.”

“I want to visit you in Australia, but riding in a plane makes me feel sick…” She made vomiting motions.

“I get motion sickness too,” I laughed. It’s horrible, but I liked that we had that in common.

“I’ll visit you if you get married.”

We got onto talking about the differences between Korean and Australian weddings. I explained that Australian weddings go all day.

This is how my Umma explained Korean weddings:

“Give a gift. Eat lunch. Bow to family. Throw dates and chestnuts! The bride catches them. That is how many children she will have. Then 20 minutes later – goodbye!”

We both cracked up laughing. Even she thought it was pretty funny.

I fell asleep briefly, then woke up just as we pulled into the Haein Temple parking lot. I wasn’t sure where we were. We seemed so far away from any major cities and towns. It was one of those moments where I was grateful to be exploring a foreign country with a family member – I’d never even heard of this place, and I wouldn’t know how to get there by myself.


As we walked up to the temple, Umma asked about my Australian parents.

“Do your parents like travelling?”

“My Mum does. But Dad is like you – he doesn’t like planes.”

“Where has your Mum travelled?”



Silence. Then –

“Does your Mum want to go to Korea?”

“Yeah. She is interested in Korea. She might come one day.”

“Come visit with your Mum, together. I would like to meet her.”

I realised that the fact I was leaving Korea soon had dawned on my mother.

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“Beautiful, beautiful,” said Umma, pointing at the huge temple before us.

This temple housed the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of historical Buddhist scriptures.


“Many… many books…” Umma tried to say. Then she triumphantly spied a sign in English and pulled me over towards it.

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After wandering around the temple for a while, it was time to go to Geoje. But Umma had a few errands to run first.

We stopped in a tiny country town so Umma could buy some beef. The funny thing about Korean country towns is that no matter how tiny they are, there’s always plenty of places to eat.

“That smells delicious,” I said.

“Do you want to eat here?”

“Oh, um…”

“Let’s eat!” Umma dragged me back into where she bought the beef. Many hanwoo beef butchers in Korea double as restaurants.

After eating a huge plate of beef, I passed out in her car as she made her way back to Geoje.

I woke up to Umma sighing “aahhh!!” as the car zoomed down a highway exit near Jinju, veering off from the yellow guideline on her GPS. I was surprised that I understood her frantic muttering.

“Oh geez… I don’t know this place well… what am I going to do? Oh shit oh shit oh shit…” She sounded like me whenever I get lost. A bus cut in front of her.

“I was here first, bus!” she snapped angrily, switching to the other lane. “Aaaghhh…!”

“Umma, it’s okay,” I soothed. “Just make a U-turn and get back on the highway.”

“Okay. Okay.”

She turned around and we were back. Then –

“Umma. I need to go to the toilet.”

“Oh geez!”

“I’m sorry!”

Down the dark highway we went as I clenched my thighs in horror.

“Are you okay?”


I saw a sign. “There’s a rest stop over there!” I shrieked.

Thank god for Korean rest stops. And thank god I knew how to say “I need to go to the toilet” in Korean, otherwise I would’ve been doomed.

Umma got to Tongyeong and stopped outside a tiny building.

“I have to buy medicine for your father,” she explained, and returned with huge cases of Korean ginseng.

Then, closer to Geoje, we stopped in the middle of a street.

“I have to give a present,” she said.

Out of nowhere, one of my aunts appeared at the car window.

“Hello,” I said.

“Oh! Hello!” She excitedly rattled off a few sentences – and, noticing the blank expression on my face, burst out laughing and patted my head. Then it was time to go.

I passed out at Umma and Appa’s apartment in exhaustion after our huge day. I fell asleep to Umma telling Appa about all the places we went and the things we saw, like an excited child.

I was dead tired, but euphoric. I’d spent the whole day speaking to my birth mother. I thought back to the first time I met her, when I needed an interpreter and couldn’t even say “thank you” properly. Sure, my Kindergarten students speak better Korean than me, but it doesn’t matter – I was able to communicate with my mother. It was better than nothing.

The next time I saw Umma was at a department store, where she bought me a posh dress for my sister’s wedding.

To be continued!


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This entry was posted on July 7, 2015 by in Birth Family, Korea, Second Korean Trip and tagged , , , , .
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