My biological sister walked me through a maze of high-rises, down a sparsely tread street, across a parking lot, through a cluttered garage, and into a shoe-filled entryway where garlic, cabbage, and the sweat-addled pungency of age struck me with uncompromising insistence. After I removed my boots, I followed her down a dim hallway towards a jagged triangle of light, the yellow rays seeping from a small room on the left.
Before we arrived, she turned to me and said, “Are you ready?”
“Ready?” I said.
“This will be difficult,” she said.
“I’m ready,” I said.
We walked some more, and the age-smell expanded. When we reached the room, I shivered, realizing that my previous rehearsals of this moment had been pointless: Nothing could have prepared me to meet the person on the floor, the old, broken woman who’d reconfigured my life’s cultural, educational, and practical trajectory.
Halmonee, my sister said. Halmonee.
I didn’t look at Grandmother, but at the walls, which were white and blank and flecked with small black indentations; I looked at the bed, a twin mattress which contained a single blue blanket and a single white pillow; I looked at the near-empty closet, the only items on hangers a few long nightgowns and what appeared to be a gray button-down shirt.
This is him, my sister said. This is Jung-Hyun.
Finally, I looked down. She sat cross-legged on the floor—lumpy and saggy and destitute, the parabolic fat-folds of her face occluding her eyes. When she saw me, she frowned, and my sister said once again, Jung-Hyun. This is Jung-Hyun.
She scanned my face. I looked away.
In 1979, depleted from the unrelenting toil of caring for an alcoholic widower—her son—and four grandchildren—his children—on a small grocery store salary, she’d given me away. A couple from her church had offered to take me in, and after much consideration, she’d accepted, thinking all she needed was a little time to reenergize; she’d check on me later when finances and vigor allowed.
Time passed, though, and her situation stayed stagnant, so she said to herself, One more week. One more week. One more month. One more week.
Her friends, however, decided on their own that I needed a different—possibly better—life, so they released me into the booming Korean child welfare system, and by the time my grandmother felt composed enough to reclaim me, I’d been officially orphaned.
She was devastated. Her friends had committed an unforgivable offense; she would never speak to them again. In the meantime, however, I was still in Korea. She had to find me. She had to bring me home, and her friends had no idea where I was.
She scoured the city, day and night, going from orphanage to orphanage, asking everyone she encountered if they knew of a child, a toddler named Jung-Hyun. He has been wrongly abandoned, she said. He needs to come home. This is important, she said. He is my blood.
But nobody knew me. Nobody claimed me. There were thousands of abandoned children all over the city; who could know just one? Still, she looked. Every day, every night. In the evenings, before bed, she prayed for my quick return. She told my soju-soaked father that she would go anywhere, do anything, to find me, and he replied with drunken indifference.
She walked the streets of Gangnam, Yeouido, Mapo, Jongno, Hongdae, screaming Jung-Hyun! Jung-Hyun! ignoring the stares, the wide berths, the high-pitched giggling of schoolchildren. Jung-Hyun! Jung-Hyun! Jung-Hyun! But nobody responded, and after months and months of this static, she stopped, for who could go on like that? Who had the stamina? She was middle-aged. She was in bad health. She couldn’t go on.
In her bedroom, on the floor, she screamed. She couldn’t walk, so she crawled, her arms pinwheeling her wilting egg-body towards me. She grabbed my leg and held on tight. She shouted I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! She reached up, scratched my thigh, looked at my eyes, opened her arms. I looked away, horrified. She grabbed my leg again. I tried to move, but she was an enormous, protuberant mass. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!
Breathing heavily from my gut, I knelt down and let her grab at me. She clawed my back, punched my shoulders, and sobbed so hard into my chest that my shirt thickened with wet weight. She held on until she fell asleep. When I was certain she wouldn’t wake, I peeled her fingers from my neck and joined my sister in the living room.
“This is very difficult,” my sister said, wiping her eyes.
“It’s very, very weird,” I said.
“She has much guilt,” she said.
“But I am okay.”
