by Kristen O’Brien
I listened to the tick tick tick of the clock and my legs and hands were starting to shake as I heard footsteps approaching. I heard the soft sound of voices coming from the other side of the door, and my twin sister, Allison, who sat beside me, turned to look at me. We both took a deep breath. Silence. We said nothing, but exchanged everything we were feeling in the split second it took for our eyes to meet and for the door to open. This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for, for over 19 years.
A Korean social worker, who acted as a translator, our Korean birth mother and our birth sister entered the room. Our eyes met for a moment, anxiously, as they sat across from us. I didn’t know what to expect, but I could never have imagined how normal our conversation would be. Our birth mother turned to us and asked, “What have you been doing with your life? How have you been? Have you been healthy?”
I took a deep breath as I tried to find the words to explain all the years we had spent apart. How could I summarize my entire life story in just a few sentences? I smiled as I replied to my mother’s questions. “We’ve been well. We are in college right now and came to study at Yonsei University.”
Our birth mother gave Allison and me up for adoption when we were born. Because she didn’t give us names, a Korean social worker took it upon herself to name us. Our older sister explained our names to us. My Korean name is Bang Na Rin (방나린), and my twin’s name is Bang Ha Rin (방하린). When the first part of our names are combined, Hana (하나), they mean “one” in Korean. Our sister’s name is Bang Hye Rin (방혜린) and we share the second part of our names—Rin (린), which means “a shade of jade.” Our family name, or last name, is Bang (방) which is an uncommon Korean family name meaning “direction.”
My name, Bang Na Rin (방나린), now had a significant meaning behind it. The three of us, bonded by our names, were also bound by our interests. We shared a love for music and the arts. Hye Rin, seven years our senior, had majored in Graphic Design in college, which is exactly what Allison studied in college. At the time, Hye Rin was working part time at a small graphic design company. Our mother was usually too busy to meet, as she worked long hours. However, she revealed that her biggest wish was for us to spend our time in Korea getting to know our sister.
Throughout the semester at Yonsei we met our birth sister frequently. It was difficult to communicate with our sister Hye Rin because we spoke limited Korean, but she revealed to us that she had been studying English at a hagwon [1. A Korean private educational institute where students can take classes in a wide array of subjects] in order to better communicate with us. We’d often explore Korean cafés together, go to concerts and even spend hours searching for Korean drama filming sites that were well off the beaten path. As we spent more and more time together, our sister’s English quickly improved and my Korean improved as well. My passion for learning Korean grew even more intensely as we became closer.
Everything in Seoul was so vibrant and fun, and because of our sister, we managed to have an authentic and unique experience. We walked through the city streets like locals, but we took in the sights with the eyes of a tourist. As I grew to know my family, I grew to know Seoul. It became more than just a city for me. It became like home.
Studying abroad had given me the opportunity to go to Korea searching for answers about my background, and while I found some, I never accounted for the possibility that even more questions could form. Despite the rewards of my semester abroad, I found myself even more confused and unsure about my identity. Upon my return to the United States, I felt myself longing to walk the streets of Seoul once again. I didn’t know if I would find another opportunity to return again, and my semester abroad started to feel like a far off dream. A distant memory.
My twin sister and I spent our lives on Long Island, New York, with our two loving American parents. Though we struggled to “fit in” in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood, I led a comfortable life and couldn’t have asked for more from my American parents. I never could have imagined studying abroad in South Korea during college, and meeting our birth family alone—without our American parents. Despite the beauty of Long Island, I never once felt like I belonged. I always stood out in a crowd and received curious looks due to my long black hair and small dark eyes. As a family, the strange combination of two young Asian girls with two Irish-German parents didn’t attract cursory glances—they attracted stares.
My parents had always been completely open about the nature of our adoption. Allison and I had always been aware that we had a birth mother and older sister living in Korea. On the other hand, we were only told that our birth father died before we were born. Shortly before Allison and I embarked on our journey to study abroad, my parents decided to show me a slip of paper. I can remember every detail about that day. My American mother sat us down on the living room couch, with a grave expression on her face.
