I take final photograghs with my “Korean Umma”
Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: Snapshots: A Continuum(2)
Introduction: Kim Thompson is a queer Korean-American adoptee interdisciplinary artist who is residing in the U.S. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was born in Seoul in 1975 and sold/exported by Holt in 1976 to her white, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist adoptive family in the States in 1976. She is the recipient of several state and national grants in the U.S. for performance, literature, and theatre. kim lived full-time in Seoul from Oct. 2009-Jan. 2017, after having spent 5 months there on the Jerome Foundation’s Travel Grant for Literature in late 2008 and early 2009. kim was adopted to Michigan, raised in south Florida, lived in Eastern and Western Europe for 8 years, followed by 7 years in Minneapolis, and then her 8 years in Seoul. She is currently in the very early planning/brainstorming stages of scheming a graphic novel that encapsulates these experiences.
It is 10.30am, the earliest I generally rise, and I do as always and open the door into my/our narrow alley of outdoor privacy, which was one of the main reasons I chose to rent this half-basement flat, as any kind of outdoor space is a rare and precious commodity in a city whose horizon is shaped not only by the surrounding san (mountains) but is defined by the vast ranges of high-rise apartment buildings. I look up at the narrow strip of sky that runs between the rooftops, light my dambae watching the smoke dissipate into the blues above, and think how there is beauty in everything. I go back indoors, walk through the bedroom and kitchen, slip my feet into my shoes, walk upstairs, turn right and then left and the right again, and buy an iced Americano. I then reverse my route and stop at the ooyoo bbang bakery in which loaves of milk bread fresh from the oven are stacked on towering carts like warm, mouth-watering bricks that are the foundation upon which refined appetites are built. This bakery is, for my first few years in this neighborhood, a well-kept secret that will eventually have lines that snake around the izakaya that I'm so fond of ending my nights at.
No matter how good or bad my day, I love my neighborhood. Over time we imprint on one another, and even in my sixth year there when I am sensing that my time of living in Seoul needs to come to an end, I cannot begin to fathom living the rest of my life outside of this area. That is how much I loved it. Within a .25 km radius I have EVERYTHING I need. I know the best gogi jip, hwae sikdang, chimaek sikdang, izakaya, pyeon-uijeom, makchang sikdang, pojang-macha, jeon sikdang, divey maekju and Western cocktail bars, coffee shop(s), even cat cafes, etc. to go to. I become as much of a fixture in that neighborhood as it becomes in my heart, and that narrow strip of sky becomes the endless expanse of possibilities to whence I whisper my heartaches and wishes.
The back deck for the house I currently live in is bigger than my flat in Seoul was. Americans, especially those who do not live in the throbbing yet cramped metropolises of say NYC or SF, have the oddest sense of size and space, and I can never really understand when a friend here complains about their home being too small. My housemate, whom I rent from, keeps an absolutely stunning garden and back yard that anyone here whom has ever seen it can attest to. Sometimes, I think to myself how if this were Seoul you could fit at least 200-300 Koreans in the back yard all picnicking on 1,000 won (.90 USD) thermal reflective camping mats purchased from Daiso and eating pizza, fried chicken, kimbap, and ramen delivered by young workers or ahjushis on scooters. I am currently recompiling my list of favorite places to drink and eat in Minneapolis, but I find most of them to be far more expensive and rather disappointing in comparison to what existed in my neighborhood in Seoul. However, I do now have a favorite hwae/izakaya-esque spot, and though just one evening eating and drinking there costs more than I would spend at five places in one night out in my neighborhood of Sinchon-ro in Mapo-gu--I do find some kind of familiar comfort there, as it allows me to forget for a moment that I am no longer in Seoul.
I now rise at 5.30am, and when I'm not working, sleeping until 7am feels decadent. I go downstairs into the kitchen and make my own iced coffee before opening up the kitchen door and stepping out onto the back deck and staring up at the seemingly endless open sky exhaling smoke-filled wishes, whilst coming into an acceptance of the fact that though I've yet to "succeed" I am nearing the point of wanting to choose to stop smoking. In a place like Minneapolis, it is easy to take the splendor of the open sky for granted, but I've yet to do so since returning. Every day that passes here I am more and more aware how who and what is beautiful to me has changed so much. I am convinced that all the mornings spent staring up at the narrow strip of sky from my alley in Seoul helped to re-shape this for me. I am ok with missing my old neighborhood because that means I loved and was somehow loved back by it in the way that can only happen when truly taking the time to invest in slowly but surely getting to know a person or a place.
