ThursdayThursday was an interesting day, to say the least. A lot happened, and also nothing at all. I showered in the tiny bathtub—like a Western tub cut in half—trying not to spray water all over the washing machine, shelved towels, or the rest of the bathroom.
As ImoHalmoni served me breakfast (spicy crab stew), Omma locked herself in the bedroom with her cellphone, talking, talking, talking. An hour later, she emerged, reserved, eyes puffy from crying. Omma and ImoHalmoni conversed in low, hushed tones. And ten minutes later, her phone rang again, and she cloistered herself away again.
Through the morning, I sat quietly on the mat in the living room, watching ImoHalmoni bustle about the kitchen while her husband played virtual poker on the computer. I attempted to watch Korean daytime television; even without understanding 75% of what was going on, it seemed like the Korean version of Dr. Phil, or The View. And then, ImoHalmoni approached me. In loud, slow, Korean, she told me, “Gayoung comes here with Aunt Im Sook.”
I was confused—the day before, with the help of the Holt translator, that Omma could not risk telling her daughters about me. “Maybe when they are married, and have children of their own, they will understand,” Omma had said. “But not right now. They are both single; they won’t understand. They’re Daddy’s girls. They’ll think I betrayed him.” And it was enough for me. Though I have been wondering about my sisters ever since I learned of their existence a year ago, I understood she had to protect her family. Just meeting Omma, and holding hands with my aunts, and knowing that Halmoni had seen my photos, was so much more than I had ever hoped for. I had waited 27 years to embrace Omma. I could wait patiently for my sisters.
But ImoHalmoni was off again, with her never-ending energy, to do the laundry, sweep the floor, water the plants on the outside balcony. Omma emerged again, and suddenly, it was time to go. “Where? Where?” I asked, and the reply was outside of my limited Korean vocabulary. So I put on my shoes, grabbed my camera, and followed Omma, ImoHalmoni, and Great Uncle out the door. Driving a quarter mile, we stopped at ImoHalmoni’s son’s apartment. His wife and three-month old son greeted us, and I sat on the floor cooing at SonJae as ImoHalmoni changed his soiled diaper. And we were off again, leaving SonJae and his mother with a lighter load. I followed, still not quite sure what we were doing. Back in the car, and now we drove across town, stopping at the Bucheon sports center. Built eight years ago for the World Cup, now the center was quiet and empty on this sunny Thursday morning. Were we meeting Imo and Gayoung here? We followed Great Uncle as he led us up to the empty archery range, and back down again. After the false start, we began walking up the Bucheon mountain, winding through snaking trails lined with bursting foliage. We wandered around the trails, Omma and ImoHalmoni telling me the names of plants in Korean, sat and rested on a bench in the sun for a while, and returned to the car. Okay, so we weren’t meeting Gayoung here. Maybe I had mis-interpreted. Maybe she wasn’t coming. Back in the car, we watched television on the car’s built-in GPS unit as Great Uncle drove around town.
Slowing, we picked up SonJae and his mother, who were waiting curbside for us, and drove to lunch. I have had the thirty-cent ramen version of Kalguksu, and found it unpalatable. But fresh homemade kalguksu is another story. It’s a huge communal bowl of soup with handmade wheat noodles in a mild broth. Potatoes, daikon, and fresh mussels are added, and it is eaten with much gusto and slurping. To me, it tasted like comfort food, and it was just what I needed after the confusing morning of watching Omma hide in the bedroom and cry, and then watch her smile and giggle at flowers on the mountain trail as if she had not a care in the world. Omma served me bowl after bowl of soup, picking out the choice bits of mussel and potato and placing them at the edge of my bowl. Like feeding a child, she carefully selected individual pieces of kimchi, scraped them clean of the hot red pepper flakes with her chopsticks, and fed them to me one by one. We finished lunch with strawberry and vanilla ice cream cones, and headed back to the apartment.
And again, we waited, sitting on the floor of the living room. Restless, I got up to use the restroom, needing something to do. And when I emerged, my aunt and sister were standing in the living room. There was an awkwardness to our first interactions. Gayoung seemed dazed, but polite. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said in in impeccable English. “Please forgive me, my mother just told me this morning that she had a daughter. This is so strange.” How does one approach a sister who had no inkling of your existence until a few hours ago? I wanted to hug her, express my love for her. I wanted to give her space, let her know that I wasn’t a threat to her, wasn’t here to break up her family.
