I arrived at Holt, stomach full of Koroot lasagna and weekend bag stuffed with gifts in tow, and was led into my new case worker, Eun Jong’s office (Kyunghee has apparently resigned, and is no longer working with Holt). Omma had not arrived yet, and so I sat silent in Eun Jong’s tiny cramped office for a half hour, listening to the rattling hum of the air conditioning unit, vacillating between excitement, anxiety, and fear that Omma had changed her mind, and wasn’t going to show up after all. Eun Jong finally got called away and I spent another five minutes reminding myself to breathe.
Eun Jong returned with a secret smile on her face and asked me, “Are you ready to meet your mother?”
Well, yes. Yes I was.
I had been warned by other adoptees that Holt-facilitated reunions could be rather disappointing affairs. Adoptees are required to face the reunion alone—family members, friends, and translators not provided by Holt are banned, as are photographs, audio recorders, and video recorders. I’ve heard that Holt has insisted that any subsequent interactions must go through the agency; families can’t exchange email addresses or phone numbers or contact each other directly. Throwbacks, I think, to Holt trying to cover its ass from those pesky scandals of baby-switching and certificate-forging. This way, Holt can control the information that goes back-and-forth.
I asked Eun Jong if it was okay to bring a camera, and was given the go ahead. So with my Kodak flipcam and a bag full of gifts, I stepped into the conference room.
Those first few moments were a blur. I remember looking around the room and seeing three women—my great aunt (Imohalmoni) and my mother’s youngest sister had accompanied her. And then my mother wrapped her arms around me, saying over and over, “Mi-an-heyo. Mi-an-heyo.” I’m sorry, I’m sorry. And for the next five minutes we stood there, crying and holding each other, wanting to get good looks at each other’s faces, but reluctant to loosen our holds on each other.
We finally sat down and the dialogue began. There are so many little things that I’ll treasure from that first conversation. Both my father and my mother were the firstborn children of their family; they each have four younger siblings. My Halmoni is 74 years old, Imohalmoni is just 4 years older than Omma. Imo ImSook is the youngest in Omma’s family—39 years old, but she looks like she’s in college. She was just a fifth-grader when I was born, but it impacted her greatly—she was the one that had the initial conversation with KyungHee, when Omma couldn’t face it herself. Imohalmoni nursed Omma through the pregnancy—she had terrible morning sickness all the way till the 7th month, and bound her stomach with linen to hide the bulge from her co-workers. Imohalmoni has two sons, and wanted to raise me as her own daughter, but could not afford to, and my birthfather’s parents would not allow it. She held me that first day in the hospital and consoled Omma as they left without me.
My Haraboji (grandfather) was a proud man, but gave up everything to go to my father’s parents to beg them to allow my parents to marry. The Lunar New Year that year fell around the time of my due date, and when Imohalmoni arrived at my grandparent’s house for the holiday, Haraboji exclaimed, “Why are you here?! You shouldn’t be here! You’re supposed to be taking care of my daughter!”
I have my father’s chin and mouth, hands just like my father’s—square and sturdy, not the tiny tapering hands with bird’s bones like my mother, aunt, and sister. Omma’s ears are as tiny as mine. When she finds something very funny, she throws her head back and to the side with a burst of laughter like I do. Her eyelids disappear into a single fold like mine, as does my sister, Gayoung’s. All three of her daughters are blood type AB. Like her, all three of her daughters wear a ring on their pointer finger, and we twirl it around when we count our prayers or blessings.
There were some moments of humor, mostly regarding my stilted Korean. While I couldn’t hold full conversations with my birthfamily, they were extremely amused by the sporadic single-word quips in Korean that I would occationally supply:
- It’s okay.
- So difficult.
- Really?! (그래요?! Kuh-reyo?!)
As Ed would say, “I am succinct.”
I had brought a bottle of perfume as a gift for Omma. It was a Mary Kay product (thanks to my personal beauty consultant and sister, Erica) called Thinking of You and the packaging had a spot where you could write a message. I had intended to write:
Omma, if you wear this perfume, please think of me.
The Korean word for perfume is 향수 (hyang su). I had written 형수 (hyung su). Thus, my sentimental note read:
Omma, if you wear your sister-in-law, please think of me.
Despite what I had been told by other adoptees, Eun Jong was fine with sending me off with my family for dinner and a homestay unchaperoned. And so I rode the subway and rail lines with my family to Imohalmoni’s apartment in Bucheon, just outside of Incheon. That night, I was exhausted. The weeks leading up to my trip were hectic, and the reunion occurred essentially the day after I arrived in Korea. As I was getting ready for bed, Omma called out to remind me to wash my face and brush my teeth. She tucked me in with the blanket up to my chin. Later, she crawled in to bed beside me, readjusted the covers around my shoulders, and we slept through the night together, side by side.