A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Korea spontaneously called a public holiday on the day I went on a long, boring train ride from Seoul to Busan. It was the 70th anniversary of independence from Japan. People were encouraged to travel and partake in the festivities taking place all over the country.
I arrived at Busan to my mother waving and yelling my Korean name. A dazzling, impossible amount of fireworks exploded near the train station as we drove back to Geoje.
My oldest and youngest sisters appeared later that night. By now, I was used to these late night visits. They’d been working all day. We all watched terrible Korean dramas and game shows together, glued to our electronic devices and nibbled on fruit. I’d learned not to be worried that they didn’t want to talk to me. They were exhausted after dealing with students and coworkers all day. And, just like me, I don’t really want to talk to anyone when I’m exhausted either. This was our sisterly bond – quietly co-existing, comfortable with each others’ mutual exhaustion.
They were there to belatedly celebrate my birthday. Umma brought out an extravagant Baskin and Robbins cake with sugar sculptures of Winnie the Pooh characters. Everyone started to clap slightly off-beat.
“Saengil chukha hamnida…”
After a few slices of cake, someone suggested that we order baked chicken, a more gourmet version of Korea’s beloved fried chicken. I cursed that I was only finding out about this delicious creation a week before leaving Korea. And beer. I’m not sure if my family decided to order that because they knew of my fondness for this perfect combination of consumables or because they enjoy chicken and beer themselves, but either way it was a perfect birthday dinner.
During the Korean War, prisoners of war were sent to Busan. When that prison camp became full, another camp was set up on Geoje. This camp took up most of Gohyeon, the main city of Geoje and where my parents live.
I was hoping to see the remains of the camp but this place was more like a cheesy diorama, complete with plastic Korean soldier mannequins and war songs booming through the speakers.
One area was built to resemble a crumbling Korean town devastated by warfare. The sound of explosions and the sight of a mannequin pointing a rifle at us made my sisters and I jump.
“Museowo!” gasped Sister 1. Scary!
Nevertheless, I did learn a lot about the camp and the war. Prisoners were (allegedly) treated well, receiving education, food, medical care and given tasks and activities to do in the camp. Loyal North Korean socialist prisoners caused a violent riot. At the end of the war, the prisoners were given the choice to return to North Korea or repatriate themselves in South Korea.
Umma and Appa held hands tightly as they walked through the museum. Appa was born right in the middle of the war and Umma was born the year after it finished. Sometimes I forget that they didn’t grow up in Korea that I know today. No Kpop, no neon lights, no big meaty barbecues – they were born into a country that had just been destroyed. They don’t remember the war, but their parents did.
War is awful and never necessary, but as I looked at a war memorial, I felt a surge of gratitude towards the nations – including Australia – who helped fight for South Korea during the war.
Goodbye Part 1
Sisters 4 and 1 had to go back home so we ate together for one last time. Koreans don’t seem to take very long saying goodbye like Westerners do – they usually just leap out of the car or run to a bus, shouting “bye!” and waving over their shoulder. But it was a bit more significant this time. I don’t know when I’ll see them next. Sister 1 made a sad face and said she’ll come visit me in Australia. Sister 4, the quiet one, just hugged me for a long time.
That weekend was commemorating the Battle of Hansan – the inspiration behind my tattoo. On our way back from dropping my sisters back home, Umma pulled into Sebyonggwan Hall, where a traditional mask dance was taking place. It was more like a play: a dark slapstick comedy about romance, jealousy, death and childbirth done in hanboks and pale masks with big eyes and rosy cheeks.
We walked down to the harbour at Tongyeong amidst drummers and Koreans in traditional soldier garb. Umma pointed to the turtle ship replicas and eagerly led me aboard. I stifled laughter – she hadn’t seen my turtle ship tattoo yet.
Umma had never been to Gyeongju, a famous historical city in Korea, and wanted to explore it with me. The first thing we saw were the tombs of Silla kings, which were all over the city – huge grassy green bumps. We found a tomb which let people inside, displaying the tiny skeleton of a king.
After exploring the tombs, we went to a Hanok Village for lunch. Umma ushered me into a beautiful building, ducking into a tiny wooden hut where our table was. We ordered some traditional Korean food. Brass dishes kept appearing with little servings of meat, seafood, pajeon and vegetables. The flavours were lighter than your usual modern Korean fare.
