Ganghwa Island, South Korea

Ganghwa Island, Korea with my Birth Family

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about adoption and stories about the relationship with my birth family. I suppose it has become a regular occasion to see my birth parents and sisters that I didn’t feel the need to write about it, but that is still not the case. Each gathering had something unique and special to it, whether it was my sisters coming to sleep over my place in Gwangju or me going on a solo day trip with my birth parents.

The last time the whole family gathered was in June 2015 before I left Korea. I wrote an article for the Gwangju News Magazine, but the character limit had me cutting out some personal, but important, parts. Hope you enjoy!


 

“Yoon Hee, the last weekend of July. Busy?”

“Not yet.” It was only May, but my sisters have learned early on that my weekends book up quickly, so let me know about family trips in advance.

“Good. Appa’s birthday party in Ganghwa-do. Let’s go together.”

I penciled it into my calendar. Perhaps it will be the last time the whole family is together again before I depart Korea.

Over the course of my three years in Korea, my birth family and I tried to make up for lost time over the 24 we were apart. They knew I was adopted into a family in America, but did not know whether I was a farmer girl in Nebraska or sunbather in Southern California. They did not know if I was in a safe environment or if I had the opportunities to thrive — the things that they wanted me to have. That’s why they ultimately made the difficult decision, after all. While I was growing up, my birth family was just a concept; it only occurred to me in my early 20s that they are real people and that it wouldn’t hurt to try to find them.

Fast forward a few years, not only did I meet them, but I now have a positive relationship with them. We went from complete strangers to having sleepover/face mask parties and totally lazy days lying and eating. You know, things that families do.

On that last Friday night of June, I bussed over to Jeonju to be picked up by my birth parents. We hit the long road to Seoul to scoop up my sisters. We stopped along the way and Omma tried to feed me despite my non-hunger claims. I politely nibbled on the corn on the cob and walnut bread she threw my way, secretly thankful it wasn’t fish on a stick or dried squid. We drove some more and eventually arrived at my sisters’ new apartment near Gangnam. We spent some time on their terrace admiring the views before jumping into pajamas and all sleeping together on the floor, Korean family style. This became a normal thing for me.

The following morning, I woke up to the sounds of cute animal noises from the Anipang game my birth mom likes to play. I proceeded to my usual morning routine of making coffee in a zombie-like state (yes, I brought my coffee materials for the weekend. So?). Five cups were brewed for each of us.

Highly caffeinated, the three sisters piled into the back of the car. Appa navigated the highway along with hundreds of other colorless cars through the streets of Seoul. It was not until we started to cross a bridge stretching across gorgeous blue waters that my eyes lit up.

trip to ganghwa island, korea

My sisters loving the selfie stick. After taking photos, we view them and laugh uncontrollably.

We finally reached Ganghwa Island, a rural island of Incheon, northwest of Gimpo. I was prepared to get out since we reached our destination island, but I would not be able to do so until another hour. My jittery legs fell asleep.

ganghwa

Ganghwa Island is quite close to North Korea

We reached yet another bridge, but this one was heavily patrolled by the military. My birth father showed his necessary documents and we got approval to cross over to Gyodong with the promise that we will leave by a certain time. I was reminded how close we were to North Korea as evidenced by the military presence.

The island is barely inhabited. We drove along the narrow roads lined by farms and the occasional tiny house until we reached a place where there seemed to be civilization. What I suppose you would call a “downtown” area was quaint and rustic. There was one road where a car would certainly not fit, but a bicycle might be able to finagle its way through. There were interesting little shops, in particular, an old school barber shop, with ladies outside tending to their vegetables and rice cakes.

The nice women at a small tourist office, which looked as if it could have been their living room, welcomed us in and pulled up enough seats for us to circle around a laptop playing a video about the history of the Korea’s north and south split as it was relevant to that island. I wish I could have fully grasped the contents of the video because it resulted in Omma shedding tears. From what I gathered, families were separated from the split and were never able to reunite, leaving them longing for each other all of these years. It struck a chord with my birth mother.

“We are together now and we can only move forward, not dwell on the past,” I always try to explain. The language barrier sucks, sometimes.

Ganghwa tourist center

After watching a sad documentary about North Korea

After wandering around more and shrieking about an adorable kitten Vora and I found, we hopped back in the car, waved farewell to the military guards, and went back to Ganghwa Island. A few curvy roads around hills led us to the water with some seafood restaurants lining the road. My family pointed to a squiggly octopus. Before I could look away, the woman pulled the octopus out of the tank, ripped off its head, and chopped away at its tentacles. My squeamish self made a scene by holding my sister and screaming. She found it hilarious. The woman scooped up the last bits of tentacle into styrofoam before nonchalantly wrapping it up in plastic wrap. My sister took the to-go package while I gawked at its squirming tentacles. This was my first time witnessing the iconic food of Korea.

When we got to the pension (in Korea, a pension is a house or cabin you can rent for a get-away), we unloaded the car (Omma brought buckets of kimchi among other food stuffs) and toured the house like kids moving into a new home. Since we were on the second floor, we were delighted by the ocean views on the wrap-around deck, swing bench included.

Pension in Ganghwa island

View from the balcony. The water’s all dried up

This called for a celebration – live octopus. Even after its death twenty minutes ago, the tentacles were still crawling around the plate. My family all dug their chopsticks in and slurped down the moving animal parts. Of course, they pressured me to try it, and I would not decline as it is something you should try once while in Korea. I picked up the tiniest of pieces, sans circular suction cups, dipped it in the accompanying sauce, and gently put it in my mouth. Tasted exactly how I expected — no flavor besides the sauce — and the chewy texture is not something I seek. I managed to smile. I put my chopsticks on the table and sat back on the couch observing them enjoy a food so foreign to me. I couldn’t help but imagine that I would be doing the same exact thing if I wasn’t adopted. But I snapped back to reality as there’s little time for “what ifs”.

live octopus korea

Finally tried live octopus in Korea. Yup, one time’s enough.

My oldest sister, Yujin, and her newborn baby popped their heads in suddenly. It was the first time meeting my second niece and I took note of our similar facial features. 

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My oldest sister and her new baby!

My other three-year old niece, Hayoon, leaped in, acting silly as always. Her and I get along well. She recently surpassed my Korean language abilities, so she officially can converse better with my family than me. Sometimes Hayoon and I go off and do our own thing when we can’t understand the adults. The language barrier can make me feel so isolated from my own birth family.

Hayoon and I found ourselves outside on the swinging bench when Appa came outside to push. We giggled with every one, wind blowing in our hair. I regressed back to being a three-year-old, part of me saddened that I never had the chance to play with my birth father as a kid, but simultaneously lifted because I had the opportunity then.

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Hayoon still doesn’t get that I can’t speak Korean fluently. Crazy aunt.

The rest of the night was a cozy one lazing in the pension. I feel absolutely comfortable with them, but sometimes the language and cultural barrier can be isolating. Being so deeply connected yet feeling like strangers has been a remarkable experience with which I am still getting acquainted. Even though we are not able to have deep conversations, we can still communicate our emotions without words. Our family had meaningful gatherings over the years and I am nothing but appreciative for their efforts to include me in the family and for showing me some special places in my birth country. My time living in Korea has ended, but our relationship and memories will only continue.

korean birth family

My two older sisters, acting silly as usual

*I have since left in August 2015. I chat with my birth parents regularly, but I do not know when I will see them again.

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