Written by Hollee McGinnis
I have a family – three families in fact. I have my American family by adoption, my husband and son, and my Korean biological family with whom I reunited in 1996. Yet being in Korea during Chuseok for the first time filled my heart with sadness. Chuseok is the traditional Korean harvest festival, a time of thanksgiving, spending time with family and honoring one’s ancestors. However, my Korean family did not invite me to celebrate this holiday with them.
Despite all the family in my life, I felt like the orphan I once had been.
My dissertation, supported by Fulbright and the Korean Foundation, explores the experiences of adolescents in adoptive families and orphanages in Korea and the stigma associated with not being raised by blood kin. I had thought celebrating Chuseok with my birth family would give me insights into Korean blood kinship. Instead I experienced the keen pain of knowing you have blood family, but are rejected – or worse, ignored – by them.
I tried to console myself, thinking maybe if I stayed until next Chuseok, maybe I would be invited and would perform the intimate family rite and ritual of charye[1. Charye is a memorial service that Korean families traditionally perform at Chuseok and the lunar New Year. Koreans honor their ancestors by performing bows, offering food, fruits and wine, and visiting tombs to trim the grass.] with my Korean blood family. Maybe I would be included as part of their family. Maybe then I would feel a part of a family that I had lost when I was three.
I especially wanted to perform charye for my haraboji, my biological paternal grandfather, who had searched for me when I was 15 years old, but who died before I reunited with the family again. Like the Koreans I read about, I wanted to go to my grandfather’s burial ground, clear it and bow deeply and thank him. For what? For remembering me. For trying to find me. For loving me as part of the family. Despite being sent away for adoption, he never forgot me. He searched for me. Although I will never know, I feel he may have longed for me as much as my child heart longed for him.
I also wanted to honor my dad, my adoptive father, who died suddenly five years ago, six months after the birth of my son. For what? For his unwavering love and labor that transformed me from an orphan in a foreign country to his daughter. For always honoring my roots and encouraging me to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. I had always imagined he would come with me to Korea one day, but that day was taken away when he died.
The notion of honoring one’s ancestors deepened when I visited Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, one of the few areas where traditional Korean houses still stand in the city. The woman working there explained the design of the traditional Korean house, or hanok: how one room was warm in the winter and another cool in the summer. She said with pride and humility, “I think our ancestors were very smart.” And I appreciated two things. First, that she said our, as in me, my husband (who was also adopted from Korea) and our biological son. In that simple word, she acknowledged that we too were Korean and therefore that these were our ancestors.
Second, her words made me realize that honoring our ancestors was also about celebrating all who lived and created Korean culture and society. They were our ancestors too. Their presence still endures in Korea’s traditional architecture, dress, and food. And by the simple fact of being of Korean descent, we were also a part of this lineage. So honoring our ancestors was as much about honoring our direct blood descendants as it was about revering those who built Korean culture.
Despite this insight, I could not shake my sadness. Instead of being with my Korean family, I traveled with my son to a party organized by a group of overseas adoptees residing in Seoul. Was it any consolation? In my 20s I started an organization for adult overseas adoptees in New York City, Also-Known-As, Inc., and found a sense of belonging and connection to the adoptee community. But on this Chuseok these connections felt empty because they were not my kin.
As I got off the bus holding my son’s hand, I was distracted by a stream of people heading into Jogeysa Buddhist Temple in Insadong, an area known for its traditional Korean goods.
I was curious. I looked up at the temple gates and saw beautiful floating paper lanterns painted with delicate images of gold, red and pink fish swimming among lotus blossoms. Beyond them were larger lanterns shaped like flowers and tagged with Korean inscriptions written on gold and red paper. The beautiful white floating paper fish, suspended on an aqua ribbon of cloth between the earth and the sky, beckoned me.
I followed the people and floating fish into the temple grounds where people were buzzing about. There was a queue waiting to buy drinks, and a stand where tteok[2. Sweet rice cake] was being handed out. There were people sitting at shaded tables chatting and drinking. Above the crowd, a school of paper fish swirled in crescent arcs, swimming to a single point: a large lotus-shaped lantern near the main temple doors. Smaller gold-colored fish dangled from the lanterns and flashed in the warm late September sun.
As I watched the people milling about the grounds and going into the temple, I felt their energy and I realized they were all gathered on these grounds for Chuseok. My body tingled with excitement as I realized I could honor my haraboji and my dad, even without my Korean family, just as these people had gathered on these temple grounds to do.
I took my son’s hand, walked up the stairs into the main temple hall and found a spot to put down two cushions. I performed deep kowtow bows, a tradition of Korean Buddhism, my son following along with me. My body felt light and natural, swinging to the rhythm of the bows.
The monk then began the Buddhist chants with the klok klok klok of the hollow wooden drum. Not knowing the words to chant, I sat with closed eyes and let the sounds of the drum and voices wash over me. In my inner darkness, the klok klok klok of the drum merged with my heart. As the pain of never getting to see my haraboji or dad again pressed my heart, a tear ran down my cheek. The tear was followed by another and then another. And as each tear emerged, the sadness in my heart slowly lifted, until I was left with an overwhelming feeling of love throughout my being.
I felt my ancestors had gently pushed me this way, to stumble into the temple at the right time to be with other Koreans who were there to pay homage to their deceased loved ones. I honored you today, dad and haraboji. And I felt your incredible love.
After the ceremony, we went into the gift shop on the temple grounds. I wanted to buy a token to remember this Chuseok day. My son picked out a bracelet of heart-shaped pale pink quartz stones, saying “Buy this bracelet because this is how much I love you.”
At first I did not want it because I am not a fan of heart-shaped jewelry, but then I realized it was the perfect bracelet for the moment because it reflected the tremendous love I had felt in the temple. It was as if my son knew what I was looking for. After I purchased it, my son pointed to each stone and said happily, “This is love from me, Mommy, Daddy, Nana, Grandpa, Poppy, Nene, Uncle Phil, Aunt Karen, Uncle Tim…” I smiled and said to my son, “There is so much love!”
And indeed there was. On this little heart bracelet were all the hearts – all the love – from the members of my family: by blood, heredity and choice.
We are all a part of this human family, each swimming like the beautiful paper fish in the ethereal air between heaven and earth, flowing in the stream of life from which we all arise and will return.
Those beautiful swimming fish are our ancestors, spirits and guides. They too swim beneath the surface of the waves of eternity. They glint and gleam in the sunlight showing us the way. We will follow you soon. But not today. My heart and mind float up to you longingly. My mind can only grasp you in the form it knows, your beautiful faces lost to me now. But soon we will all be together again, swimming in the oceans of heaven.
Hollee McGinnis, MSW, is a PhD candidate and 2013-2014 Junior Researcher affiliated with the Graduate School of Social Welfare at Hallym University.