Nonfiction by SooJin Pate
Where do we go from here?
An Adoptee’s Reflections on Life after Loss, Reunion, and Loss Again
I was 5 years old when I was literally torn away from the arms of my umma (mom) at Gimpo Airport in South Korea.
I remember panicking, trying to make sense of what was happening because I thought we were going home. That’s what my friends at the orphanage told me: “Your umma is coming to pick you up today. You get to go home. Your wish came true!” It was just an hour ago that I hugged my friends goodbye, reassuring them to not give up hope because if my umma came back for me, maybe theirs would, too. But instead of finding myself running up the stairs to our uncle’s apartment (where we lived after appa, our father, died), I found myself running down the concrete corridor of Gimpo Airport, trying to escape the grips of the white man who was coming to take me away.
Ever since this loss that took place at the airport, I have fantasized for reunion. Reconnection. Return.
I remember asking my adoptive mother when I was seven years old, “How many pennies does it take to buy a ticket to Korea?”
Rather than answering my question, she responded with a question of her own: “Why do you ask?”
Thinking that the answer was obvious, I replied, “To find my mom.”
At this, my adoptive mother answered with a tone that was both definitive and corrective: “She’s not your mother anymore. I am.”
And so, I tucked away my dream of going back to Korea into my pocket and promised myself to never utter this wish to my adoptive mom again.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I reached back into my pocket and pulled out that dream that I had hidden away since I was a little girl. It was time to turn this dream into a reality, so I embarked on the search to find my umma. I contacted Korea Social Service (KSS), the orphanage where my sister and I stayed prior to our adoption. The woman who answered the phone told me I needed to contact Lutheran Social Services, their partner organization in Minnesota, and ask them for my adoption file number. I did that and called KSS back with the information. The woman said it could take up to two years, at least, to locate my birth family because their agency was run by a handful of volunteers. “Please be patient,” she requested. And with that, she hung up the phone.
Two years later, my sister and I stepped off the plane and onto Korean soil to reunite with our umma for the first time in 20 years. We spent three weeks trying to make up for those lost years. My umma bathed me and combed and braided my hair. She fed me mouthfuls of kimbap, kimchi, and pajeon with her chopsticks. She spoon-fed me doenjang jjigae and galbitang. We whizzed around the markets in Dongdaemun eating street food and buying souvenirs, visited our maternal grandfather’s burial mound, and did cartwheels along the Han River. Everywhere we went, we held hands. Whether we were sitting in a car, a bus, or a restaurant, umma couldn’t stop touching me and my sister. Touch became the vehicle to not only transmit her love (since neither of us spoke each other’s language) but also to learn us through osmosis, as if she could recover those stolen years by soaking in our bodies, breath, and skin.
The highlight of our trip was a visit back to the village where we used to live. Although our house was no longer standing, we met villagers who remembered us after all those years. To our utter shock, our neighbor—who was like a surrogate grandmother to me and my sister—was still alive. In her 90s and now blind, she asked each of us to stand in front of her. She traced our eyes, cheekbones, nose, and mouth, as if her fingers would ignite memories and restore some faded vision from her seeing days. She then explained that she had been praying for our return, worried that something happened to us after our appa died. She told us that it brought her joy and great comfort to know that we were healthy and happy—after all these years. She could die a happy woman now, she said, knowing that we were OK.
Umma expressed this same sentiment on our final day of our trip. She told us that she had been suicidal after we were taken from her and shipped off to the United States. Almost immediately after we left, she checked herself into a mental institution. She was there for six years. She said that the only thing that kept her alive were these words from the director: “One day, your daughters will come back to find you. When they do, do you want them to hear that you killed yourself? That would break their hearts.” She didn’t want that to happen to us, so she kept herself alive. As we were about to leave for the airport, she told me and my sister, “I can die a happy woman now because my dream has finally come true.” I felt exactly the same way.
