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.
City of willowy women
In Seoul, no one spoke to me in Korean; apparently they knew by glancing at me that I was not one of them. This was a bit of a disappointment. I decided that, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, I am simply American-sized.
Seoul: Flanked on all sides by mountains (Korea is 70% mountainous), its impressive business and apartment towers are interrupted by an occasional old temple or palace. It's home to 10 million people, and to Samsung, LG, Kia, and Hyundai, who ship cars and smart phones and flat-screens and refrigerators to us, while we ship our fast-food franchises to them: Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut, McDonald's. I found four Starbucks within a one-block radius of my hotel.
Seoul's energy is not so unlike that of New York; imagine a Manhattan where your iPhone doesn't drop its calls and the Internet runs a lot faster. What struck me the most, though, was the beauty of the 10 million: willowy women with luminous, clear complexions, dressed in flowing chiffon and exquisitely tailored dresses (no décolletage, but the shortness of some women's short-shorts scandalized me). Men were equally beautiful and well outfitted. And everyone seemed to be skinny. Yet, to my delight, I learned that these thin people eat like horses and drink like fish.
The Seoul citizen's obsession with technology outdoes our own, yet her food is surprisingly traditional. With a few exceptions, experimentation and fusion do not seem to interest many chefs or their customers. The cuisine involves a set of repeating flavors: variation and themes, narrowly framed, not unlike the food of Tuscany in that regard. "This framing makes Korean food special," says expat food writer and Korean food academician Jennifer Flinn, who showed me around the city, "and the Koreans who eat it special by extension." Those of us who eat Thai one day and gumbo the next may find that dull, but Koreans don't, and I detected a deep pride about the cooking from the locals. The flavors are anything but subtle: fiery, salty, sweet, pungent, and sometimes very fishy.
At the center of it all are the pickles, and at the center of the pickles, baechu kimchi, cabbage fermented with chili and garlic and often referred to simply as kimchi (though the term refers to hundreds of varieties of pickle). As important as sauerkraut may be to a German, it's reasonably certain that no culture reveres pickled cabbage (in this case, napa cabbage) quite like Koreans. "You know," a cooking teacher named Ellie Hyewon Lee told me when I visited her at the Food and Culture Korea Company in the Jongno-gu district to learn how to make kimchi jjigae, a pickle-based soup, "Koreans cannot live without kimchi. We eat kimchi every day." The quality of her soup, she noted, entirely depends on the quality of her kimchi: "For the best taste, use sour kimchi, the more fermented one." With this superpotent cabbage (whose smell can fill a house), Ellie likes to make kimchi fried rice and kimchi pancakes, too.
"There is a typical debate," says Joe McPherson, an expat food writer from Alabama and president of ZenKimchi International, Korea's longest-running food blog, "about whether all Koreans eat kimchi because they like it or because they feel obligated by culture. It's so closely tied [into the culture] that I still occasionally get gasps of surprise from some Koreans when I eat Korean food. It's as if one can only be born a Korean to eat Korean food."
My father had no acquired a taste for kimchi in Korea. "I do not care for the smell of garlic," he says now. "I never did like kimchi. I would not eat those things, so you and your brother wouldn't, either." My mother still acts surprised when she sees me eat it now, though I love its tangy pong: "You really like it?" she'll ask in disbelief. I think now of her there, alone, eating this touchstone of her world, this apple pie of Korea—and us refusing.
Dining out is social sport in Seoul, and the eating is lively. All food is shared at the table and often cooked on the table. A wave of banchan (side dishes) arrives, and just when you've rearranged your drink and your chopsticks and think the table can't accommodate another thing, the main dishes arrive. Banchan typically include kimchi and variations, plus other dishes like seasoned bean sprouts, cold radish soup (actually "water kimchi"), scallion pancakes, and various wilted and seasoned vegetables. Everyone chopsticks little bits out of the communal plates and bowls (one does not order à la carte). It's both intimate and social, and it's how you eat in Korea—many restaurants aren't even equipped to serve single diners.
Beautiful egg-shaped face
Dumplings are one of my great joys, comfort food as much as biscuits and field peas. My first bite in Seoul of steamed mandu filled with pork and tofu took me back to my childhood. At a food stall, I enjoyed another version of mandu—huge fried dumplings stuffed with pork and glass noodles, light and crisp, skins puffed with thousands of wonderful little blisters. When I was 11, in Greenville, Mississippi, I recall my mother making a version of these one time—Mom called them yaki mandu—half-moons of crispy dough filled with ground beef and vegetables. Not unlike many of the Southern meat pies I'd had at family reunions.
