Confession: I have a perverse interest in stories about Asian parents.
The reason behind it sounds more tragic than it feels. I’m adopted. I was adopted to Australia from Korea and raised by Aussies (convict ancestors and everything), I missed out on the experience of having Asian parents.
But seven months ago, after a detective romp across Korean through adoption agencies, City Hall and a small town police station, I reunited with my Korean birth parents – Umma and Appa – in a Busan coffee shop. I also later met four older sisters.
And now, 25 years later than most, I’m learning what it’s like to have Asian parents.
Writers Michelle Law and Benjamin Law recently wrote a book about their own mother entitled Sh*t Asian Mothers Say. I also started reading Growing up Asian in Australia, Alice Pung’s anthology of Asian writers reflecting on their early memories. Two sections of the book are devoted entirely to “The Folks” and “The Clan”, but the links to parents and family in relation to language, names and family recipes are throughout the book.
Families and elders are revered in Asian culture. On Chuseok – Korea’s “Thanksgiving” holiday – millions of Koreans make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestor’s graves and bow deeply to their grandparents. The idea of kneeling to the ground in front of my adoptive Australian grandmother seems ludicrous to me.
There’s also a plethora of Asian Australian and Asian American amateur comedic actors on YouTube.KevJumba’s own Taiwanese father stars in his videos, hamming up the Asian stereotypes of overly strict parenting, martial arts skills, questionable food choices, karaoke and life advice that seems out of place in a modern America. But his own humour shines through in the form of daggy dancing, dressing up in costumes and his own special blend of lame Dad jokes. He even has his own fan following, surpassing his own son’s – much to Kev’s annoyance.
Kevin, why do you keep using me in your videos? Is it because I’m funnier than you? Ho ho!” laughs Kevin’s Dad in one of the videos.
The Strict Asian Parents stereotype comes up a lot in what I read and watch. In Korea, academic pressure is intense. School days are longer than they are in Australia and most children are sent to hagwons – after school tutoring – late into the evening.
I suppose I’ll never find out whether my Korean parents are strict or not. Perhaps they acted like every other parent in Korea, which seems strict to Westerners. It’s all relative.
“When I went to Hong Kong for the first time, and I was actually conscious of how my Mum acted, I realised that it was actually quite normal in an Asian context,” Michelle told me in an interview.
Michelle and Ben claim their book is probably racist at the get go. This raised a feisty discussion online, and probably elsewhere, about racial stereotyping in your own race. Is it offensive and causing harm, or do stereotypes exist for a reason and it’s okay to laugh at ourselves?
These kinds of issues are endlessly interesting to me as an international adoptee. I can’t join in the collective inside jokes and discussions about Asian families. Coming from me, that actually would be racist. My family are white Australians. I never experienced any cultural or language barriers, except for when I was asked if I was my parents’ exchange student or demands to know why I’m Asian but have an Anglo name. But that’s the adoptee experience. Everything I’ve learned about that part of the Asian Australian experience has come from elsewhere.
I have only spent three days in person with birth family, back when I was in Korea last September. Since then, we’ve kept in contact through KakaoTalk, Korea’s version of Facebook messenger. It’s too hard to ask Umma anything too deep via Google Translate. The little things I learn are crucial to getting to know her, slowly building this picture of the woman who gave birth to me.
Umma is my height at around 5 foot tall, with a perm favoured by the ajummas (older women) of Korea. An avid hiker, her preferred fashion is tracksuits, cute scarves, and the ajumma visor – a hat favoured by the older women of Korea that comes in various sizes, from small to “can she even see out of that thing?”. When I look at photos of her, I see an older version of myself with a perm. Finding out things like who you inherited your nose and eyes from is incredibly important to adoptees, so I was pleased that we looked similar. Like me, her favourite dish to cook and eat is japchae (Korean mixed noodles). Like me, she says “goodbye” followed by “have fun!”
Umma was born just after the Korean War on Tongyeong, a small island south of the mainland. She grew up in a very different world to the high tech, neon-lit Korea I saw last year.
“Did you look like me when you were my age?” I asked when we first met.
“It was a long time ago,” she says. “I was very thin. But I was tough.”
Umma came from a big family of 5 other siblings. She met my father through her cousin. Appa was born on the neighbouring island, Geoje, and they lived together there when they married. My father worked in an office.
They had four daughters: a unique genetic anomaly on her side of the family.
“Everyone has lots of kids, and they’re all girls!” she complained.
I asked other Koreans if big families are common. They aren’t – they think my parents, like many Asian families, were trying to have a son.
Just before Umma became pregnant with me, Appa suffered from a stroke. He was only 36 and lost his job. At around the same time, the youngest of my oldest sisters was badly injured in an accident and needed surgery. The family moved in with Appa’s parents – then Appa’s father died.
