Every Sunday, my mother cooks a huge meal and my siblings and their families gather at her house to enjoy it. Since I live more than a five hour drive away, it is rare that we get to partake in the Sunday Family Meal. Even without my family of four present though, this makes a weekly dinner at my mom’s house with about 20 people give or take, depending on schedules. Usually the dinner is all-American with Italian leanings since my family is Italian and Irish-American. (I make a mean eggplant parmigiana and lasagne myself.) I am in love with the entire concept of this Sunday Family Meal. And it has always been a dream to have my own weekly family meals for my family and friends, as well.
On a recent Sunday, I hosted just such a Family Meal at our place in Brooklyn. Instead of the typical menu consisting of something Italian or Southern though, there was bulgoki, man doo, jap chae, dduk boki and some ban chan. Mind you, just about the whole meal was ordered in since there are very few Korean dishes that I know how to make. However, because I am culturally American, I just had to make a dessert, so there was homemade peach raspberry cobbler along with mochi bought in K-town. (And don’t let anyone ever tell you that Korean people don’t like cobbler because that sucker was g-o-n-e!)
None of my siblings, nor mother or father, were present at this Sunday Dinner. A friend of mine, Jungmi, who is my sister in spirit, was there with her husband and two beautiful children. And my cousin Sola and her family - my Aunt, Uncle and her brother also my cousin, Jang, were all present. It was the first time I had ever met Sola’s family. Her father, my Sahm-chone/my Uncle, was my Korean father’s youngest brother. They are my only connection to my Korean father. By the time I found my Korean family in 1993, my father had already died in 1989.
I found Sola about one year ago. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that she lived just a few blocks away from me. I remember the night clearly. It was an unusually cold October night. My twins were two years old. I had been thinking a lot about my Korean father lately. So often in adoption situations, the focus is on the birth mother more than the birth father. The same had been true for me. Up until my son was born, I had not thought much about my Korean father. As my son grew from an infant into a toddler though, I was struck by his resemblance to my father. On this cold October night, I stared at a beautiful black and white photograph of my Korean parents when they were in their twenties and newly engaged. They were an exquisitely handsome couple. I know enough now to know that my Korean father had a huge influence on me being given up for adoption. A part of me believes that he is, when it really comes down to it, the reason why I was given up.
The language barrier and, perhaps, shame, keeps me from knowing the complete story regarding my father. I know, though, that my father was an unhappy and abusive man. My Korean mother divorced him shortly after I was sent away. For a woman to divorce her husband in Korea was practically unheard of back in the early 1970s. My mother had three other children, I imagine it must have been pretty bad for her to take such an extraordinary step.
When I first found my mother in 1993, she would not tell me much about my father. In fact, it wasn’t until after my trip to Korea in 2004 that I finally got some of the real story. After the initial meeting with my family in Korea where there were a lot of tears, the rest of the time that was spent with my Korean mother and siblings was happy. A little too happy for me honestly. The big white elephant was being ignored.
I remember during one lunch towards the end of my trip, I was seated across from my mother. We were seated at a traditional table on the floor with a large group. I think there were some extra cousins there as well. I was surrounded by most of my Korean family and my husband and American mom. There was laughter and animated chatting all around me. My Korean mother seemed happy to be sitting across from me, her youngest child. When suddenly the reality of all of the intense emotions that I had been keeping at bay swept over me like a crushing wave. With a stubborn lump in my throat, I stared at my mother and I asked the translator to ask her if she ever thought she would see me again. She said yes, yes! She always knew she would see me again. Then she asked the translator to ask me the same question. I choked out a no, focusing desperately on not breaking down into a puddle of tears in the middle of our happy lunch.
I know the fact that I have a good life makes my Korean mother happy. During my trip to Korea though, I felt that her sense of vindication was a bit too much. She had no understanding of how difficult it was for me while growing up. No sense of how I hated myself so much that I had attempted suicide. I told her all of this, in a letter, when I got home to New York. Finally, her response back to me was what I sought. Honesty can be a healing salve. For without the truth, what else do we have? My mother wrote me that, first, my Korean brother had felt the same way that I did. He felt the trip had been too happy happy and somewhat fake. He felt that I deserved to know the truth and he had been unhappy with our mother for not being more forthcoming.
In the letter, my mother told me how difficult it had been for her and for my siblings. How my father threatened them with knives and made my brother, at a very young age, sleep in the street. It was devastating to hear, yet healing at the same time. I was given up under extreme circumstances. I was the youngest child and would have had to stay at home with my father while my mother worked because my father could not, or would not, hold a job. My siblings were either old enough to be in school, or in the case of my oldest sister who was eleven years old when I left, at work.
So on that cold October night last year, I stared into the eyes of my handsome father’s face and asked him why? I wondered aloud why he was so unhappy, what had happened to him to make him that way? I cried rivers of tears trying to will his spirit into my presence. I needed some kind of connection with him. In the midst of this wondering and crying and desperate wanting, I remembered my Sahm-chone in Oregon.
Shortly after I found my Korean family in 1993, my mother told me of an Uncle in Oregon. She gave me his address and I wrote to him. In response I got a letter from my cousin who, at the time, was in about 6th grade. We exchanged all of two letters and then forgot about each other.
Suddenly remembering my Sahm-chone, also made me remember that I had a cousin, as well. I immediately wanted to find my cousin but I could not remember her name. I remembered though that I had saved a card from her. I started tearing my room apart searching for that card. I took drawers out of nightstands and boxes out of the closet. All to no avail. After searching for about twenty minutes for this card, I finally gave up. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Defeated, I started putting things back into my nightstand when, out of nowhere, the card dropped out of a pile of stuff, as if falling from the sky. I literally chuckled out loud and thanked the Universe - also out loud. (Yep, call me crazy but I swear this is exactly how it happened.)
Her name is Sola! I ran to the computer and asked master Google to search. Thank goodness for the scary, yet amazing thing we call the internet. Master Google and linkedin told me Sola Yoon was my neighbor. Yes, we lived in the same neighborhood just a few blocks from one another. Sola had no recollection of our two letter exchange way back when and was shocked to find out about me. My cousin is ten (ok, maybe eleven) years younger than me but we are So. Much. Alike. I realize this is just dumb luck because family members can be so different from one another but I still like to revel in this wonderful little fact. Finding her has been like finding another sister.
And so a few Sundays ago, her family was rolling through town and we all gathered in Brooklyn for a Family Meal. It was one of those events in life that is so rich with significance that the total meaning takes its time to seep into your psyche. The resemblance between my Sahm-chone and me is remarkable. Stunning really. I look more like my Uncle than Sola does. (She’s a perfect mix of her parents.)
Do I have my Korean father’s spirit to thank for bringing Sola and her family back into my life? I dunno, perhaps. What I do know is that my colorful family is ever expanding. I remember one night when I was a child, I don’t remember what made my American father say this but he remarked that when I was older, I was going to have a dinner table that resembled the United Nations with a Black child and a Korean child and a white child etc. Well Dad, you were not far from the mark. From eggplant parmigiana to bulgoki - truly, this can only be a wondrous thing.