We are delighted to present Calli Tilson's essay "Parts, Pieces," winner of the 2019 David Hamilton Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. This prize is sponsored by anonymous donors who wish to honor the mentorship they and other students at the University of Iowa received from Emeritus Professor of English David Hamilton. In addition to publication online, Tilson will be awarded a $500 scholarship. Congratulations to Calli and to Stephanie Tsank, the writing instructor who nominated her essay!
I feel like a baby, glossy-eyed and speechless as I step out of Incheon Airport and onto Korean soil for the first time since I was born. Around me, everyone is hugging. We’ve only just arrived, but to simply be here is a massive event, and the anticipation easily cuts through the thick exhaustion. There is a banner hanging outside of the airport, Welcome to Korea 2017 stamped across it in massive purple-gold font, bolded. Underneath it, in thin, plain black letters, is Holt Children’s Services. My parents hug me in turn, my mother and then my father, both asking how I feel. Are you excited? What do you think? Mid-June Korea is hot and muggy. So far it is like every big city I have been to in America, yet I know something is different, something crucial and basic that I spend the entire bus ride to Seoul trying to pinpoint, except I can’t. It upsets me so much that I start to argue with my mother over some trivial annoyance, angry and bitter for reasons I can’t quite name. My parents and I walk around our hotel in tense near silence until we end up at a French-themed café. There are bright posters of fruit-smothered bingsu bowls plastered on the wall beside the prices and pictures for soft pretzels and club sandwiches and fresh macarons. There is ice cream too. I open the freezer door to pick out a Fudgesicle for my mother, partly because I can use my limited Korean faster than my parents can find the English stickers, but mostly because I know what she likes. My father chooses a vanilla cone with chocolate in the center, all of it prepackaged in a pretty paper wrap. He pays at the counter, and I desperately wish I was able to speak Korean so I could do it myself and spare the stilted English exchange. The door chimes as we leave, my fingers quick to unwrap my own ice cream bar, the color of it a soft pretty green like ripe honeydew. Melona is written on the outside plastic in bubble-lettered Korean, and the Hangul letters fit slightly awkwardly in my mouth, like a hard candy I have to smooth down with my tongue. The sounds are round and soft while the characters look sharp and angular, and I practice the word under my breath like it’s important information I have to remember. Mehl-lown-ah, mehl-lown-ah, mehl-lown-ah. I bite into the bar. It tastes exactly how I imagined it would, like fruity green melon. The texture is what surprises me—much creamier than a regular ice cream bar, smoother, silky like soft serve. It’s sweet, the first thing I eat in Korea. The cold is refreshing in the late-night heat, and I can almost ignore my aching feet as we navigate our way back to the hotel.
There are five other adoptees my age that are part of this trip. Parker, Nick, Evan, and I are all eighteen, while Paige and Grace are sixteen and fifteen respectively. It only takes a day for our group to start doing everything together, exploring Seoul until late at night and then cramming ourselves into Evan’s hotel room to watch movies and talk. Our parents intervene at some point, jokingly pleading for a picture, a hug, anything. It doesn’t stop the six of us for long though, and we eventually snap back into orbit with one another, relieved. We connect over racism at our high schools and Korean music and shared hobbies. On the fourth day we discuss our Korean names over Bukchon Son Mandu, a small shop tucked behind the Ssamziegil in Insadong, famous for its mandu. Nick orders six fried dumplings for all of us, walks up to the stall and says, six fried dumplings, please, in English. I envy how he’s not embarrassed by the fact that he does not speak the language everyone else thinks he does or should. The workers are four ahjumma, older ladies with sharp voices and the aura of a well-loved grandma. They smile at him widely before whirling into movement, hands reaching for flour and dough and oil.
Nick pays and sits, and we go in a circle and say our Korean names, excited like these names are a password to a secret society, and maybe they are. Nick is Hyun-min, Parker is Kun-ho, Evan is Joon-young, Paige is Soo-jee, Grace is Bo-young. The three boys all share “Park” as their surname, and joke that they are long-lost siblings, lamenting at how nice it would be. They call each other brothers, half-serious, but it fits, sticks to them like honey tteok on teeth until the end of the trip.
Behind us, the ahjummas are liberally stuffing dumplings, fingers deftly wrapping shiny japchae noodles over dense balls of ground, seasoned pork before plopping the whole thing into thin pouches of dough.
Korean names consist of three syllables. These names start with a one-syllable surname, followed by the given name, which is really just two separate syllables meshed together into a full name. I’ve known my Korean name, Lee Seung-mee, from a young age. I remember twirling around the kitchen singing, Lee sung me a song, so I wouldn’t forget. Yet the specific combination of a Korean name is something I learned when I grew older, the process happening gradually, through trial and error, steadily whittling away at my willful ignorance. I thought my name was Lee, and then Seung, and then Mee, or Mei, or Me. I fit each one over myself, a cover that never felt right. There were holes somewhere, missing pieces, not enough closure.
The ahjummas neatly pinch the dumplings shut and then quickly fling them into a pan, where they start to fry, crackling violently enough that it rivals the sharp chatter of the working women. The smell of sesame oil wafts through the air, light and warm.
