Sunday, August 11, 2013

할머니의 집

My grandmother’s house sits amid vast stretches of rice paddies in the Geochang countryside.  Less than a mile from her house, a placid mountain reservoir supplies the farms with irrigation, sent along long bridges like Roman aqueducts, and its people with peace, tranquility, and astounding beauty.

We arrive in Geochang at midday, greeted by the aunt who has remained in Geochang all her life, was raised here, and then married and raised her own family here.  Han Sook Imo has a face like Omma’s, though slightly younger and absent of the lines that years of not knowing have formed around Omma’s sparkling eyes.  Like my American mother, my Korean mother always seems to be running late, and so we step into the IMG_3015air conditioned haven the nearby coffee shop affords to wait.  As we sip our iced coffees and teas, Han Sook Imo alternates between studying me intently and looking everywhere but in my eyes.  She checks her watch, checks her phone, makes a call, and is suddenly off, leaving Gayoung and me to finish our drinks.  As we wait, Gayoung glances another aunt out the window and beckons her inside.  This aunt, Kyung Mi Imo, is petite but willowy, with a face more like Imo Halmoni’s, frameless glasses perched on her nose.

Han Sook Imo suddenly reappears, her daughter in tow.  My twenty-six-year-old cousin, Haesung is tall and has delicate hands and kind eyes.  She likes things in their place, and everything just so.  Throughout the day, I watch her fold discarded napkins and place them in the corner of a tray, rearrange chopsticks and spoons so they line up just right, dab water drops from tabletops, and pick invisible specks from the woven sitting mat on the floor, always with her pinky fingers delicately cocked, as if she is having tea with the queen.  She is a dutiful daughter and granddaughter, and plays the model hostess at Halmoni’s house, attending to everyone’s needs.

IMG_3014Gayoung is on the phone with Omma; she is still at least an hour away, on a bus near Daegu, so it is decided that we will have lunch in town while we wait for her bus to arrive.  Shabu shabu is on the menu for lunch today, and all my relatives ensure that I am full of thin slices of beef, fresh octopus and squid, scallops still in their shells, and dumplings.  “많이 먹어!” (eat a lot!) is their chant.
Finished with lunch, we make our way back to the bus terminal to pick up Omma.  She slides into the backseat with me in a cloud of heat and sweet perfume.  Before heading to Halmoni’s house, we stop at the local market to pick up food for our little retreat.  Ginseng, a whole chicken, tofu, bitter melon, steamed red bean bread, all are procured, and then we are finally on our way to Halmoni’s house, navigating the winding country roads in Han Sook’s little sedan.

Halmoni is not at home when we arrive.  At seventy-seven, she has taken it upon herself to learn to read, and IMG_3024is at school where she practices writing her hangul characters.  Gayoung informs me that our grandmother is the best in her class.  I jokingly ask if Halmoni is the only person in the class, but one of my imos assures me there are 9 or 10 other students.

This is a surprising bit of information, that Halmoni never learned to read.  Well, not surprising, as many rural Koreans of her generation didn’t have access to such education, but I find even three years after our reunion, another puzzle piece falls into place, filling in the gaps.  When I first started looking for Omma, with the help of Ma Kyung Hee at Holt, we sent two different telegrams to Halmoni’s house, asking Omma to contact us.  This is standard practice, as it was the original address on file, and sending a telegram to the birthmother’s parents comes with less risk of a husband finding out about such a secret as a relinquished child.  We never heard back from those telegrams, and guessed that perhaps my grandparents had moved away in the 27 years that I had been gone.  Gayoung had told me that we were visiting the same house (though with a few drastic remodels and renovations along the way) that Omma had grown up in.  Halmoni had never moved, yet the telegrams went unanswered because she could not read them.  As a last ditch effort, Kyung Hee sent a telegram to a current address linked to Omma that the police inquiry had found.  Funnily enough, the telegram was received by my youngest sister, Jiyoung (to whom I am still a secret).

And that is where the gaps begin to close, when Omma contacted Holt, and went though the agonizing process of deciding whether or not to reach out to her lost daughter.  But this little sliver of knowledge, that Halmoni didn’t know how to read, reveals how close we could have been to never meeting.  I share my revelation with Gayoung, who informs Omma and the imos.  They, too are startled by this, and it comes back into the conversation several times during the night, as they parse through the what-ifs that have become so familiar to me in navigating this adoption experience.IMG_3033
Halmoni arrives, and she is a spry and sassy old woman with a strong voice and a hearty laugh.  We sit in the bright airy common room of her house, spearing peach and plum slices with tiny forks.  I sit on the straw mat on the floor, listening to the animated chatter.  My heart swells with each burst of laughter and smile, surrounded by these women who all shared Omma’s sorrow and helped her be strong.  The summer heat and belly full of good Korean food makes me sleepy, and Omma encourages me to stretch out and nap.  I rest my head on Halmoni’s buckwheat pillow and drift in and out to the sound of my relatives chatting, catching up on neighborhood gossip.

