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. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: