My Korean American Story: Anne Sibley O’Brien
Note: Growing up in Korea in the 1960s and 70s, I became accustomed to the McCune-Reischauer system of romanization; I just can’t get used to Daegu and Geoje-do. Since this is a personal essay, I chose to keep the spelling that’s familiar to me.
Of Longing and Belonging
Portland, Maine. July 2010.
Our daughter Yunhee is getting married this weekend. With the enthusiastic support of her non-Korean husband-to-be, she’s chosen to have a traditional Korean ceremony tonight, followed by a white-gown-and-tuxedo wedding tomorrow. I’m in charge of the Korean event. With help from friends, I’ve researched and written a step-by-step explanation of the multiple bows, the drinks, the foods and the symbols. I’ve borrowed clothing, tables, screens and cushions from the local Korean community. I’ve ordered online a pair of imported painted wooden ducks, and a gourd from an Amish farm, with a special order to have it cut in half. I’ve purchased fruit and mujigae ddok (rainbow ricecake), now beautifully arranged on platters.
But none of this advance work has prepared me for the impact of entering the church classroom to see my exquisite daughter, dressed in her brilliantly-colored wedding hanbok, seated on a chair with her Korean aunties clustered about, adjusting the red ribbon around the pinyo stuck through her braided bun. I’m so overcome I have to sit down for a moment.
The thought that puts the catch in my throat and fills my eyes with tears is, We did it. We somehow brought her over, gave her what she needed to claim her full self, both Korean and American. This is a fulfilling thought for any parent of a Korean-American daughter, but there are some extra layers for me: I’m white American. Our daughter was adopted from Korea in 1986. And the person who first introduced her to her birth heritage – the one who grew up with the colors and symbols and manners and foods of Korea – is me.
Seoul, Korea, March 1960.
The last leg of our family’s long journey from New Hampshire to our new life is a plane ride from Tokyo. My parents are following a dream, sent by the Presbyterian Church to serve as medical missionaries in Korea, with their four children in tow, ages nine, seven (me), five and two.
We take up residence in the second story of a tall, brick, turn-of-the-century house on the mission compound just off Chong-no 5ga. My parents start language school at Yonsei while my brothers and I attend Seoul Foreign School and our baby sister stays home with Ok-hee Unni. And we all begin to explore our new country.
Korea charms and fascinates, stimulating our senses. We delight in the sights of ancient temples and palaces, of bicycles piled high with impossible loads, of terraced rice fields and the bare bone line of mountain ridges, of elderly men strolling in long white coats and tall black horsehair hats and red-cheeked children in bright hanbok. The smells and tastes of kimchi, of sesame and soy sauce, of steaming rice, soon become familiar – and delicious. The sounds of wavering piri and kayagum touch our souls, and new words and phrases – acquired with diligent study by our parents and soaked up with casual ease by us kids – unfold and reveal their meanings. And most of all, there are Korean people, welcoming and warm, from whom we learn, with whom we work, play, share food, listen to music, laugh. Some become extended family. These experiences work their way under our skin until they are part of us, essential and beloved, the sensations of home.
But we do not blend in. Everywhere we go, with instinctive Confucian hospitality honoring the guest, people treat us with extravagant graciousness, offering the best they have. In the market, a crowd gathers around me, marveling at my light hair and big, round eyes, my height and big nose and light skin. “Hallo-yah!” and “Mee-gook sah-ram!” the children call out. Sometimes an adult thanks me, a child, for coming to Korea. Whenever I respond in Korean, the awe is magnified. I become accustomed to being a spectacle, like a princess.
There are hard things about Korea in 1960. Only seven years after the war, refugee families still live in mountainside caves. On the streets, in the market, by the train station, ragged children – children my age – rattle coins in tin cans, begging. On April 19, five weeks after we arrive, the government is overthrown. There are lines of marching students and tanks in the streets, a fire in the Chong-no police station. A year later another coup brings President Park Chung-Hee to power.
There are social divisions of race and class and culture. The mission compound is on a hill, enclosed in barbed wire, with a gate and a guard. In the summer most missionary families go to TaeChon Beach, to the American enclave where they relax with each other. My parents are conflicted; the following year we go camping with Korean friends at Soraksan and on the untouched beaches of the East Coast.
Taegu, Korea. 1963-1966.
My father is a surgeon at TongSan Hospital. My parents have gotten us off the compound into a Korean house, surrounded by tile-topped walls, with a paved courtyard and circular garden in the middle. I wear flowered komoshin (rubber shoes) which I slip off before stepping up to the wooden-floored living room, then padding down the hall to the room I share with my little sister. We sleep between quilts on the heated ondol floor, and slip out the back door to use the detached outhouse. Our extended family has grown – several Korean young adults are now “Unni” and “Oh-bbah” to me.
My siblings and I ride the LandRover with the other missionary children to American school on the Army base. In the afternoons I often climb the back alley, past makeshift homes clinging to the hillside where an open sewer runs alongside the stone stairway, to play with American friends under the tall trees in the walled compound gardens. I like to walk to the market to spend my allowance on sparkly rings and penny candy with rice paper wrappers that melt in my mouth. Best of all, I love visiting the children’s wing of the hospital, where I’m allowed to play with the orphan babies.
Our family spent my junior high years back in the States, then three more years in Taegu, before moving to the island of Koje in 1969, where my father directed the Kojedo Community Health Project. The island in those years was remote and rural, with no paved roads and no electricity in the village near our clinic peninsula. The first summer we camped in tents, on a hill overlooking a spectacular view of brilliant bays, inlets and islands, while building the clinic and staff housing. I spoke Korean all day with the nurses from the mainland and the island girls trained as nurse’s aides. We sat around campfires on the pebbly beach, singing Korean pop songs and eating grilled dried squid. I graduated from boarding school at Seoul Foreign and spent a year on Kojedo, before returning to the States to attend college.
