Written by Katelyn Hemmeke, ETA ’12-14
My father, the oldest of five boys, born and raised in a tiny Midwestern town, grew up under the stern eyes of a thrifty farmer father and a stay-at-home mother. On Sundays, after the evening church service, my grandmother would dish up a simple meal for the six hungry men at her table—blue-box macaroni and cheese with chunks of Spam or hot dogs, casserole made with knockoff cream of mushroom soup and meat from the rabbits my grandfather raised. White rice topped with butter and a few good spoonfuls of brown sugar.
When I was a little kid, my father would sometimes heap a plate with that same buttery rice-and-sugar concoction and set it in front of me. I’d nibble at the sugariest bits and then turn up my nose.
“Finish your rice,” my dad would say.
I’d shake my pigtails and pout. “I don’t wanna.”
“If you were still in Korea, all you would have to eat is a tiny bowl of rice like this,” my dad would say, cupping his hand as if cradling a small orange. “Plain white rice, with no butter or sugar on it.”
The thought always horrified me. It was bad enough having brown sugar rice that just didn’t have any more sugary parts left. Imagine eating rice that never had any sugar to begin with.
Years later, living in my birth country for the first time since infancy, I feel lost without a small bowl of plain white rice in front of me at mealtimes. But it’s never just a small bowl of rice. My host mother sets the table with dish after dish—kimchi, bean sprouts, quail eggs, spicy soups, bubbling-hot stew—and refuses to be convinced that I simply cannot eat it all.
“Eat more,” she insists without fail at every single meal.
“I’m full,” I reply. I learned these Korean phrases very quickly.
“Eat just a little more,” she begs, indicating a small ladleful of stew.
She takes my bowl and fills it to the brim, smiling as she sets it back in front of me. “Eat a lot,” she says cheerfully.
“I feel like I got a chance to see the road not taken,” a Fulbright alumna and Korean adoptee wrote to me in an email a few days before I left America. The road not taken, the rice not eaten.
“Do you know your 한국 엄마 (Korean mother)?” my host mother asked me one night, without prelude or warning.
“Why not?” she pressed. “Don’t you want to meet her? Don’t you miss her?”
Miss her? Miss someone I’ve never met, someone whose face, whose name I don’t even know?
“Do you know your Korean name?” my host mother continued.
“Then it’s easy,” my host mother said. “All you have to do is put your Korean name on TV. People do this all the time. Your 한국 엄마 will be watching the news and she’ll see your name, and she’ll cry and cry and cry, and then she will find you and you can meet her. Don’t you want to?” Then, without waiting for a reaction: “What is your Korean name?”
“Um…it’s 오민지…” The name is clumsy and unfamiliar on my tongue.
The name not taken, the family not known or loved. To see the road not taken: Don’t you want to?
“You’re adopted? From Korea?” a middle-aged shopkeeper in Gwangjang Market asked me, all thoughts of selling me a cardigan forgotten. “Ohhhhh!” She yanked me close in an earnest embrace, her expression so soft and watery that I thought she actually might cry. “What’s your name? Your Korean name?”
“오민지…” I said as my American friends looked on with interest. They hadn’t known about my Korean name, because I don’t tell people my Korean name. In America, at least in rural west Michigan, no one ever asks.
“민지야,” the shopkeeper murmured. “민지야. 미안해, 민지야 (Minji. I’m sorry, Minji).”
Sorry? Why are you sorry, dear stranger? Sorry that my Korean mother—for selfish reasons, for selfless reasons, for reasons I’ll probably never know—gave me up? Sorry that I was raised in a small town in America, where the only other Korean person in my town was my own brother, who was also adopted? Sorry that I didn’t taste kimchi until I was 21 years old and that my father doused my rice in butter and sugar?
Yes, she might say, I am sorry. Sorry that you were given up, thrown away, shipped across an ocean before you could even sit up on your own, because maybe you think it wasn’t just your mother who did so; maybe you think a whole family, a whole country pushed you away, because that’s how it works here. It’s not just you or just me; it’s us, it’s we, it’s 우리.
But it’s not like that, I would reply. There’s no reason to be sorry. I have a wonderful family who loves me. I rode with my father in tractors and on snowmobiles around a huge rambling farm where I could safely roam and wander as I grew up. I have an older brother who heckles me and tries to boss me around, but he also wins me stuffed animals at the fair and secretly brags to his friends about his smart little sister. My mother brings me to the airport for every trip I take and cries every time I walk through the gate. And my whole family came to watch and cheer as I graduated at the top of my high school and university classes. I’ve had so many chances to do so many things, and here I am, back in Korea with yet another chance.
But standing there in a sea of old sweaters, our words were swallowed by cultural differences, by a language barrier thicker than wool, by the untouched soil of a road not taken, leaving only an apology: “미안해, 민지야.”
Rice with butter and sugar, plain white rice. 미국 사람, 한국 사람 (American, Korean). Katelyn, 오민지. “I feel like I got a chance to see the road not taken.” But what do you do with a road that you didn’t choose not to take?
Katelyn Hemmeke is a 2012 – 2013 ETA at Wonkwang Girls’ High School in Iksan.