Tuesday, Omma took the bus up from Ulsan to Seoul where we met her for dinner. Gayoung and Im Sook Imo accompanied us as well. We ended up eating at a Chinese restaurant at Seoul Station Plaza. I told Omma and Imo that Drew loves jjajjangmyun, so we ordered that along with some yummy chicken dishes. It was good to see Omma again, I had forgotten how much I love her voice, so high and soft, and her laugh. Over dinner, we talked about our dogs, and passed cell phone pictures around. Omma has an apricot poodle named Ppalli (means fast in Korean), Imo has a black poodle named Kumchungi (Blackie). Omma's heard all about Olivia, and Drew pulled out pictures of Lily as well. I had a picture on my phone of Olivia snuggling with Amul, and Omma’s comment was that “Olivia seems like a person, not a dog.” She definitely hit the nail on the head with that one.
After dinner, Gayoung suggested we go to Smoothie King—rather humorous, as that’s where Gayoung and I bonded as sisters in 2010. However, Omma wanted beer! So we ended up at Bennigan’s in Seoul. It was a surreal experience sharing a drink with my baby brother, my long-lost sister, my birthmother, and my aunt. But good. I told them about Amul’s attempts at making kimchi:
Me (in Korean): Ah, Omma. Amul made kimchi!
Omma: Wow, really? Amul likes kimchi? He made kimchi? Was it tasty?
At this point the entire table breaks out in giggles. Through Gayoung, I explain that Amul’s first attempt was too salty, his second attempt was too sweet, and his third batch had too much fish sauce. Omma thought that was hilarious, and offered to give us the family recipe (yes please!). She also wondered out loud if we could devise a way to take her homemade kimchi back to the U.S. with us.
Omma asks me what my plans for the rest of the evening and tomorrow are. This relationship with my Korean family is teaching me to go with the flow, to let go of some control. Omma asks me to come with her to Suwon, to spend the night at Imo Halmoni’s. Though the impromptu sleepover is out of my comfort zone (not the experience itself, but the sudden change of plans), Omma, Gayoung, Drew, and I take the hour and a half bus ride to Suwon, to stay at Imo Halmoni’s apartment. Imo Halmoni is visiting her elder sister, my Halmoni. She has graciously allowed us the use of her apartment in Suwon for the night. The bus ride is long after a very long day. Omma and I fall asleep beside each other on the bus, our shoulders touching as we sway back and forth with the turns and jerks of the bus. Finally, we arrive in Suwon around 11:30 and grab a taxi to take us to Imo Halmoni’s apartment complex. Before we head in, we stop at a convenience mart, just ready to close down for the night. Omma grabs Korean melons, mushrooms, cucumbers. Drew and I grab toothbrushes.
Up in Imo Halmoni’s apartment, we sit on the floor in the living room, lean our backs against the wall, and flip through channels on TV. Though we’re all exhausted, it seems sleep is a far way off. It’s so much like my first stay here, wondering what happens next, with the TV chirping in the background. Omma putters around, poking her nose in the fridge, the pantry, cabinets, the laundry drying room. “Rice, rice, I can’t find the rice,” she mutters. Finally after twenty minutes of searching, she finds what she’s looking for in the kimchi fridge. Oh, if only all our searches were so easy. If only all the answers lay in the shiny chest filled with fermented cabbage.
Omma slices melon for us to snack on, and forages for pajama bottoms for all of us—Drew ends up with the pink windsuit pants. She brings out the the thick bedding (yo) to make nests on the floor. And it’s like childhood family vacations again, with the three of us tucked in a row on the floor like peas in a pod. Drew talks and mumbles in his sleep. The other night, I caught him saying, “It was crazy. You had to pay to use the toilet.” Not once on our trip have we had to pay to use the toilet. Omma occasionally snorts and snuffles. Gayoung, like me, buries herself under the covers, pulling the quilts up over her head, to trap the heat in, to bar entry to incubi, to reenact a return to the womb.
I wake to find Gayoung’s spot beside me empty and cold. Simple investigation reveals she has moved from the nest on the floor in the living room to the bedroom with Omma. They lay side-by-side on the double bed, the bed Omma and I shared our first night together. My sentimentality gets the better of me, and I imagine Gayoung waking from a troubling dream, needing the closeness and comfort of our mother. Later, I find out Gayoung couldn’t sleep because of Omma’s snoring. She moved to the bed in order to keep Omma quiet.
Once awake, Drew, Gayoung, and I lounge in the living room, watching the morning news on TV like it’s Saturday morning cartoons. Omma takes over the kitchen, rinsing, chopping, frying. In 2010 when I visited, one of Omma’s regrets was that she didn’t have the opportunity to cook for me. It’s so interesting how love is expressed through food. Omma prepares a lavish breakfast for us—her speciality, kimchi chiggae. This is a special meal—Gayoung has mentioned in the past that one of her favorite dishes is Omma’s kimchi chiggae. However, now that she and her sister are grown and out of the house, Omma rarely cooks anymore. So Gayoung savors this meal as well. The short table fills with banchan—bean sprouts, fried tofu, kimchi, kim, sautéed mushrooms, purple rice. We eat and eat, and it tastes like love. Omma is delighted with Drew’s healthy appetite, and urges him to go back for seconds, thirds.
And then we are clearing the table, cleaning up, erasing our presence in this borrowed home in a whirlwind of dishwashing and rearranging. Within minutes, we are dressed and headed out the door, and down the street where Omma hails a taxi to take Drew and me to the metro station. Gayoung and Omma are headed in the opposite direction to the bus stop. Omma ushers us into the cab, presses her hand to her lips and waves as the taxi pulls away. I forget that with Omma, goodbyes are executed abruptly to avoid drawing out the sorrow of departure any longer than necessary.
Later in the day, I text Omma to let her know we made it safely back to Seoul, that we are now securely ensconced in the adoptee guesthouse. She replies that she is on the bus back to Ulsan. Her text ends with “I love you very, very much.”