I spent my first 9 months marinating in the spicy, Korean blood that circulated through my mother’s womb. She ate a lot of kimchee while she was pregnant with me. Kimchee is a fiery, pickled cabbage that is the Korean equivalent of french fries. After I was born, my parents moved to America to set up a new life for us and I stayed behind with my grandparents in Seoul. I grew round on rice soaked in warm water that my grandmother spooned into my mouth. As soon as I had teeth, I chewed on the grilled meats she made that smoked up the entire house. When I had eaten enough, she taught me to say, “bae-bulo,“ meaning, “I’m full.”
My father’s American roots revealed themselves a few years later in my love of M&M’s which my rogue uncle would get for me on the black market. This was Korea in the 60’s and American food was a dangerous luxury. Aside from the candy, though, America was not really a part of my life. But a few years later, it became my home when I flew to Los Angeles to rejoin my parents, leaving my grandparents and Korea behind.
Once in Los Angeles, they tell me I learned to speak English in a month and refused to speak Korean. My earliest memories of this new life are of my mom making two different meals for dinner. Every night, she would fry a steak and serve it to my dad with rice and lettuce and tomato (no dressing). Then, she would make Korean food for herself. I always had to choose. Did I want the plain steak or some kind of spicy, messy, noodle and vegetable concoction that set off the fire alarm and stunk up the house for hours? For years, I chose my mother’s food. But then, I became a teenager.
My father’s law practice was taking off. We moved to a nicer neighborhood and a bigger house far away from Koreatown. Although my grandparents were now living in Los Angeles, we rarely saw them. All of us were too busy with work, school, and building our lives here. The change that affected me most at this time was transferring from a public school full of immigrant children to a private, all-girl’s school for junior high. Everyone seemed very blonde and tan. Again, I found myself in a completely new world filled with unfamiliar faces, pressures, and attitudes. I, the half-Korean/half-American mutt, got lumped into the “outsiders” clique, spending recesses and lunches with the 2 black girls, the Romanian girl, and the poor girl whose mom was crazy. I decided then that it was necessary to hide my Korean roots and began the tasks that would do so.
Anka, my Romanian friend, and I spent summers soaking our black, black hair in lemon juice and then sitting in the sun for hours hoping it would turn blonde. I hid my body in the most preppy clothes I could find – Topsiders, Lacoste shirts, khakis. Although my father was rarely home, I was grateful for his genes that made my eyes more round than slanted and my nose more shaped than flat, especially when I watched my mother put on her make-up. She would spend hours every morning using a variety of colored pencils to shade and contour her nose like a painter to create the illusion of height.
By the time I was deep in the jungle of my teens, Korean food was a distant memory. I insisted on frozen dinners, chicken potpies, boxed macaroni & cheese and McDonald’s. If it wasn’t processed and packaged, it wasn’t acceptable. When my friends came over after school and asked about those strange noodles the size and shape of lipstick tubes in the fridge or the jar of bubbling, fermenting red stuff outside the back door of our house, I would roll my eyes and claim no knowledge. “Something my mother eats, I don’t know,” I’d mumble as I sacrificed any relationship with the food as well as the foreign woman who ate it every night. Occasionally, I’d break down on a weekend and eat rice, kimchee and kalbi jim, the marinated short ribs I secretly loved. But I’d brush the taste out of my mouth immediately after, worried that my friends would smell that garlicky, pungent, peppery smell.
It wasn’t until college and my first boyfriend that anyone took an interest in the Korean part of me. After 3 years of his asking me about Korean food, I finally risked taking him to a Korean restaurant. “How do I eat this?” he asked me about the bulgogi, the marinated meat which is grilled at the table.
“I don’t know,” I wanted to scream, “I’m not strange like this food, I’m like you, I don’t know what to do with it either!”
Afterwards, on the way home, he got so painfully bloated that we couldn’t kiss or make love or anything. All he could do was lie in bed with his eyes closed. I lay next to him, ashamed, horrified, and wanting to apologize for this rebellious food that was impossible for a normal American guy to eat.
After college, I spent the next 10 years building a television career in New York City. By the time I was a Vice-President of programming at Lifetime Television, I was more of an outfit than a human being. Under my perfect clothes, my muscles had hardened into a concrete shell around my stress-ravaged core. Weekly trips to the acupuncturist’s office were no match for the petrified knots in my neck, shoulders, back and hips. Slices of pizza, Chinese take-out, and greasy burgers were all I had to placate my hunger.
Then my grandfather died. My mother called me at the office to give me the news. Neither one of us had seen him or my grandmother in at least 10 years. Our conversation was more logistical than emotional. I flew to Los Angeles the next day. Because I had packed in such a rush, I didn’t have a black dress with me. When we all met that evening for dinner – the first time my entire family had been together in 25 years – my aunt complained to my mother about my white blouse. The next morning my mother and I went to the mall and bought the first black dress that fit. Then my parents and I drove to the cemetery for the funeral.
My grandmother sat in the first row at the service, flanked by her sons and grandsons. We, the women, as well as my American father, sat behind them. The service was in Korean and ended with a hymn. The church filled with the baritone of the grave organ and the voices of men and women rose to meet it.
Suddenly, one voice separated from the others. As I stared at the back of my grandmother’s head, her shaky, tear-soaked song slipped into my body and found me. It wasn’t just a sound; it was an entire world of bedtime lullabies, first words and first answers. My eyes filled with tears, not so much for my grandfather’s death, but for the loss of my past and of myself.