IMG_3057In honor of my visit, my family decide to prepare samgyetang for dinner.  Also, as it is the hottest day of the year, the traditional chicken soup is fitting, as it’s customarily eaten to beat the hot weather.  Family members scurry about, picking fresh vegetables from Halmoni’s garden, starting a campfire, boiling water in a huge metal pot over the fire, and cooking rice and beans.  And while all the disparate pieces of the meal are being put together, Halmoni’s daughters each take an opportunity to sneak away, to talk with me, with Gayoung’s help.  The afternoon chatter was lighthearted and pointedly ignored the elephant in the middle of the room.  Gayoung tells me that Han Sook Imo confessed to her that she can’t look into my eyes—if she does she will break down in tears.  I suspected that Han Sook Imo’s decision to bring her daughter Haesung along was a strategy to avoid discussing heavier things—Haesung is not privy to the family’s secret.

  But with just the three of us together, Kyung Mi Imo dissolves into tears as she relates through Gayoung the trials our family went through after I went away.  “Thank you,” she says, “Thank you for finding my sister, because she couldn’t find you.”  She tells me that Omma has been so much happier the past three years since we found each other, she has been at peace, knowing that I am safe and sound and happy.  Imo becomes emotional as she talks about her older sister’s sadness, and I realize how much love there is in this family; she is crying relating the pain that is not even hers, she hurts because her sister hurts.  “Thank you for not forgetting me,” I reply.  I am so grateful to my aunts, to my grandmother, to Gayoung, to Gayoung’s father for loving Omma so much, for helping her be strong and remember how to love and laugh  in my absence.

Kyung Mi Imo tells me that she was friends with my birthfather’s sister.  They all grew up together in the same village; my parents had known each other since elementary school.  Apparently, some years ago, my Gomo (paternal aunt) got married, and then divorced (which is big news in a small town in Korea).  At some point, the whole family moved away from the hometown village to the city (which aligns with what I’ve learned about his family’s desire to climb the social ladder at any cost).  My paternal grandmother passed away of stomach cancer, and my grandfather moved in with my birthfather’s family.  Imo tells me that when she was pregnant with her first child, she knitted baby clothes and thought of me.  When she held her baby in her arms, she wondered how my father’s family could give up their child.  When Omma got the letter from Holt, she talked with Imo, and Imo also talked with Ma Kyung Hee. I love being part of this family of beautiful strong women. I love that one woman’s heartache is all the women’s heartache.  And the joy of love and reunion is shared among them (us) as well.IMG_3092IMG_3089
Dinner is served with local Geochang ice wine (which took half an hour to uncork without a corkscrew, and still contains bits of cork that float to the top).  The home cooked samgyetang made by my grandmother and mother and aunts is delicious; I can taste the love in every bite.

After dinner, Halmoni retreats to the bedroom, and the rest of us set out mats in the front yard, lie on our backs gazing at the stars in the clear Geochang night sky.  One by one, we fall asleep, lulled by the night sounds and the comfort of each other’s closeness.  Halmoni wakes us sometime in the middle of the night.  “What the heck are you doing out here?” she cries.  “Get inside! The mosquitoes!”  We all troop inside, dragging blankets and pillows to collapse again on the straw mat in the front room for a few more hours of sleep before daybreak.

The morning dawns hot and humid.  As the women prepare breakfast, they shoo us cousins out the door to take a walk to the reservoir.  One of the Imos chases behind us to hand us all frilly pink parasols to block the sun (they had commented earlier on how “black” my skin was).  And so, with these lacy confections in hand, we hike along the path to Chisan-josuji.  We are silent as we walk, each lost in thought.  I cannot speak for my sister or cousin, but I contemplate this rare opportunity I have been given, to live, even just for a day, as part of the Yoo family.  Gayoung has shown me pictures of family vacations at Halmoni’s house, all the aunts and uncles and cousins in residence, splashing in mountain streams, and lolling lazily on Halmoni’s floor, and I think this must be what it is like to live in this family, surrounded by beauty and love.  I cannot mourn the loss of those whole family retreats that have never included me.  Rather, I am thankful for this glimpse, thrilled that this experience can now be included alongside those Donnell summer vacations on the lake in northern Michigan.  I am so lucky that now both of these are a reality in my life.

