For the past six years I have been volunteering as a mentor through
a local adoption agency’s post-adoption program. Every year or two I am
matched up with a young woman who was transracially adopted. I often
get teens who are struggling with a number of issues, and my current
match is no exception. She is a lovely, sweet and ferociously
intelligent 16-year old. I really think she has a bright future ahead.
This past weekend, the two of us attended a "cooking class"
sponsored by said adoption agency. Fourteen of us mentor matches met in
the basement kitchen of a nearby church and watched two Korean women
make kimbap, bulgogi and chap chae. Mentee and I thought we would be
actually cooking, but it seems time and the opinions of the ahjumahs doing the cooking meant we watched from the side of the table instead.
Mentee and I had a good time anyway, just hanging out. But the whole
experience reminded me of another time I was "taught" how to cook
Korean food by a few bonafide Korean women.
I was 30 years old the first time I ate Korean food. As if my
tastebuds reclaimed past memory, the kimchee did not taste too spicy or
garlicy; I loved it from the beginning. Today, one of my favorite
meals, any time of the day, is a bowl of rice and kimchee.
I am aware that eating Korean food, or even learning how to make
Korean food at home, does not make me more "authentically" Korean, as
if there is such a thing. And my past experience with learning how to
cook Korean only served to make me feel more as if I’m just playing at
what it means to be a Korean.
Several years ago I wrote about this paradox in the following essay, which was later published in Korean Quarterly.
"I understand . . . why so many Americans of various
ethnic origins have chosen, over the last generation, to adopt a
one-size-fits-all “Asian American identity. . . In a way I envy those
who choose to become wholeheartedly Asian American: those who believe.
At least they have a certain order to their existence. I, on the other
hand, am an accidental Asian. Someone who has stumbled onto a sense of race and wonder now what to do with it."
– Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker
A big bowl of steaming rice sits before me, another batch is cooking
in the rice cooker. Seolmei instructs me on the fine art of seasoning
the rice. A small grater distributes round, roasted sesame seeds over
the top of the rice. “Keep it in the freezer” she says. A drizzle of
dark, rich sesame oil, a dash of salt, a sprinkle of vinegar. Mix it
well and set it aside. Bong is opening the packages of sliced scrambled
egg, pickled radish, carrots, spinach and imitation crabmeat.
The seaweed is laid on the bamboo mat, and rice is spread on the
lower half. Like a typical American, I put on way too much. “No, no,
like this” they scold, scraping the excess off. We lay the strips of
crab and vegetables on the bed of rice, roll the end a little and
squeeze. Roll some more and squeeze.
On the first day of my son’s pre-school Parenting classes, they
arrived together. They are Korean. I know this, not because I
understand what they are saying, but because I recognize the names as
Korean. During parent-sharing time, Seolmei hesitates, apologizing for
her English. Though heavily accented, we all understand her. All the
other mothers go into brag mode, describing our kids, their ages, what
we do for fun in our spare time. Seolmei says, “I am so lonely. I miss
my family.” She begins to cry. No one knows what to do or say. I hand
her a tissue, but don’t know what to say either. After class, she and
Bong huddle together, gather up their kids and leave quietly. All week
I think about her and worry. I feel bad for not saying anything.
The next week I hand each of them a Korean Quarterly. I know nothing
about them, whether they are involved in the Korean community here. It
is the only thing I feel I can do, to let them know there are other
Koreans here in the Twin Cities.
“I’m Korean too,” I tell them, and their eyes widen in recognition.
“I’m adopted though, so I don’t speak Korean.” I give them my phone
number. “If you’d like to get together, the kids can play. If you’re
really brave, maybe you can try and teach me a few Korean words.”
That is why they are here now, in my kitchen. That is why we are
elbow deep in rice, seaweed and vegetables. We are making kimbap, the
Korean version of a California Roll. I already know how to make it.
They misunderstood; I’d said it was the only Korean food I know how to
make; they thought I was asking them to teach me how to make it.
They arrive at my house with everything: rice cooker, rice, seaweed,
all the vegetables thinly sliced, crab meat and eggs, scrambled and
sliced. They are surprised that I have most of the ingredients we need.
They “ohhh” over each item I pull from my cupboards. I have nori. I
have sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. I have a bamboo roller.
As we begin the preparations, inhibitions fall away and
personalities peek out. Bong is outspoken. Although I have everything
needed to make kimbap, Bong corrects me. “This seaweed is Japanese. Use
Korean” she says. “Your rice, it is too long.” She gives me a big bag
of short grain rice. Seolmei is more sensitive with a sneaky sense of
humor. The first kimbap I make is crooked. Instead of being in the
middle, the ingredients are lopsided. “Who made this one?” she laughs,
holding the offending kimbap. I show them the scrapbook I made of my
trip to Korea two years ago. They are excited to see that I’ve been to
Seolmei and Bong try to teach me the words for each item we use. I
dutifully repeat, trying hard to get the pronunciations correct and I
fail miserably. All my small attempts to be more Korean seem completely
inadequate now that I have two genuine Koreans in my kitchen. I will
always be a kyopo, a foreign-born Korean. Trying to be Korean is like
being a little girl playing dress-up with my mother’s prom dress; it
doesn’t fit, but I can see little glimpses of what the future will look
like, once I begin to grown into it.
I’ve spent 90% of my life being American, yet when I think
“American” I think of white people, and I don’t include myself. But
I’ve been in Korea. If I spent the rest of my life there, I would never
be able to call myself a Korean either.
Which country do I choose? The one who appeals to me by the basest
aspects of my nature, the one in whom I recognize myself, those who
come from the same dust of many trodden feet, the ones whose sorrow and
collective soul are the same as mine?
Or the one who has grown me from a transplanted seed, an out of
place plant without the ability to spread roots into this soil. The
best I can hope for is to thrive as well as I can in a borrowed pot and
borrowed soil – but that is all right. I can move myself around, as I
have in the past, and thrive anywhere. I’ve learned to do so.
I struggle to find a place for people like myself, for the person I
was not long ago. I don’t believe any of us are “Accidental” Asians.
That is like saying we’re a cosmic or physical mistake. Perhaps we are
hesitant or uncertain; the many of us spread out over the world due to
war, economic opportunities or adoption. Seolmei and Bong are living
the opposite experience as me; they are hesitant Americans. They want
to be Americans, but they don’t want to lose their Korean culture. They
know people here do not know much about Korea, that everyone thinks
Korea is poor, “like Mash-ee” says Seolmei, “You know that T.V. show,
“Americans” Bong asks, “They only know Hmong? They all ask, are you Hmong?”
I am a bit too American to make kimbap in the correct way. Each time
I make it different, depending on my mood and the ingredients I happen
to have in my kitchen at any given time.
Sitting at the table Bong, Seolmei and I taste the results of the
afternoon. I can honestly say that although I’ve used the wrong
seaweed, stored my sesame seeds incorrectly and left out the vinegar –
overall, I can not tell the difference between Bong and Seolmei’s
version and my own.
But I know that by rinsing the rice first, and using the short grain
instead of long has indeed made better rice for kimbap. Americans like
their rice Uncle Ben’s style – as individual as themselves, each grain
standing alone, fluffy, and apart.
I’m seeing the value of Korean rice – stuck together, bonded. Maybe
kimbap is like my America. In my world, each of us is the lone
ingredient. Spinach may be too bitter for some palates, radish too tart
and seaweed too salty. I may not think much of the thick, glutinous
white rice that surrounds us, but it does make our individual flavors
stand apart. We enhance the flavors of each other. Rolled together, we
can make a beautiful balanced dish.