by Sasha Hom
I missed my sixth-grade graduation because I had to go with my parents to Seoul to stay in a multistory hotel. The mission was to scoop up a child we had never seen before, sign some papers, and call her ours. Their rationale for flying all the way to Korea to pick her up, versus having her flown to the States with a planeload of other adoptable children the way I had arrived, was that this way, they could kill two birds with one stone. They would get to show me my country of birth and, at the same time, bring me back a sister. Because more than anything, my parents loved a bargain—Dad at Double Luck Liquors whenever they were having a two-for-one sale, me in the bucket of the cart, knees tucked under my skirt, while he stacked jugs of wine with twist-off caps around my sparkly shoes, singing gleefully, “This is chee-eap wine.”
Our room was on the twenty-third floor of the Seoul Plaza Hotel. There were demonstrations in the plaza. Across from City Hall, a gathering of protesters pushed against a wall of police. Back and forth they ran, crossing some invisible line. It reminded me of these shorebirds two-stepping with the waves on Naksan Beach where I saw an old woman jump playfully on the back of another, both laughing with their mouths so open you could see down the long dark hole of their throats.
“Anyone here could be related to you,” Ma said.
From behind the double-pane glass of our hotel room, our eyes did not water from the tear gas. The crackling of gunshots mixed with the sound of decaf percolating in the bathroom—what Dad drank when there was no wine.
He sat by the window in an armchair, and I did not ask whether they were shooting real bullets down there, or rubber ones. I was preoccupied with other things—like what would junior high be like next year? Or rather, what would junior high be like now that I was a big sister?
Ever since kindergarten, which is when my parents first mentioned the possibility of adopting again, I’d fantasized about bringing a little sister to school with me for nap time, or show-and-tell, or recess. We received snapshots from the adoption agency of lumpy newborns, preteen boys—two who were disabled and one who was a month older than myself—even though my parents had specifically requested a little girl “of sound body and mind,” as the Steiner schools put it. Oh, and already potty-trained because Ma was so over diapers.
My parents took a break in their search for a while. Then one day they received a Polaroid of a girl in a too-small sweater, leaning against a statue of the Virgin Mary. Ma jumped around as if she had just won the Lotto. She carried that photo everywhere. In her cupped palms, as if she was carrying butterfly wings, she held the picture out for anyone who was willing to look. “This is our new adopted daughter,” she’d say. “We’re gonna call her Jenny. You know, like the Thompsons. Do you know their daughter? She’s so sweet. You hardly even know she’s there.”
Dad thought the kid looked cute. But to me, she looked like a cross between an insect and a turtle, with a beetle-like abdomen, cricket legs, a bowl cut, and a top lip clamped beakishly over the bottom.
Outside, the pink-streaked sky was sinking into the city. New department stores and skyscraper shadows fell across the emperor’s old home–still standing in a city descending into vapor. The antique and revitalized, side by side.
Dad sat with his back to the TV. The Korean news played loudly, even though none of us could understand what was spoken. Images of tear gas explosions and overturned cars in miniature danced on the lenses of Dad’s glasses. From time to time, he’d take them off, turn around to the window, and snap pictures of the same riots, but from a bird’s-eye view. Demonstrators moved about in changing shapes and formations: a line of blue, a hive of black, morphing.
“Don’t use up so much film,” Ma yelled from the bathroom.
In the vanity, surrounded by a soft glow of bulbs, her eyebrows arched and then straightened, looking like caterpillars crawling across her face. The thin black line of them slowly faded, as she rubbed a Kleenex drenched in Johnson’s Baby Oil across her lids, discarding the stained black tissue in the trash.
She caught me watching and smiled at me without turning around, so that it looked like she might have been just smiling at herself. Or that her reflection had smiled at my reflection, both of us stuck in the glass. This was a game that we played in a mirror.
Ma enlarged her eyes with the beak of her fingers, making her look scared. She rubbed miniscule drops of cream into her skin, starting at the top, working her way down each side methodically in a never-altering pattern. These were her rituals. She had many and I studied them all: how she tucked her hair behind her ears right before speaking with a stranger; the way she jiggled the knob to make sure the door was locked, peering back into our house to see if she had set the alarm; how she licked her pencil tip before drawing; that certain smile she had for others not in our family—more teeth, head tilted, as if offering her face to a different god.