When Grandmother awoke, she slid herself into the living room. My sister, suddenly resolute, pressed her for information, pleading with her to remember something useful about the first few years of my life.
“It’s important that Jung-Hyun know what happened,” she said. “This is his life.”
But Grandmother couldn’t recall anything specific—not the name of the friends she’d given me to, not the name of an orphanage she’d visited, not the name of a person she’d talked to, not even the location of her old church. “I am old,” she told my sister in Korean. “How am I supposed to remember so far back?”
“Because,” my sister said, “he was your family, and you gave him away. This should be the most vivid memory you have.”
She shook her head. “I cannot remember. I’m sorry.”
“Please try,” she said.
She closed her eyes, leaned against the wall, sighed.
I looked for you, she said, opening her eyes, staring at me. I looked everywhere for you. I walked till my feet bled. I shouted till my voice cracked. You must believe me, Jung-Hyun. You must believe me.
And of course I did; why wouldn’t I? Throughout my adult life, I’d been slow to attachment but quick to affection, and hearing my Grandmother’s story spiked that affection. Someone had loved me, she said. Someone had wanted me. I was orphaned, yes, but it’d all been a mistake. How could anyone knowingly abandon such a beautiful child?
Believe me, she said. Believe me.
Of course, I said.
She closed her eyes and nodded.
I believed, yes, but the lack of specifics was still troublesome; specifics were, after all, why I’d crossed the globe after thirty years, why I’d left a teaching job at the University of Iowa, why I’d taken residence in a city where I understood nothing, related to nobody, and spoke like a toddler. When I’d first arrived in Korea, I slept only in short, fitful intervals, jet lag and clamorous anticipation triggering a constant, disorienting animation. In my sister’s apartment, in the middle of the night, I sat on my bed for hours, staring out at the blinking Gangnam skyscrapers, imagining a Seoul in extreme poverty, a Seoul that required the systematic deportation of its children. The thought made me weary, but not weary enough to fall asleep, so I refocused my thoughts on my recent reunions, scraping away the crusty delirium-haze surrounding each recent memory.
For example: On my third day in Korea, I’d met my brother and my elder sister, both of whom spoke no English. They came to my English-speaking sister’s apartment with wide, astonished faces, quickly crowding me and speaking rapidly in Korean without looking away.
Oh my god, my elder sister said through translation. Jung-Hyun. Your face. We match. Oh my god. She reached out, touched my cheek. Her large, wet eyes moved from my forehead to my chin and back up. Her fingers felt cool and smooth. Oh Jung-Hyun, she said, crying. We match! Oh . . . She took her hand from my face, turned away. I am sorry, she said. I only remember tiny, tiny things. But you mustn’t be angry at me. I thought of you all the time. Ask sister. Ask brother. I’ve been thinking of you every day.
My brother, though older, remembered nothing: To him I was a mystery, someone whose existence till then had been nearly theoretical. His stare was different from my sister’s; it was harder, steelier: He was trying to remember; he was trying to envision. When the vision didn’t come, he shielded his face and left the apartment. He returned a few minutes later, his eyes red and cobwebbed, his face stretched with anguish. He embraced me clumsily, his arms stiff around my shoulders. When he moved back, he kept his hands on my shoulders, and for a minute we were stuck in an unmoving slow dance. He looks so much like Father did, he said to my sisters without turning his face. Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he look so much like Father?
I had questions, of course, but we didn’t engage in much serious discussion right away. Instead, we took pictures, compared facial features, ate, drank. My brother taught me a few key phrases in Korean, laughed at my mispronunciations. My elder sister gave me a gift: a gray T-shirt covered in nonsensical English phrases. I tried it on, and though it was two sizes too small, I wore it the rest of the day, the fabric encasing me in a tight but delicate security.
Towards the end of the reunion, the conversation shifted to graver matters, namely to Grandmother, whom I hadn’t yet met. My English-speaking sister, the one with whom I was staying, frowned. She sat across from me on the floor. My other siblings sat on the couch, watching us speak a foreign language.
