Unexpected Embrace Transcript

A note about this transcript: The Moth is true stories told live. We provide transcripts to make all of our stories keyword searchable and accessible to the hearing impaired, but highly recommend listening to the audio to hear the full breadth of the story. This transcript was computer-generated and subsequently corrected through The Moth StoryScribe.

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Thousands of years ago in Korea, an ancestor dreamed of eight tortoises, which was the premonition for the birth of eight sons, to be born and carry out a long family line. This was a story I first heard when I met my boyfriend Abraham's family. Abraham is Korean-American and he had probably heard this story a thousand times that it had become boring, but to me, I was a Korean adoptee and I was in awe.

You see, as a Korean adoptee, I was raised in America since I was four months old. And my connection to America, my family, was through the American Revolution. And my only connection to Korea were through history books. But for my boyfriend, Abraham, he was connected to Korea through this living history. You see, he was actually the chungson in his family, or the eldest grandson of the eldest son, and he would carry out the long family line. And I knew that someday I would have to meet his family. I would have to meet his grandparents, who were the eldest of this long family line.

But I also knew, for me, that I was on my own search to find how I connect to Korea. What is my identity? What is my heritage? And so, I decided that year that I would go to Korea for about a year and I would learn Korean and I would reconnect and find these answers. And I had been there for about three months when I received a phone call from Abraham, and he said, "You have to meet my grandparents."

His grandparents were both in their eighties, and their health was dwindling. And his grandfather, especially, his haraboji, had advancing dementia. And it was his final wish to see his chungson marry. So, I had to see them. I had no choice. I wanted to receive their blessing, and I wanted to connect with them.

And so, before I set up the appointment to go see them, I had heard one request, and that was to send a photo. The first step was to win halmeoni, or his grandmother's, approval because halmeoni had "the sight," or nunchi, which is the ability to see into a person's character through a single photo. And he said, "Quick! Send me your best photo."

In this photo I had to appear strong, and healthy, and maybe just a little bit taller. And we sent the photo, and all the while I'm worrying because this could determine our relationship. Would we stay together? Would it be compromised? And I worried about this internal fear, too, and that was: was I bujoghan, or was I "not enough"? Would she know that I wasn't really Korean?

And so, the time came to prepare to meet them, and before I could meet them I needed to learn one simple etiquette - one simple one for every Korean - and that was to bow deeply, down to the ground. It's something that's done for an elder to show your greatest respect. It's something that I didn't know how to do. And so, without Abraham there, without family, without really knowing this culture, I used our greatest resource, and that was YouTube. And I practiced to YouTube for several days. And although it was never going to get perfect, I was never gonna be able to bow perfectly, it was time.

And I traveled to the edge of Seoul to visit them. And at first, I had imagined that I would arrive at a palace, where I would have to walk a great distance, being escorted over to bow before them. And in reality, when I arrived it was a small apartment with a leather sofa, a big-screen TV, and I heard a shriek from the side. And it was a shriek of joy, filled with energy. And it was his grandmother, or halmeoni. And halmeoni came running toward me, throwing her walker aside, with wobbly knees, with open arms. And she grabbed me and I stood there, frozen for a minute. And I hugged her back because I didn't really have a choice. And all the while I'm thinking, "Is this a trick? Am I allowed to touch her? And when am I supposed to bow?"

I even thought maybe for a second I'll just back up a little bit and bow right there before her. But the time never came. And later in that visit, halmeoni held my hands, a similar size to mine, and something felt so familiar. And she held it and grasped it and said, "Of course I would have accepted you." But I didn't understand why, because I still hadn't bowed, I hadn't proven that I'm Korean. I hadn't done anything.

And in the background was Abraham's grandfather, or haraboji. He was silent. And I couldn't tell if the words didn't come out or if he didn't have anything to say. But we never spoke. But there was something about his presence that I wanted to know more about. You see, he looks really similar to my boyfriend, Abraham. He had the same military physique, the same square shoulders, and this quiet and warm presence about him. And so, I knew that before I left Korea I would have to meet him again. I was looking for something, but I wasn't really sure what that was.

And so, before I left Korea I made a final visit back. And I had heard that haraboji had been waiting the night before and all morning to think of a precious story, some words that he could share with me. And I thought of the words that I wanted to tell him, to say thank you and how blessed I felt to be part of this family, and how I would try to be Korean and uphold these traditions of this long family legacy. And when I arrived, we sat facing each other. No words would come out; each sitting with great anticipation and nothing would come out.

We sat there in silence, frozen, for three hours, and nothing would come out. And it was already time to go. And as I left, I turned back wanting to say something, and nothing coming out. And so, I hugged him. And he hugged me back, and his embrace was warm and accepting, and one of unconditional love. And then he said to me, "Saranghae." I love you. And I never even had to bow.

Thank you.