By Anna Hovland
According to a Korean folktale, a long time ago in a heavenly kingdom, there lived a talented weaver, the daughter of the heavenly king. One day, the weaver gazed out of the window while weaving and happened to see a handsome herder (hereafter known as “the herdboy”) across the Milky Way — and soon enough, they had fallen in love.
Now the king wanted to reward his daughter for her artistry and the herder, for his industry and allowed their marriage. But soon after they wedded, the weaver’s loom began collecting dust, and goats and cattle began to roam aimlessly. The king was furious, and separated the couple, allowing them only to meet once a year in the sky.
On the first seventh day of the seventh month the next year, the herdboy and weaver went to either end of the Milky Way to see each other, but realized with dismay they could not cross, and began to cry, sending great tears down to earth. The animals on earth became dismayed, as the rain refused to abate. Magpies, taking pity on the couple, flew to the heavens to form a bridge across the Milky Way.
The couple’s annual reunification is now celebrated with the Chilseok festival, that also honors the changing of seasons. Faithfulness, dedication, and communion are themes of the festival. It’s also a time to reflect on Korean families who are divided by the Pacific Ocean or the 38th parallel between North and South Korea.The rain that falls during this period are said to be the couple’s tears of grief and joy.
On my last night in Korea two summers ago, the night of Chilseok, I ate pizza with my friends at the Magpie Brewing Co. in Itaewon, and took a final drink beneath the warm, blue street lights. In Korea, I am a different kind of lonely than in America. In the midwest, I am a magpie among seagulls. In Korea, I am a wingless magpie, kept airborne only by the impatient grace of others. Here, my typical offerings of listening and speaking are rendered impotent, and connection is found over food and touch. Everyone eats.
I had many meals during that trip — the fruit I ate with the cult members whose HQ I’d naively been escorted into for a “traditional tea ceremony with other international students,” the rare vegetarian shabu shabu my Korean friend talked a restaurant into making on one of the days it wouldn’t stop raining (and that was most of the days), and the just-right hangwa (traditional Korean confections) from the tea room filled with birdcages.
Back in the states, I briefly worked at a Korean restaurant. I’d savor our staff “family meals” of steaming jjigae (stew serving boiling hot and typically consisting of meat, seafood or vegetables in seasoned broth) or the occasional ddeokbokki (which are thick spicy rice cakes, and a crowd-pleasing street food) that the chef would serve us after we’d spent our hours toting cast iron bowls and tottering soju-tini glasses up and down the stairs, and ad libbing through rudimentary explanations of Korean dishes. Every time a group of Koreans would come in, I would open my mouth to speak only to find that every word I’d ever learned had magically disappeared from my memory.
They were waiting for me when we stepped off the train in Yeosu station around noon, and approached cautiously as if they weren’t sure it was me. “Anna?” they asked, making rare use of my American name bequeathed by my adoptive family, uncertain. My interpreter and fast friend, See-eun, by my side.
The first time I’d met my biological family was a few years earlier. We’d shared one meal and only a few hours together before they hastened back home to Yeosu, several hours south of Seoul, where I’d been living at the time. I wondered why they’d come the distance they had, later learning that they weren’t sure if I was really their daughter. Though my mother had consented to my adoption, she had kept this from the rest of the family, who all believed that I had passed at birth. My existence at the time seemed like a mirage. At the time, we’d tiptoed around questions that then simmered between us for years. This trip was assembled out of necessity — I’d reached a boiling point.
The first thing we did together was eat a meal. I’d already snacked on the train so I wouldn’t be hungry, but they insisted on feeding me. They watched intently as I picked at the steaming iron pot of stew, stacked high with crunchy cabbage and chewy morsels from the sea that I normally don’t eat. “Eat more,” they insisted, piling more into my small metal bowl. As if every bite were reassurance that none of us were dreaming, every clink of metal chopstick on metal chopstick a spell that would undo the many years we’d spent apart.
The feasting continued, each meal a communion over kimchi with family ghosts, and the ghosts of our former selves. Each meal brought us closer to communion with our present realities and each other. We looked intently towards See-eun at the end of every sentence, our longing to connect with each other emitting onto her like mid-afternoon heat on a car’s sun visor in the summer.
On our last night in Yeosu, my mother invited us over for dinner. I walked through the door to a carefully designed feast laid out on the coffee table in the living room.
Her husband, tall for a Korean man, with a barrel-bodied torso that puffed out of his fitted grey shirt, and slow darting eyes introduced himself. His eyes scanned my face and he let out an oh ho ho, a chuckle globally befitting of a middle-aged uncle. “You look just like your father,” See-eun explained.
“Do you want something to drink?,” she asked me. “Water would be nice,” I said. “Water?” she asked. “Water?” “Water,” I replied, curious about her reaction.
“I think they don’t have any drinking water here in the house,” my translator mumbled towards me. “She’s gonna boil some, though.”
My brother smacked his lips on the warm liquid she presented us. “Mmmm, bori-cha,” he said, sarcastically. (Bori-cha is a tea made of roasted barley).
As we sat down over the meal, my mother spoke to me, “Last time we met, you brought a bag of pears for us, she said, her eyes glittering. I saved them for a long time. I didn’t want to eat them.” There was silence. “I didn’t know what to bring,” I said, sheepishly.
This time I’d brought vitamins for everyone. I’d followed the guidance of dated tourist guides that listed vitamins as a special kind of gift for Koreans. They added several pounds to my luggage, but I wanted to bring something to show appreciation, and wishes of wellness for my immediate and extended family.
My brother interjected, looking at me, his tone pressing — are vitamins expensive in the states? Here, you can just go to a store, like a pharmacy and buy them. I felt See-eun’s voice reflect disappointment, her lips curled slightly downward as she glanced towards me waiting for my response.
I hesitated. “I thought — I heard — American vitamins are hard to get in Korea. I wish I had brought more. Do you think it’s not enough?” I bit my lip, knowing he did.
I thought about my aunties and uncles, shoving fifty and hundred won bills into my hands like they thought they might never see me again. Making up for all the lost time. I felt a twinge of guilt that I hadn’t brought more. As the family ghost, I hadn’t expected to be greeted with so much warmth. I’d set my expectation level for meeting my relatives at the Bottle of Daily Multi-Vitamins for Everyone level.
“You brought something for everyone. Everyone is happy and surprised you got them something,” he said, more gently than I expected. “It’s enough.” “It’s enough,” my mother said, looking me full in the face, her eyes warm and her hands clasped firmly over mine.
At the train station, we said our final goodbyes. I looked each of them in the eye, starting with my sister. “Next time I come here, I promise we’ll just have fun. We can watch TV. We don’t even have to talk about family stuff.” I turned to my father, his face jovial until a moment ago suddenly wet with tears. She was last. I thought about our bodies, so similar in size; she had been about my age when she’d had me.
“Oh my god,” I said, “how many more minutes until the train leaves?” See-eun grimaced sympathetically. “Four.” My father’s face was stuck up against the window, almost comically, hands pressed against the glass, until the train pulled away, my sister and my eyes locking until they were out of sight.
I felt the invisible wings that had held us together begin to pull apart, in spite of the tears we desperately held back. So I relished my final seconds in Yeosu air, taking in full the faces of my family.
Anna is a transracial/international adoptee, born in South Korea, raised in Minnesota, and reared in DC. Anna’s work is bridging together broken pieces to create a semblance of a whole.