“What are they protesting?” I asked.
“They want democracy,” Dad said, zooming in for another action shot. He once dreamed of becoming a photographer of long-legged women or wars. But instead he became an engineer, a practical profession for the first in his eight-person family to go to college.
“They’re protesting the Olympics,” Ma said, working a thin line of floss through her teeth.
I could see City Hall right across the plaza beside the subway station. On its roof, a digital display of the number of days, hours, and minutes ticked backward toward the moment when the Olympics would finally reach Seoul and an American reporter would declare that Korea’s number-one export was its children, myself just one of those hundreds of thousands sent overseas.
“Because in Korea, if you’re pregnant and you aren’t married, your family disowns you,” Ma said.
“It’s what happens when you industrialize too quickly,” Dad said.
“You have to let some things go,” Ma said.
I imagined spokes of left-behind babies trailing from the villages to the hub of Seoul. I looked down but all I saw was fighting. If I had looked closer, through the telescopic lens of my father’s camera, for example, I would have seen a single speck of gray, a woman holding her baby on her back, regardless.
Like a ghost, her clothes were indistinguishable from the concrete, as if they too were woven from rock and sand, dust and water, pressed and scored in lines. She panhandled before the mouth of the subway, camouflaged. Day and night, eternally she knelt on a thin slice of cardboard, head bowed above a Styrofoam cup set on a layer of sidewalk hovering above other layers of sidewalks that snaked underground for miles and miles, along the subway lines all color-coded according to their destination. Her face could not be seen. Over her gray hanbok, she wore a podaegi, a cloth used to tie a baby to a back, binding one generation to the back of the other, and to another. Turtles all the way down, as they say, holding the world on their shells.
The woman was eclipsed by the shadows of many tall buildings, so that even when I was standing right beside her, I might not have noticed her if Ma hadn’t pointed her out.
When we left the hotel the next morning, to meet my new sister for the very first time, the demonstrations were in full force. Ma plunged through the revolving glass door and shot out into tear gas. Then Dad followed suit, and then me. But I couldn’t eject myself, and got stuck between the glass like a bug in a microscope slide. My parents passed by me in cycles. Finally, Ma extracted me by the arm and we followed Dad, pushing through the screaming crowd. I stepped on someone’s spectacles. They bent beneath my shoe, crunching, staring up at me among the shattered glass.
Dad waited at the entrance to the station where a little boy stood alone crying, his mouth opened in a bright red square. Everyone ignored him. Perhaps it was a common scene. A child abandoned in a public place, left while the child is absorbed in the detail of some small thing: A boy on his knees looking into a crack in the sidewalk, watching the tops of commuters’ heads marching by on the sidewalks that run along the subways below, debating whether or not to spit into the hole. A young girl standing before a cardboard box overflowing with puppies, mesmerized, as the mothers fall into a crowd that carries them away like an ocean, and the children are left afloat on their own lonely raft.
In the 1980s, it is said, an average of ten children were abandoned on the streets every day.
“That’s the price of becoming a first-world country,” Dad said.
“It’s the culture,” Ma said.
She paused in front of the woman bent over a sign asking for spare change whom I could not see from our hotel room. Even while standing right beside her, I still did not see her, or the baby on her back, as if they were camouflaged, blending right into the sidewalk. The rounded peak of the baby’s gray egg-head poked out of the cloth.
Ma pointed and said, “See. See what would have happened to you if your mother hadn’t given you up? Aren’t you glad we adopted you? Aren’t you glad you didn’t end up like that?”
She wagged her finger back and forth, making it unclear to me which one I was supposed to be looking at, which one I might have become—the woman begging or the child on her back? Then Ma dropped a coin into the beggar’s cup, and towed me away to the train.
I remember the night Ma wanted to tell Dad she was serious about adopting. He was three hours late coming home. Every time she thought she heard his car in the driveway, she leaped up and hit “Start” on the microwave again, so that by the time the garage door actually peeled itself away from the concrete, I was sure Dad’s rice had turned to gravel.