After that, Umma drove up a mountain to a temple. Little chipmunks darted around the trees. This particular temple was built on the edge of a cave. Inside, you could look through a window into the cave to see an exquisite stone-carved Buddha. Unfortunately, a stern security guard at the door forbade visitors from taking photos so here’s the outside.
Lost in Translation
Talking to Umma is exhausting. She doesn’t know any English at all so I have to speak entirely in Korean. It’s a slow, laborious process where my brain has to operate at 100% to remember vocab, conjugate verbs and shuffle grammar around in my head. Then I have to do it in reverse when she speaks to me.
Near the end of the day, she said something about going to a guesthouse. And that’s when things went pear-shaped.
I didn’t remember her mentioning that we were going to stay the night in Gyeongju. I didn’t know if she hadn’t told me, or she’d told me but I hadn’t understood her.
“I didn’t bring any clothes…” I said in a confused voice.
She paused and called the guesthouse to cancel. I was mortifed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
She said something quickly, her voice panic-stricken and stressed. Had she told me or not? I didn’t know. Frustrated and exhausted, I began to cry. Umma became upset too.
“I’m sorry… I’m not very good…”
I fell asleep in the back of the car as we went back to Geoje and slept til midday the next day. I felt dead. I wanted to leave but my flight wasn’t for another 2 days. And that’s not a feeling I wanted to have. I was supposed to be happy to spend time with my birth mother, right? I was supposed to embrace these last few days with her. But instead I was irritable because I could barely communicate with her and my father. I didn’t understand the reasoning behind her actions and words, and she didn’t understand mine. I had mentally thrown in the towel.
After a good night’s sleep, Umma
“Where do you want to go?” asked Umma.
I wasn’t in the mood for another long car trip. “I want to see more of Geoje,” I said.
She looked a bit confused. I suppose it had never occurred to her that the place where she lives would be interesting to other people.
She weaved her little silver car through fishing villages and beaches. We stopped at a beach and took our shoes off.
“I wish I could’ve gone for a swim,” I said.
“I don’t like swimming,” said Umma. “Too scary.”
The tide gently washed in and out. She gasped every time, like a tsunami was about to swallow her.
After splashing around at the beach, I wanted to go to one more place – the Geoje Museum. It was my last-ditch attempt at learning everything I possibly could about where I was born.
Whenever I see Korean historical artefacts, I think of my ancestors. I tried to imagine a woman who looks a bit like me but in a hanbok, living in a hut with straw-thatched roof. It’s hard. Trying to imagine the medieval Korean equivalent of myself is like squinting at something blurry in the distance. But she was real.
As we drove back, Umma said she wants to visit me in Australia when (not if) I get married.
“But you don’t eat foreign food,” I said. “What will you eat?”
“Kimchi. I’ll bring kimchi.”
“You can’t bring kimchi into Australia, Umma. It’s illegal!”
Umma couldn’t understand this at all. In her defence, Australian customs laws a bit over the top compared to Asia.
“I’ll have to buy you some kimchi from the Korean supermarket.”
“I’ll bring you a hanbok,” Umma said. “For your wedding.”
Goodbye Part 2
Sister 3, her husband, my uncle, my funny loud cousin and my parents said goodbye at the airport. I felt relieved, and a little guilty for feeling that way.
The last week, and in fact the last year in Korea, had been tough. I was ready to leave. I promised to come back to visit. My tennis-loving uncle talked about coming to see the Australian Open in Melbourne. My sister and her husband who studied in Brisbane talked about saving up money to come visit me in a few years.
And that’s where I physically left my relationship with my biological family.
There was no ending, dramatic revelation, climax or tying up loose ends. Because even though reuniting with your long lost family is a good story to tell, it’s real life and life doesn’t wrap up neatly. I had a sinking pit in my stomach for weeks afterwards because I thought I’d failed. I’m still far off from being fluent in Korean and I still don’t fully understand Korean culture.
But I’d done everything I could with them. Appearing in each other’s lives was still too soon and too shocking. I would never really be a daughter or a sister, but I could be that funny foreign relative that visits on special occasions. That’s good enough for me.
Nobody cried at the airport. We hugged cheerily, said “see you!” and I boarded the plane for Osaka – beginning my month-long trip around Asia.