Photo: Lauryn Ishak
Music blares from a doors-open car about 20 yards away from where a woman dances in an open, grassy spot. The tune is a Korean folk song, twang and strings and a tinny singer, and the petite dancer glides across the grass as wind whirls the trees about. She is wearing a hanbok, a traditional Korean formal dress—hers a cropped, fitted white jacket over a billowing red skirt with intermittent white flowers. She twirls and ripples her outstretched arms gracefully, skirt following in crimson waves. Every now and then, white satin slippers peek out from underneath. Cars drive past. I can't see if their occupants are staring, or even interested.
It's a spring day in Korea, and I am here with my brother, Tim, enjoying this unexpected performance with some wonderful people I've just met. They are my family. My uncle, Chi Bong, has driven us to the lakeside spot, and his wife—whose name I don't even know—is the dancer. Before pulling over, she confided, "I'm a little shy, but I have a surprise for you and your brother. I rented a dress." Now Chi Bong whoops and claps and encourages, and his wife begins to dance. I do not know this woman, but she has overcome her shyness to dance for us, people she has barely met and will likely never see again. I well up: I think she is showing us we are Korean.
By being here, by being connected to these lovely people, 7,000 miles from home, by the mere fact of it, Tim and I are finally Korean. Gratitude for this feeling takes me back to the moment, six months earlier, that led to my decision to come here. I was sitting in an elementary school cafeteria in Birmingham, Alabama, with my 6-year-old twin boys. An older child, maybe a second-grader, looked at us on his way to put up his tray. He grinned and said, "Hey, Chinese lady!" It was a stab to the heart, not much different from words I sometimes heard as a 7-year-old girl growing up in the Mississippi Delta, sitting in my own elementary school cafeteria, listening to friends who puzzled over my otherness. They knew white and they knew black, but they certainly did not know what I was. Nor, exactly, did I.
A life in the South
I am the daughter of a beautiful woman from Busan, South Korea, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farmer's son from Mississippi. They met on a blind date in 1967 while my dad was stationed in Korea with the Army. That, anyway, was half of the story. Turns out that the date, arranged by a friend of my father's, was more serendipitous than blind. My mom, as it happened, was my father's barber, so they had met before. Now they really talked for the first time. "I knew within the first minute of talking to her that I was going to marry her," says my dad. The barber said no to the proposal several times before agreeing. They were married in a peculiar ritual that I always loved hearing about: First, they went to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. "Suzie was outside the room, and I got married to her," explains my dad. "Then, we went to Seoul City Hall. She went in, and I went to a coffee shop across the street. And she got married to me." Afterward, they went to a Methodist church where my mother's uncle was pastor for a wedding attended by friends and relatives.
Then they moved to the States, where they would raise my brother and me in small towns in which there simply weren't many others like my mom. I was born in Winona, Mississippi, which listed my mother's state of birth, on my birth certificate, not as Korea but, bizarrely, Manchuria. My mother moved through this strange landscape quietly and, to me, bravely and gracefully, and I can't recall her complaining that she ever felt like an outsider. But we'd be in the grocery store, and her accent would prove too foreign for the clerks or cashiers to bother with. They would raise their voices and lock eyes with the little girl whose Luke Skywalker or Bandit T-shirt implied sufficient Americanization, waiting for me to translate. In those moments, blood rising in my cheeks, I resented both sides: the clerk for not trying, my mother for just being Korean. I'd go home and imagine that I had blonde hair and blue eyes and looked like my friends and had a mother who could speak and be understood.
Of course, as a southerner does, I love the South, long for Mississippi, feel the South ever-present in my blood and my soul. During my elementary school years, we lived in the Delta, whose bleakness I still find mysterious and beautiful whenever I go back. I remember, as a child, passing sharecroppers and seeing white families picking cotton together while a combine stirred up dust in the next field. The poor, dark, tragic, funny, beautiful South: I remember hard dirt clods loosened by the plow in my grandparents' garden that were perfect for pitching at my cousins; angry crawdads waving in the ditches after a rain; people of at least three colors loitering outside the tamale stand; tiny razor cuts painfully discovered at bathtime after running through the corn patch; a pail of purple-hull peas in the breeze-way waiting to be shelled; the delicious salt-lick brine of boiled peanuts at a ramshackle gas station.
These are the scenes and the foods of my childhood, yet they are bracketed, as none of my friends' lives were, by other memories and different flavors: the joys of slurping up slippery cellophane noodles whenever my mother made japchae (noodles with vegetables); my clumsy fingers trying to control tangled chopsticks as they chased a muddy-colored crowder pea across the plate into a pile of sticky rice; the shiny Korean clothing sent to us by our relatives for special occasions; the frightening pungency of kimchi.
Southern to the bone, I don't look it. I look Korean or, as I sometimes still overhear in the South, "some kind of Chinese." But I speak no Korean and, before going on my pilgrimage, knew embarrassingly little of the culture. To me, Korean heritage was mostly about food: the traditional dishes my mom would cook every now and then, after driving up to Memphis for ingredients at the closest Asian market. We loved some of the dishes she made—especially sweet-salty marinated meat and any kind of noodle dish. But she also made funky soups, always in this little gold-colored pot. The rest of us wouldn't join her, wary of the burly flavors.
Those were dishes my mother made for herself: comfort and consolation, taken in solitude. I imagine how it must have been for her to make food alone and not have anyone to share it with—sad for any mother, especially in a place where no one spoke her language and where this was the only part of her culture she could re-create. I ask her now if this hurt her feelings. "No. No, noooo," she says. "Because the food was so different. So strange from what Westerners are used to." My mother, I discovered, didn't have the luxury of learning to cook from her mother; instead, she taught herself to cook in America. "I just guessed," she says, "remembering the taste I had a long, long time ago." She adds, with a confidence that makes me proud, "I'm pretty creative, you know."
Our family never went to Korea when I was a kid, and later I assumed this was because Mom, having escaped, was in no hurry to return. Fine by me. I didn't want to go. I was ruled, well into high school, by a childish hunger to just be like everyone else. But as my dad now explains, "We just didn't have the money to do it."
It wasn't until college that I began to use the K-word to define myself. That's also when I started researching and cooking Korean food, working—as my mother did—from memory rather than instruction. Finally, at 42, having long been immersed in the world of food, I figured it was well past time for me to go to the place from whence, through my mother's side of the family, I half-came. Food would be the obvious door-opener. On the Web, I easily found food bloggers and experts who would welcome me. I would eat my way around Seoul, nibble through the coastal city of Busan, where my mother is from, and then head to the small town of Hapcheon, where I would finally meet my Korean relatives.