By Sue Rissberger
During one of these recent meetings, Myung, a fluent-English and Korean speaker asked me, “Is this what you expected?” By “this” he meant the “meeting” – the opportunity to talk with Korean families, to visit their home and to get to know one another over a shared space and food. After seconds of consideration, I replied, “No…it’s not what I expected, but what I hoped for.” He responded with a definitive nod; I, with a smile knowing he understood. These moments quickly and assuredly became an answer to what I’d hope to find in Korea. Every week – same time, same place. It was the connections, the building of relationships and the human desire to find a place you can feel comfortable…nearly so comfortable you could call it home. Or could I?
Learning Korean and immersing myself in a culture while trying not to miss the habits of Western life continued to punctuate my days. These “meetings” remained on my calendar, and by the school’s new term, the weekly encounters had grown into sometimes bi-weekly occasions of an activity or quick exchange of food. While I left these affairs feeling more connected to Korean culture, I realized this experience in Korea constituted another occasion for questions with multiple answers. Did everything I hope to find, be found?
Things often come when you’re least expecting or looking for them, and on a weekend trip to Seoul, I picked up a copy of the Korean Quarterly for easy-reading. The Minnesota-run newspaper, broadly-speaking, targets Korean-Americans and the adopted community. Flipping through it, an article on a Korean artist, Haegue Yang and her featured exhibit, Integrity of the Insider caught my interest. Her pieces are displayed in a context that expresses how some people are, “constantly searching for home, while resisting one’s reality.” As the bus drove onwards I sat re-reading these words over and over. Questions began to formulate. Home is a place where you’re happy to return to after leaving. For me, was this Korea? After bouts of travel, could I settle here? Shouldn’t I possess a propensity toward building a life amid a country where rice is used to make cake, wine and dinner; family comes first and national pride is as strong as the smell of their national dish? What could one possibly find wrong with all that? Questions like these began to accumulate against my declining array of answers. The one answer I thought certain of after my weekly “meetings” looked less than ideal.
I felt like I was searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack. My remaining months in Korea were finite and I sought an answer that would quell my building restlessness. What else did I want from my time here? The answer – home – was staring me straight in the face but being too afraid to ask the question leading to it, I ignored it. I wanted a place to call home. Yes, that was it. Simple enough, really. Rochester, New York City, perhaps even my 3 years in Ireland could qualify; but I wanted to know if Korea fell amongst those choices. How could I determine this?
During the past few months as I’ve been delving into my own treasure chest of personal questions, I’ve asked myself, what if? What if I had the opportunity to meet my birth parents? I’m here, in Korea, there is no easier place in which to pursue a search and no better time. I’d recently been in contact at the beginning of the year with the agency in which my parents arranged my adoption to inquire about visa changes. They mentioned, “If you’d like to visit the foster home at some point, please let us know and we can look into whether it’s possible.” I cogitated on this for awhile. Months, in fact. While the opportunity seemed to present itself, I didn’t want to take it just for its availability.
Two months ago I decided to look into my options – I filled out the necessary paperwork and submitted it to the agency. Upon request, I asked to meet with my foster mother as well as receive a tour of the home. I did not consider a meeting with my birth parents an option at this time. Attempting to meet those who cared most for me prior to my departure for the US seemed sufficient. A couple weeks later I received a reply: I learned I had two foster mothers during the months prior to my adoption and while their names were available, any further information to locate them was missing. The search turned up inconclusive; I could not meet them.
I admit, disappointment surged through my body. I read and re-read the final statement in the adoption agency’s email thinking I’d missed something,
“I am sorry the adoptee is not able to meet her foster mothers.”
Did they look hard enough? What if they asked someone else? Wasn’t there any other leading information available? For many moments afterward I thought, there must be a way. These combined moments brought me not only to tears, but to realize these people knew better than I did. They held more information about my birth and are familiar with these searches. While my foster mothers have no relationship to my birth parents, I still took it to heart and wondered if I should attempt to recover any additional information. Still overwhelmed with curiosity, and knowing that if I didn’t make one more attempt I’d regret it, I asked the agency if I could visit my birth place. This potentially meant the orphanage depending on the information available in my file.
Reflecting to life before my arrival, the one thing I wanted was to visit the town of my birth. Could this happen? I’d continued correspondence with the adoption agency and awaited a reply on any news regarding the orphanage or otherwise. Two days after I sent the initial request I received a reply from the agency. It did not look favorable. The clinic where I was born no longer seemed to exist.
“There is no information available” and “Sue, it sounds like the clinic may not be in existence anymore”, vibrated as thoughts against my hopeful response. What could I make of this?
I’ve had time to think how these questions, this search, will not provide further knowledge about the months surrounding my birth. I will visit my birthplace, but I don’t anticipate it changing the answer to the question, “Where is home?” Nor do I see it contradicting what I’ve learned as a foreigner living here. Korea has definitely taught me more than what the latest edition of the Lonely Planet could have. But then again, I wasn’t interested in navigating my experience based on recommendations and must-sees, yet sought a personal path toward seeing Korea as an adopted Korean.
I arrived in Korea to teach English, hoping to feel at home, but realizing it isn’t about where you are born, where you grew-up, who your biological family is, or even a place you’re connected to ethnically. Home is where those relationships exist – family, platonic and intimate, it’s that place that spreads a smile across your face as you daydream thinking about it, that when you are far away from those connections, you look forward to the next time they’re within arm’s distance. So although I cannot denote Korea home, it is a home away from home and what better premise could exist in which return to visit? The relationships I have formed, the English “meetings” and heart-felt gestures have filled my soul. Life is about giving, and getting to know oneself in the process – whether our journey takes us toward or away from the familiar, we’re all works of art in progress trying to find ourselves on the way home. Sometimes we have to traverse the world a little bit to find it, and once we do, oh what a homecoming.
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Sue Rissberger is from upstate NY. Issues that really get her jumping up and down include Brooklyn, Burma, human rights, anthropology and photography. She can be seen blogging at anadoptedangle.com and running around Hwacheon.
Though her one year contract in Korea is coming to an end, she’s anxious to start a career in writing and photography while swimming in Americano’s and the great adventure of life!