After our reunion, we kept in touch through email or phone every few months. Because of my limited Korean, I could only say, “I miss you” and “I love you.” My umma, on the other hand, didn’t care that I couldn’t understand her. She just rambled on and on. We both came to the conclusion that our phone conversations were more about hearing each other’s voice and less about passing along any information. That we saved for email, with the help of our friend and translator, Yuni.
In the 15 years since our reunion, my umma has participated in some of the most significant events of my life. She walked me down the aisle at my wedding and welcomed the birth of my daughter, her first grandchild. I spent a month with her at her home, helping her harvest the peaches on the orchard that she leased. She spent a month with me, helping me prepare for my wedding. Then later, she helped me ease into the transition of being a new mom. Our time together has been marked by one milestone after another, one celebratory event after another. And perhaps that is why so much of our time together has felt like a honeymoon.
It wasn’t until my last trip to Korea in July 2011 that, to borrow from Chinua Achebe, things fell apart. My daughter Sxela was three years old. This would be the first time she would meet her halmoni (grandmother) since she was born. The first night was grand. It was like Christmas in July because so many gifts were exchanged. Sxela basked in the love and affection of her halmoni. I was thrilled and grateful to have three generations of Park women in the same room, to have Sxela connect to her Korean roots at such a young age, and to witness my umma doting on her first grandchild. In so many ways, that first night was magical.
But then things began to sour. With each passing day, my umma slowly withdrew her affection—in both small and big ways. I knew things weren’t right when she offered Sxela and me a bowl of boiled potatoes for lunch, while she and her husband dined on bulgogi and fish. My umma is like every Korean woman I know: her primary mode of displaying love and affection is through food. Food is her love language. So when the bowl of plain potatoes was set before us, I knew something was amiss. Who knew that the potatoes would foreshadow what was to come?
Things got increasingly worse after the potato incident. Sxela and I were no longer allowed to eat with the rest of the family in the kitchen: we were relegated to the TV room that doubled as our bedroom. During the two-hour bus ride to Seoul, she refused to sit with us. Instead, she sat across the aisle with her back facing us the entire time. What happened? What did I do to make her treat us this way? What made her despise us so much that she couldn’t stand to look at us or eat in the same room with us? Did we do something wrong?
Then three consecutive things happened that made me realize that umma was a danger to my child. We had arrived at the bus station in Seoul around 10pm. We hailed a cab to take us to my friend Yuni’s place, where we’d be spending the night. It was raining and the cars that zipped by were unkind to pedestrians, so I immediately strapped Sxela into the backseat. As I was putting our luggage into the trunk of the cab, I heard Sxela screaming at the top of her lungs. I quickly came around to the back seat and saw that umma had placed a 25lb box of peaches on Sxela’s hand. Instead of moving the box, she just stood there. I crawled over Sxela and wrested the box of peaches off her hand. Through her sobs, Sxela asked if her hand was broken. Her hand was intact, thank goodness. At this point, I gave my umma the benefit of the doubt and explained to Sxela that it was just an accident: Halmoni didn’t see her hand in the dark. Then an hour later after we arrived at Yuni’s apartment, I heard another scream from my daughter. As we were hauling suitcases down the hallway, my umma ran into Sxela. Sxela was on the floor, crying. Again, I gave my umma the benefit of the doubt. “It’s dark, sweetie, so Halmoni didn’t see you. You need to stay out of the way.” I tucked her off to the side in the adjacent hallway. “Stand here. You’ll be out of the way now.” Several minutes later, I heard Sxela crying again. Umma had managed to go out of her way and knock her down again. This time, I knew that these “accidents” were no longer accidents. She had been hurting Sxela on purpose all along. I yelled, “Umma! Don’t you see Sxela? You have to be more careful!” Umma yelled back, “Gwenchena! It’s fine!”
I scooped up Sxela and did what I should have done from the beginning: took her inside Yuni’s apartment where she would be safe.
