Adopted as a toddler, the author makes a trip to the country of her birth and discovers that belonging is elusive

Words by Lee Middleton | 04 Nov, 2019

Flying north-east over the Horn of Africa, I am deep in a state of long-haul dormancy. The muffled roar of engines at 30,000 feet (breached only by the wail of a baby or the click of overhead bins) is the familiar soundtrack to this time-out-of-time. It will end only when I suck in the air of a world on the other side of the globe, in a place where day is night and night is day. There, everything will be opposite.

I have no memory of a time before such flights.

On my first, I was the crying baby. It was 1973 when the white and sky-blue of a Pan Am jet delivered me, 11 months old, from Seoul, South Korea to Honolulu, Hawaii. There I became Lee Middleton, the name my US passport claims for me as I now journey from Cape Town, South Africa—my unlikely home of the last dozen years—back to Seoul, the birthplace to which I am finally returning to attend a conference called the “Gathering”.

The vaguely cultish name puts me off, but I lack a better way to describe this mass coming together of some 500 Koreans, adopted and sent overseas, almost entirely to Caucasian families, and now arriving from Minneapolis, Stockholm, and Sydney, from New York, Oslo, and Rome. Just a percentage of a fraction of the 200,000 Koreans adopted internationally since the 1950s, we will descend upon a five-star hotel in downtown Seoul, where we will meet, eat, and play (the six-day itinerary includes a poker tournament, soccer match, and gala dinner with a K-pop performance). Some of us will attend workshops with titles like “parenting as an adoptee” and “immigration and citizenship”. Others will listen to academics presenting talks on identity formation and the portrayal of motherhood in the Korean media.

Officially, I’m doing research for a book. And while I know there is more to it than that, I’m not sure what the more is. That we are gathering is the only certainty.

The violet glow of imposed night transitions to gold, announcing another round of beverages and food. Addressing me in Korean, the slim, perfectly coiffed stewardess gestures to a pyramid of small plastic containers filled with something reddish. I’m not sure what is more diminishing: having to ask her to speak English, or realising that what I initially mistake for watermelon turns out to be kimchi.

As far as I know – which is not very far – this is more or less the area where I was abandoned 46 years ago. A baby in a basket with a note. An image whose mythic quality I have nurtured like an ember that I have charged myself to keep alive

Against Manhattan’s 1994 night sky, neon signs announcing barbeque joints and other Korean businesses illuminate West 32nd street from Broadway to 5th Avenue. My friends and I stomp up carpeted stairs in Doc Martens and Converse All Stars, past a fake waterfall, and into the reception of a large dining room the colour of yellow chrysanthemums, filled with the smell of caramelised fat, and packed with Koreans.

It’s not that I have never seen Koreans before. Almost every time I enter a Korean grocer to buy cookie dough ice cream or a bagel-wrapped slab of cream cheese, a hearty “Angyanghasayo” rings out, and I wonder how they know.

But in an instant, this critical mass of eyes, noses, cheekbones and lips has solved the riddle of my face with the uncanny elegance of a mathematical formula. The words “my people” sound, unbidden in my head, just as the restaurant’s petite, middle-aged hostess zeroes in on me, letting loose a torrent of Korean.

I gape, mute as a fish.

“Table for six?” says my friend Leyla, whose idea this was.

Frowning, the hostess collects a stack of menus and leads our party through the dining room. I follow, staring at faces that all speak to me, even if I don’t know what they are saying.

I’m walking from my office, just a stone’s throw from Cape Town’s parliament to the Trafalgar Place flower market where generations of Cape Malay women have sold proteas, roses, daisies, tulips, lilies, floral-you-name-it, since 1890. The Cape’s clarified sunshine streams down, energising my step as I weave through the diverse mix of humanity that is, in refreshing contrast to much of this still-segregated city, the norm in this neighbourhood. Then, only a minute into my three-minute stroll, I hear it.

“Nihau.”

The speaker, a man in his twenties, looks possibly homeless. Not that I can really say, as instantly I avert my eyes and flee from this greeting that I have come to dread (and which the man’s tone and gaze turn into anything but welcoming).

