My relationship with my sister continues to develop in a way that is stranger than fiction. In a good way. In a completely coincidental, cliché, Mary Sue, happily-every-after kind of way. As previously mentioned, our academic and career paths are nearly identical. Gayoung has traveled around the world working on relief and humanitarian NGO projects. She actually lived in a small rural town outside of Detroit for six months in 2007 before her trip to Namibia. We both have chosen to pursue academics and non-lucrative NGO fields, while our younger sisters have finished school long before us, have made careers for themselves, and are much better at playing “grown-up” than we are.
We have similar mannerisms and idiosyncracies, too. She wears a silver ring on her left pointer finger, given to her by Omma. I wear one given to me by Mum. We both keep our nails short and square; no tapered manicured fingernails for us, though the bones of Gayoung’s hands are much finer than mine, the skin much paler and softer. We both keep a ponytail holder around our wrists to pull our hair back when it gets in the way. In societies where coffee is all the rage, we prefer green tea.
When I met up with Gayoung on Thursday morning, she asked me what I had been doing for the past few days. I told her that the night before, I had wandered around Myeongdong. Her jaw dropped. “I was in Myeongdong last night too!” she exclaimed. She was meeting with some representatives of LGBT/HIV-AIDS organizations from Japan for her internship. Aigo, the coincidences continue to amaze me.
I met with Gayoung for lunch with Imo in Suwon on Thursday. It ended up spilling over into the afternoon, evening, and then overnight. Gayoung and I went to Imo ImSook’s apartment (which is lavishly huge) and spent an hour and a half going through family photo albums and home videos. Oh, to watch Halmoni sing at Noraebang, to see Omma vibrant with life (and probably a couple bottles of soju), dancing and clapping her hands, pulling her girls into her arms and swaying, dancing with them. It was good to see her so happy and carefree. The three of us went to lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant—three courses!
We returned to Imo’s apartment, and Gayoung asked me if I had plans for the afternoon. 없어요. So we decided to catch a movie. Imo, then, through Gayoung, invited me to stay at her apartment overnight with Gayoung. Apparently, she and her husband were going to visit his mother, and Gayoung was babysitting our cousins overnight. I am a planner and a scheduler. I always like to be prepared, with ample time to weigh all the possibilities. So spontaneous overnights with my long-lost family without even a toothbrush is something that I don’t usually agree to readily. But this is my family—they’re opening their hearts and their homes to me. My sister has taken this incredible adventure all in stride. And who knows when I’ll have an opportunity like this one again?
So we were off to the movies. The English film that best fit our schedule was Letters to Juliet. Being a poor college student actually paid off, because although the film was released several months ago in the US, I had yet to see it. It took a few minutes to hail a taxi, so we were running a little late, but we’d make it just a few minutes into the beginning. Walking up to the ticket counter, we asked for two tickets, to find that the theater had cancelled the scheduled showing. No one had bought tickets, so they had shut the screening room down. Gayoung was baffled, “This has never happened to me before!” But I kind of appreciated it, for the opportunity and experience it gave us. Our first outing together as sisters, and we were both comfortable enough to shrug, share the humor of the situation, and figure out Plan B.
Plan B was to catch another taxi across town to Suwon’s other movie theater, to see if they were showing any English movies at a convenient time. Arriving at 5, we purchased tickets for a 6:20 showing of Letter to Juliet, and sat down at Smoothie King with a shared strawberry smoothie to wait for an hour and a half.
“You know,” Gayoung piped up, “I feel very comfortable with you. I thought getting to know you would be difficult and awkward, but it is easy to spend time with you.” Oh, thank you Gayoung. I’ve tried so hard not to try hard to make this work. I’ve wanted to let her be in control, to take my cues from her, not to push her into something that she’s not comfortable with. And still, she reaches out to me.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but our idle chitchat turned into a soul-baring heart-to-heart between sisters. We compared notes, filled in some of the blanks in our mother’s story. She elaborated on how Omma and Gayoung’s father got married. I was able to share with Gayoung more details on Omma’s relationship with my birthfather. She hadn’t known that they had been together for eight years—I think it helped Gayoung realize that Omma wasn’t involved in a casual fling, or a one-night stand. And we reflected, we are the age that Omma was when she had me. Neither of us could imagine becoming pregnant, and being left by our boyfriend. It reinforced for both of us how scared Omma must have been, how brave she had to be.
