by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old. I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage. Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.
A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system. Rusted metal drums sit nearby. Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea.
Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo: I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.
The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.
The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.
It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?
Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.