Rounding the corner, I swerve to avoid a flock of teenagers, a swirl of maroon and grey school uniforms, bookbags flying. I smile at their exuberance, and in that moment, one of the girls faces me, squinting her eyes and pulling a face.

“Ching chong chong chang,” she shouts to cascades of laughter.

Recently at a dinner party at the house of a famous South African photographer, said photographer asks if I speak Chinese.

“Why would I speak Chinese?” I say coolly, letting my host hang.

It turns out he had been studying Mandarin and was simply making conversation. When I consider this later, it makes me feel ungracious and wrong.

While blending in offers its own novel thrill, it is the outermost layer of a reckoning that cuts far deeper, unearthing what feels like an extraordinary secret: that we are all unlike everyone else here

But what is the right way to respond to the sum of my parts being forever reduced to a face that confounds people’s expectations of the name-family-accent that should accompany it? If there is a graceful way to navigate the gauntlet of questions stirred by this confusion—an interrogation that ends only when I reveal the loss at the root of this curiosity which is me—I have yet to find it.

On my first day in Seoul I wade uphill through the sticky heat to the botanical gardens on the slopes of Namsan Mountain. The red and white spire of Seoul’s iconic beacon, the Namsan Tower, rises against the grey of clouds threatening to burst.

As far as I know—which is not very far—this is more or less the area where I was abandoned 46 years ago. A baby in a basket with a note. An image whose mythic quality I have nurtured like an ember that I have charged myself to keep alive.

In the garden’s electric green, elderly people stroll along paved trails that carve tunnels through the humid forest. A large stone slab marks the source of Seoul’s only natural stream, which flows south to the Han River. I scan the horizon, comparing it with a photo taken in the early 1960s. It is almost impossible to reconcile the city today—dense with telephone wires and concrete as far as the eye can see—with the Kodachrome rice paddies and modest clusters of single-storey structures flanking the mighty river whose curves once defined this landscape. Today, skyscrapers obscure both the Han River and the mountains rippling upwards from its opposite bank. A whole world disappeared.

It keeps your bag from smelling like barbeque,” says an adoptee from New York, prying the pleather cushioned lid off a seat that is basically an elongated aluminium bucket, and depositing her purse inside. I follow suit, despite my impression that the exhaust pipes hanging from the ceiling like so many silver space-age arms are doing a great job.

A dozen adoptees line either side of a long table where a pair of gas grills fires up. Based on the sheer volume of restaurants, markets, and signboards depicting dishes to be had down an alley or on the upper storey of an otherwise nondescript building, it’s clear that Seoulites are food-obsessed. For adoptees, the value of a meal can extend well beyond the pleasures of taste: each dish consumed and each name familiarised become keys in a series of doors behind which lies the hope of regaining a culture lost.

With that in mind, the task of selecting a restaurant that might satisfy everyone’s expectations on this first night out was one I was grateful to have had nothing to do with. The few among us who speak some Korean get stuck with deciding where we’ll dine. They also navigate the route here, order all the food, and generally show us newbies the ropes (revealing the metal chopsticks and long-handled spoons that live in the wooden box or drawer gracing the table at every restaurant I will visit; passing out the weirdly thin, square serviettes that are not much bigger than a coaster and seem useful mainly as a surface on which to idle one’s chopsticks).

Someone pours and passes glasses of soju and beer; someone else notes that these should always be offered and accepted with both hands. We all dutifully comply. Meanwhile, the waitress, at once brusque and mothering, elbows in with a platter of meat, efficiently slicing kalbi onto the grill with a frighteningly effective pair of kitchen scissors.

Even if I still can’t speak a lick of Korean, I have learned a few things since my first New York City barbeque experience. I beam with the pride of a toddler who has successfully dressed herself as I wrap my grilled meat in a perilla leaf, dab some ssamjang paste on it, and throw a few pieces of kimchi in for good measure. Washing the whole thing down with a shot of soju, I relish the flavours almost as much as I savour being just another table of flush-faced Koreans, inhaling barbeque and drinking too much.

