Smile Politely

Reconnecting with the past Part Three

This is the third part in a four part series. To catch up with where we left off, you can read the whole series here, right on Smile Politely.

On Wednesday, May 26th, at 2 p.m., the boyfriend and I arrived at the Holt Post Adoption Services Center in Seoul. I’m not going to lie; finding things in Seoul really sucks. Addresses and street names basically mean nothing, and we found the building by chance, some good guesswork, and a really shoddy map.

Upon entering the building and trying to understand the receptionist’s broken English, we met with Mrs. Lee, the case worker who has been handling my search from nearly the beginning. Mrs. Lee said that my birth mother and aunts were on their way but had gotten a little lost. (Shocking, right? Yay, Seoul!) The boyfriend and I were led to a small, sterile meeting room, with a table, some chairs, a window, and an adjoining bathroom. Mrs. Lee answered our basic questions and then left the room, shutting the door behind her. I felt really nervous, though no more so than before a major exam.

About 20 minutes later, Mrs. Lee stuck her head in and said timidly, “They’re here.” Then she opened the door, and three women entered. I didn’t expect to have a flash of recognition, and I did not know immediately which woman was my birth mom. (I later found out that since my birth mom had come to the hospital with the intention of giving me up for adoption, she was not allowed to see me after my birth. This was, in essence, the first time that she had ever seen my face.) It wasn’t really the romanticized version of a reunion that some might imagine, but then again, I live my life in an un-romanticized way.

My birth mom hugged me first and for the longest time and immediately started to cry. Then I hugged both aunts, both of whom were tearing up, and mumbled something in Korean to the effect of “Nice to meet you!” (Understatement of the year?) and then sat down between my birth mom and the boyfriend.

I didn’t cry at all during the meeting. It makes me feel awkward when people cry in front of me, so I just kept telling everyone not to cry, patting my birth mom’s hand, and trying to smile reassuringly. Fortunately, the tears dried quickly, and there was no bawling or breast-beating as I had imagined.

My birth mom and her two sisters don’t speak any English, and at the time, I spoke no Korean. (I have since enrolled in the Introductory Korean class at UIUC.) Fortunately, Mrs. Lee, the case worker, did a great job translating. My birth mom said that she never thought she’d see me again and was relieved that I was happy and healthy. She and my aunts said that I looked pretty and smart and that we have the same chin and smile. Like me, she seems to be very organized, and she said that she used to be athletic, likes cooking (especially noodles), and has a dog. My birth mom gave me a few photos of her from her teenage and early 20′s. I don’t think we look strikingly alike, but we do have similar face shapes, noses, and smiles.

Note: It is getting really cumbersome to keep writing “birth mom,” so I will henceforth refer to her as Omma, which is Korean for “mom.”

I heard all about my humongous Korean family. The two aunts that I met are older than Omma, and they both have children and several grandchildren. I also have two more aunts, two uncles, and a grandmother on her side. My “second” aunt (wearing black in the photos) lives in Pusan, where I was born, and has known about me the longest. My “first/big” aunt (wearing white, with an arm sling), lives near Omma, and they had been visiting my blog together. When Omma was debating about meeting me, she finally confessed to my first aunt that I existed and asked for advice. First aunt said Omma had to meet me. According to First Aunt’s logic, Omma has three children, but I only have one birth mom, so I should get to meet her.

Omma had told her husband (who is not my biological father) that she was coming to Seoul for a two-day training session in the city. I’m not sure how my aunts corroborated her story, but I am thankful that they all took this risk to meet me.

Funny story: Omma and my aunts had been visiting my blog regularly and were judging my height in relation to other people in my photos. Since my running buddy towers over me, they were convinced that I was abnormally short in stature. During the meeting, they expressed their relief that I was not, in fact, a stunted adult.