“I have something to tell you,” Ma had wanted to say. But he passed through the kitchen too quickly. The brass clasps flipped open on his briefcase as he hummed along to some new country hit, the kind of music Ma could not stand. He returned from his den with a glass of cheap wine. The TV was on. Ma clattered the dishes into the sink. The hard running water splattered grease onto the wall.
Practically yelling over toy commercials, Ma said, “I just cleaned the living room, so don’t leave anything lying around.” Rub-a-dub doggie. Sweet little doggie. “I have to pick up all day after you guys. My back is starting to hurt from bending over all the time. And so much driving. Rich, can’t you take her to the dentist tomorrow?”
No one bothered to turn the volume down, so accustomed were we to taking in everything at once. Dad hummed along to the commercial. Love to take a bath with you. With his bowl held up to his chin, he shoveled his food in lightning fast with chopsticks, dropping crumbs on a photo of the Raiderettes on the paper beneath his elbow on the table. He swiped the rice to the floor.
“I’ll be away next week. Business. What am I supposed to do? Pass the broccoli.”
Ma shut off the faucet. The TV sounded even louder. Because two in the bathtub is better than wah-ah-ah-un. Dad crunched up the cartilage on the end of his drumstick. He opened his mouth and showed me his chewed-up food. I giggled, snapping his jaw closed with my hand.
“You travel too much. If you died in a plane crash …” Ma peeled off the yellow dish gloves, smacking them hard against the sink. Sweet little doggie … She switched off the TV. “I have something I need to tell you.” I wanted that toy. “I think we should adopt another child. Now, Rich. Before it’s too late. For Cindy. She needs a sister. Someone who will always be there for her when we’re gone.”
Dad stared at her with his mouth slightly open, as the newspaper slipped off the table and came apart on the ground.
At the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pusan, my new sister waited, standing at the end of the line.
The nuns only called her when she was bad. When she cried, when she fought, when she took the Lord’s name in vain. “Aigu, Yoon-eh-o.” They smacked her forehead, shoving her into the closet with the buckets and boots. “You be quiet in there! You be quiet! Or you stay in there forever!”
Yoon called for “ah mah,” for the soft pouch of her belly beside her when she used to dream. “Ah mah.” A face that she would have forgotten. Yoon was afraid of the silence. She feared the nuns and the pigeons that pecked at her feet, looking into her beady eyes with their beady eyes, as if her eyes were crumbs.
The nuns come at her with their small picture album, jabbing at each photo with a finger against the laminated page. Thwack. “Look. Your new sister.” Thwack. “Look. Your new house. See. Father. ‘Dad.’” Thwack. “‘Mom.’” Thwack. “‘Pets.’ Do you know ‘pets’? Dog. Cat. Fish. Look.” Thwack. “Hamster.”
And every night, Yoon dreamt—beady eyes, little teeth, tiny claws. Hamster, hamster, hamster.
For our convenience, the adoption agency sent Yoon from the orphanage in Pusan to a foster home near Seoul. But we were delayed and Yoon had to stay longer than anticipated with her foster family—her first time ever living with an actual family, as far as we knew. She became attached.
When we got to Suwon, the foster mother welcomed us inside. “O so o sip see o.” Ma scanned the apartment for the toys we sent, but they were nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Jenny?” Ma whispered to Dad.
“Abeoji! Abeoji!” the foster mother yelled. “Yobo!”
Footsteps paused behind an accordion wall that turned the one room into two. It slid back and a child emerged through a thin opening. I recognized the beak-like mouth and the beady eyes. But her long hair had been butchered into a chipped bowl cut. Her stomach protruded shell-like and her limbs were spindly, dark, and ashy, covered in scabs like those kids on the UNICEF box. Dad smiled with only his teeth, as if he wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his face. Ma feared she was no Jenny. I could tell by how she pulled her chin into her neck, retracting.
I shouted, “My sister!”
