A few months before celebrating our first wedding anniversary in 2014, Whitney and I decided to go back to South Korea. It had been a few years since each of us had visited and we both thought that it’d be a perfect way to celebrate one year of marriage. We would get a chance to experience the sights and the sounds of Korea together, and I would finally have the opportunity to meet Whitney’s birth parents and extended family for the first time.
After months of preparation and tons of planning, our Korea trip had almost arrived. Leading up to the trip, I started having a lot of questions and unresolved feelings. I was anxious because I started to question if Whitney’s parents and family would like or accept me. On my first trip to Korea, I was a tourist, but on this trip, I was coming back as a family member. I wanted them to know how much I loved and cared for their daughter and how thankful I am to be part of the Jeon family. At this point, I have never done a birth family search and this was my chance to witness first-hand the interactions between Whitney and her family and see what a positive outcome for an adoptee looks like. I have heard and seen several negative stories related to adoptee reunions, so seeing a positive one definitely plants the idea of me doing a birth family search someday.
On my first trip to Korea, I was a tourist, but on this trip, I was coming back as a family member.
Our departure day finally arrived and we traveled over the course of two days to get to Korea. We stepped off the plane, grabbed our bags and headed to meet her parents. With each step, I started getting butterflies and I normally never get nervous. I have performed with orchestras in front of thousands of people, but this was different. Up to this point, I had only seen pictures of her parents but suddenly, we rounded the corner in the airport, and there they were. Whitney’s father gave her a huge hug and I hugged her mom at the same time. Then we switched and immediately I realized, “These people and the bond we feel is real. They are part of my family now.”
After leaving the airport, Whitney’s parents drove us back to their home in Seoul. During the entire car ride, we talked non-stop (or should I say, Whitney and her parents talked non-stop). Whitney was such a good sport because she had to translate for her parents and for me. Probably one of the best compliments I received was that her parents thought that I resembled the Korean singer, Psy. I have heard this many times before from my friends back in the States, but to actually hear this from Koreans was ironic. We arrived at their beautiful home overlooking the Han River and Seoul Tower. We talked for a little longer then headed to bed after a long day of traveling. Before heading to bed, her mom asked me what kind of foods I enjoyed eating. I told her that I really like japchae, which is a Korean noodle dish.
The following day, my body was still attempting to adjust to Korean time. I remember hearing Omma working in the kitchen around 4AM. I fell back asleep and woke up around 8AM. When I got up and headed to the kitchen, I found that Omma had prepared japchae for me, which tasted amazing. Normally, I’m not a huge breakfast fan, but since my body still thought it was dinner time, I ate my share. After breakfast, Whitney and I were heading out to explore Seoul for the day. She was in the bathroom getting ready and I was waiting for her in the living room. All of a sudden, the front door flew open and an older Korean woman came in the door. I stood up and she ran over to me with the biggest smile on her face and started hugging me so tightly I couldn’t breathe. She kept saying “Saranghae” over and over again. That word means “I love you” in Korean but at that point, I did not understand her. I yelled for Whitney because I had no idea who this person was or what she was saying. Whitney rushed out of the bathroom and gave her a huge hug. I had just met halmoni, which is the Korean word for grandmother. After hearing all the commotion, Whitney’s older brother rushed out of his room and I had a chance to meet him for the first time, too. Whitney also has a younger brother, who would later be coming in from China, where he was studying abroad.
We spent the day sightseeing around Seoul with Whitney’s cousin, So-mang. She was awesome and knew where to take us and what sights to see. Since Whitney had lived in Korea for over a year, it was neat to see her and So-mang reminisce and revisit different places. They took me to a restaurant where I got to try patbingsu for the first time. Patbingsu is the Korean version of shaved ice with ice cream, fruit, sweet red beans, and fruit syrup. After a long day of sightseeing, we returned to her parents’ home. Whitney was exhausted and fell asleep quick, but I was still wired from the day. We had brought our iPad along, so I figured I would just play games and do some research before falling asleep. I had been playing on the iPad for about five minutes when Omma came into our room and gave me the universal sign for “put your head on the pillow and go to sleep.” I could understand what she meant. I nodded and smiled and put the iPad away. After 15 minutes, I still couldn’t fall asleep so I took the iPad out of the case again and put the brightness on the lowest setting. I started playing on it for a minute and all of a sudden, Omma appeared in the doorway. Even though I’m an adult, I felt like an 8 year old boy who had just broken a rule. Omma didn’t even have to say or do anything. I quietly put the iPad back into the case and laid back down. I just stared at the ceiling for hours until finally falling asleep.
Another memorable part of the trip was the family portrait session that Omma had all of us do. One of my favorite TV shows is Modern Family and this photo session could have inspired an episode of that show. It’s hard enough for me to pose with someone telling me how to do it in English, but it’s even funnier when they are yelling at me in Korean and I have no idea what they are saying.
Meeting Whitney’s birth family for the first time was an experience that I will never forget. Just like any other family, we laughed, cried, and got on each other’s nerves. I can’t believe it’s already been more than a year since we’ve been there, but I’m really looking forward to returning in a few months and making more memories.