I didn’t really come to the meeting with any questions. I did ask about my birth father, and the answer I got was somewhat cloudy. Omma said that my birth father was well-educated and very handsome. Mrs. Lee said that it seemed like Omma had loved him very much and had really worked very hard to forget him. According to her translation, my birth father had cut Omma out of his life entirely, though the reason is not clear. Apparently, he had cheated on Omma with another woman. There was no mention of his illness, but it didn’t seem appropriate to press the issue. [Since I wrote this, I have again inquired about him, but she does not give me much information. Whether she is purposefully withholding information or has compartmentalized and forgotten this part of her life, I don’t know.]

I gave Omma a photo album of photos that I had compiled right before I left for my trip. I was worried that seeing photos from my childhood might make her feel guilty again, but much to my relief, she seemed happy and not too sad to look through the album. Like me, it seemed as though she was focusing on the positives of the reunion, rather than looking backwards towards the sad aspects of the circumstances surrounding my adoption.

During the meeting, Omma gave me a beautiful necklace with two gold hearts. She told me that she had given my half-sister an identical necklace for her recent birthday. While my half-sister doesn’t know about me yet, Omma thinks that she may tell her eventually. She said she hoped that I would think of her whenever I wear the necklace, which is one of those poignant, movie-like moments, but in an awesome and not sappy way.

I had asked my Korean friend Alice to translate for us later in the afternoon/evening, but an hour passed, and she did not arrive. I later learned that in a horrible twist of fate, she had been robbed of her purse and cell phone while riding the subway to meet us. This meant that the rest of the reunion would be spent without a translator. Mrs. Lee stayed with us for as long as possible, and we were able to establish plans for later in the evening. Omma and my aunts were going to go to the grocery store and then check into their room (a serviced apartment in Seoul). The boyfriend and I would pick up clothes and then meet them for dinner and a “sleepover.” Before the meeting, the boyfriend and I had discussed the possibility that my Korean family might be too conservative to allow him to stay the night. I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite; they insisted that he come stay at the hotel as well.

When we arrived around dinnertime at the apartment building/hotel, we were greeted by delicious smells and a gigantic table of food. In the intermediate hours, my birth mom and aunts had managed to find groceries in an unfamiliar city and prepared a veritable Korean feast: pickled garlic, homemade japchae (stir-fried noodles), tiny sardines with nuts, pickled cucumber, kimchi, pickled daikon radish, bulgogi (marinated beef), and fried fish. As Omma and my aunts bustled around the kitchen, they insisted that we sit down and start eating:

Eating a home-cooked Korean meal by family you just met is an indescribably cool experience, even with a language barrier. At the time, I knew about 100 words in Korean, so, like a toddler, I was able to point to things around the room and identify them. (“Chair! Refrigerator! Door!”) Additionally, the boyfriend and First aunt, who has a Japanese son-in-law, used their basic Japanese to communicate. Meanwhile, Omma made sure that our plates were never empty and constantly told us to eat MORE. I was also complimented on my chopstick skills, so I am glad that I took the time to practice before we left.

When the boyfriend and I were stuffed, we all sat on the couch watching a Korean drama. Omma got ready for bed and then ran to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy more cookies and snacks (because Korean women never.stop.eating.). Meanwhile, my hilarious aunts ate melon and oranges and chewy rice cake snacks. The entertainment also included a “photo session” in which we all pretended to be models for Korea’s Hite beer.  Eventually, the evening devolved into us sitting around the tables, rubbing our full stomachs and saying, “ttungttung!” (“Chubby!”) Then aunts and Omma started calling each other “ttungttung” and pointed to one another’s stomachs, saying “Namsan” (as in Namsan, the giant mountain in Seoul that I ran up every day of the trip).

As for sleeping arrangements, my aunts insisted on sleeping on the fold-out sofa, while the boyfriend slept in another room, and I shared a room with Omma. Stop and think about that for a moment. Sharing a bed with a woman whom you’ve never met before but who feels intrinsically tied to you. It is a very strange experience, especially when I am squeamish about being touched or hugged. However, once again, I swallowed my discomfort and was relieved to find that my birth mom respected my American-based boundaries of space. Overnight, I also learned that my aunts (and Omma) are all very good at snoring…

Please make sure to check out Smile Politely next week for the final part of this four-part series.

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