This is the first half of an old essay I dusted off and started reworking last night. I’ll post the second half soon!
On the way to the Jecheon Children’s Home My Sister and I sit in the second row of a bus that’s like a Greyhound, but tinier and cleaner. It’s hot and October and I don’t think they believe in air conditioning in Korea. When we arrived at Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul a few days earlier it was so hot sweat was running down my legs standing in Customs.
On the bus there’s a giant flat screen above the driver’s head that could probably fall if we were in an accident and knock our driver out cold. We watch a pre-programmed message about wearing a safety belt and then Korean reality t.v. comes on. At least I think its reality tv. I don’t speak Korean. My Sister has picked up conversational Korean and swear words through basic intro classes she took at Portland State and her Korean friends. On the tv I can’t hear anything they say anyway because outside the traffic is thick. Seoul is worse than L.A. traffic wise. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is.
I thought I would cry on the way to the Children’s Home. I cry a lot. I cried when Princess Diana died in 1997 even though I didn’t know her. I have to scroll past all my vegan friend’s messages about homeless dogs on Facebook or I’ll cry. I cried when JFK Jr.’s plane crashed in 1999. I haven’t been sleeping well: jet lag and being sick have kicked my ass. My sister is here on business and pleasure. My trip is all pleasure but so far it’s been sleeping from 5 pm to 2 am or 8:30 pm to 3:15 am. In the hotel room with My Sister we share a bed and I stare at the clock while she sleeps. I think about:
why did My Sister’s mother give her up?
was she poor?
does she regret it now?
did she experience guilt giving her up?
My Sister doesn’t seem concerned about learning why she was put up for adoption. Or maybe she does but she doesn’t tell me. I tell her about my writing, complain about work, and my dating life. My Sister complains about the zit on her chin and talks about the shopping she did with her friend from college, Sunny, who now lives in Seoul and what she bought for my two year old niece.
An hour passes and I read and glance up at the t.v. There’s an elderly woman crying. The reality t.v. show is now a game show. I think. I still don’t have any idea what’s going on. The elderly woman lifts her glasses up and wipes her eyes. All I want to know is why are they subjecting this poor woman to crying over and over and over. My sister’s asleep next to me on the bus. I’m awake. Always awake. It’s been that way forever. The t.v. tells the passengers in English and Korean that we are almost to our destination. I nudge My Sister awake and she rubs her eyes. “Almost there.”
At the Jecheon Bus Depot I step into the restroom to pee. It’s noon. It’s always like this in the morning. I drink enough coffee for 3 people. I step into the stall and there’s no toilet paper. I walk a few steps to the sink and look for paper towels. There are no paper towels. I glance over at what I think is the disabled stall and there’s a long, white metal thing indented into the floor. “Hmm…I wonder if that’s for squatting and peeing?” I guess we are in the country. Or what used to be the country. Jecheon is 150k and Korea is small. People are packed in like sardines. I know because I googled it before I left the U.S. I take a few more steps toward the door and there’s a roll of toilet paper close to the door and the air blower for drying hands; except the air dryers in Korea blow cold air. They don’t really do jack. I pee, wash my hands and let them air dry.
My Sister’s outside and car’s drive by fast just like they do in Seoul. Pedestrians don’t really have the right of way in Korea. Across the street there’s a small hole in the wall that sells bibimbap: rice with vegetables and chili paste in a steaming stone pot and sometimes a fried egg and/or meat. I am slowly becoming addicted to bibimbap on this trip. A few doors down there’s a Kyochon Chicken restaurant that looks closed. It’s a chain with a few locations in the US. I went to Kyochon Chicken last fall in New York City. There was one close to my friend Tom’s apartment in Murrayhill.
“The Orphanage Director’s on her way,” My Sister looks up from texting.
“OK,” I say and all I can think about is bibimbap. I didn’t eat breakfast and I’m starving. A few minutes later The Orphanage Director pulls up in her 2003 Kia Sonata and we are off to learn more about the children’s home. The Orphanage Director started the children’s home in 1963. She was a 26 year old Christian missionary. She is the longest living foreigner in South Korea. The Orphanage Director is 76 now, strawberry blonde hair mixed with grey and glasses. My Sister climbs in the front seat and I’m in the back next to two umbrellas. We weave our way quietly through the traffic filled streets.
“It used to take 6-8 hours by train to get to Seoul because there was only one train track,” The Orphanage Director tells us.
“Wow!” I say because Seoul is only 75 miles away from Jecheon. Seoul is located on the west coast of Korea 35 miles from the North Korean border. Jecheon is a mountaineous region in the middle of the country.
“I’ll take you guys to the spot where the orphanage used to be. It’s where your Sister would have lived when she was in the children’s home. It’s been leveled and there are apartments there now,” The Orphanage Director says.
We’re both quiet. I can’t read My Sister’s expression in the front seat. We turn off into an alley and there are brick apartments crowded in close together. This was the third incarnation of the Children’s Home. The Orphanage Director tells us that the current children’s home open in October 1982. My Sister was adopted in January 1982.
“We had one acre here,” The Orphanage Director slows the car down and stops in the middle of the alley. I duck down in the back to take a look at the apartments and to make sure we aren’t blocking other cars. There are a bunch of brick apartments pushed up against each other. “This was all fields.”
“How many kids did you have around the time My Sister was there?”
“Around 25-27. We have fifty three right now,” The Orphanage Director says. “But we are also on three acres at our current location.”
Based on my experience at the Jecheon bus terminal I can only imagine what the toilet situation was like.
The children’s home is two three story brick buildings next to a junk yard. It’s fancy outside by 1982 standards.
“They never talked to me about building this junk yard,” The Orphanage Director says as well pull into her covered parking spot.
Out my window there’s a large covered playground for the kids to play at in all seasons and a small wading pool that looks dirty and rusty for summer time. The sadness that children are separated from their parents and actually live here makes me sad. I wonder if My Sister’s mother: misses her, thinks about her, wonders where she is.
At times I feel guilty that my white parents adopted this Korean baby and took her away from her culture and homeland. It’s a complicated hot mess. I’m grateful that I have a Sister. My parents tried to have another baby when I was two but my mom miscarried and she didn’t want to go through that again so adoption was the next step. Growing up my parents never referred to her as an adopted child. She was my sister. Their child.