Growing up, I thought I was from Seoul, South Korea.
To find out that I was from Busan, was even more niche than being from Korea (As many Asian Americans have observed, China and then possibly Japan, were at one time the go-to “oriental” countries best known in the US. Although due to K-Pop, this is changing.). Niche, not in the cool, NOT basic way. In the inscrutable, “I’ve lost interest so please stop talking” way that makes people’s eyes glaze over when you spend too much time discussing a dream.
I was an adult when I learned that my existence was first documented in a Busan police station. The name of the city was communicated as Pusan. The hangul character ㅂ can go either B or P.
Busan is a South Korean seaside city known for umbrella covered beaches, its lively fish market and southern accent. How I was transported to Seoul where I was adopted by my US family is either unknown or too indiscreet for an agency worker to reveal.
To discover that Jungkook and Jimin of BTS are from Busan sparked regional pride at its most basic–that is to say, its fiercest. Like discovering someone has the exact same birthday. In fact, I have met 3 people with the same “fake birthday” as mine. Adopted people are sometimes given made-up birthdays by their agencies. My birthday “twins” are also adopted from Korea. When you’re uncertain of the basic facts of your life, this connection is a kind of euphoria, but a specific brand which comes from a connection forged by shared loss. Abandonment triggers the sensation that you are a mote of dust, floating through space and time.
As a result, my first reconnection to Busan was intense. I wrote about this experience in a painfully raw journal. I wondered why I had returned to Korea at all. Yet, irresistibly, an affection for Busan has grown each time I have returned.
The “정 jeong” or unique Korean goodwill I feel for Busan people is decidedly intertwined with “한 恨 han”–the fierce rage or melancholy that is also uniquely part of Korean DNA. The initial return to Korea set fire to whatever information about my birth name, birthday, foster mom, etc. that my US family had been given. I returned to the US with No More Dream. Processing this pain is a unique part of my life’s work, but facing pain is also the work of so many others. 가져와 (On).
What is my current answer to a question constantly asked of people adopted internationally?
I have returned to Korea several times.
Asking a person adopted internationally if they have returned to the country of their birth is the equivalent of asking someone whose parents were killed tragically how often he or she visits the scene of the crime. I was not ready when my US parents first offered a return trip to Korea as a high school graduation gift.
The first time I returned to Korea and each time since, there is pressure to solve a mystery–perhaps the homicide of your true Korean self. The self you had to kill in order to survive in the US. Your mind is the scene of the crime.
For this reason, you are driven to collect clues with all 5 senses. Clues that will unravel the gauzy, sticky material that you wrapped around your soul. The mummy-like strips forming a mold that is both protective and restrictive. You’re also deeply traumatized by what you might discover.
At the same time, in Korea, you are driven to solve this case. If only you observe hard enough, don’t want it too badly; or conversely, you pursue answers with unrelenting focus.
- eat all the banchan (push past your US craving for burrito bowls with extra guac)
- try beondegi, octopus and / or uni
- can smell the difference between fresh and more fermented kimchi
- don’t look uncomfortable as ajumas push past you in crowds
- can hear the difference between the way you say “Insa-dong” and the way the taxi driver says 인사동l
- level up your fashion
- learn the hangul alphabet
- install the kakao app . . .
Here is a list of what you will most likely find on a homeland tour agenda:
- Take a bus to the DMZ as a US citizen which you could never do as a Korean national
- Visit King Sejong’s Gyeongbokgung alongside the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion
- Get fitted with a hanbok that matches the one your parents bought you as a baby.
- Learn to say “hanna dul set” and “kimchee” instead of “cheese!” when you take a picture
- Sing Arirang, a song that embodies longing and exemplifies “han.”
- Make rabbits ears motion to 산토기 (The Rabbit Song)
NOTE: a jade rabbit also lives on the moon
- Visit the folk village and experience the farmer’s dance.
- Order a name chop. My chop contains lots of Korean consonants since my US family name has only 1 vowel. (Essentially this, P/B-R/L-E-N-S, when it is translated back to English.)
- Discover the Korean origin story that says they are descended from a white tiger.
- Observe a Korean Lion Dance
These aspects of Korean cultural heritage are not only clues to a mystery but also a map to buried treasure. This is a treasure you resisted pursuing because it felt buried for a reason.
At the same time, the ability to spot references to Korean culture you now claim as your own in the BTS Idol video is evidence that your detective notebook is filling up. You’re on the way either to the location of the hidden treasure or the unraveling of the body: unearthing your true self: I’m proud of it! 난 자유롭네 (nan jayulobne / I’m free!)
