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korean-heelsA piece I wrote back in 2008 after my first trip back to Korea where I was supposedly born: thinking about travel, fashion and fitting in.korean-shopping-sign
I felt the eyes on my flip-flops as packs of girls clicked by in high heels, slick black hair swaying behind them. “Go home,“ they clicked, “you’ll never be one of us.” I still felt like a white girl inside. How was it that all the women in this city wore heels?korean-mannequins
The small Korean man held up a calculator with numbers we could both understand since we didn’t know the same words. I was in the Dongdaemun area of Seoul for the first time I could remember, thrillingly lost in a maze of high-rise department stores full of more shoes than in any New Jersey mall.Dongdaemun-KoreaWalking through the aisles I could see that many vendors sold the same styles, but this was the only one with this pair: thin patent leather straps encircling the ankle, held together with a silver ring and buckle at the toes; a little dangerous, with a hint of fetish surprising in conservative Korea. Could I wear such shoes?korean-shoesI slipped them on, willing my feet to appear petite, Asian, delicate, tottering like an infant. I felt like a baby again, as vulnerable as when I was sent away to America at 16 months old. Landing in JFK, sick with walking pneumonia, I was carried to my new family and reborn with a new name. You don’t need to know where you came from to learn how to talk, to march in a graduation, walk down a wedding aisle, leave a divorce courtroom, or to eventually thrive in a city where people check out your shoes before your face, where the pair that you slip on your feet to deal with each day are not intended to be comfortable or practical. The salesman nodded encouragingly as I towered over him. He probably just wanted the sale, but still, I was surprised to feel an acceptance I hadn’t expected to find in my homeland. At that moment I could blend in like just another local girl out shoe shopping. And for that moment I actually felt Korean.korean-hanbokI didn’t find my birth family, or the orphanage that had closed long ago, but the next day I met the foster mother who had taken care of me thirty years ago. Turns out we had lived right in this area before it was a shopping center.Dongdaemun-Korea-2When my flight touched down again back at JFK, I walked alone, but tall, my eyes clear. I had myself and that was enough. This time I knew where I had come from and what I was returning to, and I knew that someone was waiting for me again. I changed out of my flip-flops in the baggage claim area and dashed over to him in the little heels, brand new and still slick on the bottom. I grabbed him gratefully, knowing what I had been missing and that I had been missed, that someone wanted me. And I didn’t slip at all.korea-magazineThank you to Connect A Kid for sharing my story as well.