In 2013, I signed up to visit Korea with a non-profit adoptee support organization, the Global Overseas Adoptee Link (GOAL), based in Seoul. I did so without thinking about the reasons that had accumulated over years of denial, angst, restless anxiety, guilt, questioning, and, finally, at the age of twenty-five, something vaguely resembling stability. If anyone asked why I was going, I just said I wanted to travel overseas. “ And why not start at the country I was born in, right?” I’d laugh, pretending I wasn’t completely terrified and overwhelmed by the idea.
GOAL offered to assist us if we wanted to try and find our birth parents. Gaining background information from the adoption agencies involved would require careful negotiations, tactics, and secret note-taking. It was like a game, at least as it was presented to us in our training session, and I went in with the expectation that I would lose. I wasn’t even sure which city I was born in. All I had in my inventory was a single typewritten and badly translated piece of paper from the eighties with my parents’ names and a dull story about how they dated, discovered my mother was pregnant, broke up, and placed me for adoption.
I sat down with a social worker at the Eastern Social Welfare Society in Seoul and interrogated her over my adoption file. We went over every word together. My social worker uncovered an old brown document in handwritten Hangul and I demanded to know what it said. I was surprised she showed it to me—social workers in Korea often cite confidentiality when refusing to pass birth family information on to searching adoptees. I’d heard of so many adoptees who looked for their families and were told next to nothing.
My parents were married when I was adopted, she told me. And I had four sisters.
For years, I’d built up this narrative in my head of my mother as a single, lonely woman and my father as a cold, uncaring man. In that moment, everything I thought I knew about my parents changed. They were already a family. I burst into tears, both shocked and relieved that Umma wasn’t alone. I asked where I was born. Geojedo, she said, an island down off the south coast of Korea, connected to nearby Tongyeong. The social worker was forthcoming with information except for one crucial detail—my parents’ national identification numbers.
Days later, a translator and I set off to Geojedo on a mission. After talking with everyone from City Hall officials to some women around my mother’s age who ran a spicy pork restaurant, we sat down with a police officer, who wrote down everything I knew about my parents. He promised he would deal with the matter of the withheld identification numbers. As I traveled back to meet the rest of the adoptee group at a hostel in Busan, GOAL received a phone call from my birth father. The officer had tracked down my parents. We met the next day—with tears, apologies, thank-yous. That first meeting was like trying to have a conversation with someone standing very far away, across a vast canyon, when all you want is to be you want to be close to them.
Twelve months after I met my birth parents in Korea for the first time, I moved from Brisbane, Australia, to South Korea, to meet the rest of my family. Two weeks in the country where I was born and only three days of my entire life with my family hadn’t been enough. After my first visit, I went through the motions of my life back in Australia in a state of flux—I developed an intense obsession with Korea and an almost hostile disinterest in everything else. I listened to K-Pop, watched Korean TV shows, ate and cooked Korean food for nearly every meal, and talked about Korea nonstop to anyone who would listen. But the clawing desperation to go back was at odds with my bank account and the scraps I was earning from part-time work and freelancing; I couldn’t afford to just take a holiday.
So I opted for the more drastic course: go work in Korea and reap the benefits of being an English teacher, which includes paid airfare. The catch is that most teaching contracts in Korea stipulate that you have to stay for at least a year. It was a terrifying prospect. I’m the kind of person who gets stressed out at the post office. Ditch my friends, the career I was building, a budding new relationship to go to a country where I could barely speak the language? But the alternative, I knew, was feeling the sweating, aching sickness of not being in Korea. My loved ones understood. I found a job teaching English to elementary schoolers in Jeonju, and said goodbye to my Aussie life—for a little while.
I’d barely been living in Korea for a month and was still adjusting to my new teaching job when I was invited to Chuseok, a major Korean family holiday. We visited my Appa’s side in the morning, at his older brother’s house.
“These are your cousins!” he boomed, steering me into a room full of high school-aged kids.
For a second I registered mild confusion—but mostly disinterest—on their faces before my uncle led me back to my sisters. Once again I knew the fear of resentment and rejection. Why else wouldn’t they be interested in their long-lost cousin from other country? As soon as we finished performing charye, a ritual to honor our ancestors with food offerings, we left without me saying a single word to any of my cousins. I felt disappointed.
But it was a different story when we visited my Umma’s side of the family, the Seongs.