Poor and exhausted from caring for her sick and grieving family, Umma just couldn’t take on raising another child. Healthcare and social support in 1980s Korea was not up to standard at the time either. So she decided the best option to give me up for adoption.
“Nobody knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I was always at the hospital with your sister and your father.”
I was taken to an adoption branch across the sea to Jinju on the day I was born. Umma’s voice was pained with guilt as she told me this, interjecting her story with “I’m sorry”s.
“We didn’t talk about you for 25 years,” she said. “I didn’t sleep properly for a long time.”
After I was adopted to Australia, Umma set about to rehabilitate my Appa and sister. The only evidence of my sister’s accident is a faint scar on her leg. Appa went back to work to a company that helped support his health problem. You wouldn’t know Appa had a stroke. He moved slowly, but spoke coherently. Umma sends me photos of them posing together at mountain shrines and at the botanical gardens in Geoje, like a young couple. He strikes me as a gentle, quiet man – the perfect match for Umma’s dominant personality as sge bickered with him over how to use their smartphone to show me photos, or the GPS when we got lost in Busan.
After all shock from our first reunion died down, Umma greeted me in Seoul for the second time in our lives by playfully punching my arm. With my sisters in tow, I glimpsed my mother being a mother. She told my third sister, whose thighs were aching after running that morning, to eat lemons (“Old ajumma remedy,” whispered my sister). She nagged my fourth sister about why she hadn’t introduced her boyfriend to the family yet. From what I’ve heard about the pressure Korean parents put on their children to marry, I think I can guess why.
When I came back to Australia, Umma reminded me every few days to “drink barley tea before you go to bed”. I had no idea what she was meant at first, but later found it at a Korean grocery store. It tastes like burnt popcorn and is good for your digestion system.
In autumn, Umma sent me photos of her mixing a huge cauldron and a box of persimmons with other ajummas and ajeoshis (older Korean men) in her town.
She sent me more photos of the tofu-making process with big white blocks cooling off in rectangle moulds. I was impressed. How many Western hipsters can make their own tofu from scratch?
There’s a part in Sh*t Asian Mothers Say specifically on Korean mothers. One section on “Natural Habitat” says Korean mothers are “At church with Jesus and handsome Pastor Kim”. I laughed out loud when I read this. Umma definitely went against that stereotype.
While many Koreans are Christians, Umma is a devout Buddhist and pescatarian. I remember we caught a taxi to the Han River from Itaewon in Seoul. The taxi driver blasted a dreary church choir from a Korean Christian radio station.
Umma turned to the driver and asked him something, pointing at the radio. The polite conversation quickly became heated. Umma’s thick Gyeongsang accent drowned out the church choir as she spoke passionately about…
“What are they talking about?” I whispered to the interpreter.
“Religious beliefs,” she replies. “They arguing over which is better. Do you want me to interpret…?”
“Er no, it’s okay.”
I smiled quietly to myself as Umma vehemently expressed her opinions for the entire taxi trip.
As well as keeping fit, Umma’s hikes up the mountains in Geoje are also an opportunity for her to stop in at the temples at the summit. She flew to Hunan in China one week to visit a temple.
“I woke up every morning at 5am to pray,” she said, sending me photos of grand staircases leading up to the shrine at an amazing rock formation.
Her spirituality fascinates me. I visited Buddha’s Birthday in Brisbane for answers, but nothing about souvenir stalls selling little Buddha statues or watching kung fu in South Bank shed any light on my mother’s beliefs.
For the first time this year, I celebrated Asian holidays beyond the spectacle of a Brisbane City Council-run cultural display. On Seollal – Korean Lunar New Year – I had Asian relatives for the first time to receive my New Years wishes. I rehearsed it over and over, the Korean consonants clunking uncomfortably in my English-speaking tongue. On that morning, just before I went to dance with sweaty Australians at Laneway Festival, I filmed myself bowing to my mother on my phone.
“새 해 복 많이 받으세요 (sae hae bok mani badeuseyo),” I said. “Happy New Year!”
Just before Lunar New Year, my family sent me New Years cards and presents. One present was 5 step skincare set. Each little bottle promised to balance my skin cells and moisturise my face in three different ways. Koreans take their skincare very seriously. I vowed to apply it every day to make my family proud and look like a K-pop star.
I’m going back to Korea in July for about 6 months to work and visit my family. Umma says she’ll show me her special kimchi recipe. We’ve moved past the shock of meeting now. Will Umma nag me to work hard, drink stinky Korean tea, pray to Buddha and make sure my skin is thoroughly moisturised? I hope so.
As my mother says, “Stay healthy. And look pretty.”