“Kristen. Allison. I have something really important to tell you. It’s not that your father and I have been trying to hide this from you,” she paused nervously, as we awaited her words with confusion and worry. “But this is something we felt had to wait until the time was right. I think now is the right time.”
She lifted a thin strip of white paper off of the table, its own physical weight unbefitting its heavy content.
“There was this small piece of paper that was included with your adoption documents—about your father. There are some more details included about his death.”
The paper wasn’t even a paragraph, just three sentences typed in Korean. The characters were foreign to me, and all I could make out were the few handwritten notations in English. Real father. Stomach cancer. Insecticide. Suicide. My sister and I relied on these few English words to piece together our life story. Luckily, I had a Korean friend who translated the slip of paper into English: “I will inform you about the young twins’ biological father. As the biological father had debts and lived a hard life working as a vegetable vendor, the biological father’s mother passed away in 1992 in June due to stomach cancer and bladder cancer. After that, the biological father’s life did not go well and he had no desire to live, so after 100 days since the biological father’s mother’s death on August 8, 1992. He was intoxicated and went to his mother’s grave and committed suicide by consuming pesticide/insecticide.”
Something inside of me felt obligated to feel sad, to feel hurt, to feel angry—to feel anything. But I didn’t. I accepted it coolly. As coolly as it was written in those three sentences on a slip of paper in a language that I had never seen before. They were facts. Was I supposed to feel sad over the loss of a man I had never known? Who knew that a single slip of paper could change everything, and define everything that I was? Who my family was? There was a sense of longing inside of me and a curiosity. I wanted to understand myself and to understand the background behind the story that brought me to America in the first place.
After my semester abroad in Korea, I had one year of college left to complete in America. I was still left wrestling with identity questions. When I discovered I received the Fulbright Korea grant, I knew that it could provide me the chance to deepen my relationship with my birth family, improve my Korean and learn more about Korean culture.
I was placed in Gumi, three hours away from Seoul. My school situation forced me out of my comfort zone and led to a drastic improvement in my Korean. This enabled me to have some brief conversations with my birth mom and extended family without always needing my birth sister to translate between us.
I often spent my weekends with my sister and mom in their cramped home, and my favorite part of the weekends were Friday nights. We took long walks to the downtown area in Gongneung. [2. A neighborhood within Seoul] We always ventured to the late night restaurants, where they served my favorite Korean food, samgyeopsal. [3. Three-layered pork belly meat, often cooked on a grill] The restaurants were almost always bustling, mainly filled to the brim with groups of ajeossi, [4. Middle-aged Korean men] their cheeks burning red with the consumption of soju. [5. A popular Korean alcoholic beverage made from rice] My mom and sister were always smiling—happy to share brief, simple, yet memorable conversations over grilled meat and beer. There was one conversation we shared that was particularly memorable to me. Nothing really significant happened, but sometimes simplicity is what we remember the most:
“Na Rin, you lost weight. Have you been eating proper meals?” my birth mom asked, as she turned the meat over on the grill in front of us with silver tongs. She reached for a pair of big scissors and began expertly chopping up the meat into long rectangular pieces.
“Yes. I didn’t lose weight,” I laugh. “It’s just baby fat.” I point to the fat that has plagued my face for my entire life, but it was now gone, leaving a slightly pointed end.
“You look pretty. But eat more,” my mother proclaims, pushing chunks of the nicely browned meat closer to me. “You should lose weight, like your sister,” my mother says, turning to Hye Rin. Hye Rin chuckles softly, and I know this is a conversation that the two of them have all too often. I laugh at the contradictory nature of my Korean mother’s words.
After Friday night dinners, we’d return to our sister’s apartment, and spend hours watching my mother’s favorite ajumma [6. A middle-aged Korean woman] dramas. My sister would sometimes bicker with my mother for the remote, so that the two of us could watch an American movie with Korean subtitles, but she often lost that battle. Our mother doesn’t like to read subtitles. I didn’t mind though, because it felt like family.