Umma was born just after the end of the Korean War, and her father died when she was young, leaving her mother—my halmeoni—with six children. Life was tough for this big family in the island of Tongyeong, just off the southern coast of the peninsula—a small place, fiercely proud of its history as the site of the Battle of Hansan Island, where Admiral Yi Sun-Sin became legendary for leading defeat against Japanese invaders in dragon-headed turtle ships.
A group of beaming aunties greeted me at my halmeoni’s house with a barrage of hearty backslaps that could wind a footballer. They were loud; they spoke to me in rapid Korean and burst into awkward laughter when they realized I didn’t know what I was saying; they patted my arm and told me to sit down and eat. I didn’t know much Korean, so I smiled and laughed when everyone else laughed. My cousins goaded each other into trying out their English skills on me.
Suddenly I heard a quiet voice ask, in English, “You are Joo Hye?”
It was my youngest uncle, who had learned English while at university. He likes tennis, he told me, and wants to visit Australia to see the Australian Open. The two of us have the same chunky lips. Our conversation was punctuated by the silent, mutual struggle to say something deeper. Something that would be understood.
“Your mother cared for me,” said my uncle, as we stood next to the moonlit lake outside my halmeoni’s house. “She helped me. When I was a baby.”
What I heard was: I owe a lot to her.
I was just happy to be able to speak with someone.
Nine months later, nearing the end of my contract in Korea, my uncle invited me on a family trip.
On the morning we are to depart on our trip, my birth parents drive my oldest sister and me to a tour bus waiting outside my aunt’s apartment building, complete with disco lights and a karaoke system. With six pairs of aunts and uncles with an average of four kids each, a disco bus is the most sensible transport option. My cousins appear with huge crates of soju , a Korean liquor that I’ve nicknamed “the memory eraser.” My aunties are in charge of the snacks—huge boxes full of dried squid, nuts, Choco Pies, and fresh fruit.
My halmeoni, a bony little lady with a slightly hunched back and a fabulous bright pink coat, shuffles onto the bus. “ Joo Hye-ya . . .” She croaks my Korean name, staring up at me with her large eyes, which always look a little sad to me.
She doesn’t smile. My terrible grasp of Korean and her strong regional accent make it difficult for us to understand one another. She says a few words and then, realizing I don’t understand, pats my hand affectionately. From her, it feels like a hug.
Umma insists that I sit next to her on the bus. She asks if I’m hungry or thirsty or cold, but I’m just tired. I’ve mastered the Korean art of napping on intercity buses, so I soon fall asleep. When
I wake up, we are somewhere in the mountains. “ Yeogi eodieyo ?” I ask Umma. Where are we?
“ Milyang .”
The bus pulls into a minbak, a traditional Korean-style lodge. By Korean-style, I mean everyone sleeps on the floor in one big room. Beds are for delicate people and Westerners. My aunties unpack still more boxes of food.
“Hey, what’s up?” My uncle’s daughter, who recently graduated high school, seems to learn all of her English from movies and pop songs. She raises her hand for a high five. “Good to see you, sister.”
My youngest cousins, two little boys aged five and seven—the sons of my first cousin—appear wearing Spiderman rashies and ring floaties. I follow the aunties and cousins down the road from the minbak to a shallow river. My cousins immediately start splashing. I stand to the side with just my feet in the cool running water.
“Hey,” says one of my cousins, a young university student. “Do you like water?”
My male cousins all run towards me, pick me up, and throw me into the water with my clothes on. I emerge from the water, sputtering. Is this a test? A welcome-to-the-family hazing ritual? Is there a cultural significance behind this? Do they hate me? How do I respond appropriately?
I splash them back, and it’s war.
Later I go back to the minbak and get changed, hanging my wet clothes on a sign. While I wait, one of my aunties appears with plates of spicy octopus, hweh (raw fish), garlic, onions, lettuce, and gochujang (spicy red chili paste).
“ Bam meogeo? ” My auntie piles hweh and onions into a lettuce leaf and wraps it up in a fist-sized ball.
Koreans don’t seem to understand when you turn down an offer for food. “ Bam meogeo! ” She moves the wrap close to my mouth like she’s feeding a baby.
“Aahhhh,” I respond, like a baby waiting for the airplane. She shoves the entire wrap into my mouth. My mouth is full of fish and leaves. My cousins burst out laughing. “ Masisseo! ” I say after a few squelchy mouthfuls. Delicious!
I make my own wrap, dipping raw garlic into the gochujang. The relatives say, “ Wooaah! ” Foreigners don’t eat raw garlic.