While blending in offers its own novel thrill, it is the outermost layer of a reckoning that cuts far deeper, unearthing what feels like an extraordinary secret: that we are all unlike everyone else here—or anywhere else for that matter—in exactly the same way. We all know the unique dislocation that comes of being the black-haired, slanty-eyed kid in a white family that tried to some degree or another to pretend we were not different.

Over the next few days, however, it becomes evident that as much as we may share that foundational truth, each of us will have his or her own approach to figuring out what being in Korea means now. When first scanning the Gathering itinerary, I had wondered at the many gaps in the schedule. Now I am grateful for the space to experience this place on my own terms.

Seoul—a metropolis of skyscrapers and Buddhist temples, teahouses and plastic surgery clinics, of 24-hour spas, 14th century palaces, and what is arguably the best public transportation system in the world—can accommodate whatever curiosities, obsessions, hopes, or uncertainties you may bring her. Jongno-gu for astonishing historic architecture. Hongdae for drinking, dancing, and noribang (karaoke). Insa-dong for traditional crafts and sleek art galleries. Itaewon for tacos, pizza, and bars where English is spoken. Dongdaemun for designer markets. Mapo-gu for a DNA test that will be logged into the national missing persons database. Seodaemun to request a birth family search.

The daily breakfast buffet options speak volumes about our crowd. A bounty of smoked salmon surrounded by horseradish, capers, and lemon juice. Dim sum and make-your-own pho. A chef preparing eggs-to-order next to warming trays filled with bacon, sausages, and roast potatoes. Chilli fish, beef stir-fry, mushroom bulgogi, and mountains of white rice. Breakfast cereal, Danishes, strudels, and croissants.

My plate heaped with the chilli fish and dim sum that have become my go-to morning meal, I end up sitting with a brother and sister who were adopted together to the US as toddlers. We bond over the fact that none of us has ever loved American breakfast and enthuse over the revelation of a savoury spicy start to the day. I ask what they are up to today, and they share a conspiratorial look.

“We’re going to meet our birth dad,” the sister says, in a hushed but giddy tone.

“It’s complicated, though. He’s brain-damaged,” the brother says.

He explains that three days earlier they had visited their adoption agency, where, almost on a whim, they initiated a birth family search. The agency called back the following day to say their father, whose existence they had never even really considered—birth mothers tend to absorb the focus of adoptee imagination—was alive. However, having suffered a terrible accident a decade prior, he has since lived in a hospital for the mentally ill.

“But he remembered that he had kids who were sent for adoption, and said he wanted to see us,” the sister says.

I am flooded with a strange mixture of envy and concern. Like their number has just been called in a lottery we’re all waiting to win, even if the prize might break your heart.

We friend each other on Facebook, and a few hours later I receive an enthusiastic message from the sister as they are en route to their appointment. That evening I text back, saying they shouldn’t feel obliged to respond, but that I wanted to let them know I was thinking of them, and I hoped things had gone well. I don’t hear from or see them again.

The Gathering is over, but I’ve stayed in Seoul a few extra days, renting an Airbnb below the Namsan botanical gardens. It is my last day, and I’m riding the bus back to the apartment, damp umbrella balanced between my knees. One ear cocked for the electronic female voice that will announce my stop in both Korean and English, I take in the craft breweries and café-cum-art galleries that proclaim the trendiness of this neighbourhood. Here, once upon a time, I was abandoned and then fostered before being sent overseas.

Looking out the rain-beaded window, I realise that this is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to the blank in my story. For the first time, I wonder how much my resistance to people’s curiosity about my origins stemmed from my own lack of answers. Korea was always just a place on a map, the backdrop to a tragedy.

Getting off the bus, I pause, taking in the slopes of Namsan Mountain, forest giving way to roads lined with boxy, brick apartment buildings crammed around older, tile-roofed houses. All descend to the swath of green that is the Yongsan Garrison, which is two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. Ringed with skyscrapers, this now-prime piece of real estate has been occupied by foreign armies—first the Japanese, then the Americans—since 1910. By year’s end, the last stages of Yongsan’s return to the Korean government will supposedly be complete. Rumour has it that the freed land will be converted from symbol of occupation to a public park with a lake where people might paddle boats over what was once a shooting range or the commissary, where Americans could buy frozen dinners for $1.99.