Gayoung hesitated. “When I went back to my dorm last week after meeting you, I was all alone, and I started thinking , and felt bad.” I tried to reassure her that the last thing I wanted to do was be a threat to the solidity of her family. “I know, but I just kept thinking that Omma married my father just three months after she had you. She didn’t love him when they married. But she became pregnant with me. I thought that maybe Omma was sad that she was pregnant with me. She didn’t love my father. Maybe she didn’t want me.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
Oh sweetheart. That’s the last thing Omma was thinking. I think you were the most wanted baby in the world. I’m sure Omma looked forward to having you in a way that she never allowed herself to dream about with me. She reveled in the fact that she would take you home from the hospital, nurse you at her breast, fall asleep with the small sweet weight of you in her arms. You and your father saved Omma’s life. You gave her a purpose for living, you gave her the family she longed for. And you and your sister and father must be very special people to get Omma to open her heart and love again after everything she’d been through.
We clasped hands and held on tight to each other through our tears in the middle of Smoothie King while an apathetic teenage employee half-heartedly swiped at tables with a damp cloth.
Gayoung said, “Do you remember the other day when I asked you if you ever resented Omma?”
Yes, I did remember. We had been on the bus from Suwon to Yangjae, heading to the Metro stop that would take me back to Seoul, sitting side-by-side, both of us lost in thought. Gayoung had turned to me, and without any pretense, asked, “Have you ever been angry with Omma for what happened?” Without hesitation, I looked Gayoung in the eye and said, “No, never.” And she was satisfied with that reply, didn’t feel the need to pursue the conversation, but instead turned her head to stare out the window again.
“I remember,” I answered Gayoung.
“You said you never blamed her. I read your thesis last night—Omma gave me a copy—and I think that many adoptees would be angry, blame their birthmothers for abandoning them. But you didn’t. And I’m so proud of you for that. Your coming here was the answer to all of Omma’s prayers. Thank you.”
It’s a big thing to have your sister, whom you met less than a week ago, tell you she’s proud of you. But oh, Gayoung, you deserve so much more credit than I do. I had 27 years to prepare for this. Your world was turned upside-down overnight—and you’re thanking me for it. You could have disowned Omma for keeping such a secret, resented her for making you an unwilling accomplice as translator and liaison. You are now faced with the responsibility of keeping Omma’s secret from your father and younger sister, and later, will have to defend Omma’s decisions to them, make them see reason for Omma’s sake. And yet, here you are, sitting across the table from me, sharing a strawberry smoothie, babysitting your older sister, who can’t understand the simplest Korean phrases, and can’t eat but the mildest kimchee. You are incredible, Gayoung, with your open heart and generous spirit. I am so proud of you, for understanding and accepting Omma’s plight. Thank you for reaching out when I know it would be far easier to simply walk away.
And then it was time for the movie. We sat beside each other in the dark of the theater, watching a movie about a woman who searches for a man she left fifty years ago. It was all so surreal, sitting there with my sister, watching a film about searching and reconnecting, watching all the what-ifs play out on screen. Normally, sappy chick-flicks don’t’ get to me, and this film was okay, but definitely not Academy Award material. But there in the dark, in my native/foreign country, I let the tears flow in a cathartic release.
At the end of the movie, the house lights came on and Gayoung and I filed out of the movie theater. Gayoung commented, “If our story were made into a movie, no one would believe it was real.”
I replied, “I’m glad I only waited 27 years to find you instead of fifty.” And Gayoung pulled me into a hug as we walked through the corridors to head back to the home of our aunt where our cousins were waiting.