When my sisters, birth mother, and I walked into the office of Jeon Ye Hwan, the ESWS director, the first thing she asked me was for my photo album. Apparently, it’s an unspoken rule that when you reunite with your birth family, you bring a photo album of your childhood memories. When I graduated college, my mom had a video made with all her favorite pictures of me, including clips of my various musical performances and important moments. I decided that instead of lugging an album in my already tight suitcase, I’d be tech savvy and bring the video on a USB drive that they could keep and share.
I opened the video on my Macbook Pro, anxiously awaiting the smiles on their faces when they watched me perform “Music of the Night” on the piano, with my brother dramatically walking back and forth across the stage in a Phantom of the Opera costume for our elementary school variety show. The video played, and I narrated to them with the help of Jeon Ye Hwan’s translations. The smiles never came. My birth mother was silent and looked shamefully into her lap while my eldest sister, Kyung-mi, got up and left the room with uncontrollable tears cascading down her cheeks. Kyung-hee dabbed her own eyes with her delicate index finger and said “Your dad very kindly…” trailing off while she found the right words to say, “our dad…not.”
We barely got to the photo montage of my awkward high school years (think overplucked eyebrows and overfed stomach), set to the tune of a recorded choir rehearsal session from when I sang “I’m Beginning to See the Light” accompanied by our high school jazz band, when I stopped the video. Kyung-mi had returned to her seat. The sisters held each other, and I wondered how many times they had been in that same embrace, consoling one another because of the pain my birth father inflicted upon them.
The director spoke to my sisters and birth mother for a time and then turned to me for interpretation. I learned the truth about my birth father’s death– which I had been told was caused by his complications with diabetes, but in actuality was drug-related while he was imprisoned.
Kyung-hee explained the circumstances that led her to live with my birth father, his mother, and mistress while she was growing up. Kyung-mi was raised by my birth mother’s mother. Jeon Ye Hwan tried to illustrate Kyung-hee’s living conditions for me. My birth father was cruel and uncaring– even when Kyung-hee was just a young girl, she was forced to cook and clean for the entire household. He made her wash the dishes outside in the cold of winter to the point where her hands bled. I watched Kyung-hee as she lightly stroked the knuckles of her left hand with the right as she spoke. It was so difficult to imagine those beautiful, dainty hands as they were when she was a child.
The next day, when we had arrived at my house of my halmoni (grandmother), where she lives with my birth mother, aunt, and younger brother, my sisters brought out the photo album from their childhoods to share with me. My birth father used to be a photographer. He had owned a successful camera store until he met his mistress and had to close the shop due to his squandered money. The album was filled with photos of Kyung-mi as an infant and young child. There were photos of my birth mother and birth father in their younger days, looking youthful and happy– as if it were the cover of a Korean DVD.