With the halting progress of fingers groping for a light switch in the dark of an unfamiliar room, I perceive the edges of my piece of history in this piece of city. A newfound sense of gravity tethers me to the ground beneath my feet, and I am filled with something like relief as I exchange the mythic for the real.

Something has shifted, and it occurs to me that when people ask me where I’m from, I might just save us all a lot of time and say Korea

It’s good to be home,” I say to the unsmiling immigration official at Cape Town International Airport. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in my sense of homecoming, but I am not bothered. Something has shifted, and it occurs to me that when people ask me where I’m from, I might just save us all a lot of time and say Korea. This makes me smile as I wheel my trolley through the airport, in a rush to get home to my family.

It’s not all happily ever after though. Among the mountain of gifts I bring back for my four-year-old son are a few boxes of wafer-style cream biscuits, individually wrapped in foil packets covered in Korean writing.

This morning I slipped one into his lunchbox. When I fetch him from school at the end of the day, he asks if he can have another “China biscuit” when we get home.

“Why are you calling it that? What do you think ‘China’ means?” I say, deeply disturbed by what I can only presume was a comment from another kid (about the biscuit? about him?). He can’t yet read and there is no reason for the People’s Republic to be on his radar.

He has no answer. He is four, and just wants a biscuit.

When we get home, I give him one, explaining that it is from Korea, like I am from Korea, meaning he too, is from Korea.

“Korea, Korea, Korea,” I say.

A few days later as I’m getting him out the door for school, he again asks for “one of those biscuits.”

“Which biscuit?” I respond.

“The China one?” he tries.

I have no idea where this is coming from but find myself enraged.

“You can have one if you can remember where they are from,” I say calmly, fully aware of how badly I’m handling this.

His lip trembles, and tears splash from his eyes, hitting his gumboots.

“Where was mommy? Don’t you remember?” I coax, even as I know I’m doing the opposite of creating a positive association with Korea.

I feel overwhelmed by my sense of history repeating itself—by my failure to teach my son about this part of his heritage, and my ignorance around how to help him see Korea as more than just a place on a map, an abstraction underlying our difference. I promise myself that I will bring him to Korea, but it feels impossibly far away.

Look what I got for you,” my son says, rushing into the house with an armful of pine boughs.

It is just three weeks after the biscuit episode, and at the last moment, I have decided to celebrate Chuseok, the lunar harvest festival and most important family holiday on the Korean calendar. Described as “Korean Thanksgiving”, it is an occasion to pay respect to one’s ancestors by way of food, including a half dozen specific dishes, most of which I have never tasted. Among these is the all-important songpyeon, or sesame and honey filled rice cakes steamed on a bed of pine needles.

I spend three days reading recipes online and scouring Cape Town’s few Asian markets to source ingredients like doenjang (fermented soy paste), chapssalgaru (sweet rice powder), and saeujeot (salty shrimp). In the process, I discover not only that the city has a small Korean community, but that they are hosting a Chuseok-like event, 10 days after the fact on South Africa’s Heritage Day.

That the option exists to celebrate Chuseok with other Koreans fills me with hope. It also makes me wonder what else I’ve missed in this city that, like all cities, keeps changing and growing. I think about the relentless layering of new over old, so much in evidence in Seoul. How that drive, with its indifference to individual memory and loss, is also what cracks things open, letting the light shine in. What flourishes from there depends, at least in part, on us.

Looking onto a sliver of a view of Table Mountain, my garden table is laden with dwaeji bulgogi (pork barbeque), homemade kimchi, a half-dozen banchan (side dishes), japchae (sweet potato noodles), and haemuljeon (seafood pancakes). This spread for the ancestors is encircled by family and friends, none Korean, but all dear. The children run riot around the garden while we feast and drink and pause to remember those who are no longer among us. When I bring out my songpyeon, they are a chewy disaster, but it doesn’t matter.

I breathe deep, awake to the possibility of a life beyond opposites.

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This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for women journalists.

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Lee Middleton is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town