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Travel 2003

COMING HOME A sister's journey of the heart

Returning with her adopted family to Korea as a 13-year-old, Jocelyn Moody was soon breezing through the crowded streets, taking in the sights and sounds and feel of her native country. Since the trip, sister Caitlin senses a more mature, fuller look to Jocelyn's expression.
Hey, you.

Hey, Joss, Jawz, Jossie, Joey, JoJo. Jocelyn Diana Okyung Moody. Hey, pal.

Jocelyn. The young one. The third one. The last one. After Erin, after Caitlin, there is Jocelyn.

Diana. A formal memory of who brought you to us. Of our gratitude. Of our luck. No, of our fate. Of the bizarre idea that you might not have come at all.

Okyung. The infant you. The Korean you. The you with a mysterious biology. Was your mother athletic, too? Did her eyes weigh with the same intensity? Or your father? Are those his broad feet? His thick, straight hair, whispering red in the summer, blue-black in the snow? Who gave you the dimple? The petite nose and tiny moles you so lament?

Moody. A last name. A family name. Your family name. Not to mention a certain trait in each of us. The talking you, the hearing you, the reading, writing, singing you. Your humor and your laughter. Your poetry. Your temper, or at least the resulting flow of curse words. It's your "I love you."
Jocelyn Moody is the center of attention from sister Caitlin, left, and Shin Hae Sun, the foster mother who cared for Jocelyn in Korea until she was 3 months old. Jocelyn, adopted by the Moody family of Bainbridge Island, was the first of Hae Sun's 21 foster children to return to see her.
Just like mine, your first word was "Mom." I taught you the alphabet on the same scratched, green easel during lesson after lesson of "school." In our living room. In our pajamas. You sitting like an eager puppy, brown toes tucked under your new big-girl pants. "A, B, C, G, L-M-N-O-P." Tripping over the same letters I frustrated Erin with so many times when I was the student. Different from the arrangements of lines, curves, dots and strokes they taught us, or tried to teach us, every summer at Korean Culture Camp.

Before you could speak, Erin and I were singing "Old MacDonald" in Korean, dancing in hanboks, and holding colorful fans. Looking at the camp pictures now, two white and fleshy faces pop out from the sea of smooth tan — a hundred Korean adoptees smiling back at the camera. We didn't notice then, never felt strange. Not at 5 or at 8. Did you ever notice it at that age?

I still think it's a little ironic you went to camp only once yourself. By the time you were old enough, I guess Mom had decided we'd all been sufficiently "cultured." Or maybe she was just tired of the long drive. Either way, you seemed to be more than well-adjusted. We talked so often and so positively about Korea and adoption, you had taken to asking Erin and me about our birth mothers. Entirely confused by our answers, you would search us for the joke and then feign an understanding. It was evident from your look that you felt terribly sorry for us, either for being so ignorant or for truly missing such a crucial part of life. Sure we had Mom, but no birth mom? We even looked the same. How boring.

Mom may have been right about the TV. It did make us fight sometimes. But it did worse things than that. You were 6 when we were finally allowed to stay home alone. Erin was 14 already; I was 11. I remember a day near the end of summer that had us home alone while Mom was in Seattle. Erin was already immersed in "Jerry Springer" when we sunk down onto the other sofa, ignoring the grass stains on our shorts and the mud on our bare feet. Jerry was talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan. We sat and listened to a man in a purple robe and sorcerer's hat tell the audience about the natural superiority of his race, the white race. Uninterrupted, he told us of the hatred he felt — we should all feel — for less-evolved, inherently savage, dark-skinned races. I think you were too young to remember. "Caitlin," you were still looking at the TV, "does he hate me?" I hope you were too young to remember.

You started looking. In the Nakatas' grocery store you would tap Mom on the leg, "Look, Mom, an Asian like me!" So we all started looking. Everywhere we went. "Hey, Joss, there's an Asian. Oh, and over there, there's two." You loved it. It was like our own little road-trip game: Spot the Asians.

We talked about a trip to Korea the way we talk about everything else: "Definitely someday. Maybe after Dad's next book."

So yeah, I was as surprised as you were when we boarded the plane at Sea-Tac — taking you back. Taking us with you. Thirteen years after your first flight and 13 hours before landing in Seoul.