I had bulgogi, of course, the classic Korean barbecue meal of marinated beef cooked on a searing-hot grill. And here and there I did uncover little slivers of modest innovation: At a loud, bustling restaurant called Mapo Jeong Daepo in the Mapo district in Seoul, the tabletop grills have a channel around the outer edge, a trough into which we placed bits of kimchi, after which our server poured on beaten eggs. As we seared meat and morseled it up in perilla leaves with grilled garlic and spicy gochujang sauce, a fluffy kimchi omelet cooked on the perimeter. Translator and guide Veronica Kang, a Seoul native, had never seen that before.
There is a variety of chewy little cakes made of rice flour that Koreans adore—wonderfully rubbery "pasta," shaped in disks or tubes, that holds a sauce or glaze. In Seoul, almost every street food stand sells tteokbokki, thumb-shaped rice cakes that are often swimming in a crazy-delicious sweet-spicy red sauce. I spent most of a day seeking every rice cake incarnation I could find. In the Shindang-dong area, I found a carb-lover's delight of rice cakes with ramen noodles, rice noodles, and fish cakes. At Tongin Market, I had "oil" tteokbokki; it is the only place, Jennifer explained, to find these: marinated in a bit of soy and a lot of Korean ground chile, then stir-fried so that they're irresistibly crisp on the outside, chewy within, and fantastically simple.
As much as Koreans love to eat, they have a powerful thirst that would impress the Wall Street frat boys of downtown Manhattan. It's not uncommon—on a Tuesday as much as a Friday—to watch business-suited men in Seoul staggering, slumped over, or violently hugging after a night of boozing. The agent of their inebriation is often soju, a rice-based spirit with the alcohol content of strong sake and the flavor of a sweetish vodka. It comes to restaurant tables quickly, in small bottles, and is usually drunk neat. I had plenty, but I was more enchanted by makgeolli, a drink I fell in love with at the Blue Star Pub in Seoul's artsy Insadong district. Makgeolli is a milky-cloudy rice beer, a bit sweet, a bit tangy, a bit tingly on the tip of the tongue. At the Blue Star, it arrived, flavored with mugwort, in a ceramic tureen with a wooden scoop and little bowls to drink it from. Makgeolli proved a lovely, sociable drink, with its communal pour and its refreshing, gentle effect.
The owner of the bar, Mr. Choi, a stage actor, looked like a Korean version of Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse. He knew Jennifer and welcomed us warmly. They proceeded to have an animated conversation in Korean. It was one of the first times I had heard such lively talk at close quarters. (Although I had often heard my mother speaking Korean when I was a child, it was always over the phone, so I heard only one side of the conversation, interrupted by long pauses.) Unlike the sing-songy cadence of, say, Japanese, Korean is full of low, guttural sounds and hard fricative stops—what sounded to my ear a bit angry turned out to be a friendly conversation about which bar snacks we ought to eat. Although we had already had dinner, we couldn't resist the crisp mung bean pancakes or the little knobby root vegetable pickles. We drank, we ate, we ordered another vat of the brew, this time flavored with persimmon leaf. At Mr. Choi's table, not far away, was a cheery, clean-cut Korean gentleman whose rosy cheeks indicated that he had been enjoying a few bowls of makgeolli himself. In English, he professed his love of Jennifer's "beautiful egg-shaped face" over and over, holding out his hands in the shape of parentheses. There was much laughter and more makgeolli. I felt as at home here, in this dingy, comfortable Seoul bar, as I do in the great dingy dives of the South.
Death comes to dinner
When I was 5 years old in Mississippi, my father brought home a live catfish in a red bucket, and I named him Fred and played with him, sloshing the poor thing around and refreshing his water incessantly. That night, Fred was dinner, and I cried at what I'd seen, but I nibbled the fish because I felt I had to. Seeing your food killed is not uncommon in the South today, nor in Korea. My mother told me about being 16 years old and being given the chore of hacking crabs (plentiful in coastal Busan, even for the poor) for a special dinner; she didn't realize they'd be alive and that she was to cleaver them with a quick chop. She ran from the room, crying, and caught a lot of hell for falling down on the job.
