I distinctly remember the first time I wondered if my birth family reunion had been a mistake. Not on my part – but for my family in Korea.
It was about 4 months post-reunion. I had not been feeling well for a few days and 엄마 Omma wanted to take me to the doctor. I had denied her persistent attempts at taking me, but I was feeling pretty bad and figured I probably did need medicine if I wanted to kick my bug. (엄마 Omma knows best!) I finally told her, “OK.” We got ready and headed out the door. I hit the elevator button for garage parking and she tsk’d.
“What?,” I asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “We walk.”
“Lovely,” I thought. “I already feel like death – now she wants to march me through the streets of Seoul?”
To my pleasant surprise, the doctor was only about a block and half away from the house. On the way, 엄마 Omma and I were chit-chatting. I started to ask her a question:
“엄마 Omma…” I began.
She stopped walking and turned to look at me.
“Don’t call me 엄마 Omma,” she said.
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t call me 엄마 Omma today,” she repeated, followed by, “You are 손님 son-nim.”
OK….I didn’t really understand. She was telling me that today I must be a guest (손님 sonnim) – not her daughter.
“Don’t call me Omma,” she said. I was stunned.
My brain started to spin. “Oh my God,” I thought, “She is embarrassed of me here in the community around her home. Of course! Everyone knows 아빠 Appa and calls him at the key shop for any issues they have. What must they think of a 20-something daughter that just shows up? Here I am casually smirching their reputation. I am so selfish. But she also just hurt my feelings! I don’t know how to act!”
My internal freak-out continued for the duration of our walk. I finally gained some clarity once we arrived at the doctor’s. 엄마 Omma had been worried about my 외국인 waegukin “foreigner” insurance and was trying to grant favor for me in the eyes of the family doctor. She presented me as a visiting guest from America and asked that they please take the best care of me — and also, could we please have a discount on the fee for the visit? Oh, and please speak English because my Korean is atrocious.
Ever-Korean, my 엄마 Omma – I began to understand her thought process. She is utilitarian to a fault – the epitome of efficiency. She had never considered all of the thoughts that I had imposed on her during our short walk. She wanted to save a little money and get me the best medical care.
Yet, the sting remained. The damage had been done. I still sometimes wonder now, 6 years later, as we walk through their neighborhood, “Is she embarrassed of me?” I try to speak more quietly so as not to draw attention to myself or disturb everyone with my English/broken Korean.
To be clear, no one in my family thinks of me in this way. 아빠 Appa has declared to perfect strangers that I am his beloved 딸 ddal daughter, whom he gave up nearly 30 years ago. (A hugely shameful statement in Korean culture.) I know I am just Jeon Hyun-ah 전현아. No asterisk by my name. No parentheses with explanation.
But I am also an adopted Korean. A once-orphaned adult who is now trying to live in reunion, stretching myself between two opposite sides of the world. And we never get to enjoy the privilege of living completely doubt-free, do we?
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