My name is Ellie Freeman and I live in Brisbane. I bet you didn’t picture a 5ft tall Korean woman as you read that sentence. I do, however, have a completely Australian accent and I speak limited Korean extremely poorly.
WTF? Let me explain. I was born in South Korea and adopted by Australian parents when I was 4 months old. My adoptive parents are Anglo-Aussies – a mix of Irish, German and English. The adoption files never listed which town I was born in. Only the province – Gyeongsamnam-do, which is a real pain to write on forms.
I think everybody who doesn’t look or speak Anglo in Australia gets asked where they are from. I never knew what to say because I never felt completely Australian or completely Korean. Nowadays, I just give a brief summary of my adoption in one go. Some people get it. Some people ask dumb questions like “so… you don’t speak Korean?!” and I have to explain that I came to Australia when I was 4 months old and my parents are Aussie and blah blah blah so duh, of course I don’t speak Korean.
I recently went back to Korea for the first time since I was born as part of a First Trip Home program for Korean adoptees.
I was asked “where are you from?” even in my country of birth. But the context was completely different.
When people in Australia ask where I’m from, they want to know why I look Asian.
But in Korea, where I can’t speak the language, I’m Australian.
I quickly learned the word in Korean for “Australian” – “hoju!”
I knew a bit of basic Korean. Hello. Thank you. Yes. May I please order an iced tea? I knew enough to convince most people for a few seconds that I was Korean.
But the jig was up when Koreans said other things to me.
“Hoju!” I’d reply, pointing at myself and panicking.
I was surprised that nobody seemed too confused over the fact that this Asian-looking girl was shouting about being Australian in bad Korean. Sometimes it worked in my favour. A kind shopkeeper who spoke a bit of English was so impressed that I was from Australia that he gave me a free pair of pants! The manager of a health spa gave me and another Australian adoptee a special “Australian discount”.
The Koreans put their hands up to their heads as ears and bounced around excitedly. “Oh! Kangaroo!”
Our adoptee group was from all over the world – the US, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway.
At first, we all looked like Koreans. But as we got to know each other, nobody seemed the same at all. Especially when we spoke.
A Danish adoptee who lives in Korea and works with other adoptees had his own theories on telling people apart. It’s the little things like body language, the way we dress, do our hair and wear makeup, things we have picked up subconsciously from our adoptive cultures.
After a while, I noticed the Europeans had a certain texture to their hair. The Americans and Europeans dressed in a different way to each other, but I couldn’t exactly explain how.
I found myself rephrasing the way I speak. I realised that some of the expressions I use are so Australian that they don’t make sense outside of Australia. We joked around and tried to imitate each other’s’ accents.
Born and bred Koreans have a certain look about them. The women in Seoul, in particular, follow a beauty aesthetic of being very pale, very thin, big eyes and possibly having plastic surgery. I didn’t look anything like them. But it was nice being around a mass of people the same height as me.
English teachers are in high demand in Korea, so occasionally we would see a few Caucasian people walking around. The first thing my Korean adoptee friends and I noticed was that they didn’t look at us – as opposed to our experiences in our adoptive countries. It was the opposite – the Koreans looked at them instead.
In between sightseeing, eating and noraebang (Korean karaoke) with my new adoptee friends, something incredible happened on the trip. I found out that my family was from Geoje Island, the second biggest island in Korea. I went there to search for them. And I found them. Birth family reunions for adoptees are quite rare, so it was completely unexpected.
(It is a long story, but you can read the extended version on my blog: roknrollradio.wordpress.com/)
I met my birth parents in a café in Busan. After the hugs and tears, we had loads of things to tell each other.
I asked the woman who gave birth to me where I was born.
I discovered that I was actually born on Geoje Island and was glad I’d been there to see it. It’s gorgeous – wide bays and rivers, lush countryside and huge mountains. The first thing I did when I found out was change my Facebook hometown. Finally. I knew.
I also found out that I had four sisters that I never knew existed. They didn’t know I existed either. My Umma kept saying I looked like and had the same personality as my second youngest sister. As an only child in an Anglo Aussie family, this struck me as an incredibly bizarre concept.
After what was probably a very strange discussion with my sisters, my Umma brought them up to Seoul up meet me.
We stared at each other and giggled for ages. It was way too weird. These women were blood-related but also total strangers.
Our differences were quite vast. My family is into mountain-climbing and eating weird fish they grew up with on the island. But that was okay. We told each other exciting things about our homes. My sisters were sweet and bought me gifts. It was like hanging out with nice new friends. We left promising to learn each other’s languages.
At first, I couldn’t see the family resemblance at all. I was quite flattered that everyone thought I looked like my second youngest sister. She is definitely Korean-pretty – pale, skinny, big eyes.
The sisters seemed so different. They wore light, floaty feminine clothes and pale makeup. They were delicate and gentle.
I wear boots, black, thick eyeliner and red lipstick. and I have a habit of falling over my own feet.
But later, I stared at our photo hard and tried to ignore our superficial differences. And I finally saw it. Glimpses of our smile, the lines on our faces, the way our eyes move, the shape of our face.
One thing bothered me. All of my sisters had a line under their eyes that I don’t have. I asked the Danish adoptee about it. It’s called “aegyosal” – or “cute flesh”. It’s somewhat of a desirable beauty trait in Korea. He returned to his earlier theory on telling the difference between adoptees – even muscle movements are different in each culture.
A native Korean explained that Korean women also know some fancy makeup tricks to give the illusion of having aegyosal.
Another adoptee pointed something out.
“Your Umma doesn’t have aegyosal,” she said. “You have eyes like her.”
On my last day in Seoul, I went shoe shopping. The shop assistant starting talking to me in Korean so I had to point at myself and say “hoju!” again.
He was curious about my passport so I let him have a look. I pointed to the part where it says Gyeongsamnam-do.
“I grew up in Brisbane, but I was born on Geoje Island,” I said proudly.
He nodded, then started asking how much are cigarettes in Australia.
When I was in Korea, I learned that the question “where are you from?” can have an entirely different context when you’re same ethnicity as everyone else around you. I learned that my answer is different again after seeing Korea in person and learning the city where I was born.
But despite being from the same land, Asians definitely don’t look the same. Beyond the skin colour, dark hair and eyes, we are shaped into individuals by our surroundings, our cultures, and our families.
Ellie Freeman is a 25-year-old radio producer and sound engineer currently living in Brisbane. She’s into cycling, live music and scoring sweet deals at local markets. Ellie is a Korean Aussie adoptee and recently reunited with her birth family in Korea. Now she’s into Korean hip hop and insane Korean sketch comedy TV shows.