I know that my name was given to me by a social worker with the same surname. I wonder if it was picked carefully, like baby names normally are, or if my mother would have named me something different. I don’t even know if my mother’s surname is also Lee. Maybe it is Park, or Min, or Kang. Now, though, I am comfortable with this name, have learned to love it, am too attached to it to be told it is not really mine. It feels strange to think that I might not be a Lee, like how some Korean adoptees think that they are from Seoul by default, since everyone knows that city, and are taken aback when they are from Daegu or Gwangju.
The dumplings are done. They bleed oil, turning their paper bag transparent to show glimpses of golden-brown outsides, perfectly formed and nothing like the goopy knockoff dumplings so common in America. We find our parents easily, pale against the sea of summer gold, feeding them bites of food between raving about the dumplings and the kind old ladies. The shared divulgence of names we keep to ourselves, content to quietly relish how we’ve made them sit just a little richer in our mouths.
My first view of Busan is from a bus seat, forehead tilted onto the window. I see the skyline, the mountains, the dusty blue-gray late morning haze. I want to reach out and touch the soft pink shells of the rooftops, the bright oranges flanks of the cargo containers, and the names on the boats that bob in the wide river cutting through the city, cleaving it in two. I know about this port-city mostly in statistics and Wikipedia images. I had tried mashing together all those facts and images into an expectation, but it doesn’t come close to the real thing. Everyone in our little tour bus is gaping, breathless at the sight of South Korea’s second largest city, but I am the only one born here. I tasted the air in this city first, saw the sun in this sky first. My birth mother is still here somewhere, and the fact that I am closer to her now than I most likely will be for the rest of my life writhes in my stomach. I ache. The bus drops us off at a fish market, and we spill out onto the concrete, limbs stretching gratefully in the open space.
This is Busan’s international market, and the tent stretches on endlessly, tubs and tanks stacked up like children’s blocks. Various sea creatures lay dead on patches of ice, tagged with neatly written numbers, eyes cloudy and blank. There are more fish and shellfish in this market than I have ever seen in all the aquariums back in Iowa. Live fish are packed into tanks until they can barely move, mixed together in an array of muddy colors. A few workers are sorting them, elbow deep in water. They yell at the fish, at us, at each other. Compared to the gentle monotone of Seoul standard dialect, Busan’s is full of ‘n’ and ‘g’ sounds, rough on the surface but lilting and long. The sounds of speech crest up and crash down around our group, playful. One man reaches into a red tub with his blue glove and emerges with an octopus, its body pale and half-translucent, nothing like the massive red ones I am familiar with. He says something in simple English, waving around the octopus, dripping water. Who wants to hold?
My dad wants to hold it. He lifts the sea creature by a tentacle, catching it with both hands as the thing squirms and slips, spindly, floppy limbs struggling to escape. The man takes it back after a few moments, and we watch, transfixed, as he slaps the creature onto a wooden board and slices into it. He reaches inside of the incision, fingers searching for the ink sac, which bursts on the way out. Octopus ink splatters onto the floor, seeps across the countertop. I think it will stain forever, saturated so black it’s almost blue, the color reaching out to the edges of the counter like branches on a tree. The hose sprays all of it away easily, nothing stained, everything clean again. Its tentacles get chopped off in one fluid motion, curling in on themselves. They get chopped again. Again. Again. Now they are small, bite-sized. Easier to eat. I like octopus, the firm snap of breaking skin and the chewy texture, but normally it is dead, fully cooked. We are to eat this one raw, alive. Sannakji is a type of hoe (raw fish dish) made with long-arm octopus. Our tour guide snaps a pair of chopsticks cleanly apart and then splinters them in half like for a child, taking the Styrofoam box from the man to offer up a piece of octopus to me. It is slathered in cocktail sauce, startlingly red. I am reminded unpleasantly of blood before I realize the absence of it. All of the pieces untouched by the sauce are slick and white, no visible sign of where the knife tore through the flesh. They are their own bodies now, but I wonder if they know how much of themselves is absent. On my tongue the octopus tastes only of sauce, and behind me, the tour guide is reminding me to chew. Although it is small, it can still get stuck in my throat and choke me to death. I am all too aware of the sucker kisses I can feel on my cheeks and teeth and throat. There are cheers when I swallow, and someone says in broken English that I am a real Busan girl like this was a secret initiation, a rite of passage that I completed to belong to this city. Later, I wonder if my mother was in the fish market too, if she was near us or just leaving, if she heard the cheers of the group and saw me in the middle. I wonder what she would have thought of me if she had seen me. In my head it always plays out like a movie, one where we’d recognize each other immediately, but perhaps she just heard the laughter and thought nothing of it before leaving. I walk away from the market and onto the sidewalk, reaching for all the golden wisps of belonging I can still feel, and swallow those down too, savoring the warmth.
Calli Tilson is currently a junior at the University of Iowa with a major in English/Creative Writing and a minor in Korean. She loves sweet foods and horror movies.