On grief and early birthdays

How Korea has changed me

1.

I stand in front of the large digital screen showing today’s menu. There are so many options—traditional Korean, noodle dishes, “Western”, and Pan-Asian. It’s just after noon but some items are already sold out. Korean company workers like to have lunch early.

When I first started this job, I used to eat my way across the menu each week, appreciating the variety though turning my nose up at some of the Koreanised western dishes, accompanied by sticky, syrup-coated french fries and side salads drenched in fruit-flavoured yoghurt. But now I mainly choose Korean, while I can. 

When you head towards your chosen cuisine, you line up, scan your staff card, and slide your plastic tray along the serving counter, taking various banchan as you go. There is the extra banchan of the day too, which gets replenished once each lunch hour. As soon as the women appear with the trolleys, people race to the centre of the cafeteria to line up for it. I always see the same look, which I’d describe as a uniquely Korean mix of impatience and contempt, in the eyes of the person waiting, towards the person in front—who is taking too long filling up their dish or even filling multiple dishes. I’ve learned to assume the same expression myself. There is no shortage of contempt for strangers here. 

Sometimes I decline certain banchan along the assembly line but I always take the kimchi. It comes served in a small square stack with satisfyingly neat corners.

I never liked kimchi as a child, apparently. My parents were told so by the adoption agency when I was three. This was in the 80s, before kimchi was named a superfood and gochujang was featured in New York Times recipe columns and BTS had their own McDonald’s meal (which was…like, just chicken nuggets with two sauces, right? I digress). It always struck me as a ridiculous piece of information—my parents hardly knew what kimchi was and where were we going to find it in small-town northern Tasmania anyway?

But some tastes take years to fully acquire, as kimchi, chewy ddeok, and perilla leaves have for me. Flavours, like words, for which there are no direct equivalents. It’s not that I’ve just learned to stomach them, but over time, I’ve developed a real hunger. Now I finish my entire stack of kimchi.

I hold onto these ways in which I’ve been changed because I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget what I’ve experienced living here, however brief, including the loneliest parts. I don’t want to lose my hard-earned sense of Korean-ness—even when I go to the Melbourne Korean language school and I can’t speak as well as the husbands or children of the Korean women and my skin starts to prickle with shame. 

How do I hold onto what is slipping through my fingers, day by day?

2. 

I first met Jane Jeong Trenka almost ten years ago at Koroot, a guesthouse for adoptees in northern Seoul. It was my second visit to Korea and I had just dragged my suitcase through the snow for twenty minutes after taking a train from the airport. It was late, and Jane was sitting in the front room talking with Reverend Do-Hyun Kim, the most progressive pastor I’ve ever met.

She didn’t know me, but I knew who she was. I’d read her blog posts and interviews and books. She was a well-known activist, author, and one of the first adoptees to live in Korea long term. When we met, I found her charming and articulate, with a sharp, irreverent sense of humour. I thought she was the coolest person ever.

Because of Jane, I started attending meetings for Single Moms Day, an annual event created to raise awareness of the challenges and discrimination facing unwed mothers in Korea. I offered to sing at the conference—anything for Jane—and through these circles and other events at Koroot, I met many other cool adoptees living in Korea—artists and activists, many of them queer—who said and wrote whatever they wanted to about international adoption. Things I had hardly dared to think about.

I’d met other adoptees in Australia, many of them. But the community in Seoul was a special breed, minorities among minorities. I wanted to be just like them. 

When I eventually moved to Korea, I experienced what it meant to be a part of it. Despite our differences, we understood each other. We knew what it was like to arrive, and survive, and scrape a life together, by any means, all in broken Korean. To have things we were running from or afraid to return to. We knew the secret hopes of coming here, in search of ourselves and our families, and the pain of realising that some things can’t be recovered and some people don’t want to be found. There was so much that didn’t need explanation.

Before the covid-19 pandemic, there were adoptee social events, activist initiatives, book clubs, and running groups. But mostly, we drank together.

On one of our last big nights out, after drinks at a small bar in the expat neighbourhood of Haebangcheon, we ended up in a large place with fluorescent lighting and wood-panelled walls, where a friendly ajumma served us plates of tofu with kimchi, fried eggs, Jjapaghetti ramyeon, and jumeok-bap. I remember the whole table cheering and screaming, beer and soju and tears of laughter flowing, as I raced my friend J to shape the hot white rice and seaweed flakes into small balls, as quickly as possible. The night ended at noraebang around 4am, as all the great nights do, when all people can manage is to stumble into a taxi.

How sweet it was. I didn’t experience belonging until my 30s. I never knew how good it could feel.

If our activists succeed in their mission and Korea reforms its child welfare system, our community will cease to exist. Approximately 200,000 of us will age out, and we will eventually, thankfully, stop being counted. But we were here once. We had each other and dingy bars and soju. I met some of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. What is more fearless than to return to a foreign country to confront all the unknown parts of yourself?  

3.