There was no language to help me process those first years at Mount Holyoke College, the dizzying gap I was trying to bridge between my two lives, between the vital urgency of a community delivering health care to subsistence-level farmers and fisherman on a remote Korean island, and the ease and privilege of an elite New England women’s college where students gossiped about their boyfriends and dorm food.
Even if I’d heard the term “culture shock,” there was no model for my white American version of the experience. I had no way of explaining why I thought about race all the time when no other white people seemed to notice it, or how blending in felt so odd to me. What was I to do with that part of myself that was Korean, that resided deep in my cells yet was invisible, that required a Korean setting to emerge? (This is a question that I have lived for all of my adult life.)
Getting involved in anti-racism training made sense, as did listening to the experiences of black classmates. Another solution to my homesickness was to spend my junior abroad, studying Korean arts at Ewha Women’s University, and to return to Kojedo in 1976, immediately upon graduating, to put my studio art major to work developing visual aids for health education.
Just seven weeks before leaving the States, I met my husband-to-be at a college bus stop. Six months later he followed me to Kojedo, where we were engaged. Ten years later, another homecoming circle was completed when we returned to Seoul with our four-year-old son to meet our infant daughter.
Raising Yunhee has added whole other dimensions to my bicultural experience, as I’ve tried to transmit my love and knowledge of Korea to her, and as she reconnects me to my own heritage. (I’ve also shared my background with our son, who loves Korean food, studied Korean language for a year in college and spent a month in Korea on a grant, but of course none of this is as significant to his identity as it is to his sister’s.) Yunhee’s always been passionate about claiming her Korean identity, loving Korean books and dolls and food and clothing, demanding at six years old that I should take her to visit Korea. (I finally got her there when she was fourteen, and she’s returned three times since.)
I’ve observed that for many transracially-adopted children, no matter how their adoptive parents encourage them to connect to their birth culture, exploring their background may feel like moving away from their parents. Since many adoptees seek belonging, not more separation, this may provoke conflicting feelings about their connection to – or even complete rejection of – their birth heritage. In Yunhee’s case though, moving towards Korea meant moving towards me.
I once opened a book, one of those Korea: Land of the Morning Calm-type social studies titles, where I found an introductory quote that went something like, “in the heart of every Korean is the grief of division.” I astonished myself by bursting into tears. In temperament, I’m relentlessly American – optimistic, cheerful and positive. My outlook is the opposite of han. Yet I carry the grief of division that is common to all bicultural people, that sense of always being between.
At so many levels I have a deep knowledge, understanding, and feeling of Koreanness, as a significant and definitive part of my identity. Yet growing up American in Korea meant spending much of the time completely clueless. In countless conversations I could follow much of what was being said, but had no idea what any of it meant because I didn’t catch the subject. That sense of waiting, completely at sea, for some clue that would help me understand what was being discussed, is also definitive of my Korean experience. As is the feeling in complex social interactions that I have no idea what etiquette requires. Such as in planning Yunhee’s Korean wedding ceremony when, amidst the joy, I felt the conflicting pulls of the two cultures and the anxiety that I might commit some egregious social offense to the Korean community.
There’s also the grief and guilt of separation, of falling out of touch and failing to maintain relationships across the divide of language and distance and time difference and contrasting worlds that seems to yawn wider as soon as I’m back in the States. In my American world, too, I’m between. I blend in, but my typical “American” appearance is not how I experience myself. I carry the ephemeral sense of something missing, a homesickness for a place and for parts of myself, that I mostly put away in a pocket, but that can be triggered by the smell of diesel fuel, the feel of my body bending in greeting, the memory of a tabang.
I’ve had decades to reflect on my American-Korean experience. I’ve gained insight from examining my childhood through writing; from diversity training and racial identity work and the exploration of race and class privilege; from the work of scholars on “Third Culture Kids” and bicultural identity; and from the journey of being the white mother of a child of color. My career creating multicultural children’s books is a direct response to my childhood in Korea, which kindled in me a fascination for the beauty and glory of human differences, and a passion for the truth that, across our differences, we are all one human family. We belong to each other. That’s what I’m trying to get to, through all my work. When I finally took Yunhee back to Korea in 2000, I lay on a yo on the floor of my oh-bbah’s apartment and wrote in my journal, “My bones and blood are humming a song – home, home, home. Here my body awakes after a long, long sleep, in recognition – I know this place. To so belong and yet not belong – to be of a place and always a stranger, and that very quality – the always being a stranger – to be part of the known. I slip into it like a river, effortlessly gliding, borne along by a loving current, no resistance anywhere, safe, safe, safe.”
Portland, Maine, February, 2012.
We’re at Yunhee’s apartment celebrating the lunar New Year. She has prepared a Sol-lal feast: ddok-guk, mandu, chap-chae, pork belly ssam, rice, with side dishes of spinach, potatoes, myul-chi, squid, and homemade kimchi. All of it is delicious and authentic, a result of her cooking chops and her deep interest in Korean cuisine, fueled by dozens of viewings of the entire KBS series, “Dae Jang-geum (Jewel in the Palace).” The tastes blend on my tongue, touching a chord deep in me, triggering memory and feeling. Once again, my daughter has brought me home.
Anne Sibley O’Brien (http://AnneSibleyOBrien.com) has illustrated thirty-one books, thirteen of which she also wrote. Korean titles include the graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, and a picture book she illustrated, What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham. She blogs on race, culture and children’s books at “Coloring Between the Lines.” (http://coloringbetween.blogspot.com/) She lives on an island in Maine.