A few years later, I found the courage to quit my job and move back to Los Angeles to be closer to my family. Around this time, my aunt, Shin-ae, and my grandmother decided to do a bus tour across South Korea. I jumped at the chance to join them, hoping to collect my beginnings. As soon as I said yes to the trip, I tracked down a Korean tutor and began the work of remembering my first language. I wanted to pick it up right away, the way I hoped to pick up my relationship with my grandmother exactly where we left off 30 years ago.
Learning Korean was really hard. It took me days to memorize the alphabet. I became frustrated and hated my tutor, blaming her for how difficult it was. I sunk into hopelessness about my ability to ever master this language, about my ability to ever connect with my roots, about my ability to be loved by this 82 year old woman who had lived in Los Angeles for 28 years and still couldn’t speak a word of English.
When we got to Korea, I was constantly asking my aunt to tell me the Korean word for everything around us – building, car, store, bakery. I did this with my grandmother, too. Like a little girl, I would point at an object and she would tell me the word. Then, I’d repeat the sound. She’d correct me until I got it right. I used the new words I’d gathered whenever I could. After lunch one day, I said, “mashasoyo” which means, “that was delicious.” The others on the bus tour – mostly Korean old ladies and newlyweds – cheered as if they were tremendously proud of me. My grandmother smiled, too.
One of our stops was Jeju Island, a small dot of land off the southernmost coast of Korea. The island is famous to Koreans because the woman do all the work there and the men stay home and take care of the house. The primary business on the island, aside from tourism, is the sea. Only women dive off the rocky coast into the frigid waters for pearls and squid.
There are spots along the coast where the women divers called hae-nyo set up at lunchtime and sell fresh squid and soju, a cheap, rice wine. We stopped at one of these spots and crawled down the boulders to the edge of the sea and found smooth rocks to sit on. The less courageous members of the group ordered the squid grilled in a spicy red sauce. I ordered it raw. The women – wrinkled and leathery like sailors from living and working on the sea – chopped up the curling and uncurling squid and handed it to me on a paper plate. The tentacles snapped and twisted in my mouth and the suction cups stuck to my tongue as I chewed on this defiant food.
All the old ladies on the tour were very impressed by my willingness to eat whatever they put in front of me, which pleased my grandmother. So I kept eating, consuming everything I could like unknown fishes smothered in burning hot, orange sauces, rice and meat wrapped in exotic green leaves like Korean burritos, sweet, smoky chestnuts sold on city streets. Bite after bite, I swallowed my roots, my culture, my past.
At breakfast in our fancy, western-style hotels from Seoul to Pusan, I always chose the rice and kimchee for breakfast instead of the scrambled eggs and sausage. One morning, after stuffing myself, my grandmother insisted that I also try the abalone porridge.
“It’s so good,” she said to me in Korean, pointing at her bowl of porridge. My aunt, Shin-ae argued with her, “No, she’s full.”
I interrupted her, “No, I’d like to try it.” I nodded, smiling, at my grandmother. She nodded back, serious. I got a bowl of the porridge and ate some. It was delicious. Although my belly was full, there was room. I finished the bowl.
My grandmother, Shin-ae and I spent the last few days of our trip at my aunt, Ok Sook’s, apartment in Seoul. The night before we flew home, we were sitting around my aunt’s kitchen table folding our laundry. There were 4 generations of Paik women, my grandmother, 82, my two aunts, Ok Sook, 63, and Shin-ae, 50, me, 36, and my cousin’s daughter, Stephanie, 12. Korean and English mixed seamlessly as my grandmother and Ok Sook gossiped and Stephanie and I debated the merits of Hello Kitty.
Ok Sook decided she needed to make a big pot of myulchi for us to bring home. It’s a sweet, sticky fish that travels well and lasts forever but smells like gym socks. She got up and walked over to the stove and began to measure by hand the tiny, dried anchovies, the sugar, soy sauce, and sesame seeds. An hour later, she was filling glass jars with the fish, a jar for me, two jars for my aunt and two for my grandmother.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to bring food on the plane,” I said to nobody in particular. I was worried about transporting food, remembering all the questions on the customs form about produce. They dismissed my concerns. “It’s only food,” Ok Sook said, frowning at me as if I was ridiculous.
We took the jars and put them in our luggage. When we got to LAX, though, the customs officials brought out vicious-looking dogs to sniff bags. I froze, afraid they’d find this contraband anchovy from another world. I flashed on the image of my tiny, Yoda-like grandmother sitting in a detention room. But the dogs sniffed, then moved on. We made it through customs. I drove home, alone for the first time in 10 days. When I stopped at a light, I reached into my bag and pulled out the jar of myulchi. I opened it, inhaled its sweet-salty smell and then popped a few of the tiny, crunchy fishes into my mouth.
A week later, I was standing over my stove in the little Topanga treehouse I called home. It was difficult to tell if the short ribs were done in the black liquid. I referred back to my aunt’s hand-written recipe for kalbi jim. She has written, “Bring everything to a boil and then simmer for at least 3 hours. It’s preferable to cook it for hours on the day you make it and then cook it for a few hours again the next day when you’ll be serving it.” It has only been a few hours but my boyfriend’s going to be here any minute. I stirred the pot then walked out to my living room, breathing in the smell of Korean food cooking on my stove. I set the table for us to eat.
Susie Arnett is a writer and consultant living in Western Massachusetts. She has written for More Magazine, Intent Blog, and The Good Men Project, and is the author of Born Yogis (Rodale Press). She also works with experts in the health and wellness field, helping them create content and programs that bring their work to larger audiences.