The writing’s on the wall. I hate my corporate job and frequently fantasize about rage-quitting, though I have also given up looking at online job boards for non-teaching positions or anything that doesn’t require fluent Korean. I sit here swiping through the same handful of expats on dating apps—including the one Australian guy I’ve already met for a very awkward coffee—until I throw down my phone in disgust. Many of my friends are leaving Korea, which was inevitable, but I’m too old and tired to wait for a new cycle of friends. I am moving through life in a depressed, robotic haze.

I always wondered how I would know when it would be time to leave Korea. I had hoped it would be when I felt emotionally ready, and not, as it turns out, for practical reasons. 

I spent seven years visiting Korea before I worked up the courage to move here, hesitant to take the plunge and afraid of what I might have to give up in Australia. It wasn’t until a friend told me that I have unfinished business here, that I ultimately made the decision. But after almost three years, I am starting to wonder if that business can be finished. There is a whole unlived life here, but I do not have a second life available to live it. Seeking to accept that seems more practical than trying to get my fill of this place.

The other week, I was sitting with J outside her apartment near Sangsu station when I saw an enormous rat scamper along the wall of a nearby building. It was dark, close to midnight, so I couldn’t see clearly but it was almost the size of a small cat. Its body must have been the length of my forearm, and its tail the same length again. 

I was curious about the symbolism of rats, because I’d never seen such a large rat, or any rat in Seoul, although a big, dirty city is bound to have them. According to Spirit-animals.com, rats let us know when it’s time for new beginnings and change.

I don’t need an omen to know that it’s time to leave, but it still feels like being torn from a place when I’m not ready. My inner three-year-old is sitting in the middle of the street, kicking and screaming. I know, sweetheart, I whisper. But we’ll never feel ready. I take her hand gently and ease her up off the ground. 

4. 

Upon meeting, adoptees in Korea often ask each other: how long have you been here and for how long do you plan to stay? It is one of the first things you want to know. Much like Koreans will ask upfront how old you are and if you’re married, we want to situate each other. We want to know how much or how little emotional investment is wise.  

My friend MJ once told me that she was reluctant to befriend anyone who would only be here for a year. It’s just too hard to constantly say goodbye to people, she said. I met an American woman who was married to a Korean man and owned a bakery, who was only friends with other expats like herself, who had lived in Korea for at least ten years. She stated this plainly without apology. It seemed extreme at the time but now I understand. It’s natural to want some stability in your life. 

Adoptees who do not live in Korea sometimes ask: are you planning to stay there for good, or are you coming back to Australia? If they knew how hard it is to live here, as an immigrant in your birth country, with no return ticket and no safety net, they probably wouldn’t ask this question. We can’t imagine becoming halmeonis and harabeojis here, struggling up the stairs of a subway exit. Few of us stay “for good”. 

The pandemic devastated the community in Korea, which was loosely held together by large social gatherings. It has also prompted many people to return to their adoptive countries—who wants to stay in a Korea stripped of all the fun things that make it Korea? Many of the adoptees I know are returning to the US and I wonder if I’ll ever see them again. After being scattered like dandelions to all corners of the western world, we converged briefly in the motherland, only to be scattered again.

The activists are quiet now, most of the groups have disbanded. Rev. Kim from Koroot is preparing to retire and close the guesthouse. Even J, the older sister I never had, is thinking about leaving. It feels like the end of an era. I’m not ready to begin to face how much it really means to me.

There are too many goodbyes and imminent departures, including my own, and I am heavy with grief. In the midst of all the loss, I try to focus on what was gained: I found a Korean adoptee identity and I was proud to wear it. I was proud to fly that flag. 

5. 

Last week, I met J and another adoptee friend, Seon, to watch the film version of the musical In the Heights, a few days before Seon returned to the US. In one scene, Anthony Ramos’s character sings about his last night in Washington Heights—“a corner full of foreigners”—with his beloved community. It hits close to home.

Before the movie, we have a quick dinner of grilled mackerel at a nearby restaurant. When we are finished, J goes to the bathroom and when it occurs to me that she is taking a while, she emerges with a slice of cake and two brownies on a plate, studded with candles. They both start singing Happy Birthday and my first thought is, they’ve made a terrible mistake. My birthday isn’t for another two months and I’m embarrassed for them. “We wanted to celebrate your birthday early,” Seon says. “We know we’ll all be in different places in August.”

I’m so overcome—simultaneously touched by their thoughtfulness and saddened by the circumstances—that I can barely speak. I close my eyes and try to seal this moment tightly in my memory. I take a deep breath. I blow out the candles. 

The Jumeok-bap Contest

There comes a point in every Great Adoptee Night Out when the urge is felt to move on to 이차 (ee-cha), or Round Two. 

It was a mild evening in March – when Seoulites breathe a collective sigh of relief that winter is done and spring is here. We tumbled out of the tiny bar and into the backstreets of Itaewon to look for food – a happy huddle of adoptees, walking, talking, and absentmindedly following whomever was ahead. We operated as a group intelligence. “Where can we go?” someone asked. “Who knows this area?” “How many of us are there?” “Who will take a group of 15 drunk adoptees?”