Yoon stared at the ground. She shrugged her shoulders up to her ears. Her T-shirt rose above her belly button, exposing an obscene dangling protrusion. Her shirt fell back down, dropping the curtain on her outie like it was something never meant to be seen.
“Every day,” the social worker said, “we show Yoon photo album.”
Yoon climbed onto her foster mother’s lap, snuggling into her.
“What album?” Dad asked.
The foster mother stood up and brushed Yoon out of her skirt like a crumb.
“The ones I have you send of your family! Remember?” She laughed.
But he did not remember. I was the one who took most of the pictures. I was the one to assemble the album.
In the same voice Ma used to coax the cat into its carrier, she called, “Jenny. Come sit down next to Momma. Come on. How do you say ‘come’ again?”
The months leading up to our trip, we had a Korean-language tutor. But none of us retained a thing, until the foster mother returned with a plate full of watermelon and we all exclaimed, “Su pak,” our memories somehow jogged.
Yoon snatched up a slice with each hand, juice dripping down her arm. I extended my hand out to her like I wanted to shake. She tilted her head and looked at me with the eyes of an uncertain bird. I grabbed her wrist while she gripped her melon and shook her arm up and down.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and she laughed, her face brightening, seeming to bloom.
A stuffed bear sailed through the air, almost landing on the plate. A little boy withdrew his head from behind the partition. Yoon picked up the bear with her elbows.
“I bought that for you!” I said, pointing at myself, then pointing at the bear.
“Kome,” she said, and I remembered the word for bear.
Ma surveyed the room again, perhaps in hopes that the pricey German Steiff dog she sent might be located. “Come sit down next to Momma,” she tried again. But Yoon did not respond.
Yoon ate her melon down to the rind. Pink juice dripped off her elbow, leaving sticky spots on the floor. A fly landed on the back of Yoon’s hand and began to feed, its multitude of eyes fixed on all of us. Yoon glanced up between bites to watch us watching her. Ma took out a tissue and was about to spit in it to wipe Yoon clean, as if Yoon was already her daughter. Instead, she dabbed at her own lips, and zipped the tissue into her purse.
“Jenny,” Ma said, but the child would not look up at her.
On our way back to the hotel, Ma kept insisting that we call her “Jenny” to help her move on and become a new person, more American.
“Jenny,” Ma said again into the vanity.
I watched the lights from the flares on the plaza below flicker across my queen-sized bed, soon to hold another body, and then I quickly fell asleep.
After a week in Seoul and another visit with Yoon, I was beginning to understand more Korean, catching words like snippets of a dream. I was able to notice more of my surroundings: so many streams gushing right through the city puddling into ponds; people missing limbs, missing eyes, lying on the ground beside soldiers standing with machine guns constantly glancing up at the sky.
On the way to the adoption agency to pick up Yoon, the taxi driver smiled at me in the rearview, and for a second, I felt recognized. The waiting room was packed with women and kids. Yoon sat in the corner in a new white polka-dotted dress.
Ma picked up Yoon’s small hands and said cheerily, “You ready to come live with us, Jenny?”
Yoon yanked her hands to her sides. A strange mewing sound leaked out of her. The foster mother said something to her in Korean that I heard as, “Go away now. You no more Korean.”
The adults left and walked into an office with a glass wall. We could see them shaking hands, flipping papers, smiling in strained thin lines. At the opposite end of the waiting room, there was a long bench. Many women sat squished across the long line of it. Their shoulders overlapped. Their elbows knocked as they struggled to hold children in their arms. More women squatted on the floor. Some just stood, rocking. An infant squalled, its fat face puckered. Yoon slipped backward on the metal fold-out chair. Her feet stuck straight out from the seat. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or just uncomfortable.
“Yoon?” I said. “I’m your new sister, Cindy. Can you say, ‘Cindy’?”
I had imagined that she would come with a little suitcase like Paddington Bear, full of curiosity. But she held nothing but a sun hat in her hands. “Yoon?” I didn’t know what to say to her. I longed for my friends who had by now graduated, standing on the playground singing, “We are the world. We are the children,” for our ceremony, and eating cotton candy from a rented machine.