As Yuni opened the door, I explained, “Umma keeps running over Sxela with the luggage. Can she stay here with you where she’ll be safe?”
“Of course,” she answered back, a bit confused as to why she was unsafe with Umma.
I headed out the door and saw Umma charging down the hallway, rolling a suitcase in each hand behind her. She maintained her position, right in the middle of the hallway, not moving off to the side to let me by. I tried to pass her, but she shifted over and ran right into me. This must be how Sxela ended up on the ground. Our bodies collided. She dropped the bags and hit me on my chest with both hands, propelling me backwards. I regained my balance and pushed her back. She raised her hand above her head and formed a fist, ready to punch me. I body checked her, slamming my chest into hers and yelled, “C’mon!” daring her to hit me.
Her eyes seared into mine. I saw hate in those eyes. What had I done to make her hate me so? I wanted to burst out into tears because a mother is not supposed to look at her child this way. A mother is not supposed to hate her child. But I steeled myself because if she sensed any weakness from me, I knew I was going to get punched. I puffed myself up like a stray cat and pretended like I was fiercer than I really was. It worked because she dropped her arm to her side. She spun on her heel and trudged down the hallway, back downstairs to get more bags.
I picked up the suitcases that she left on the ground and rolled them back to Yuni’s place. I was shaken by what had just happened between Umma and me. I couldn’t believe she was about to punch me in the face. I had become her enemy.
“Yuni, would you mind helping Umma with the rest of the bags? She just tried to run me over with the suitcases. I think I should stay here with Sxela.”
Yuni took off, and I held Sxela tight in my arms. She had stopped crying but kept asking me over and over, “Why did Halmoni hurt me?”
Sxela had no idea that I was asking myself the same question. Why did Halmoni hurt me? I answered for myself and for her when I said, “I don’t know, sweet girl. I truly don’t know.”
Yuni and Umma came into the apartment with the final bags of luggage. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Umma sifting through the pile of bags, gathering her things. “Yuni, my umma is leaving,” I said.
“What do you mean? No, she isn’t. You all are spending the night here.”
“Yes, she is,” I said with conviction.
Yuni went to stop Umma in her tracks. They spoke in Korean. I didn’t understand what was being said, but from the venom seeping from my umma’s lips, I could tell that she was complaining about me and my daughter. After ten minutes, Yuni came back to tell me that I was indeed right: she was leaving. Apparently, Umma was annoyed that I kept making a big deal every time Sxela cried. She thought I was overreacting to her getting hurt. And it frustrated her that I kept telling her (Umma) to be more careful.
I saw Umma slip through the front door without a word to us. I began to panic, thinking that I’d never see her again, thinking that this would be my last memory of her—her walking away in anger with only silence between us. Yuni must have seen the look of worry in my eyes because she reassured me, “Umma is just going to wait downstairs for us to say goodbye. Finish putting on Sxela’s pajamas, and we’ll go downstairs together. By the way, it started raining outside, so you’ll want to put on your coats.”
I did as I was told. We headed down the three flights of stairs together. On our way, I prepped my daughter, “Sxela-girl, I guess we’re not going to see Halmoni anymore. And I don’t think she’ll take us to the airport, so we need to say goodbye to her now. This is going be the last time we’ll see her for a while, so I want you to thank her for taking care of us, for letting us stay at her house, and for all the presents she gave you, OK?”
Sxela nodded her head in understanding.
We got to the first floor landing. And I got that familiar feeling I felt when I was five years old—the day that she took me and my sister into the city. When we entered the office building, she suggested that we play outside with the kids that we had just passed on the playground. My sister tugged on my arm to go out, but I wanted to stay. I sensed something was wrong. Umma kept insisting that we play outside: “It’s such a beautiful day out. Go outside and have fun with the other kids.”
“Do you promise to get us before you leave?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” she replied.
With her assurance, I ignored the worry growing inside me and trudged outside with my sister to play with the other children. Umma was right: being outside was much more fun.
