A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I’m back home. Back in the country where I have an intimate knowledge of 90s children TV shows, have a Menulog account and can speak my first language – Australia.
I was warned that I’d experience “reverse culture shock” upon coming back home. Mine came slowly as I travelled down through Asia back towards Australia, like I was weaning myself off Korea.
So I came back home, still not being completely clear on where “home” was. Jeonju, the town I lived in, always felt somewhere halfway in transition to somewhere else. Geoje, where I was born, didn’t feel like home either – it was my parents’ home, but not mine.
Strangely, out of all the places I visited, Seoul felt most like home to me. I got used to booking the intercity bus (in Korean!) up to Gangnam and know the quickest way to get to Hongdae on the subway. I know which neighbourhoods and streets to go for certain food. Riding the city bus past the palace and the golden statues in Gwanghamun Square and watching the changing of the guard outside Deoksugung Palace was magic. After a year of visiting different neighbourhoods every weekend, the geography of this ridiculously enormous place slotted together in my mind. When I think back to my time in Korea, it’s Seoul I miss the most.
I guess it’s because I technically spent the first 4 months of my life there.
I returned to Brisbane, the city I’d grown up in for over 20 years, and it didn’t feel right. The person I was before I left no longer existed. Now Brisbane was just a reminder of the empty person I used to be.
My time in Korea felt like a crazy dream. Everything back home was and wasn’t the same.
To come back from Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore to a little Australian city that you’ve grown up in is dreadfully disappointing. Especially when there’s very little happening in the job market in your qualified field.
So I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne. I’d been thinking about moving away ever since I came back from Korea the first time. I’d found that feeling of learning about a new place, of being fascinated by literally everything because it’s new, of creating new memories – and I was hooked.
It took a few angst-filled weeks of feeling like a loser at my parents’ house before everything miraculously fell into place – I got a job in Melbourne. Soon after, I got a place to live too.
Melbourne is instantly likeable. It’s big, it’s arty, it’s ethnically diverse and everyone seems friendly. That’s what happens when you live in one of the world’s Most Liveable Cities, I guess.
One of the things I like most about Melbourne is the Korean community here, much bigger and more established than in Brisbane. Koreans with clipped Korean English accents but with flattened out vowels after years of living in Australia. There’s quite a few in my neighbourhood. I overhear Korean chatter every day and a part of me that feels relieved that it triggers a memory, like the last 13 months wasn’t just a crazy dream. Melbournites have embraced Korean fried chicken and ddeokbokki, putting modern Western twists on bibimbap and kimchi jiggae.
I love Melbourne’s hip cafes, trams, art, novelty bars and gorgeous old buildings, but I’m grateful that I can easily slip into spaces with Hangeul, girls gasping “진짜?!” and stinky Asian markets with old ladies shouting about vegetables when my heart feels empty.
Being Korean-Australian in Australia makes more sense to me than being Korean-Australian in Korea.
I see the ads for the Australian Open and think about my tennis-loving Korean uncle. I take note of what’s in the Korean grocery store in case Umma comes to visit. I dart in and out of the fancy European-style laneways in the city and imagine my sisters being impressed. Last night I watched Twinsters and was so moved that I sent hopeless rambling messages in terrible Korean to my sisters to tell them that I love them and miss them because I’d been so busy with moving house that I hadn’t spoken to them for a while.
We never did become best friends like I imagined we would. But Sister 3 sent a chat sticker of a cute puppy saying “thankyou” and Sister 1 said “I’ve been thinking of you too.” For now, it’s enough.
Sometimes as I walk through neighbourhood of office buildings to work in inner-city Melbourne, I have little flashbacks to the squat little identical pink-brick flats I lived in when I was in Jeonju; the nice butchers who didn’t speak a word of English but smiled a lot and always gave me free onion salad whenever I bought samgyeopsal; the Kpop blaring from any conceivable business; as boxy dark pubs as possible squeezed into one building, where overworked young people laughed over soju and shitty beer and fried whatever on a plate; the grime and smells of old kimchi in old streets and alleyways dating back to wartime; catching a rickety old bus past pear farms and fish farms and little family-owned stew restaurants to school. Hell, I just miss seeing Hangeul everywhere and playing that little game where I try and read it and work out what it says. When I was going about my day in Jeonju or exploring Seoul or whatever I was doing, I said to myself a lot “don’t forget how you feel right now”. And I haven’t.
Sometimes I used to catch the bus through downtown Jeonju, past the traditional village with pointy rooves and the ancient gate and smelly old markets.
I miss Korea in a way that I don’t want it to be permanently a part of my life anymore – but I’m glad I was there. And I’m proud as ever that I was born there.