I’m always interested to see the patriotism that arises during the Olympic season. Most of us root for the country we live in, the country (or countries) our parents are from, or whoever has the hottest athlete (let's be honest here). I usually support the US and South Korea, but if a competition between those two countries took place, I’d probably choose South Korea. I love my culture, but that didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t until my last trip to South Korea that I was able to look back on my long process of learning and accepting who I was – a first generation Korean-American.
There was something about this latest trip that made me a little nervous. Now I realize that it came from a place of pure insecurity: I was about to spend a month in a country whose culture I had never entirely accepted.
Prior to this latest trip, I’d visited South Korea three times. Those visits were wonderful, but they didn’t make me as aware of how insecure I was of my Korean background as this one did. The pride I have today as a Korean-American did not come out of the blue. It bloomed very slowly.
South Korea was a destination I was familiar with and considered my home, but it didn’t take me long to realize that this place was actually not my home. It was only labeled as such because of my background and because a majority of my family lived there, but here, I was your typical tourist in a new country.
A large portion of my early memories of being a Korean-American included the preoccupation with “fitting in.” I didn’t look like the majority of my Caucasian, African-American, or Hispanic peers. Friends would casually ask, “Can you see just like us?” remarking on the size of my eyes, while others inquired whether I ate rats and bugs. There were times when kids walking past me on the street would loudly ask me if I delivered Chinese food. Those are all pretty childish and it’s easy to ignore now, but back then, it really got to me.
One of my first memories of feeling uncomfortable about being Korean-American happened when I was around six years old. In my neighborhood in the Bronx, there was a Korean supermarket I used to hang out in because my grandmother often helped her friend make fresh Korean food in the basement kitchen to sell at the market. One day, they made garratteok (a cylinder shaped white rice cake). As the rice cake was coming out of the machine that molded its shape, the whole room smelled of steamed rice. My grandmother cut a big piece from it and placed it in my hand. My mouth salivated as I looked at the warm, sticky rice cake. It was soft and squishy and wobbled up and down as I moved my hand.
“Stop playing with your food,” my grandma said. I quickly took a bite out of the warm, chewy cake and ran upstairs to the supermarket. As I observed the candies near the register, I noticed a mother and a son come in. I walked around for a few minutes slowly eating my rice cake, and went back to the cash register when the two were walking up to pay. When the boy saw me, he squealed with disgust.
“Ewww,” he exclaimed and shook his mother’s arm. “That Chinese girl is eating a worm!” His mother momentarily looked over but didn’t correct him or stop him. “That looks nasty,” he remarked again before leaving. I remember feeling frustrated at the boy for calling me Chinese and at myself for not speaking up and correcting him. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the rice cake, and that made me mad, too.
I went through a phase of attachment to pre-packaged meals and canned foods. I genuinely enjoyed them—how “American” of me. As a child, I prevented my mother from packing Korean food for lunch in case I would get made fun of. Lunchables—the gold standard of the pre-packaged childhood—were my choice. I constantly reminded my mother and grandmother: “If you want to pack me lunch, I want American food. I don’t want kimchi or any banchan (side dishes) that smell or look weird.” Freshly made Korean food was a disgrace next to a pre-packaged microwaveable meal.
As my affinity for American food continued to develop, I entered high school, which was the glorious beginning of actually enjoying introducing people to Korean food. I was very lucky to have met wonderful peers and teachers that were open minded and encouraged the exploration of each other’s cultures. The feeling of exclusivity dissipated as I slowly shared my culture with friends. I was beginning to feel accepted without having to hide my culture—and I loved it. At first, I had reservations about bringing Korean pancakes and kimbap to a school club party, but my family encouraged me. Surprisingly, I became the official food bearer of every party and Korean pancakes and kimbap became my friends’ favorites. I was no longer afraid of different opinions and preferences.
This past month’s trip to South Korea allowed me to further develop my relationship with my heritage. And it couldn’t have been any simpler than just eating Korean food every day. The constant exposure allowed me to appreciate the food and feel truly comfortable with it. The food scene in Korea amazed me. Charcoal barbecue was everywhere (New York is seriously missing out), McDonald’s offered delivery, Korean fried chicken gave me life, local bodegas had all my favorite Korean snacks, jajangmyeon (black bean noodles) was cheap and delicious, and I tasted the best soondae (blood sausage) and pig liver ever.
At one authentic Korean restaurant called Dalewon in Gongju City, I experienced a meal like never before. The pre-set meals were ordered per person, and the waitresses placed them down in a specific order (I was so mesmerized by the food, I forgot to ask why). Each person was meant to have a taste of those specific dishes before moving on to the main meal, which is when you’re given rice, soup, and a small number of side dishes. The entire meal was not only mind bogglingly delicious, but also a beautiful and artistic process.
Today, food is my world—I even studied it in college—and it’s a way for me to communicate and learn about other cultures. Simply by eating Korean food every day, I was able to deepen my relationship to my heritage. I was thoroughly impressed and it made me feel ashamed for ever having thought of Korean food as embarrassing. Well, I swear to you—no more.