All of a sudden, I heard a bell ring and an ajuma (older woman) calling the children in for dinner. I looked around. It was dark. I panicked. Where is Umma? Then it slowly sunk in: she left us. And not only that: she left without saying goodbye.
That same sense of panic in my gut was now being reawakened 29 years later. The orphanage scene was replaced by an apartment awning. I looked out into the wet darkness, trying to make out the outlines of a body. Nothing.
Sxela asked, “Mama, where’s Halmoni?”
Trying to hold back my tears, I said with as much strength as I could muster so that my voice wouldn’t shake, “I think she’s gone.”
“You mean she left without saying goodbye?” My daughter asked with a wisdom beyond her years.
“I don’t know, Sxela-girl.”
Yuni didn’t believe me when I told her she was gone. She quickly reassured me by saying, “She wouldn’t do this. She wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. Maybe she’s waiting for us in the parking lot.” Yuni left the protection of the awning and searched for her in the pitch-black night. I could hear her call out “Ajuma!” through the pitter-patter of rain. With each “Ajuma!” that was met with silence, I began to accept the inevitable. She did it again. Damn. She did it again.
“Yuni, she’s not here! She left!” I called out into the darkness.
“No, she would never do that,” she said running back towards us. “Just wait here. I’m going to check the taxi station. I’ll be right back.”
You’re wrong, Yuni, I thought to myself as she ran across the parking lot, toward the street lamps. She would do something like this because she did it before. She left me at the orphanage without saying goodbye. And now 29 years later, I’m back to where I started. She left me. Again.
Yuni finally came back sopping wet. She looked at me, as if to say, “I’m sorry,” but I shook my head no at her. In doing so, the tears that I had been holding back since the awareness sunk in shook loose from my eyes. I couldn’t hear Yuni say I’m sorry at that precise moment because her apologizing to me would acknowledge my heartbreak. I couldn’t have her affirm that for me because I would fall apart. And I couldn’t do that in front of my daughter. So I quickly wiped away my tears with my shoulder so Sxela wouldn’t see. We made our way upstairs in complete silence.
Yuni hugged me goodnight and whispered “I’m sorry” in my ear. Sxela and I made our way into the bedroom. As we settled into bed, Sxela kept asking me two questions over and over: “Why did Halmoni leave without saying goodbye?” and “Why did Halmoni hurt me?” My only response to both questions were, “I don’t know, sweetie. I truly don’t know.”
I encouraged her to go to sleep because it was late. “It’s been a long day. You need your rest,” I told her. What I really needed was for her to sleep so I could unleash my sadness. I desperately needed to cry. I needed to release all the confusion, frustration, pain, and now heartache that had been accumulating since the second day of my visit. And I couldn’t do that with her awake by my side. I hadn’t cried in front of Sxela this entire time because I didn’t want her to internalize the situation, thinking that it was her fault, that she did something wrong.
With her sound asleep, I could finally un-dam my tears. And because I had mastered the art of crying silently, I was able to release without waking up my child. My mind was swirling. I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong. What did I do that was so despicable that she had to leave me again? What did Sxela do that justified the treatment she received? And then it hit me: Sxela didn’t do anything wrong. She was three years old, for god’s sake. What could she possibly have done to incite her halmoni? And then it dawned on me that I was just two years older than her when Umma left me at the orphanage. Even though I had later learned as an adult that there were larger social and political forces at work that prompted our adoption, I still struggled with feelings of shame and blame regarding being left at the orphanage. A piece of me still believed that if my sister and I were less of a burden, Umma wouldn’t have left us there. But thinking of Sxela at three years old, I knew that there was nothing she could have done or not done to warrant any blame or responsibility. And it was only in thinking about this situation within the context of my child that made me realize—beyond a shadow of doubt—that I didn’t do anything wrong either when I was five years old.
