When Korea Became Home

This summer, adoptee Calli Tilson went on the 2017 Holt Family Tour to Korea — her first time returning to Korea since she was adopted in 1999. And while there, she found home in an unexpected place…

Stepping off the bus and into Seoul is surreal. “I’m home,” I think absently, even though it’s really just another big city, and I remember nothing of this place. The thought is more of a reflex than a fact, I believe, and that makes me vaguely sad though I don’t really reflect on it until bedtime.

Eighteen years ago, I was born in Busan, South Korea. Fast forward, and I’ve finally returned after many setbacks. The international port of Korea, bursting with interesting people and street vendors. Our tour group goes to the international fish market, and it’s huge — tank after tank stacked up and overflowing with more fish than I’ve ever seen in a single aquarium back in Iowa. Those with strong stomachs get fed live octopus. In the evening, we sing in a karaoke room until the late hours of the night. It’s nice. Beyond nice. Amazing. Incredible. Liberating. I feel free here, beside the ocean and among the bright lights.

Later, in my hotel room, I sit on my bed and think, for a long time, about what home means to me, what defines who I am. Is it the place I was born? Where I grew up? In psychology class we talked about nature versus nurture. Which one makes up a person? My mom teases me about my strong love for kimchi, and despite residing in small-town Iowa, I have always gravitated inexplicably toward big cities — Chicago, D.C, New York. Is it because I was born in a city, or is it just another facet of my personality, my likes and dislikes?

I come to realize that Seoul is the only city that feels right to me. I feel as if I can belong somewhere, finally, and I hear similar sentiments bounce back to me from the other adoptees.

As the days pass, my new friends and I acquaint ourselves with the streets surrounding our hotel until we can navigate through them almost seamlessly, laughing when we take a wrong turn or get lost. To me, the unfamiliar streets are just new areas to learn, to memorize until I know them almost as well as I know the ones in my neighborhood back in Iowa. Time passes by languidly, tricking me into thinking that I have all the time in the world in this country. It’s felt like one endless day, but eventually we arrive back from Jeju, and the knowledge that there’s only one more day left after this sits heavy in my heart.

Outside of an airport near Seoul, I turn to my friend and say, “We’re home,” without a second thought.

“I’m glad,” she says, and does a happy dance.

When did Korea become home?

True, Korea has always been home, in the sense that it is where I originated from. But initially, that is all it was. A starting point. But it seems bigger than that now, more significant. By the end of this trip, my feelings about returning to Seoul are so much different than how I felt that first night, when I cried and thought I would never have a place here. “What am I doing here?” I thought. “I don’t belong. I know nothing. I can’t call myself Korean.”

Except home and comfort come with familiarity, or at least they do to me. And I suppose — somewhere between the days — I’d been able to accept things, become comfortable with them. My physical home might not be in Korea, but Korea is a home to me. Home-home. I am Korean-American and Korea is a part of who I am, that I can say with confidence and pride now. However, I still have questions, as not everything I had hoped to happen did on this trip. I wasn’t able to meet my foster mother or birth mother. But I received good advice, words that helped more than I think this person knows. They said, “Things will happen when your heart is ready. It might not be right this minute, but that doesn’t mean it will never happen. Everything in its own time.”

Everything in its own time.

It’s surreal, too, to think that I might have been familiar with these streets and way of life here, had I lived in Busan for 18 years instead of in America. Thinking back, it’s funny. Going on this trip was in part due to the hope that some of my questions about my parents and my identity would be answered. But I ended up asking even more questions and wondering so many things to myself throughout the couple of weeks. It’s okay, though, because I want to come back. And I don’t think my journey will stop here. If anything, it’s prepared me for when I return. I believe that because of this trip, and through the help of Holt, I’ve allowed myself to become what our tour director calls the people of South Korea: strong-willed, perseverant, determined, proud.

Calli Tilson | Holt Adoptee

Interested in traveling on one of next year’s Holt family tours? Learn more here!  

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