Growing up my mother used to say, “eating is an adventure” to try to convince me to eat different food. However it is ironic that after I was adopted from South Korea to the United States, our adventures included Korean food only once—when we tried to make kimbap for an elementary school family cultural heritage project. It was both confusing and unusual.
I had my first bite of kimchi last year as part of my self-discovery of my Korean identity. The first bite did not appeal to me in a “what the heck am I eating” sort of way. It wasn’t until my aunt and uncle invited me over, one night, to learn how to make kimchi and bulgogi with their Korean friend that it found a place in my heart. Now I put that stuff on everything!
It’s hard for me to fully describe my reasons for wanting to go back to my birth country without first stating the reasons I began searching and exploring my Korean identity. So, I should go back to the beginning. I began my search a year ago when it seemed like so many things in my life were culminating: relatives deciding to adopt a child they were fostering and friends adopting and voicing their opinion openly on closed versus open adoption. As they vocally processed their adoption decisions, I found myself feeling defensive for the adoptees that had no voice in these planning conversations. I wanted to bring up the concerns and struggles that I hoped others could avoid, but I didn’t feel well informed enough to say anything. I hadn’t been back to my birth country since I was two years old. Feeling powerless fueled my curiosity to learn more and, with the loving support of my friends and family, eventually led to my first journey back to Korea this past summer.
The 12 day journey began with a mini reunion with Boston Korean Adoptee friends, in Seoul, a day before my organized tour. It was good to see familiar faces in a foreign place. Still, despite being in a foreign land, things seemed to feel just right. Getting lost in a sea of faces that looked just like mine, finding glasses made for low profile nose bridges, trying arrays of makeup that complimented my skin tone, and purchasing clothes that fit right off the rack without having to get alterations were all new but comforting experiences for me.
Overall, the first trip back for me was both difficult and easy. Being surrounded by a tour group full of Korean adoptees was reassuring; they all got it. Receiving the overwhelming love from the Korean people we met, on the other hand, was a bit disorienting. It was difficult for me to comprehend how I missed out on knowing so many amazing people. The people we met opened their homes and hearts to us. They affectionately called us Oppa (brother) and Unni (sister), they fed us as if we were starving children, and they chided us to “eat more” and take full bites. It filled me with emptiness for the people and things in Korea that were absent from my past.
The tour flew by with days packed full of activities and new experiences. The landscapes and sights were vast and varying. We spent the bulk of our time in Seoul, which is amazingly clean and efficient considering it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom, was lovely and had so much history. We escaped the hustle and bustle of the city at the beach in Pohang. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see Jeju Island, and there is still so much more that I hope to go back to explore. One of the highlights of the tour was the Baebijangjeon, traditional Korean performance. I felt pride that I didn't know I had ever been missing.
I extended my trip two additional days to accompany my friend to meet his Omma (Korean mom). Unlike so many who have hopes of reuniting with family, Brian mainly went on the tour to try the food and to get a sense of if he would enjoy bringing his wife and kids to Korea. His adoption file from the adoption agency was one page long with no identifying information, but when we went to the orphanage, all the necessary information was there. His Omma had been waiting 40 years for him to find her. Most people cannot fathom the substantial loss or injustice of missing personal items (clothes, mementos, etc.) from childhood, the loss of vital information to reunite with family, the loss of time with family across the world, and the loss of history and identity.
Now that I am back to my cozy home in Boston and happily back to the rhythm of my routine at work, I find it strange when people tell me I am “processing” as if I am some antiquated fax machine. Who isn’t processing their lives? This journey has made me want more of the things I lost many years ago back in my life again. I have an insatiable hunger for Korean food. When I eat kimchi now, it’s more than just a taste, it’s a hunger: the spice that I crave beckons me for more, the bitter taste mellows its way through me, the carefully preserved nature of it carries me through difficult times and I slowly digest how to connect these two parts of my whole.
*Special thanks to my friend Brian for allowing me to include his incredible story.