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This may be my last year in Korea

Reflecting on 2020 and the Living in Korea Dream

A belated Happy New Year, reader, and well done: 2020 was exhausting but you got through it. And wherever you are, thanks for hanging out in my corner of the internet. It always brightens my day when I see new subscribers and comments.

How do you like to mark the new year? I usually do some reflection. For the past few years, I’ve used the following journal prompts, that I found on artist/entrepreneur Kelly Rae Roberts’s blog:

1. What do you want to acknowledge yourself for in regard to 2020? (What did you create? What challenges did you face with courage and strength? What promises did you keep to yourself? What brave choices did you make? What are you proud of?) 

2. What is there to grieve about 2020? (What was disappointing? What was scary? What was hard? What can you forgive yourself for?) 

3. What else do you need to say about the year to declare it complete? The next step is to say out loud, “I declare 2020 complete!” How do you feel? If you don’t feel quite right, there might be one more thing to say…

But I didn’t feel want to reflect on 2020.

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Home Alone 5: A Very Covid Christmas in Korea

I never meant for this blog to be so in my feelings or covid-heavy. But here we are. Feel free to switch to another tab.

The strange thing about being in Korea this year is that covid started early, back in February, so we’re very much covid-fatigued, but it’s only getting truly dire now, so the stricter social distancing and the copious home baking and being alone with your own thoughts too much of the damn time are still somewhat new to us.

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On Depression & Ted Lasso: 3 Quick Fixes For Feel-Good Vibes

So I’ve been kind of depressed. For about, hmm, two months? It’s been hard to write, hence the blog hiatus (but also just regular laziness/busy-ness). Hard to podcast. Sometimes even hard to see people.

When I sense these things coming on, there’s always a slight feeling of dread. I know that my mood, like life, has its ups and downs—most of which I can handle. But I always wonder: how far down does this one go? To a dark pit of despair? Or *just* to a “I don’t feel like doing much except eating ice cream and watching tv” kinda place?  

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Something like family

A quick trip to the countryside to visit my favourite Korean aunt and uncle

Hey readers, it’s been a while. Seems redundant to say, because the whole year’s been this way, and you’re probably tired of all those “where did the year go?” and “throw 2020 in the bin” memes too, but I don’t know how August flew by so fast. As Taylor Swift sings, August slipped away into a moment in time…August sipped away like a bottle of wine. Although obviously she has still been pretty productive, making a whole new album and all.

I’ve been trying to study Korean again—trying being the operative word here. Each week after work, I’ve been taking two Korean classes plus one zoom call with a tutor, which has been tiring. Actually I’m not sure exactly why I’ve been so tired—maybe it’s a vague year-of-the-coronavirus-malaise—or maybe my iron levels are low again, which gives me a reason to eat more burgers…which is not a problem for me.

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Living alone in Korea in the time of covid

Strap yourselves in for a covid-related feelings post, folks…

In the early days of covid-19, it was mostly contained to China and Korea. Back then, it looked like just another Asian virus and frankly, not the rest of the world’s problem. Panic spread as members of the secretive cult church Shincheonji drove the number of daily new cases to new peaks. Korea temporarily sold out of face masks, even though the international scientific jury still seemed to be out on their efficacy. I started to get random messages from friends and family back home, “Hana, are you worried? Are you thinking of coming back?”

But in the following months, as the global nature of the pandemic became clear, things changed. Korea became a model covid-fighting country. Fast, widely accessible testing and masks was the explanation; there’s certainly no social distancing on my crammed subway commute. I got tested—twice—and received the results within 24 hours. “Sounds like you should stay put over there”, friends and family said.

I thought I was doing well too. Korea has never imposed any shelter-in-place or lockdown measures. I still have a job and I go to the office every day. I go to restaurants and bars, which are all open. I see my friends, in person, and I video call my Australian friends. For the most part, I feel incredibly fortunate—almost guilty—for being here right now.

And yet. I live alone and sometimes I really feel it.

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Me vs Korean Company Culture: Episode 1

I was lying in bed late Monday night, trying to sleep, but a weird twitch in my side was keeping me awake. It felt like a second heartbeat in my upper rib, causing my arm to flinch involuntarily on the mattress like a fish on land. No matter how I positioned myself it persisted, until I eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion.

The next day, after consulting Dr Google, it turns out that the official name for this muscle twitching is not a “second heartbeat” but “benign fasciculations”, which can be caused by too much stress, caffeine, and not enough sleep. Benign fasciculations are also an early symptom of ALS, a terrifying muscle wasting disease that I’m not going to think about.

Stress, caffeine, and not enough sleep are surely used to explain a million other mysterious ailments, but lately, I have been a little stressed.

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I wrote 750 words *almost* every day for a month

I have to write a blog post. I have to write a blog post.

It’s 11.43pm on Sunday and I have to write a blog post. (I also have to go to bed. And have a somewhat functional brain at work tomorrow morning.)

I currently have a weekly blogging schedule. I figured that a once a week should be manageable. Surely I have at least one thing to say each week. If I don’t enforce a schedule with myself, weeks, months, and even years can go by without writing anything. So I basically have two options: write every week, or barely write at all.

Continue reading “I wrote 750 words *almost* every day for a month”
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