It’s been well over a month since my return from Korea and I still don’t have a concise answer to the question I’ve been asked countless times, “How was your trip?!” Most folks seem to be satisfied with me saying that overall the trip was wonderful, amazing, a great experience. But honestly, that’s not really how I describe it when I discuss it with my fellow adoptees.
On my third visit back to Korea since being adopted at the age of three, for the first time my Korean family, felt like family. I was more comfortable around them the way one should feel with family. The other two visits that I spent time with my Korean family, it felt strange, awkward, the way it would when one is re-meeting their long lost mother and sisters and brother. This time around, there was an ease that was noticeable not just by me but also by my niece.
Before the trip, I had so much going on internally that I sort of went emotionally numb for a bit. But mid-fourteen hour flight, as I neared the end of reading, a fellow adoptee, Soojung Jo’s memoir, “Ghost of Sangju,” my wall broke. Sitting in between my babes’, I tried hard not to let them notice that I was crying, but it was useless. And I don’t know why I even tried. They’ve seen me cry many times. I am not the type of parent who wants my children to think of me as super human. It’s inevitably too much of a shock when the child realizes that the parent is, in fact, human; that is to say – so very imperfect. What’s more is that when my son and daughter did notice that I was crying, together they were like a security blanket. My daughter asked if the author’s story reminded me of mine. My son rubbed my shoulder and told me it would be ok. Each of them keeping me steadfastly wrapped in love.
After landing and waiting an hour and a half in the immigration line (and after none of us had slept on the plane) we quickly got through customs and had an anti-climactic reunion with my family. (Having no cell service while waiting in the immigration line, my family thought I had missed my flight.) My mom, oldest sister, brother, and a couple of nieces all waited to greet us. It was late at night and I could barely keep my eyes open during the dinner my sister had spent a lot of time preparing.
After a full night sleep, I awoke in my motherland feeling grateful to be there and filled with a mix of nerves and anticipation for all that awaited me in the next month.
I had forgotten just how enormous of a city Seoul is and how awful the traffic can be in my birth city. I didn’t have the confidence to try the subway alone until the end of my trip so I spent a lot of time in taxis (and seemingly always during rush hour!)
After the first full week, my niece informed me that my kids’ and I would be going to my brother’s place in Ichon for the weekend. The last time I was at my brother’s before this weekend, was for the reunion with my Korean family. I remembered the humble apartment well.
Apparently, I had no say in the matter so I decided to embrace the moment and go with the flow. I was nervous about staying with my brother’s family though because of the language barrier. My niece acts as translator and she wouldn’t be staying with us for the weekend. During the weekend, and many times throughout the trip, I was extremely sad over my lack of ability to speak my native language. At times, I felt like a deaf mute.
The following is an excerpt from thoughts I jotted down during the trip regarding the language barrier:
“…the language barrier between myself and my brother (and others) is exhausting for me. I want to speak with him but trying is so hard. We ask each other one question here and there but the lack of ability to have a real conversation with real questions is saddening to me. I don’t really want to ask do you like Jejudo. I want to ask him if he remembers our father and what his life was like growing up. These are not questions one can ask with a language barrier. Barrier is the perfect word in this context. My lack of (Korean) language creates a barrier to a real relationship with my brother. For some reason I feel shy around him, as well. I wonder what he thinks of me. This time around, I think it is also somewhat exhausting for my niece to be the translator. She won’t translate something unless I specifically ask her to. So often times conversations are being had and I won’t know what is being said.”
While the language barrier was an emotional roller coaster for me, amazingly, for my son and his cousin who is the same age, lack of speaking the same language was not a barrier at all. I was in awe of how well they played together, making each other laugh and somehow managing to communicate with one another despite the lack of ability to speak the same language.
After experiencing a real jimjilbang for the first time, courtesy of my brother, we were back in his apartment still with the awkward silence due to our lack of ability to understand one another. He motioned for me to sit down on the floor so I did. He sat close to me, took my hand and started massaging it. This physical affection was extremely uncomfortable for me but, again, I was trying to go with the flow. Also, I knew why my brother was doing it so I sat with my discomfort and allowed my brother to show me his affection and love. During this moment, I cried. Being present in the moment, I felt all that I had written about the exhaustion and sadness over our lack of ability to communicate. Because we couldn’t truly speak with one another, my oppa wanted to show me what he couldn’t tell me. In return, my tears told my oppa what I couldn’t speak to him in words.
During another moment, when I was having a hard time trying to communicate with my brother in law, as we both struggled with Google translate (useless!) my eomma started crying. She, too, felt the sadness caused by the language barrier. And, really, how strange that must be to see your daughter whom you birthed on the sidewalk in Seoul, who looks Korean but who can not speak it.
On a later night during the trip, I sat around my sister’s kitchen table with my eomma, sister and niece. Three generations together. I asked my eomma to tell me stories about her and about me when I was younger. Here are excerpts from my notes on the conversation:
“Eomma at first said she couldn’t remember anything too long ago and then gave me the bracelets she was wearing. Then she started trying to give me the necklace she was wearing too when I stopped her and said, “I don’t want things from you. I want stories.” I asked how she explained to unnie and my other siblings that I was going away. She said she didn’t really. Unnie said she overheard our parents talking about me being adopted. Unnie had never heard the word adoption before but then she figured out what it meant after listening to our parents. My second unnie said she wanted to be adopted too and our parents thought about it but for some reason our father wouldn’t sign the papers for her to be adopted. There was a woman who was a teacher who asked if she could have me. Eomma said no way! Eomma wanted me to have a better life in America. They said they always expected me to come back/to find them. So they weren’t surprised when I did, it was more like “finally, she found us.””
During this conversation, I learned even more just how much my oldest sister had taken care of me in the first three years of my life. As my sister said, “I was the one who fed you and carried you on my back.” To this day, my oldest unnie is the caretaker in the family. A role I think she thrives in yet also feels somewhat bitter about. She feels more like a mother to me than my sister. And her 28 year old daughter whom I am closest to, feels more like a sister to me.
Place in family is an interesting thing. During the trip, I truly felt like the baby in my Korean family. In my American family, I am the second oldest and oldest daughter of six children. I often felt like a second mom while growing up. My role in my American family has partly shaped how much of a caretaker I am. As the baby in my Korean family, it felt a little strange but I also kinda loved it. I liked not having to be the caretaker.
One of my only regrets in life is that I didn’t go back to live in Korea when I was younger. I still wish that I could and wrote the following toward the end of my trip:
“So far, I would still want to live here again. If even just for a couple of years. I want to truly know the city of my birth. I want to know how to get around, to know the subway system, to know how to pronounce things properly. I want to feel comfortable here. I don’t want to be afraid to travel in my motherland for fear of getting lost and not being understood. I want to be comfortable here beyond the comfort I do feel when one’s feet touch the soil of one’s motherland. It feels good to be here. But it’s the kind of feeling in the beginning of a new relationship with someone with whom you feel immediately connected. It’s exciting, it’s evocative, it’s seductive. But it’s also unknown and scary and makes me feel vulnerable. I want to get to that point in my relationship with my motherland, where there is a symmetry, an understanding, an appreciation. Where we still excite each other yet we also know that the trust is real and deep and everlasting.”
Julie Young is a former litigation attorney and currently works full-time in the nonprofit sector. Additionally, Julie is a writer and speaker. She serves on the Board of Nazdeek and is an Advisory Board Member of All Together Now. Julie holds a B.S. degree in Psychology from Fordham University and a J.D. degree from Cardozo School of Law. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and twins.