My sister and my mother were the reason I became so interested in older Korean singers like Lee Mun Sae and my sister’s favorite Korean rocker, Kim Kyung Ho. She told the tales of her teenage years, and her fondness for dramas like Reply 1997, because they brought back memories of the days when she attended concerts and chased singers all over Korea. Despite the end of her fan girl days, there was a time when we studied abroad that she had gotten up before 4 a.m. with Allison to get a chance to enter Inkigayo, one of Korea’s most famous music TV program shows. They met up, taking the first subway, and stood in line for hours, just for the chance to watch SHINee’s comeback show.
As time progressed, I found fewer opportunities to see my family, but those memorable moments were highlights of my stay in Korea. As the year went on, my Korean sister began taking cooking classes, and my mom began a new full-time job. Seeing them was a challenge, and happened rarely.
It became clear to me that, although I was taking the time to get to know my Korean family, and was attempting to reconnect with my Korean heritage, my identity was still being called into question in Korea. I found myself at odds, unable to fully identify as American or Korean. I could walk on the streets in Korea without being immediately noticed. I felt comfortable and accepted walking around with my Korean family, but the moment I opened my mouth, there were stares and questions. I could easily pass as a Korean by my appearance alone, but my beliefs and my thought processes are purely American. I didn’t ‘fit in’ anywhere, but I came to the conclusion that identity isn’t only about our physical appearances. It is also about who we are on the inside. I resolved that identity is personal and it is something that only I can define. Regardless of what anyone thought, asked or said—it was something that I needed to come to terms with within myself. This was something I struggled a lot with during my first grant year in Korea.
For my second grant year, I decided to renew at my school in Gumi. My love for my students and desire to continue improving my Korean in an immersive environment outweighed my desire to be near my family. This year, I can count the number of times I’ve seen my sister on one hand. She works six days a week, and I’ve come to realize that she is bad at staying in contact.
Finding my birth family has been a rewarding experience, but it hasn’t been perfect. My relationship with my birth mother has been almost nonexistent, and it isn’t only because of her work. There’s a distance between us—almost a kind of coldness. She hasn’t taken the time to get to know me as a person—my likes and dislikes, who I really am. She often confuses Allison and me, and it wasn’t until recently that she has begun to notice how different we are from one another.
For a while I was confused, and then that confusion turned into hurt. I wondered why she wouldn’t cook me a traditional Korean meal like I had imagined, or show me her favorite places around Korea. I wondered why she wouldn’t take me to our father’s grave on his death anniversary, and why she never complimented me. I hoped she would be proud of me, and not just remark on how I looked. It seemed that we had never reached past that stage of getting to know each other. I tried to understand the difficulties my mother and sister faced with my father, and I knew I could only imagine how hard their lives have been.
My mother had to support a child as a single mother and had to give two of her babies up for adoption. My sister grew up without a father and her mother was rarely around. She had to take buses and walk to school alone, and she even had to come home to an empty house. She had few friends, and told me that she was very lonely as a child.
The angry part of me constantly questions: Why is it always me reaching out to them? My mother is the one who gave us up. Shouldn’t she be the one trying to reconnect with us? Then another part of me feels grateful. We’ve had some really happy moments and memories together, and despite everything, my older sister really does take care of us.
I’ve had all of these thoughts, but no solid answers. While the hurt I’ve felt hasn’t entirely gone away, acceptance has taken its place. As I spend more time in Korea, I’ve come to realize that we can’t always find the answers to our questions. The time I have spent and the memories I have are what I make of them, and though not all of them can be what I want, I can appreciate the fact that they have happened.
Living in Korea has given me the biggest opportunity of all: it has allowed me to explore the part of my life I never knew before. The fragments of my life that have been missing are finally coming to light, and falling into place. I’ve traced my roots and have reunited with my birth family, and I’ve spent two years in the country of my birth experiencing its culture. Though I don’t quite know where everything fits, and where every piece will fall, I now have all of the missing parts necessary to assemble myself as a whole. The next time I’m asked to define myself, I can only come up with one answer: my identity is fluid. I’m Korean. I’m American. I’m Korean-American. I’m a Korean adoptee. The truth is, I’m still searching for answers, but for once in my life, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being different. And for once, I feel like I’m home.
Kristen O’Brien is a 2014-2016 ETA at Gumi Osan Elementary School in Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do.