Like many American meat-eaters, I am a wimp about these blood matters, despite the imprecations of nose-to-tail chef-philosophers about the importance of communing with what we eat. Not long before I went to Korea, I decided I ought to attend the killing stump that is located on my brother-in-law's property in Mississippi: He would behead a troublesome rooster, I would make rooster and dumplings, and the circle of life would be honorably, deliciously complete. What unfolded was a Southern Gothic scene right out of a Flannery O'Connor story. It was early evening, with thunder sounding low and distant. Mosquitoes buzzed around like bumblebees—and not much smaller. Catching the rooster was tricky, and the animal became stressed. At last Jamie had the bird, and he held it upside down by its feet because, he explained, roosters will go docile when held this way. But a neighbor's nosy blackmouth cur ran up and began to nip at the doomed bird, causing it to wriggle and squawk. A huge crack of thunder roared, and a downpour arrived, immediate and punishing. The rooster was carried to the killing stump, and I swear that when the ax went up, the sharpened edge glinted in a flash of lightning. Head separated from bird, body writhed on the ground. Let me just say with only a little Southern drama that something died within me that night, too. The rooster proved, despite the ministrations of a pressure cooker, a sinewy old thing.
These matters played in my mind at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, where Veronica suggested we enjoy a raw fish breakfast, which sounded great until I realized that I would be watching more executions. The market consists of stall after stall of clams, mussels, mackerel, skate, live fish in tanks, and live octopus. Many of the stoic, cleaver-bearing female vendors wore full makeup and these fantastic, hot pink, full-length rubber aprons. We settled on a stall, sat at its one small dining table, and pointed to a black fish swimming in the tank. In a flash the vendor had it on the cutting board. Hwack! Head now separate from twitchy body, for our dining pleasure. I felt like I might faint.
I warned Veronica that I drew the line at the reputed local practice of eating live octopus. A few minutes later, though, a pile of writhing tentacles appeared, along with slivers of our freshly butchered fish. The octopus wasn't alive, really—the animated tentacles were already separated from the rest of the animal. My brother dragged a wiggly bit through spicy gochujang sauce, popped it in his mouth, and reported it good. I felt obliged to follow, and he was correct. We also gobbled salmon-colored sea squirts, which had the texture of foamy oysters and an up-front sweetness that was followed by bitter iodine. Hard, tough abalone was the least appealing thing on the plate, like chewing wood. Soju washed all down nicely and at 9:30 started this day with a cheery warmth, despite the deaths.
I am, I think, an adventurous eater, and this story may support the claim to those followers of the Andrew Zimmern school: In Busan, we visit the enormous Jagalchi Fish Market, the largest in Korea, whose seemingly endless grid of vendors inside is matched by a network of outside stalls that extends for several blocks. There we saw a whole floor devoted to dried fish and seaweed. More intriguingly: shallow bowls at many stalls for displaying echiuroid, a horror of pulsating, undulating sea worms of scandalous shape. "Well, we have to try that!" I told Tim, and so we had one sea worm with our lunch. Raw and cleaned, the worm consists of nothing more than a thin, cartilaginous flap that rolled up on itself like wrapping paper. The flavor was that of mild seawater—not nearly as tasty as the sea snails we had eaten on a rooftop bar in Seoul, smothered with chiles and scallions and washed down with beer and soju.
Of course, I would meet my match: fermented skate. Joe took us to a place in Seoul known for its grilled octopus, part of a set meal that included the legendarily pungent treat. He warned us, apologizing in advance, hanging his head, laughing, and finally revealing, "OK, so Zimmern may have declared this the worst thing he's ever tasted." After the typical parade of banchan came a tiny plate that let off an astonishing reek. When skate ferments, uric acid builds up in the flesh, so it stinks terribly of ammonia. It's firm, hideously firm, with bones and cartilage—all of which conspire to make you chew for a long time to get it down. It's served with bo ssam (steamed pork) and kimchi, and one is instructed to layer the components to get some sort of ideal mix of flavors in each bite. To this half-Korean, it was terrible. The octopus—barely cooked, with a delicate hint of sesame and salt—arrived as sweet relief.