We sat, and I prepared for the flurry of questions I’m sure she had. But Gayoung pointedly ignored me, seemingly enthralled by the low-budget vampire movie squaking on the television. Great Uncle continued his game of virtual poker. Imohalmoni bustled about, serving more food, and Imo and Omma chatted nonchalantly. It seemed like we stayed like that for hours. I kept stealing glances at Gayoung’s stoic profile. She has eyes like mine. Her face resembles childhood photos of mine, when my face was rounder and my bangs slashed straight across my forehead. But she didn’t move, didn’t look at me, but continued to stare straight ahead, watching the grisly vampire massacre unfold. I wanted to reach out to her, tell her, “Don’t be angry at Omma. Please understand, she had no choice.” But that two foot gulf between us was so vast.
Imohalmoni sat abruptly, and was was still—a rare moment, as she always seems on the move. Staring off into the distance, Imohalmoni began to talk, and I realized that she was telling Omma’s story. She did not ask for responses from Gayoung, didn’t even seem to be addressing Gayoung, but talked to the room, as if she were telling absent-mindedly telling a story to a group of friends or acquaintances. Imohalmoni talked and talked, Gayoung remained still, eyes glued to the television, pretending to ignore us. Imo sat quietly, listening to Imohalmoni, occasionally brushing a tear away. And Omma sat against the wall, silent, as tears streamed down her face. I wanted to go to Omma, comfort her, hold her hand, as she went through the ordeal in her mind once again. But I didn’t want to usurp Gayoung, make her think that I had replaced her as the caring and dutiful daughter. Sitting, knees huddled up to my chin, I shot glances back and forth among my new family members, waiting and worrying. Imohalmoni’s narrative tapered off, and Omma began to speak, haltingly as she hiccoughed and sobbed through her confession.
Abruptly, Gayoung stood, and rushed into the bathroom without a word, locking the door behind her. Imohalmoni, Imo, and Omma murmured quietly. In Korean, Imo said, “It’s okay, Gayoung just needs more time.” Omma’s tears slowly subsided. And then everything seemed back to normal again. The three of them idly chatted while eating big sweet Concord grapes. I kept glancing worriedly at the closed bathroom door, and finally after half an hour, Imohalmoni decided it was time to go investigate. Gayoung slowly stepped out of the bathroom, and had a brief conversation with Omma. Then turning to me, she began to talk. “I’m sorry,” she said. “After my mother called me, I wanted to come and see her daughter, to try to understand. But when I got here, it was such a shock, because you look like my mother, like my sister. I didn’t know what to do.”
“No,” I said. “I know this is a lot to take in all at once—it took me 10 years to prepare myself for this. You just found out this morning.” I took a deep breath. “I want you to know that I don’t want to take anything away from your family. I know that Omma’s number one priority is to protect you, her family. She wrote to me, and she’s so proud of you.” I tried to explain that the ball was in their court. I would accept as much contact and familiarity as they felt comfortable giving. And then she repeated the words I had wanted to say to her. “I hope someday you can understand that our mother had no choice.”
I could feel the walls coming down, on her side and mine. “I have to admit, I kept staring at you because our eyes are similar. It’s the first time in my entire life that I’ve seen faces that look like mine.” And the dam broke. It is such a powerful thing, to know that you are not alone, to see pieces of yourself reflected in someone else’s face. Watching my face crumple, Gayoung pulled me into a fierce hug. We held tight to one another, forging that bond of sisters. Across the room, Omma wailed and rushed to us, wrapping her arms around us both, crying, “Mi-an-hae, mi-an hae!” The three of us stood in Imohalmoni’s living room, holding on to one another for dear life, crying, absolving, forgiving.
We sat, Omma reaching for both our hands, clasping them to her, and then weaving our fingers together, affirming our sister-ness, two women borne from the same womb, yet raised on opposite sides of the world. I could feel the relief emanating from Omma. A huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders, a huge secret no longer clawing at her conscience. Gayoung and I began to talk—it’s amazing the similarities and coincidences in our lives.
Gayoung is just 14 months younger than I, born May 3, 1984. While her younger sister is out working in the real world, Gayoung is content to remain a student. She is quiet and thoughtful, a graduate student at Kyung Hee University in international studies. Like me, her ultimate goal is to do humanitarian work with non profits. She’s traveled the world doing volunteer relief work, and currently is focused on the HIV/AIDS issues here in Korea and abroad. In 2007, she actually lived for six months in Michigan, in a small town outside of Detroit. Gayoung and I spent the rest of the evening talking, sharing, going through each other’s online photo albums, exchanging graduate school anecdotes. She’s an amazing and insightful woman, and I’m honored to call her my friend, let alone my sister.