Seoul Longing

By: Julie Young

September 16, 2010

“Heart and Seoul: A Korean Adopted Woman’s Perspective”

I have been inspired, once more, to re-learn my native tongue.  Having been three years old when I was adopted, I believe that somewhere in my subconscious mind, I am able to speak Korean.  My birth language is there, hidden, deep in the recesses of my brain.  How I wish that I could simply jolt the knowledge forward – and instantly be able to communicate, once again, with my Omma and the rest of my Korean family.

The urge to re-learn Korean has come and gone over the years.  I even took a class on 32nd Street once.  Learning the Korean alphabet was pretty easy-peasy but the rest of it, eh, not so much.  (And how frustrating that my native tongue is so difficult for me to re-learn!  Yet another loss in trans-national adoption.)  Since meeting my Korean mother and siblings in 2004 re-learning my mother tongue is something I promised myself I would, someday, do.  Soon after my return from Korea when some of the intense emotions experienced during the trip had settled a bit, the promise to myself to learn to speak Korean was put on my “life’s-to-do-list” and promptly ignored.

Recently I was on Skype with my oldest Korean sister, Ji-Ae.  It was the first time I had seen her since 2004.  It was also the first time she was able to see my children.  Ji-Ae kept saying things to me in Korean.  We were both frustrated that we could not understand one another.  Ji-Ae had tears in her eyes.  I held mine back.  We had to be satisfied with just being able to see one another.

The inspiration to re-learn Korean, this time, has come from a book that was gifted to me.  “Bravo Your Life!” is a memoir, of sorts, by Mi Soon Burzlaff.  Like me, Miss Burzlaff was adopted from Korea into a white American family.  (Bravo to Miss Burzlaff’s American parents for keeping her birth name!)  Her book is a series of vignettes.  Each chapter is a vignette of an experience she had while living in Korea  from 2002 – 2007.  Her writing is honest, entertaining and beautifully descriptive making it easy for the reader to imagine having been present during each vignette.  She writes about emotionally charged scenarios with a funny yet raw sensibility.  When Miss Burzlaff first meets her Korean family she does not know how to speak a word of Korean.  Yet, she went through, as she puts it, the “slow and laborious process” and was able to communicate and live in Korea successfully.  Her ability to do this, as other adopted adults have done, is truly inspiring to me.

In addition to meeting and spending time with her Korean family, Miss Burzlaff also gives  an inside window to modern day life in Seoul.  Miss Burzlaff’s descriptions of life in the over crowded city are exactly as I remember it.  Fast-paced, dynamic and constantly “on.”  Living in New York City almost seems dull compared to the super watt speed that Seoul seems to function on.  One can almost feel this intense energy while reading Miss Burzlaff’s book.  I didn’t want to leave Korea in 2004 after my short two week visit and I have wanted to return ever since.  After reading Miss Burzlaff’s book, the craving to return to my birth country has only intensified.  Hopefully, I will be able to return sooner rather than later.

And so, I will re-shuffle my life’s-to-do-list, again, and place “learn Korean” back near the top of the list.  I will admit that, at times, in the past when my Omma has directed me to learn Korean “because she is too old to learn English” the hurt child in me has wanted to respond in a less than respectful manner.  (Really? Whose fault is it that I can’t speak my own language?!)  However, the ever evolving (and hopefully maturing) adult in me, knows the weight of the need for mother to be able to communicate with daughter and for sister to be able to communicate with sister.  The longing is there.  The desire is deep.  If only the process was not so arduous.

Julie Young writes about her experiences as an adopted Korean American woman with a multi-racial family.  Julie’s column “Heart and Seoul” is published monthly.