My auntie chuckles and says something along the lines of, “Like your mother.”
I am an only child in my adoptive family, a small white family from Sydney. I have a few cousins, but they live interstate and we’ve never been close. Our family gatherings—Christmas, Easter, birthdays—rarely have more than six people present for polite conversation over lunch and cake. No matter how nice my relatives are, the sight of their faces has always been a brutal reminder that we’re not blood.
I never thought I’d meet my birth family at all. I’d heard stories from other adoptees about reappearing in the lives of their birth families only to become icons of shame and secrecy. I’d heard of adoptees meeting native Koreans only to be told that they weren’t real Koreans, that their unchosen departure from Korea was a betrayal.
Yet somehow, on my first trip to Korea, I met my birth mother and father, Umma and Appa. I finally learned why I was adopted: My appa had a stroke and couldn’t work; one of my sisters needed surgery; they had four kids already and weren’t wealthy to begin with. When Umma found out she was pregnant, she had a nervous breakdown, and saw a doctor who suggested they give me up. I don’t think Umma fully understood what my adoption would mean until it was too late. Appa eventually recovered and went back to work, and Umma’s guilt quietly festered for decades, keeping her awake at night.
My parents filled my shocked silence by telling me all about my four sisters, my fourteen aunts and uncles and thirty cousins. When you’re adopted, the idea of meeting people who might have the same nose and eyes as you is equal parts impossible and thrilling. I didn’t resemble Appa at all, and it took a long time to find my resemblance to Umma, whose face is only like mine from the nose down. Quietly, I was dying to meet the rest of my family—perhaps then, I thought, I’d finally know what it was to look at a relative and understand what non-adoptees feel when they see their family.
The aunties and Umma decide we should go for a walk. I forget that when Koreans say “walk,” they mean “hike up a mountain or two.” My youngest auntie, the maknae of the group, slows down to walk beside me. “Do you like hiking with your Umma?” she asks in Korean.
“Yeah,” I reply.
We walk side by side for a while, smiling in silence. I wish we could talk more. Maknae auntie works in the military, an impressive feat in male-dominated South Korea. I’m the maknae sister, too.
We’ve been walking for a long time when I start feeling dehydrated. “ Himdeuleo? ” asks Umma. This word can means a lot of things, but in this instance she means, Are you feeling exhausted?
We reach the foot of steep stone stairs. Ahead is the waterfall my aunties want to see, so they press on; many middle-aged Korean women possess a level of fitness that Western gym bunnies could only dream of. Not me. “ Mot haeyo, ” I whimper, my head spinning as I slump to the ground. I can’t do it.
Umma, who loves hiking, sits beside me. Not for the first time, I feel like I am letting her down. “ Mianhae, ” I say. Sorry.
“ Kwaenchana ,” she replies. It’s okay.
I remember how to say that I’m sick and need water in Korean. When a mother and daughter pass by, Umma asks if they have any spare water. They give up half their water bottle. It’s warm, but it restores some feeling to my worn-out body. Umma takes my hand and leads me down a hill to another stream. I dip the bottle into the cool, fresh water and drink.
“ Yeppeo, ” says Umma, pointing to the water cascading through the forest. Pretty.
“Umma,” I say, shuffling the Korean verbs and subject quantifiers into place in my head, “do my aunties and cousins know I’m adopted?”
“Yes,” she says. “They didn’t know when you were born. But I told them about you when we first met in Busan.”
“What did they think?”
“Your aunties and uncles and cousins were . . . aigoo! ” She theatrically clasps her face in shock. “But they wanted to meet you. Your grandmother didn’t know either. When I told her, she was very sad.”
Maybe there’s a reason why little old halmeoni doesn’t smile around me.
For a long time, my sisters didn’t know I existed, either. Umma only told them the day after we met in person, and arranged for us to meet the following week. I shifted between dreaming of the best and dreading the worst. We might form a sisterly bond, something I had never felt before—or they might resent me for coming to disrupt the family, resent having to share their parents with a new person, resent their parents for keeping me a secret.
When we met, my sisters gave me Korean picture books as gifts and we went shopping in Myeongdong. It was like making new friends. I wasn’t sure if their kindness was sincere or they were just being polite to mask their extreme shock. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my sudden presence in their lives was upsetting somehow.
The next day I departed for Australia. We texted each other while I waited at the airport. My oldest sister had a bit more to say. “Our mother was sad and we never knew why,” she wrote. “But when we met you, we understood.”
