On Wednesday, May 26th, at 2pm, 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 and some good guesswork.
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, and a window. Mrs. Lee answered our basic questions and then left the room, shutting the door behind her.
What does nervously waiting for one's birth family to arrive look like? Like this:
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. Unlike many adoptees I know, I was relinquished a mere three hours after my birth. I didn't spend much time with my birth mom, and my tiny infant brain probably didn't imprint any memories for later recognition.
My birth mom hugged me first and for the longest time and immediately started to cry. Then I hugged both aunts, both tearing up, and mumbled something in Korean to the effect of "Nice to meet you!" (Understatement?) and then sat down next to my birth mom.
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, everyone dried their tears quickly, and there was no bawling or breast-beating as I had imagined.
Mrs. Lee 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. My two aunts 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) lives in Pusan, where I was born, and has known about me the longest. My "first" aunt (wearing white, with an arm sling), lives near Omma, and they have 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 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 Running Buddy Lena towers over me, they were perplexed as to how I had gotten such short genes. 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. Omma told me not to think about my birth father and to think only of her instead. There was no mention of his illness, but it didn't seem appropriate to press the issue.
I gave Omma a photo album of photos that I had compiled right before I left for my trip. (Hence, why I was in such a rush to finish my final papers early.) She recognized some of the childhood photos from my blog, and she had even printed out a few to keep tucked in her planner. 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 over all 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.
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 Alice to translate for 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 cellphone while riding the subway to meet us. 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."
When we arrived around dinner time at the apartment building/hotel, we were greeted by delicious smells and a gigantic table of food.
Pickled garlic, homemade japchae (stir-fried noodles), tiny sardines with nuts, pickled cucumber, lettuce, kimchi, and pickled daikon. (Moo tari!)
Delicious bulgogi (marinated beef), fresh from the stove:
A plate of freshly fried fish, which Omma helped us eat:
Meanwhile, Omma and my aunts bustled around the kitchen and told us to sit and start eating:
Eating a home-cooked Korean meal by family you just met is an indescribably cool experience, even with a language barrier. I know 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 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.
For dessert, the boyfriend and I picked up a cake, which was tasty, but nothing compared to the feast that Omma and aunts had prepared:
Also, can we talk about how Omma is BEAUTIFUL?
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 7-Eleven to buy cookies and snacks. Meanwhile, my hilarious aunts ate melon and oranges and strange rice cake snacks:
Then we all pretended to be models for Hite beer (which tastes just like Budweiser) because we are awesome like that:
My aunts like to tease each other a lot. 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 I ran up every day).
Sleeping was good and fine, and I learned that my aunts (and Omma) are all very good at snoring. I shared the queen bed with Omma, and she pointed out that we have a similar body shape (hips and a small waist) and big calves.
For breakfast the next morning in the lobby, cultural differences became apparent. The boyfriend and I ate jam, toast, eggs, juice, and fruit (including these strange rambutans, which Omma had to peel for me).
Omma and my aunts, by contrast, ate kimchi, bean paste soup, eggs, and seaweed.
Fortified with our contrasting breakfasts, we headed out for a day of shopping. Omma and my aunts insisted on finding us "couples shirts," which are just what they sound like--matching shirts for couples. As if she hadn't already given me enough, Omma was really eager to buy me lots of things, and I eventually had to explain that I really was not in need of anything.
We headed to Myeongdong for some ice cream and group photos:
Omma also bought us some kkultarae, which are fine threads of honey wrapped around nuts and fruit. The little strings are hard to eat:
Another awesome thing about Omma? She is the best driver ever. She backed into this tiny parking space perfectly in a claustrophobia-inducing garage:
And was not at all startled by the throngs of Seoulites who walked in front of her car. :)
For lunch, First aunt told us that we were going to eat sashimi since the boyfriend had said that he loved sushi and raw fish. We piled into the car, and Omma headed to the Noryangin fish market.