She picked at a scab on her leg. A baby with its chin resting on its mother’s shoulder stared at us. Yoon bent down and pulled a stuffed animal out from under her seat. She smiled down and rocked it, speaking to it in a sweet soothing tone.
You’re okay, baby. You’re okay. Your mother will be back for you. Soon. Soon. Don’t cry. No cry.
“Kome,” I said.
She looked up at me with a serious expression, held out the bear and boomed, “Kome.”
“Kome,” I repeated, booming like her.
I poked the bear in its belly and we giggled. She passed him to me and I rocked him the way she had. With its head nestled in the crook of my arm, feet against the palm of my hand, I sang, “Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop. When the wind blows the cradle will rock.”
I passed the bear back and Yoon sang something in Korean with a voice so tender that I almost cried. We each took one arm of the bear and made him do funny dances across our outstretched legs. We fed him our fingertips and bent his legs so he could poop. That really made us laugh.
I became bored and left to walk around the crowded room toward the wooden bench, slipping past the mothers soon to give up their children. Above the bench was a photograph in a gilded frame. It was a snapshot of an airplane filled with children. Row after row of babies strapped to car seats, toddlers with hands in their laps, older kids barely younger than me, maybe even older, waiting for the plane to take off. Or perhaps they were already in the air hovering above the ocean, leaving a part of themselves scattered across the sea. Each face was in some sort of distress. And I wondered where that plane was headed, and if one of those babies was me. How many planeloads of children had been sent overseas? Then a boy bumped into me, saying something to me in Korean, staring at me with deep black eyes, and in that moment, more than anything, I longed to understand what was being spoken.
On the curb of departures, the AC blasted into the hot screaming air. Our taxi driver put our luggage on the curb. He handed Yoon and me our small packs, looking at us like we were lost children heading in the wrong direction. In fact, everyone looked at us in this way. Perhaps they thought we were locals in the company of foreigners. Sometimes, they would say something to me in Korean that I couldn’t understand while Yoon just stood there mute, staring at the ground.
Yoon wouldn’t answer to “Jenny,” and every time Ma touched her, she screamed.
“Hold still, Jenny.” “I’m just trying to fix your barrette, Jenny.” “Uh-uh, don’t do that, Jenny. That’s not okay.” And Yoon would scream bloody murder.
“You can never have enough snacks to get through a fourteen-hour plane ride,” Ma said, pulling her suitcase alongside the moving sidewalk. Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack. “Is that how long the flight is, Rich? Rich? Hold up.”
“Something like that,” he said, smiling down at Yoon. He was cheery.
While we waited to board the plane home, Yoon played with the sagging cord separating the different categories of waiting people. She swung it like a jump rope. The base of the poles bumped up and down when the red rope arced. The other passengers looked at her nervously, probably imagining her rocking the plane just like that in the air. Which, to be honest, she could probably do with the volume of her voice.
“Uh-uh, Jenny. Don’t touch,” Ma said. “No, no. Don’t scream.”
Our seats were located in the back of the plane. I gave Yoon the window and sat between her and Ma—the demilitarized zone. Already they fought about everything. Dad was in a whole different row. Ma yanked the belt out from under Yoon, brushing her with her hand, making Yoon cry.
“Jenny. I’m just trying to help you put on your seat belt.”
I was kneeling on the cushion that doubled as a life preserver and so I saw it all: The tops of the passenger’s heads swivel toward us as Yoon screamed and thrashed. Ma trying, repeatedly, to force the belt on. The stewardesses flocking elsewhere, eyeing the problem from a safe distance. The man in front of us, shriveling as Yoon kicked the back of his seat one more time. Dad unwrapping the headphones and clamping them firmly over his ears.
“You have to wear it, Jenny. We’re departing.”
Yoon swatted at the belt in Ma’s hands.
“Can’t you do something?” Ma said to me in a tone that indicated this was all my fault. I glared back as if to say, “You were the one who wanted to adopt her.”
Dad flipped through his complimentary magazine, probably listening to New Country.
“Jenny,” Ma pleaded, while staring over at him.