Round the corner from the minbak are long tables for dinner. Stews simmer in big pots. “It’s . . . duck!” cries my English-speaking uncle’s wife. Every word she says in English is uttered with the same breathless excitement.
“This is kimchi. This is gochujang. This is potato,” my relatives tell me.
I laugh. “I know!” But I realize they can finally use the English they learned in high school now that I’m around, and they love it.
Soon, only the bones of the duck are left and the plates are cleared away. We head inside one of the lodges and sit in a circle. Maknae auntie makes a speech. I don’t understand all of it, but I recognize the Korean words for “happy” and “together.” I also catch the word norae : song. My loud cousin and my uncle stand up and sing. It’s not a K-Pop song, but one of those classic old ballads that everyone knows the words to. My cousin puts a spoon into an empty soju bottle and pretends it’s a microphone. There’s no music to accompany my aunties and uncles who stand up, one by one, to sing—only the sound of everyone clapping off-beat.
“Joo Hye! Sing?”
Another family hazing moment. I can sing some Korean songs, but I’d never sing them in front of an actual Korean. So I try to think of an English song that they might know. I down two shots of soju and belt out the first verse and chorus of “Let It Go.” My aunties and uncles clap along, merely polite, but all my cousins know the song. At the end, everyone cheers for me.
We head outside to cook a second dinner—grilled samgyeopsal, Korean pork belly. I suddenly remember that I have a bag of stickers leftover from my English-teaching stint. I hand the bag to my baby cousins’ mother. “This is for your sons,” I say.
The youngest boy holds up the glittery stickers one by one. He sees a familiar cartoon character and breaks into a squeaky song. My heart soars.
“Say thank you!” says his mother in English. Suddenly he’s shy, and buries his face in his hands.
“It’s okay,” I say, holding out my arms. “How about a hug?”
“ Bbo bbo! ” Kiss kiss . The little boy flings his baby arms around me and holds on tight. I don’t want to let go.
“ Imo kamsahamnida, ” instructs his mother. Thank you, auntie.
Later, my cousins and I have had enough samgyeopsal and soju to speak freely in each others’ languages. “‘Let it Go’ . . . very good!” says an older cousin who wears funny little round glasses that seem too small for his head.
I don’t remember much of what happens after that, except that my cousins and my sister and my uncle and I play drinking games, alternating between Korean and English. We trick each other. We tease each other for drinking too much, or not drinking enough. They ask questions about my home in Australia, about English words they don’t know. I go to bed at two in the morning, finding a spare floor-rug in a room among twenty snoring aunties and kids.
I wake up to the dreaded call of “ Bam meogeo! ” with an aching head that isn’t ready to deal with the world yet. I force some fruit into my mouth. Umma just can’t understand why I don’t feel like kimchi and fish first thing on a Sunday morning. Foreigners are weird.
I catch up on sleep on the bus, which takes us to a temple. All temples in Korea are located deep in a forest or up a mountain.
“I don’t want to!” cries my loud cousin to me in English. “It is . . . himdeuleo! ” Too hard.
“I have a secret,” I whisper.
“I’m hung over.”
The aunties amble back to the bus after bowing to several grumpy-faced stone gods, praying for their husbands and hungover children. We stop for lunch at a Korean beef barbecue restaurant with tender hanwoo beef. I’m still queasy from the previous evening, but my uncles order a fresh round of soju. Full of meat, my cousins’ heads loll back as they try to sleep on the bus, all slumped over together in a mass of arms and hair. But one particularly drunken uncle turns on the karaoke machine and passes the microphone around. This time they have musical accompaniment, and their crooning reverberates a thousand times inside the bus. I bury my sweaty, aching face into the bus’s curtains in solidarity with my cousins.
It could have been different. My relatives and I could have formed a deep bond, but we didn’t. Maybe we couldn’t. Time and space had made us strangers. The language barrier didn’t help, either.
But my family also could have rejected me for being proof of their past shames, a reminder of a long-forgotten sadness. They didn’t. They were funny and embarrassing and let me escape with them for a little while. They welcomed me.
We’ll probably never be close the way I still envision a blood family is, but then how could I know what that feels like? I’ve never felt it before. What matters most is that I found a place for myself in my birth family. I’m the strange foreign cousin who they don’t quite understand, but accept because I have a blood connection to them. That’s enough for them. It’s enough for me.