I know nothing about picking out fish (especially when they are still swimming in tanks), but Omma and aunts were quite the discerning shoppers:
How does one pick fish at Noryangin? First, the stall owner uses a giant hook and a net to fling a fish onto the ground for inspection:
After being deemed worthy of purchase/consumption, these fish are loaded into a basket:
And then decapitated and beaten with a mallet by this fish executioner:
With a bag of freshly filet-ed flounder and scary-fish in hand, Omma directed us to one of the restaurants down below the market. The server takes your bag and your cooking instructions and then brings you your food. In this case, a gigantic plate of raw fish:
They showed us how to make little rolls of out of rice, perilla and lettuce leaves, fish slices, various vegetables, and sauces. Omma also saved the best part of this snail for me--the mouth. She kept motioning that it would make me strong.
Just when I thought I was going to explode from the sheer volume of fish, vegetables, and side dishes in my stomach, the server came in with a gas burner and a huge bowl of meyongtang, or fish stew:
I had mentioned the day before that I liked sujebi, so, of course, Omma and aunts ordered the server to make the soup into sujebi. The server came in with a giant ball of dough, which she tore into thin little strips and dropped in the boiling cauldron of soup:
Then she was nice enough to take a group photo:
Let me tell you, I have never seen anyone eat like Korean women. They really know how to put it away. I think I eat a lot, but apparently, Omma was worried that we hadn't eaten enough dinner or lunch. She kept refilling our bowls and plates and offering us morsels of fish that she had pulled from the bones.
This is the aftermath of our meal for five:
After lunch, it was suddenly time for Omma and my aunts to start their long drive back home. (They live in cities in the southern part of Korea.) They braved more crazy Seoul traffic and took me and the boyfriend back to our guesthouse. Worried that we hadn't eaten enough (SO FULL!), they also gave us a giant bag of leftovers from the evening before.
Saying "good-bye" was much harder than saying "hello" had been, just 24 hours before. Omma held my hand and spoke to Mrs. Lee on the cellphone, asking her to translate our goodbyes. Over the phone, Mrs. Lee told me that Omma was very happy to meet me and was very sorry that she wouldn't be able to see us off at the airport when we left Korea. I told Mrs. Lee to thank Omma for everything and tell her that I was sorry that I didn't know more Korean to communicate with her. I promised to come back as soon as possible and work very hard on my language skills. When they said goodbye, Omma and my two aunts hugged me and said "I love you" in English. As I'm sure you can imagine, I started crying at this point, but it was okay because everyone else was too (minus the boyfriend, who gave everyone tissues). Then Omma and aunts piled into her Kia and drove away, waving the whole time. (About an hour and a half later, she sent me a text message that said "Mica! I love!")
Since then, she has written me a few e-mails to confirm that I got home safely and tell me how much she misses me already. (So many thanks to my friend Stephanie for her willingness to translate and awesome tri-lingual skills.)
"It’s been a difficult trip, right? Right about now, you’re probably on the plane. After seeing you, I miss you even more and I regret not being able to hug you to my heart’s content. I resent myself for that. I wonder when we are going to see each other again. I can’t seem to be able to do anything because I think of you all day. I wonder if you are eating well… how you are managing to get all that luggage back home. When I think of you going to the airport without anyone there to see you off, it breaks my heart. I wonder if I should have gone to see your pretty self at the airport… Stay healthy… I’ll email you often mica~~ bye~~!!"I'm not really sure how to conclude this very long post except by saying that I feel incredibly lucky to have found my birth mom and part of my family. Some people have asked me if I feel a sense of closure having now met her. Since I didn't embark on this search seeking answers to major, gnawing questions (e.g., "Who am I?"), I don't really think there are any doors that needed closing. Instead, I am excited to have a wonderful connection to Korea and to integrate the culture, language, and people into my adult life. From here, the first step I can take is to learn some Korean, and the goal of being able to speak with and write to Omma is one of the greatest motivators I could possibly imagine. I see this experience as completely positive, and I am very excited to see where it takes me.
Thank you for following along with me as I initiated and pursued my search. And please feel free to comment or contact me with more specific questions. Reading about other adoptees' experiences in looking for their birth parents was incredibly helpful, so I wanted to document this as fully as possible, both for myself and for anyone else who may be considering a search.