Minutes after I was born, my grandfather—that is, my father's father—gifted me a name. Then he signed a contract that struck me from the family registry. That ripped me away from my mother as she frantically counted my wrinkled and already-reaching fingers and toes. She pressed her mouth to my wet hair only once before I was taken away, what remained of the salty wax slip of her own insides thick and earthy on her lips.
For thirty years (and still to this day in the mouths of most), my name was replaced by one so expected it might have been Jessica or Meghan or Kimberley. Names of varying degrees of impossibility to Korean speakers. Mine is a name that I answer to, but that I wear only because I'm accustomed to it. Because others are accustomed to it. Not because it suits me. Early on, I was scrubbed until my skin turned pink. I was programmed to speak English, then French, and to place my fork and knife side by side on my plate when I had finished eating. I disappeared into a life of cream-of-mushroom casseroles, Irish setters, and patent leather Sunday school shoes. I was buried under Bach concertos, feathered bangs, and maple sugar candy until my own mother wouldn't have recognized me.
But of course I couldn't stay missing forever, and around 2009, I was reborn somewhere in the dusky November mountains of Seoul. I came back to life with a long wooden spoon in one hand and flat silver chopsticks in the other. I came back when my Korean father called me by name, when my Korean mother called me daughter. When my youngest sister called me unni, older sister, and I understood what that meant.
I learned by mimicking others. I tried to fall in line with a culture practised by people who use given names only for those younger than themselves. I peeled giant apples in one long curl. I recognized spiciness by the redness in the bowl. I came back to life when all the ginkgo berries had fallen and the entire ountry of South Korea was filled with their cutting scent. I came back to life when all that remained were persimmons clinging to bare branches.
While my homecoming was something to be celebrated, it also planted lingering heartache once all the soju had been drunk and all the kisses had been given and received. I watched my parents, reunited after being torn apart on the day I was taken, fumble through what could have been our lives, if only. They came together, reclaimed the love they'd lost decades earlier. They thought they'd outsmarted fate. I thought I was happy.
I watched my own unni's life crack and splinter and shatter when it became clear that our father had always been pathetic and her mother had sometimes been both weak and cruel. She tried, my unni, to love me despite all the disloyalty that went into my making, but in the end we had nothing to hold on to. And although there is even less between us now, I still whisper stories to her into the sky, fallen eyelashes and dandelion fluff. Confessions and prayers to an older sister, related but not really. Wishes that, one day, everything will be forgiven.