IMG_3105When we return from our walk, breakfast is nearly ready.  The table is laden with rice, pork belly, doenjang chiggae, banchan, and a beautifully-fried fish that was caught by Kyung Mi Imo’s husband during a recent vacation by the sea.  Breakfast is eaten with gusto, and I am surprised that the seven of us consume nearly all the food set out.  Ever the perfect hostess, Haesung pulls choice bits of fish from the communal plate and places them delicately on my spoon.  Halmoni slurps at the dregs of the doenjang chiggae and Omma sucks on the fishbones.

Once breakfast is cleared away, we sprawl on the floor to digest.  Halmoni reaches for her knapsack, taking the opportunity to study what she has learned at school.  Her workbook contains the text of well-known old Korean country songs, and with Gayoung pulling up sound files on her smartphone, a singalong commences.  Kyung Mi Imo sits close to Halmoni, tracing the lines with her finger to help Halmoni follow along.
Gayoung asks me what my favorite Korean song is.  “Big Bang? 2NE1?” she teases me.  No, I tell her.  My favorite Korean song is “Sa Rang Hae (Dangshinul),” an old Korean song that was popular before I was even born.  My family members nod in recognition.  While perhaps not nearly as iconic as “Arirang,” I think all Koreans are familiar with this song.  Gayoung finds the music on her phone.  And then the women of my family sing to me. The song is sweet and sad, but most of all, speaks of love.  All the things that have colored my reunion with these women.

After the music fades, it is quiet.  Kyung Mi Imo wipes a tear from her eye and says, “Every time I hear this song now, I will always think of Kyung Joo.”  I am touched, and place my hand upon my heart in thanks.  “Sister, how do you know this song?” Gayoung asks me. “It is a very old song, where did you hear it?”  On my first return to Korea in 2001, our tour group visited an orphanage and spent several hours with the children that lived there.  I remember one little girl that I spent time with—she just wanted to be held, cuddled, loved.  When our time was up, leaving the babies behind was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The children wailed, and we adoptees along with our adoptive families wept alongside them.  I think it really hit home for us that this legacy of lost children continues even today.  Whether transnational adoption is ethical or not, whether children find loving homes in new families or not, there is sadness in the fact that circumstances have disallowed children’s original families from raising them.  Back on the tour bus, our group sat immobile with our grief.  Our sweet and kind guide, Miss Pak, grasped the bus’s PA microphone and began singing this song to us in a brave, clear voice, simultaneously soothing and affirming  our sorrow.
I tell this story to my family, and then the tears that have been held back for the past day and a half break through.  We are all weeping.  I scoot across the floor to embrace Omma.  “Mianhae,” she sobs. “I am so sorry.”

Once our tears subside, talk again turns to more mundane topics.  We assemble for a quick lunch of cold “noodles” made of seaweed gelatin in a broth of pureed soybeans, and then we all load into Kyung Mi Imo and Han Sook Imo’s cars to return to the bus terminal.  Halmoni and the Imos wave as Omma, Gayoung, and I board our respective buses.  As our bus heads for Seoul, I turn to Gayoung and ask, “Do you think Haesung figured out what was going on?”  Gayoung shrugs.  “Probably,” she replies. “Kyung Mi Imo has already told her daughter, so Haesung will probably find out.”  I am happy that it will no longer be a secret from my cousin.  Not because I feel I deserve to be known and wholly accepted, but because it means that Omma will have one more brave woman to help her be strong.  One more family member has weighed the “shame” of a thirty-year-old past against their love for my mother, and has chosen to embrace her wholly, and make her heartbreaking history a part of their own.  This is family.  This is love.  And I am so blessed to be among such a powerful force.


  1. What an amazing reunion! You are clearly here to bless the lives you touch--as you have blessed our lives since the first day we held you. I am filled with gratitude for who you are and for your courage in making this journey. Love Always, Mom

  2. 그것은 당신이 임대 집에 대해 여기에서 공유 한 멋진 기사입니다. 당신의 기사는 집을 임대하고자하는 사람들에게 매우 유용합니다. 이 게시물을 공유해 주셔서 감사합니다. 하노이 임대형 공용(셰어) 주택