“Grandmother is stubborn,” my sister said. “Grandmother is difficult. She always has been.”
“But she knows everything,” I said. “Everything that happened.”
“She was so unkind to us girls,” she said, looking at her sister. “It was like she only had one grandchild—brother.”
“I have so many questions for her.”
She sighed. “She’s had a difficult life. She’s a refugee, you know that. She came from the North. She hasn’t seen her family in many, many years. When Mother died and her son, her only son—Father—when he started not coming home for days, she became more and more cruel to us. So in many ways, it was good you weren’t here.”
“But I’d still like to know . . .”
“Whenever Father did come home, he’d be drunk and shouting. He’d creep into our room—me and sister’s—and just stand there, in the shadows, rocking back and forth, staring. I told Grandmother that this gave me nightmares. I asked her to talk to Father about this, and she slapped me across the face and said I was nothing but disrespect. This happened a lot. Her anger. She made me clean the floors all day that day.” She looked up at the ceiling, blinked. “We miss Father terribly. Him and Mother died so young. But, well . . . I just don’t want you to be disappointed. That’s all.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, staring at my hands.
“It’s way in the past. I just want you to be prepared.”
“I’m just trying to form an early childhood in my head, you know? I’m hoping something will trigger a memory. Maybe something she says . . .”
“I think you might have to find that trigger without her help, Jung-Hyun,” she said, her eyes softening. “You might have to do it on your own. I will help as much as I can with Grandmother, but you might have to do a lot of your discovery without her.”
And she was right—Grandmother was an informational black hole. After our initial meeting, every time I approached Grandmother about my past, she glazed over, mumbled something about her age, looked away.
Over the next two years, I researched on my own, discovering the places I’d lived as a young boy. At Angels’ Haven Orphanage, I blinked hard while turning the pages of an enormous yellowing book, grainy photos of children past and present lining the margins. At Kyung Dong Baby Home, I stared at my intake paperwork, where my year of birth was listed as 1976, not 1977. At Holt Korea, my adoption agency, I talked to a woman who said that I’d been bounced around quite a bit, but that finally, in September of 1980, I’d been sent to the United States.
In my small apartment in Gangnam, I pieced together my research and constructed a makeshift life for myself, joining date to action, orphanage to year, smoothing out my timeline, formulating a history, generating a childhood, and as everything slowly cohered, as dates and places matched and orphanage testimonials crystallized, I realized that Grandmother’s claims were most likely false—that if she’d wanted to, she could’ve found me. For instance: I’d spent over six months at Kyung Dong Baby Home, and during that time, Grandmother had lived only two miles away. Additionally, while my transfer to Angels’ Haven and other orphanages took me around the city, I returned to Kyung Dong before my adoption, so for many months before my overseas departure, I was right there, right within reach, a ten-minute taxi ride, a forty-minute walk, a quick four-stop ride on the brilliant new Seoul subway. And while it was possible that Grandmother had roamed the streets, searching for me in every possible place but her own backyard, her constant evasion of the matter and her insistent amnesia implied that instead of walking, shouting, investigating, crying, blistering her feet and losing her voice, she’d waited guiltily in her small house, praying every night not to find but to forget me, hoping that I’d quickly and quietly disappear.
This realization hardened me, and I began spending less time with my biological family, less time with her, assuming everything she said was steeped in deceit. My siblings noticed my retreat, but didn’t question it, at least not to me. I told them that my mealtime absences stemmed from both excessive work (my employer wanted me to write an entire English-language textbook in just a few months) and a mild-but-gnawing illness (my Midwestern stomach loathed the new red-pepper-everything diet). They wished me well through long strings of text emoticons, but I still sensed disappointment: Their abundant happy images seemed to mask a deep displeasure.