Yoon was a hysterical ball on the floor, rolling around as much as space allowed. Dad sighed and put his magazine back in the pocket behind the airplane seat. He unbuckled himself and hoisted Yoon up as easily as an airline blanket slipped to the floor. Without looking at her, he pressed his forearm into her, compressing her like an overstuffed suitcase, and snapped her in. The engines fired. We angled upward and she wailed as we rose into the air.
Seoul turned miniature beneath us. Each light bulb lit up its own little world, shimmering behind a blanket of exhaust. I pictured myself in one of those worlds, inside one of those houses—What would my life have been like? Who would I have been?—realizing how quickly a thing is lost. Tears streamed down Yoon’s face and soon I began crying too, drowning us—an ocean of tears between us like two seas separated but of the same water, unstoppable.
Dad turned in his seat to face Ma and said of me, “I didn’t think she’d be so jealous so soon.”
To pass time, Yoon and I ate as many complimentary snacks as we could. We watched movies. I dribbled Sprite onto Kome’s faded brown fur then mopped it up with Korean Air napkins. I held Yoon’s hand, singing lullabies to her that she might have once sung to her bear, until her head dipped, landing heavily on my arm, where it remained for hours.
I must have dozed too, because the next thing I knew, people were taking off their seat belts before the seat belt light had been turned off. All the contents had shifted overhead, so when the bins opened, the luggage tumbled into the aisles. Dad held his duffel to his chest. He walked slowly toward the exit, staring straight ahead. Ma followed, glancing back briefly, giving me a wide-eyed look that said, “You know where to find me.”
“Ma!” I called, but the distance between us kept growing and soon she was gone.
I don’t think she meant to leave us. I just think she was done with the belts. Or with Yoon. I mean, Ma was right: “She’s no Jenny.” Which is what she said to people when they asked her how things were going. “Well, she’s no Jenny.” Or even, “She’s no Cindy,” or, “We’re thinking of sending her back,” as if you could even return a child.
I picked each rice cracker crumb out of the cracks of our cushions and stuffed them all into my mouth. “Come on, Yoon. E-lee-wa. We’re home. Let’s go.” I reached to unbuckle her and she snarled, threatening me with her teeth.
“Yoon,” I said. “You can take your seat belt off now.” She smashed her face against the window. “Yoon. Yoon,” I kept calling. Eventually she looked up, leaving a print of her face on the plastic oval pane, and I knew that she didn’t believe we had landed. I knew that she thought we’d soon be right back up in the air, going elsewhere. I walked backward down the aisle all the way to the tarmac and stood there for a long long time, for all of eternity, just watching her—a four-and-a-half-year-old girl with a bag of complimentary peanuts, sitting in a window seat all by herself, her waning moon of a face pressed across the sky—until she was nothing but a thin white line breaking into clouds.
I mean, it didn’t actually happen like this. Yoon followed. She had no choice. We are family. Things worked out and they didn’t. But in a way, this is exactly how it happened. There are still 600 planeloads of children drawing lines in the sky, held up on the bent back of an old woman kneeling on a thin slice of sea. I know this is true because I have no memory of landing.
Sasha Hom is a writer, adoptee-activist, farmworker, and mother of four, with interests in soil regeneration utilizing Korean Natural Farming methods. In addition to homeschooling her small children, she herds small ruminants while running the Bottomless Well Arts and Ecology Center and Residency with her partner, Dylan Bolles. She was a Holden Minority Scholar at Warren Wilson College where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing workshops to BIPOC tweens adopted by white families and presented scholarly work for the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link’s 10th anniversary conference in Seoul. She has been published in the Journal of Korean Adoption Studies, as well as One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory … edited by Rebeccah Walker (Riverhead, 2010), Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings edited by Elaine Kim and Laura Hyun Kang (AAWW, 2003), Kweli Journal, The Millions, and Literary Mama with work forthcoming elsewhere. She and her family live off-grid in small canvas and wooden structures on a 600-acre land co-op amid 5,800 acres of conservation land situated within Vermont, an odd-shaped state (but aren’t they all?) upon a very large continent amid oceans. You can find her on Facebook or at Bottomlesswell.org.