My Korean American Story: Riding Horses in China by Matthew Salesses

By: Matthew Salesses

September 1, 2015

One summer my wife and I toured half of the Silk Road through China. We were dating then. It was my first time traveling in a guided group—I had always traveled alone, cut off and trying for immersion, which might have been a way of reliving of my adoption. Tour groups are common for Korean Koreans, so my wife was used to traveling this way. She had been born and had grown up in Busan, where we met.

On the Silk Road, each city is like a country. In one we sledded down hills of sand as if down yellow snowbanks, and wore masks against the dust. In another we picked fat, round wine grapes and were warned not to go off on our own, because, she translated, of knives. I liked the ever-shifting cuisines and landscapes. I enjoy getting lost. My wife prefers comfort and security. She likes fine dining and hotels. She had thought the tour group would provide a kind of home-base-away-from-home. Instead it meant disagreements, delays.

Finally we came to a tent city in the mountains where we were scheduled to ride horses with the locals. All I knew about horses was from books and movies. I knew a horse could tell by feel whether its human knows what he is doing. My wife translated brief instructions from the guide, who was translating a local, and at once everyone else took off.

I don’t remember the instructions. I remember feeling left behind (of course). Our guide and the other couple in our group rode ahead. My wife had ridden as a child, until a fall split her skull open and required an operation. Her mother never let her ride again, not even a rocking horse. It was a secret that we were riding horses in the mountains of China with no doctors or hospitals nearby. She must have remembered her old lessons, however, because she matched the others. My horse knew I could not control it. I felt its separate consciousness, slow and in command, beneath me. I pressed my sneakers to its sides, hard.

Miraculously we picked up a little speed, rushing into the center of the group. The saddle slammed painfully into my tailbone. By some instinct I knew that we had to run faster or slow to a walk. I didn’t know how to slow down. By this time my wife had caught up and was trying to convince my horse to stop. I wanted to keep going. I raised my tailbone high over the saddle, and again pressed the horse’s sides.

In moments we were far ahead, only the locals keeping pace. In moments we were light, streamlined. A hidden part of me exhilarated in the speed. This was the pace a horse is meant to go. The faster gallop did indeed ease the pain. Wind rushed past and the horse’s muscle moved thick and loose beneath me.

I wanted to go on forever like this, flowing like a part of the landscape, but I also got more and more terrified. I didn’t know how to stop or where the horse would take me. I didn’t want to stop, and for the moment I didn’t care where it took me, and that was what terrified me the most.

The guide shouted and rode nearer. One of the locals raced up alongside me until our horses could almost kiss. He spoke sharply, and immediately my pace slowed and the saddle once again smacked my tailbone as we came to a stop.

When my wife approached, I feared her anger. I had sped past her, left her behind as I feared to be left behind. But she shouted at our guide. She was angry at him for letting me ride off alone with no experience and poor instructions. For a moment it seemed to me that she was right. I should have been guarded from myself. It was not out of the ordinary for me to test my limits, to run.

I had liked it when my horse broke away. Now I liked it even more that my wife wanted to protect me. Not only because I escaped responsibility then. My wife understood something about boundaries and me, about why I traveled on my own and why I needed a group. Even now, when we talk about that trip, my wife brings up how much she hated it, how exhausting it was, how young and stupid we were. Yet it brought us closer together. We both came to see that, as we came to see the role adoption played in my life, as I grew more and more aware of a hidden recklessness within me, a desire to lose myself.

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea. He is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. His stories and essays have appeared in NPR, The New York Times, the Center for Asian American Media, Hyphen, Koream,, and others. His previous books include Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (essays) and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (a novel).

Matthew Salesses will be one of the authors featured in an evening of readings we are co-hosting with The Korea Society on September 17th, 2015 at 6:30 pm.