And then another awareness emerged: Umma leaving us in the pouring rain had nothing to do with me or Sxela and everything to do with her own limitations and incapacities. And her leaving me and my sister at the orphanage also had nothing to do with us. Being left at the orphanage wasn’t what induced shame in me. It was how I was left. The problem wasn’t in the leaving. She had her hands tied: I learned later that she was forced to drop us off at the orphanage by our uncle. Leaving us there wasn’t the problem. It was how she left that was the problem. The how part is what traumatized me and haunted me all these years. And it was how she left us now in the rain that retriggered the feeling of abandonment.
By reliving this similar set of circumstances as a mother myself, I began to realize that I was given an extraordinary gift: the ability to reinterpret the situation through adult eyes. And in so doing, I gained the awareness that my abandonment was not my fault. It was never my fault. Just like Sxela was not responsible for being run over by luggage or having her hand crushed by peaches, I was not responsible for Umma leaving us without saying goodbye—neither here at my friend’s apartment nor at the orphanage 29 years ago.
Given this awareness, I realized how important it was for me to make sure that Sxela didn’t interpret this situation like I did when I was five years old: that it was her fault. So I made a decision to discuss with Sxela what happened in order to help her interpret this evening’s events in such a way so that she didn’t take responsibility for the actions of her halmoni. I went to sleep with this refrain in my head: The cycle of abandonment stops with me. I will not allow my mother to pass on this legacy of abandonment to my daughter. It stops with me.
And like a battered woman who remains with an abusive partner when she’s the target of abuse but will leave him in a heartbeat when her children become the target, I made another internal decision: I will never give my umma the opportunity to leave us like that ever again. I wrote her a letter two months after I returned home back to Minnesota, expressing my disappointment and sadness at the way she treated us, as well as conveying to her that she wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to hurt Sxela or me again. She has never responded.
* * *
I hunger and yearn for Korean food like I hunger and yearn for my umma.
I have always associated Korean food with my umma. It makes sense, since Korean mothers show and express their love for their children through food. The more they stuff your face, the more they love you.
And so, as I undergo my process of grieving, I’m finding myself more and more obsessed with dolsot bibimbap, haelmul pajeon, and soondubu chigae. I can’t seem to get enough, and I can’t seem to satiate this hunger inside me. I finish a bowl of dolsot bibimbap, and I immediately want another bowl. I want Korean food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My mouth, my taste buds don’t want anything else right now. I crave the fresh veggies, the fried egg, and the banchan that offset the steamy hot of the veggie/rice/egg mix.
I’m like a child and an adult, simultaneously at once. The adult mother in me is feeding the five-year-old child in me. I am loving her in kind—showing my love for her in the way that Korean mothers for generations have shown their love for their children: through food. I, as the mother, attend to the needs of the little girl inside me, giving her all the things that she lacked, trying to make up for the twenty years of not feeding her, of not loving her, of not taking care of her. And so, I eat and eat and eat. I feed that five-year-old girl inside me with the elixir of love that is Korean comfort food. I eat to make up for these decades of lack, which has created in me an insatiable longing for dolsot bibimbap, for motherlove.
I try my best each day to love that child inside me in the way that she recognizes most: by feeding her body with the tastes, smells, and textures that nurtured that little girl for the first five years of her life. With each mouthful of food I take in, I take in motherlove. In eating the food of my ancestors, I take care of myself. I turn love inward unto myself, and I realize what self-care and self-love looks like, tastes like, feels like. Every sip of barley tea, every chopstick full of bibimbap, every spoonful of soondubu chigae becomes an act of love that I turn onto myself. And so, I relish in my gluttony, making up for lost time, manifesting motherlove, bite by bite.
Dr. SooJin Pate is a writer and educator, who is dedicated to praxis that centers the lives and experiences of historically marginalized communities. She has taught courses on critical race theory, women of color feminism, African diasporic literature, and U.S. history and culture at various colleges and universities. She is the author of From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and Motherloss: A Memoir (forthcoming). Her writings on self-care and Korean adoption have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.