Let me just say, it was unreal.
My mom, dad, brother, and I approach a tall building with an escalator traveling into its middle. We wander to the third floor, quietly, because the corridors are silent. (I don’t know why. This is apparently a mall. The hair salons, micro-gyms, and clothes shops must be sealed in soundproof glass.)
We tiptoe to BeeWon restaurant and tell the hostess that we’re with a group. She leads us to a large, sectioned-off room with two tables and a group of Koreans. The group of Koreans turn and grin at us, bounding forward.
Oh. They’re family!
My grandmother’s brother hugs me with teary eyes. I can’t believe this. He looks like my grandma. I greet all of my mom’s cousins with a sort of bewilderment.
I know this is special for Mom. She grew up hearing about how her friends were going to go see their cousins, their aunts and uncles. She never had that.
Her cousin prays before we eat. He thanks God for our meal and also prays for the North Koreans. This strikes me as interesting. Do South Koreans include North Koreans in their prayers?
Great-uncle keeps topping up our glasses with bokbunja, a black raspberry wine. We gift them with Coach purses, vitamins, and I ❤ Boston totes. (Boston is where my parents live.)
One of my second cousins keeps speaking Korean into his phone and showing us the translation. At one point he intones, “bi-bim-bap…” We tell him there’s no need to translate that.
My friend asked me if meeting my Korean family made me feel, well, more Korean.
Honestly, I sort of expected that. I thought meeting my relatives would bring me face-to-face with my heritage.
But instead, the reunion feels too surreal to register. I sit across from my second cousins and say in my head, “these are my second cousins, these are my second cousins, these are my second cousins…”
A few days later, we meet my great-uncle and his youngest daughter at the subway station in Ichon-dong. As we wander through back-allies strewn with telephone wires, Great-Uncle takes my hand. He rubs it and chuckles, “warm…” as though surprised.
We get lunch at a restaurant below ground. Something I’ve realized about dining in Seoul:
It is perfectly okay to shout at your waiter from across the restaurant.
Afterwards, on our way to her apartment, my second cousin takes my arm and pulls me across the street into a patisserie. She hands me a tray and tongs and tells me to pick five pastry items. With childlike ecstasy, I skip over the Parisian-looking desserts and land on what only a Korean patisserie would offer: red bean bread.
We go to my second cousin’s apartment and tuck in, pairing the desserts with coffee and tea. I ask her if she thinks my brother, Chris, and I look Korean. She wrinkles her nose and says no.
Throughout the hours we spend with our Korean relatives, we show my great-uncle pictures of my grandma, his older sister. It’s at this point that I realize I could never understand what my grandma went through when she moved to America. That kind of distance between my brother and I would break my heart.
For me, this family reunion wasn’t about self-discovery. It wasn’t about actualizing my ‘Koreanness.’ Because it wasn’t about me.
It was about understanding my family.
It was about joining together to pray for North Korea, where my grandpa and my great-aunt are from.
It was about understanding, even a little bit, where my grandma comes from.
That, for me, is priceless.