Updated: Jun 2, 2020
by Stephen Johnson
I’ll never forget the day I received the call from my adoption agency.
“We think we’ve found your birth family.”
It was the end of a disorienting search, but it also signified the beginning of a new story. A single chapter closed and Pandora’s box on the other side.
Over the next few years, eomma and I exchanged letters and photos and parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed. I was hoping for some closure, but in reality I still had far more questions than answers.
My yeodongsaeng (younger sister) quickly became the gatekeeper and my connection to the rest of the family. She had the time, language skills, and enthusiasm to keep the relationship going despite the thousands of miles between us. Four years later, I went to Korea to meet the family for the first time. It was easily one of the most terrifying, confusing, profound and wonderful experiences I’ve ever known.
The following year I returned to Korea to bury my sister.
She passed away by suicide, which I later learned is the leading cause of death among young people in Korea. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully comprehend the complexities of her life and passing. It’s impossibly hard to explain the heartbreak of suicide unless you’ve experienced it, and it’s even harder to explain when layered upon adoption, reunion, and endless cultural nuances.
The next few years were really hard. I went to counseling, support groups for survivors, and I even trained for and ran my first marathon to keep my mind focused on something else.
Two years ago, I had an idea for a business and I chose to name the company after my sister (Hyesun House). I built a makgeolli home brew kit, and I’m donating a portion of our profit to organizations dedicated to mental health issues in the global Korean community. I’m not sure if this will ever make any statistical difference in the global awareness of suicide prevention, but I’m committed to doing something. More importantly, I refuse to let the world forget about Hyesun.
So, what is makgeolli (막걸리)?
It’s a raw, minimally filtered rice-based alcohol. The flavor is bright, effervescent, and deeply connected to Korean culture—from kingdoms to Kpop. Our home brew kit is true to tradition and includes everything you need to brew a 1.5 liter batch in 10 days or less.