You didn't sleep the whole way there. I know, because I couldn't sleep, either. Exhaustion made the experience of maneuvering through the airport just that much more disorienting. But you were wide awake.

In the city, we immediately drew stares. An American family strolling through the crowded streets, craning our necks, saying nothing. It was the ultimate Korean Culture Camp, and we were all there.

Our second day out, winding through stand after stand of fresh fruit and dried fish in the covered market, you accidentally bumped into an older man. He turned and began scolding you in rapid Korean as you stood speechless. Appearing terrified, you returned to where the rest of us were standing, then immediately erupted into a grin I'd never seen on your face before. "He thought I was Korean!"

Mom couldn't stop scrutinizing every face we saw. Looking for your features. Looking for you. She cried when we saw the building where you were born, back behind the fish market. It's now a Buddhist temple.

After a few days, you were moving easily through the sidewalks and market, floating ahead as if holding an invisible pass. Remember the woman in the Cheju market? We were walking together past her stand when she stopped us — stopped you. Gripping your shoulders, she looked close into your face, then looked over at Mom. "Mother?" she asked, and you nodded. Her eyes filled with a smile that took over her intense expression. "Welcome back!"

The next day was the reunion of 100 North and South Korean relatives separated by the division of the country. Apart for nearly 50 years, this small sample of families was allowed to meet in the Demilitarized Zone for one day as a sign of good faith, before returning to their respective sides. Every reunion was being televised on every channel, and every South Korean was watching.

I was watching you. Family after family fell together sobbing, touching each other's faces, some 50 years older than their memories. Your eyes were attached to the screen in our hotel room, 20 stories above the traffic lights. I wondered if you were looking to find something familiar. I wondered if you knew the immensity of what you saw. I knew that you felt it. But were you feeling it because of history? Sympathy? Empathy? Biology? All of these?

Yes, when we met your foster mother, I could see that it was all of these. Sitting in the upstairs office of the orphanage, your orphanage, we waited with our photo album and gifts. Shin Hae Sun had arrived, they told us, but she was collecting her nerves and emotion before entering the room. Twenty-one foster children, and you were the first to return.

As soon as she stepped into the room, all her collecting was washed aside. Seeing you once, the tears took over. Her wiry 4-foot-10-inch frame taking you into her arms like the infant she remembered. She touched your hair, your face, your tummy.

She'd brought you that set of underwear — white with pink dots — the customary gift for a daughter on her 13th birthday. But American food had made you much bigger than the 13-year-old Korean girl she'd expected. Later, in the hotel room, we all laughed as you put the underwear on the only place they'd fit — your head. And we laughed harder when you put on your new hanbok, made of unbelievable silk with intricate embroidering, the underwear still pulled over your long, black hair. The perfect reconciliation: your body draped in exquisite, traditional Korean elegance; your head squeezed into a pair of cotton underwear, laughing to tears.

I had to leave the day you went to visit the Demilitarized Zone. I was flying straight to Los Angeles to start school, and wouldn't see you again until Thanksgiving. It felt strange leaving you there. I was boarding my second leg of the round-trip flight, but you had already completed yours. Your next flight would be another takeoff, another beginning. Walking away from you with my bags, I didn't turn to wave, wanting no one to see the tears that invaded my eyes for the first time, betraying my nonchalance.

Mom called me when you all got home. I was doing fine, a little fuzzy, but fine. I showed pictures of the trip to my new friends, but they were difficult to explain. I couldn't describe how different you looked in the pictures. How the quality of your expression was new, mature, fuller. I couldn't define it for myself, let alone for people who'd never known you.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, Mom had put the map of Korea on the kitchen wall next to the one of the U.S. We told aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents stories from the trip while we stuffed ourselves with turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. You can always eat the most pumpkin pie.

I still get to laugh occasionally when someone new sees your picture and, after pausing to be sure it's politically correct, they manage, "So she's adopted, right?"

"No," I begin, "it was the strangest thing" — but I never take it too far. Then I get to tell them how you're the only Korean varsity player in your basketball league, and fill them in on your musical aspirations as "Lil' Asian the Rap Sensation." You always give me good material.

So anyway, I guess I'll let you go. I just wanted to say hey.

Hey, you.

Caitlin Moody grew up on Bainbridge Island and graduates in May from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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