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.

I did manage to take a trip to Jinan in August to visit my Korean uncle and aunt—my Samchon and Sukmo. Have I mentioned them on this blog? Quick backstory: we met in 2010 when they accompanied my Omma and Halmoni to Seoul for my birth family reunion. I felt a special connection with them from the beginning and our relationship has continued to grow. Hopefully I’ll write more about it later, but in short, they are the Korean parents I was looking for and their house is the only place in Korea that remotely feels like home.

My Samchon and Sukmo’s house in Jinan. The left side is a converted hanok building.

This visit couldn’t have come at a better time. Recently I’ve been dealing with some friendship dramas. Most of my friends in Seoul are other adoptees and we form a small, close-knit community, so you could also call these Adoptee Dramas. You may have thought, as I did, that 35 years of age (now 36! birthday post to come!) was too old for such things, but somehow I still managed to find myself right in the middle of one… What can I say.

Jinan is a small town in the countryside of North Jeolla, about 40 minutes from the city of Jeonju, where I was born. While Seoul is frenetic—not only in a typically big city way, but in an extra Korean balli, balli (chop, chop!), work, make money, keep-forging-the-nation-ahead kind of way—Jinan is slow. You have to drive for a convenience store or a bus stop or fried chicken; the sounds of traffic, drunken ajeossjis, and vegetable-spruiking trucks replaced by roosters, summer bugs, and running water. As the KTX express train rolls out of Yongsan station and I leave all that Seoul stress behind, I feel my body start to relax again. (And the KTX is smooth, baby; I used to take the bus but once you go KTX there’s no going back.)

Sunset over the rice fields. Jinan forces my chaotic Virgo mind to slow down and that is A VERY GOOD THING.

After picking me up in Jeonju, my Sukmo stops at a local supermarket to pick up some samgyeopsal (pork belly) and makgeolli (milky, fermented rice wine) for dinner. Once home, we chatted over a little lunch of store-bought kimbap (mainly vegetables, wrapped in rice and seaweed), Sukmo matching my preschool level of Korean, before resting—separately but together. I think I read some of my book. I really like that kind of thing.

When it was time for dinner, I helped Sukmo portion kimchi and ssamjang (a thick soybean and chilli paste) into small dishes, wiping the edges before serving as instructed. Everything in this home is done with care and attention—love, really. Lettuce leaves, mild green chillies, and eggplant from the garden, along with king oyster mushrooms and onions, and little bowls of homemade perilla seed oil mixed with bamboo salt—the perfect accompaniment for grilled vegetables, were also prepared.

the dinner table

We set up a little table outside, alongside Samchon, who grilled the meat and vegetables on a small rack over charcoal. This is a uniquely Korean method of grilling meat, they told me. I wasn’t sure about that but kept my doubts to myself. We dipped the meat, endless meat, into myeoljeot, a pungent dipping sauce made with salted anchovies, chilli, and garlic, served warm (a little like a Korean bagna cauda?). It was a warm, clear night with just a hint of a breeze. This is the way to have Korean bbq.

Samchon doesn’t drink a lot and Sukmo almost never drinks alcohol, but it was the final weekend of her summer vacation so we shared some makgeolli and somek. Cheers to ten years, Samchon said.

I’m not sure if I’d seen Sukmo drink before. Her usual bright and affectionate self is even more affectionate under the influence. I’ve never met someone quite like her. Once Samchon told me that he didn’t really have to make a decision about committing to Sukmo, because her love and enthusiasm was more than enough for both of them.

When I thought this night couldn’t get any more perfect, suddenly Sukmo rushed inside and came back with a large foam camping mat. She laid it out in front of the house and we lay down to look up at the stars, the mat surprisingly comfortable on top of the small gravel stones. We munched on Nongshim shrimp chips (original, not spicy), my favourite Korean convenience store snack, and Sukmo kept saying, 와 새우깡 맛있네!

“I remember the first time I saw you, at the 동방 (Eastern Social Welfare Society) office. 하나는 예쁘고 사랑스러워 보였어… 나는 놀랐다 (You looked so pretty and lovely…I was surprised)

Each time you’ve visited Korea or Jinan, it’s been so good to see you…하나가 손님이 아닌 우리랑같이 사는 가족 같은 느낌이야 (And now you feel like family living with us rather than a guest)”

This looks like blurry blackness, because my antique iPhone doesn’t have a night vision camera, but it’s actually Sukmo and I on the camping mat.

Birth family reunion is often portrayed like a fairytale, and maybe sometimes it feels like that. Sometimes you connect with people instantly, perhaps because you recognize something of yourself in them. Maybe a shared temperament, intellect, or interests. But what truly makes family? A slow, steady, mutual effort to know each other. There are no shortcuts I’ve found.

It’s been over ten years now since we met. And though there are still moments when I feel bored, or frustrated by the language barrier, or completely zone out, we have built something. Knitted together, stitch by stitch, from a thousand tiny interactions.

Something like family.

x Hana

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