It’s been almost 2 months now since my trip to Korea. I’ve shared some stories of my trip with folks back home, but mostly, I’ve kept the stories to myself. Oh, I’ve talked about the things we did, and what we saw, and the great food we ate. I’ve talked about those things ad nauseum, actually, and I’m pretty much ready to be done telling those stories.
But there are other stories, other memories, other thoughts, that have lodged themselves deep in my heart, nestled in close for safekeeping. I actually tried to write this post about a month ago…spent an hour typing away. And then promptly mis-typed and pushed the trash button by accident. The whole thing disappeared into cyberspace, and I took it as a sign that this particular story wasn’t ready to be shared yet.
Over the past month though, there isn’t a day that’s gone by that I haven’t thought about this afternoon in Daegu.
But let me start at the beginning.
The second week of our trip was focused on birth search related activities. The Friday of the first week was spent in a frustrating meeting with a “social worker” at Eastern Social Welfare Services. She spoke English well enough, but went out of her way to cover up identifying information in my file, including my birth certificate, which I didn’t know existed (in the 80’s many families didn’t register births until after the 100-day birthday). Never mind that I already had my birthmother’s name. I still wasn’t allowed to see it. That’s a post for another day…
The long and short of it is that I didn’t really get any useful information in Seoul. So, we traveled down to Daegu, my birth city, and spent the day with a volunteer translator. She took us to the district office where my birth would have been registered, and we asked where my hospital records might be kept, as the hospital where I was born is no longer in existence. After much hemming and hawing, they sent us to the Red Cross Office (it was a Red Cross Hospital). We sat there for an hour or so as they tried to figure things out…and after several phone calls, we left empty-handed. Medical records are only kept for 10 years.
I wasn’t surprised…that’s pretty typical. By this point in the afternoon I was tired. I had had a roaring headache in the morning, to the point of feeling nauseous, and was only just starting to feel a little better after all the office visits. They had eaten up most of the day and by the time we had to leave Daegu for Busan, I was feeling a deep need to spend more time in Daegu. I hadn’t actually seen the city…just offices.
So, the next day, my friend Alaine and I decided to go back, just the two of us. We were free to set our own schedule, walk around neighborhoods as we pleased, and not have to take care of anybody else. It felt ridiculously luxurious and liberating. We both felt a deep need to just be there, without an agenda, to soak in the air, the smells, the sounds, watch the people…to just be silent and not have to explain anything.
Our first stop was the hospital where I was born. The first day in Daegu, we had driven by it in a taxi, and literally, I jumped out, had my picture taken, and then jumped back in. The building was empty, there was no real reason to linger. But the second afternoon, we went back, and I just sat on the steps, lost in thought, watching traffic. There’s a huge Hyundai department store across the street, and people streamed by. I touched the handle of the front door to the hospital, wondering if my birth mother had opened the door herself, or if she was wheeled in in a chair. Sitting on those hospital doorsteps may be the closest I’ll ever get to finding my birth mother. I kept waiting to feel some kind of emotion, anything…but there was nothing.
After a while, we decided to wander through the neighborhood, away from the busy streets. I’ve always had a pretty good sense of direction, and since we had been in the neighborhood the day before, I didn’t worry about looking at the map. We just walked. School kids headed home, or to their after-school activities. I tried to imagine myself as one of them, in their short skirts and ironed shirts, laughing and chatting in Korean. We wandered past small shops and apartment buildings, keeping our eyes on the mountains in the background as our compass.
We paused in front of a shop to take photos of the gorgeous Kwan Yin statue, and then turned around to see a tiny print shop. The doors were wide open and inside was a single man, in his forties, maybe early fifties. What drew us in at first was the press itself, an Original Heidelberg Cylinder. Alaine and I looked at each other, and then looked into the shop again. This place had a story, I could just feel it. The man turned around, saw us, and greeted us in Korean. We said hello and then paused, already reaching the outer limits of our Korean vocabulary. I reached in my purse for the index card on which I had a written a few phrases, and for my rental phone, which thankfully was a smart phone with access to GoogleTranslate. He came and sat on the front step of his shop, looking ready for a break.
What happened next is probably something that happens to many travelers. You figure out how to communicate anyway. You gesture, you smile, you laugh when you know you’re obviously in over your head and probably saying something very, very stupid. Slowly we pieced together enough words to share that we were adopted, visiting from America, in Daegu looking for any information we could find about our birth families. It didn’t occur to me to show him the picture on my phone of the hospital three or four blocks away…but I think we managed to communicate that I was born there. We told him our names. He told us his.
And then there was quiet for a while. After a moment, he pulled out his phone and started showing us pictures of his family. This is my son, he said. He’s very smart. Engineering student in Seoul. We admired his strong face. He looks like his father, I thought to myself.
This is my daughter, he said, showing us a photo of a woman, perhaps in her early 30’s, with a guitar strapped around her neck. Folk singer, he said, pointing to her picture. We smiled and nodded, and then he pulled up a YouTube video of his daughter singing. And that is when I finally cracked open.
The whole trip, I had been mentally prepared to find nothing. It didn’t seem likely, and the one thing I really took away from my conversations with other adoptees who had returned was to not have any expectations. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have expectations. So I convinced myself that I wouldn’t find anything, and that it would be alright. And the thing is…it was alright. I felt remarkably calm the entire first week, truly able to enjoy my time in Korea without the anxiety of constantly wondering if every woman I saw on the street might be my mother.
But something broke open inside me as I sat watching this simple YouTube video of a stranger’s daughter singing in a language I can’t speak. I didn’t need to know Korean to be moved by her voice. I could hear generations of longing and sorrow. I could hear the struggles of a country divided and still at war with itself, politically and philosophically. How do we balance our rich culture and tradition with the unspeakably fast economic development of the past 50 years? The expressiveness of the Korean language cut straight through the heart, and I just let myself be open to it. He didn’t seem the least bit alarmed that a complete stranger was sobbing on the front step of his shop. Perhaps he even expected it.
It was years and years of waiting for this moment, this moment of being seen in Korea, truly seen as another human being with a story and a name in the land of my birth. It was the kindness in this man’s eyes, the obvious love and pride he felt for his daughter and family, his willingness to stop work for a moment on a busy afternoon and listen to two foreigners trying to explain how this was their first time in Korea. It was all of this, and something more that I still can’t explain, except to say that after the song finished, I knew I could safely go back to the United States and be okay with the short time I had in Korea…but that I would be coming back.
I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again, but I can only express my gratitude for the gift of his kindness.
김 세영, 감사합니다, from the bottom of my heart.