What It Means to Go Back

by Kohleun

“Do you speak Korean?”

“Do you want to meet your biological family?”

“Have you been back?”

Somewhere in the fire-safe box in my parents’ walk-in closet there is a passport for a tiny Korean baby with a stamp of entry into the United States of America–the only visa on its pages–via the Port of Seattle. In the hidden pocket of my handbag I carry a U.S. passport with several visas from countries in Europe and the Middle East. I have long spinning stories to go with each of these stamped-in-a-second permission slips. Shutting down a Parisian patisserie with a ruckus Juniors Abroad group, snoozing in Luxembourg Gardens, walking through Florence at 2 a.m. in search of a hostel, sipping coffee in Venice, setting off security alarms in the Frankfurt Airport, dining in Wadi Rum, swimming in both the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, waiting in line for six hours to be stamped into Israel (precluding any future Syrian stamps), studying at the oldest university in England and the oldest university in Scotland.

I’ve done a lot in the company of my American passport, because I am an American. When I returned from a summer of international travel, a TSA agent misread my Asian exterior as “foreigner,” saying “Visitors in that line,” before I flashed the navy blue, eagle-embossed booklet like a get out of jail free card.

Several of my friends now have Republic of Korea inked into their passports, a few live there currently. I have heard nothing but positive reports back about the fun nightlife, the delicious food, and the kind locals from these friends who have stories, smells, sights, and conversations etched into their memories. When I ask if they would ever like to go back to Korea it’s like them asking me if I would ever go back to France or Italy where I have little emotional attachment but know exactly which cafes I would visit and where I would sit when the stars come out. And even though I was born in a small town south of Seoul, I have no such points of reference that link me to Korea except that ancient passport–a glorified slip of paper with my photo, really.

When people find out I’m adopted from South Korea (the Republic of Korea now) I can usually anticipate three forthcoming, deeply personal and somewhat invasive questions with startling accuracy. Perhaps by reading this blog you can be saved from one of these awkward interactions:

“Do you speak Korean?”

“Do you want to meet your biological family?”

“Have you been back?”

To the first, I like to answer that, no, no hablo coreano, pero bitaki un peu Français.

The second question is one I’m never quite sure how to answer, because it might make me sound like a heartless bitch. I’m an introvert, a characteristic that means I have limited relational energy and don’t pursue a high quantity of intimate relationships. So, off the cuff, meeting new people–let alone long lost family members–isn’t exactly at the top of my to-do list.

I wouldn’t reject meeting my biological mother; in fact I have written quite a bit about how much I respect her for her bravery as an unmarried twenty-two year-old woman in a Korean Christian home who faced the unknown of having a baby and giving her away. It’s just complicated, and no one who has just met me wants to plumb the depth of this identity crisis.

You see, at this point in my life, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that blood and biology mean shit when it comes to who a person’s family is. The woman and man who raised me will always be Mom & Dad, Mumsy & Papi, or Aged Ps when we’ve been watching A&E’s adaptation of Great Expectations. My nieces and I don’t share a helix of DNA, but I swear that they get their affinity for tacky silky swag from me. No offense to the Duggers, but yes, offense to the Duggers, when I say that families are not built on a couple’s ability to reproduce ad infinitum but on the love, time, physical and emotional care, and good humor they supply to each other and any children they might have. Some families don’t even have a couple, but instead may be a group of friends or housemates who love and support each other.

One of my friends, who has two adopted sons, recently traveled to the place of one of her kids’ birth: Vietnam. Her reflections on this experience have inspired me to reflect on my (lack of) experience. I have often talked with my mom about the possibility of visiting Korea, something we never did when I was a child, due partly to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized why as an adult I have not visited Korea, since I have had many opportunities to do so. “I always figured your lack of interest meant you resented Korea and your biological mother, so I didn’t push it,” Mum said as we talked over the phone while I was up ridiculously late in Scotland and she was up ridiculously early in Arizona.

Resentment? How could I resent a place or a person who in essence created me? How could I resent something I have never known? And therein lies the real reason I have never returned to the place of my birth. Korea really is just another place in the world–a beautiful, interesting place, but still just a place–with dirt and mountains and skylines. And what if when visiting Korea I found that I didn’t love it? What if it couldn’t make me fall in love with it like Jerusalem, or enchant me like Atlanta? What if I couldn’t eat myself sick on falafel from its street vendors like in Bethlehem, or wander its streets till dawn like I could in Rome? What if Korea just isn’t my place?  How could going there ever be considered going back?

We all have a place, or a few places, where we feel at home or most alive. Maybe a particular house where we grew up, like in Miranda Lambert’s song “The House that Built Me.” This place could be an entire state or a mountain range or a coastline. It might not be where we would choose to go on vacation, but it’s a place we can always return to. I wish I could claim an exotic location as home, or that going back to Arizona for a woman who is not white weren’t obnoxious these days, but I don’t have that luxury. Instead I do have the luxury of a family waiting for me on the other side of security, whether I’m returning from another continent or visiting from my home in Oregon: a sister who texts me inappropriate jokes, a brother who doesn’t make fun of me when I stumble through Spanish conjugations, another brother takes all my trash talk and dishes it back with class, and parents who send me into minor anxiety attacks by calling late at night without leaving voicemail messages. So when TSA agents, like other strangers, assume I’m just passing through or have somewhere else to go back to, I look for my cluster of white kin and reply, “Nope. Sorry. I’m already home.”