Saranghei / Sarangda / Sarang-ayo
사랑해 / 사랑다 / 사랑아요: BTS in Korean
Hangook 한국어 or the Korean language is the language we first heard in the womb that we more than likely no longer hear in our adopted country of citizenship.
My first word was 엄마, Omma. When our family lived in Japan for awhile, I learned it sounded like the word for horse うま. This was my first language lesson as a toddler. Also 엄마 is close to the name BTS gave their fanbase, 아미, which is the English word army spelled out in Korean. This sounds like the French word, “ami” or friend. My US family name is Frens: friends without ID. “Friends” is the show that reportedly taught BTS leader, RM (Kim NamJoon), how to speak English.
Speaking of family, the Korean way of addressing family siblings is by age order, not by first names. 누나 (nuna) and 언니 (oenni) hold special meaning, because they are the ways that significant friends address me at times. The family of 입양아 (ib-yang-a). BTS address the older members of the group as “hyung 형.” This sibling relationship is distinctly captured in language not found in English
As language forms thought, Korean lyrics from BTS songs feel immersive in a way that English does not. The loss of original family and culture occured before language development. The resonance of the following phrases in BTS songs seeped into the unconscious and would not let go. The sounds felt visceral prior to the Google translate revelation:
- 보고 싶다 Bogo shipda Spring Day
- 왜 내 맘을 흔드는 건데 Wae nae mameul heundeuneun geonde Boy in Luv
- 저기 멀리서 바다가 들려 Jeogi meolliseo badaga deullyeo Euphoria
- On the flip side, I heard these lyrics to Mic Drop as these English words, which sounded like an endearing brag:
Me and my Billboard
Me and my Worldwide
??????? me and my Omma!
아들이 넘 잘나가서 미안해 엄마
King Kong, Kick the Drum: BTS in English
BTS, native Korean speakers, have recently released 3 songs entirely in English. BTS is jumping into Korean adoptee space. The transition is parallel to, but in reverse of what Korean adoptees experience when listening to BTS Korean lyrics:
Another significance of language involves names. I have had at least 3 names in my life. My unknown birth name. A name given by an adoption agency. My US name.
That BTS members have several names is one of many ways their identity and language contain powerful significance.
- RM (Rap Monster, Rap Master, Rap Man) | Kim NamJoon 김남준
- Jin | Kim Soekjin 김석진
- Suga | Min Yoongi 민윤기 | Agust D Suga is from “shooting guard”–a position this rapper played and Agust D is Suga backwards plus DT for Yoongi’s hometown: Daegu Town)
- J-Hope | Jung Hoseok 정호석| Hobie
- Jimin 박지민
- V (There is no letter “V” in the Korean alphabet) 뷔 | 김태형 Kim Taehyung | 추윤탄
- Jyungkook 전정국 | Kookie
Does being known by more than one name allow BTS members to sort various identities? BTS members are relentlessly in front of the camera, which leaves fans to speculate about dual personal and celebrity identities.
The members’ lives have been micromanaged by producers and agencies. This submission to leadership is part of Asian culture which values both the good of the collective and a deference for elders. Sacrificial commitment is the hallmark of K-pop, a powerful Korean export fueled by human capital, specifically youth.
The sacrifice of youth to a national goal parallels Korean adoptees whose lives were determined by a society which carefully curates its image. The adopted person’s survival depends on taking on an identity and performing it convincingly, genuinely embracing a US identity.
Is there an identity that exists beneath the surface, not captured on camera in the K-pop case or not 100% embodied by a US family name? Are separate identities rivals or in coexistence?
I wrote this essay because I wanted to explore why I’m a BTS fan.
I fully understand that a certain level of fandom is cringy! Alternatively, I truly wanted to be that indulgent Korean American mentor when teens were excited to learn of my connection to the country from which their BTS idols came.
I didn’t want to be a 50 year old K-pop fan. It’s not a good look to be able to identify all of the references to the MVs represented in the band’s fan tribute. Alternatively can anyone resist the charm of this video?
I’ve been a part of a fandom before in which I came to embrace an irrational level of affection. This previous fandom included backstage passes from the band’s manager, attending concerts in 5 states and contributing to a fan blog.
I went to therapy about this devotion and concluded that the genetic bond of the band, Hanson, idealized what I hoped for in a family where the closeness is there but the genetic bond is not. Also, MMMBop includes the Korean word for rice (밥). What 뭐? Really 그래요?
My hope is that again with BTS, I’ve made the case for the unique delight the band’s music offers, specifically to a Korean adoptee. Yet, it feels dirty. The consumption of youth feels gross. The relentless entertainment feels like an addiction.
I assemble the red strings on the corkboard. Am I a criminal?
Not today! Being a fan keeps me humble.
Just like this scandalous English translation, it all makes sense in the BTS Korean translation.