07 February 2016

Korea: My Village

Today, my Seoul mates celebrated the Lunar New Year together in the house that is KoRoot, a home to adult Korean adoptees from around the world. Having no extended Korean family to visit, I stay snug in my Wisconsin home as I think of my fondest memories from this last year of the sheep.

People flood my mind now when I think of our time in Korea. From our home station of Sinjeong, Exit 1, to our two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a business building, we miss the produce stand outside the exit with the man who shouted, “Hello! How are you!” even though he never really wanted an English response so we let a smile suffice. (He had studied in southern California back in the day.)

From there, we passed our local grocery. Outside, the man who wears the headpiece to announce the sales would also smile. For the first month, he said, “Annyeonghaseyo.” But soon, my son noticed when the man switched to “Annyeong,” the informal “hello.” We were in.

Many of our anxieties of not fitting in were tempered with these subtle social nuances. 

Today, this Seollal celebration in Korea is filled with my favorite dish … tteok guk, a rice cake soup. 

This one in particular was made by a woman who runs a small restaurant, Mananim, on the outskirts of the Hanok Village (Anguk Station, Exit 1, take a right and walk down the alley-like road). 

My first time there, our host friends ask that I go ahead of the group, to see if she would speak Korean to me. Of course, she did. But when she realized I spoke English, she switched effortlessly into a kind, gentle voice. Other Koreans were met with her usual commands.

She keeps a tight ship as the only employee of this restaurant, and I loved her spunk as she told us how to help ourselves to water and how to order (tiny sheets of scrap paper and a pen to write your own order).

Once the order was in, her hands got messy as she cooked each dish to perfection. She introduced the dishes filled with organic ingredients and beautifully presented Korean herbs. She carefully used chopsticks to unfold the leaves of a native Korean pickled herb for my husband’s pork belly. 

As the dinner progressed, I told her my soul felt fulfilled. I felt at home and embraced by the warmth and comfort of my tteok guk. Its flavors of egg, chicken and rice cake hugged my tongue just before filling my belly. There was a knowing, but not knowing comfort in that bowl. I finally felt comfortable in telling her that I was an adoptee … a forgotten child of Korea. 

She hugged me and said, “I knew that.” I snapped a selfie just as we left. But I would return to her restaurant several times as a lost daughter of the tteok guk, and she would welcome me with a warm embrace.

Another poignant meeting would happen at Icheon in my pilgrimage to the Ceramics Village. Having seen the work of so many Icheon masters, I wanted to visit and pay homage to those who carried on the traditions of Korean pottery. 

One artist in particular, Jeon, Seong-Keun, had fascinated me. His work of carving porcelain made me feel a part of Korean ceramic culture. I wanted to meet him.

As I looked around the showroom, there was awe and inspiration. A young man stood minding the shop. I finally had the courage to ask him if the artist was around. I watched as his face dropped. Sadly, he introduced himself as So Bin or Alfred, the son of the recently passed Seong-Keun. I felt horrible. I shared with him that I knew the pain of loss as my father had passed the same year, and we shared a moment of tearful reflection.

This opened up so much conversation. He had studied in New York when his father was living, but now, he was back to help his mother with his late father’s studio. His brother, So Hyeon was living in Seoul. As I left, he gave me two cups from his late father’s collection, something I will treasure for years to come from that one moment of shared loss.

Each person in Korea that reached out to me, embraced me and connected to me in someway became a part of my village. As I reflect on the new year, this monkey one, I know my time in Seoul will not be my last. The leaving was bittersweet. While I enjoy the comfort of my home in Wisconsin, I miss that familial feeling of belonging to a village that is mine, despite what any paperwork will say.

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