It is late December 2016. I am only weeks away from leaving Seoul and moving back to Minneapolis. I have only recently ended things with my partner, whom I had genuinely believed I would spend the rest of my life with. My deeply beloved artist mentor and mother figure Laurie Carlos, who is at the Sholom Hospice Center not far from Minneapolis, is days away from leaving this world. Mapo has no idea (nor care) that soon I will have to re-home her, as not only are the practicalities of trying to bring a hedgehog into the States beyond my capacity to deal with, but I have this strongly-held belief about not removing any living being from its country of origin and forcing it to live in the West.
I am meeting up with my umma for the last time before leaving. Nothing about our relationship has gone how I had hoped. The truest reason for why I moved to Seoul was to know her, and instead it has turned out that the very "miracle" and "magic" of the night I found her eight years before was perhaps the very "best" it was ever going to be and could be. As that night turned into "years ago," the sacredness of that moment has only deepened versus being tainted by what now is. We meet up for one last meal, and I do as usual when with her where I feel so in and outside of my very body that I don't know what to say whilst wanting to say every single thing. How I interact with my umma is not how I interact with anyone else in the entire world, not just because of the universal truth that mothers and daughters have a unique relationship, but because... well... this is something that even now, I cannot articulate and is something I believe that only adoptees who have reunited with their blood can truly understand. The best I can describe it is with the thought I would have every time I was around her, which over the years moved from semi-regularly to almost-never for reasons that are more than I wish to publicly expose: "Here she is, this complete and utter stranger to me and I to her and yet, I have never felt so much love, hurt, anger, sorrow, confusion, rejection, acceptance, and a desire to know and be known by another as I do with her--this stranger whom my very body was formed by and so we are forever joined. I will always ache for her and her for me. We mourn in silence she and I. We are so very much the same and yet we can barely communicate in spoken words."
We say our goodbyes, she does her umma thing of telling me I should make a lot of money and pats me on the shoulder as I do my half-bow to her. Though I have come into a complete understanding and acceptance in my mind that it is not a "Korean umma" thing to embrace upon meeting or departing, I have also accepted that this understanding will never fully translate to my heart. It hurts, and I let myself feel just how much it hurts.
Two weeks later, I board the plane at ICN with a heart broken by a break-up that was the furthest thing from amicable; Laurie now 13 days departed; and not being able to even begin to hold what it means to be leaving Seoul, my umma, and halmuni behind. But the one thing I know and am able hold, and the thing for which I shed tears as the plane begins its initial taxi down the runway... is that for the very first time in my life, I am leaving Seoul on my own terms of my own volition having found out what I needed to find out. Having fully truly lived and "leaned into" the hard-fought for truth of the statement that whilst there is so much that cannot be reconciled, there is always so much that can be redeemed.
For 32 years, 11 months, and 28 days I was in the constant ebb and flow of racing towards and running from my... destiny. When I found my umma and halmuni three days before my birthday in 2008, I rebirthed myself. This December will mark the 10-year anniversary of having found her AND her.
I once asked aloud from a theatre stage in Minneapolis under the direction of Laurie and before I ever returned to Korea for the first time: "Do the women in my family even make it to 80?"
The night I found my halmuni I found out she was 80.
It took all these years for me to truly want what I am now completely heading, facing, walking towards--the life I came into the world to live.
"I... I wanted to tell you... I'm moving back. I ended things with her because... I had to. I have been so deeply unhappy." I told Laurie as she lay in the hospital bed.
"You came here knowing you had to do that. I have been waiting for and wanting you to come back but I knew I couldn't tell you that. Now is the right time. Now is the time for you to return," she spoke into me.
"I... Laurie... I tried my very best with my umma, I really did. I tried even more than my best. I... ... but... I failed with her... I couldn't... she didn't... I tried so hard..." I broke... tears streaming down my cheek turning my sentences into briny fragmented waves.
"I know you tried your best child, no one ever asked for you to do more than that. Now is the right time for you to be here. You never had to do more than your best Kim. I am so fuckin' proud of you. Now you really can stop getting in your own way."
I take these final photographs with my umma so that when I ache for her in Minneapolis I have something to hold.
She walks away first and I feel to myself: "There goes my heart."
And I move out of my own way for good.
Published Nov. 10, 2018
*Korean article: https://ildaro.com/8344
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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