It was during Chuseok dinner, the last real occasion I spent with my biological family, that I decided my time in Korea was finished. Everything had gone well—the food was delicious, my nieces and nephews were happy, my siblings were garrulous and fawning—and I assumed, at the end, that I’d completed yet another successful gathering. But as I sat on the floor talking with my English-speaking sister, Grandmother, who’d been sitting silently alone near the entrance of her bedroom, glared at me, hit the floor with her fist, and said, “You are a Korean person. Do not speak English. Speak Korean.”
The room fell silent. I stared at her. I blazed. My vision blurred. I excused myself, went outside, shouted into my hands.
I hated her, I thought. I hated her more than anything in the world. She was despicable. Why had I come?
For two years, I’d wanted nothing more than to be a Korean person, to speak fluently, to adapt culturally, to slip into a life where I not only looked like the people around me but also acted and spoke like them. Constant failure, however, reinforced the impossibility of it all: My Korean-ness had begun peeling from me the moment I’d left the country. America had efficiently invaded, seizing what was left of my Eastern identity and replacing it with ardent Westernism, relegating Korea to a seductive but disjointed daydream, a black, neuronal misfiring. Grandmother’s comment enraged me, for it highlighted all my crude and failed attempts at assimilation, my years-long desire to inhabit an identity that was no longer there. A Korean person? No. She’d taken that away from me, transforming me into a product of her abandonment—a hyphenated American—and here in her city, in her country, on her continent, I was and always would be a foreigner.
My hands tingled. I flexed and extended my fingers. I breathed. The air was crisp. A few minutes later, my sister stood next to me. She put her hand on my shoulder. Her touch reminded me of goodness, and I relaxed.
“Perhaps your research is finished?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “I think it is. I think it’s time to go home.”
“I will miss you, Jung-Hyun.”
“I will miss you, too.”
On the second day of 2013, I received an email from my biological sister telling me, simply, that Grandmother had passed away. In my small bedroom in Silver Spring, Maryland, I felt shaken, not because I’d known Grandmother very well, and not because I’d grieve her loss like I’d grieve the loss of my adoptive grandmother, but because throughout my two years in Korea I’d never told her that I believed her story.
Of course, I didn’t believe her story, but that didn’t matter—facts, I’d realized over time, were irrelevant in relation to her. What I did believe was that back in the late seventies, my refugee grandmother, a woman whose own sense of family and home and sanctuary and persistence had been splintered by war and unyielding, extraordinary heartache, had made a decision, and that decision had resulted in a guilt so strong the only way to cope had been to imagine herself in the crowded streets of Seoul, calling my name. She had done what anybody would have done if confronted by a desperately uncomfortable truth: She’d told a story. That story had allowed her to continue for thirty-two more years.
All my research, then, was extraneous: It extracted the guilt, the feeling, the trauma, distilling my first few years into a hodgepodge of places and paperwork, dismissing the underlying complexity of unspeakable resolutions.
After I heard of my birth grandmother’s passing, I took my research and stuffed it into a drawer. I’d come back to it some other time, I thought, but for now, it was important that I sit for a while and just let myself imagine.
Before I left that first day, she grabbed my hand. She said something in Korean, and gripped me as hard as she could. In her hand was 40,000 won—not much, but enough to make me uncomfortable. She slipped it into my pocket.
I told my sister that I didn’t feel right taking her money, and she replied, “But you must. You must accept. She doesn’t have much to give. So you must accept.”
So I did. And for every holiday gathering over the next two years, she gave me more. I never spent any of this money; I just put it in an envelope and shoved it in my bag. I felt weird about taking money from such an old woman, and even weirder that the money was given out of guilt over something I had no memory of.
So it piled up, and eventually it became a substantial wad. Still, I couldn’t keep it. Before I left Korea, I took the money to Angels’ Haven Orphanage in the Eunpyeong District of Seoul, the first orphanage I’d visited, and left it underneath a doormat.
As I walked away, flagging a taxi, I thought of going back, of giving the money to one of the orphans—but then, as the taxi slowed, I thought otherwise. This wasn’t my home; those weren’t my children. Somebody would find the money, and whoever did would circulate it back into the economy, spreading and diffusing my grandmother’s guilt until it flattened and disappeared.