The gift of the dance
As the time comes to go to Hapcheon to meet our uncle and his wife, I think again about my mother: her life in Mississippi, her life before that. Growing up, I knew very little of her life in Korea; stories were not volunteered, and it felt forbidden—even rude—to ask. When I finally did ask, I heard of the sort of family tragedy and poverty that lurks in the history of so many immigrants. Her mother died when she was 12 years old, and she grew up during the Korean War, "when everyone was so terribly poor," she says. My mother tells of sneaking out to the Red Cross soup kitchen not far from her house, something her father wouldn't have condoned. On a cold day, she stood in the long line for a tiny ration of milky soup. "It didn't even touch my stomach, reach my hunger," she says. She sneaked back for a second serving. "I was wearing an overcoat and two-sided scarf. I wanted to disguise myself, so I took my scarf off and changed it around to the other side, a different color. But I bet they knew. And they knew that little bit of soup wasn't enough. They didn't say anything, just gave me more soup. It was a blessing."
Now, finally, I am to meet my mother's brother and his wife. In the Busan bus terminal, Tim and I puzzle over how to get to Hapcheon. A tiny woman approaches, touches my arm, and speaks rapid Korean. Unlike in Seoul, where no one took me for Korean, the Busan natives would do this, talk to me in Korean. It makes sense, in my romantic interpretation: This is the place my mother is from; I am with my people, and they recognize me as one of them. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," I explain to the tiny woman, and turn away toward the ticket window. Something rings in my ear, though: Did she call me Ann? We go back to where she still stands, smile fading, clutching an orange envelope. She points to me, then Tim, and says our names. And then, in perfect English, she says, "I am Suzie's sister." This is my mother's sister, my Aunt Su Kyong, whom we were told was too frail to travel, to even visit—now come to surprise us! I laugh and choke and hug her with American aggression, and she reveals what she is carrying: photos of her and my mother, my uncle and his wife, a portrait from my brother's wedding, and a blurry Polaroid from 1975 of my brother and me in our fancy Korean clothing. The three of us board the bus, and I wonder what she must have felt in those few seconds when we turned away from her, how her heart must have fallen.
In the small town of Hapcheon, about a two-hour bus ride from Busan, we meet Uncle Chi Bong and his wife and accept a restaurant recommendation from the local taxi drivers. We settle around a table and smile sheepishly at each other—Aunt Su Kyong will speak no more English today—as we await a soup version of bulgogi, a local specialty. I notice that my uncle has brought in a pristine calendar from, oddly, 1999. He also has a map of the area and shows us where he has planned to take us: the burial site of our great-grandfather, then Hapcheon Lake, then the rhododendron festival at Mount Hwangmaesan.
The soup cooks on the table as we try to be together without staring (yet we can't help but stare). My uncle taps his index fingers together and says to me, "You and your mother are the same person. You are just alike." He cannot know how this makes me want to cry. After conferring with his sister, Uncle Chi Bong declares that Tim has our grandfather's eyes and brow. Uncle turns to the back of the calendar and shows us a colorful map of the United States annotated with notes about where my brother, my parents, and I live. We slurp the soup, and I love it—slivers of marinated beef in lots of broth with glass noodles and clusters of enoki mushrooms. Uncle Chi Bong goes out to the car and returns with bags of fruit, a knife, and little plastic trays. Aunt Su Kyong goes to work peeling and cutting apples and oranges, preparing them exactly as my mother does. She pushes them our way and keeps nudging until every piece is eaten.
There is much driving until we find the burial site, which calls for a hot hike up the side of a mountain; my relatives are showing us our ancestry. We lay out a blanket and Uncle has cold waters and sesame biscuits for us. After a short rest, we wind our way around to the lakeside spot, where we enjoy cashews and almonds and more fruit, this time cold pineapple—and then we receive the gift of the dance. After a winding drive to the rhododendron festival, we learn that we are about a week early; only a few flowers are blooming. Uncle Chi Bong's wife explains, disappointed, that at full peak, the entire mountainside is a breathtaking pink. We decide to walk a little ways up to take pictures by the few blooming bushes, and Uncle buys hot roasted chestnuts for the hike. He seems pleased that we love the chestnuts, which are hot and fresh and sweet and tender. He frets over us the way our mother does. Then it is time to leave.
Many GPS miscues later, followed by stops to ask for directions, we reach the Hapcheon bus terminal for the ride back to Busan. Uncle Chi Bong says, "Lunch is not enough. We go to dinner. Your aunt's treat." We can't accept. We have to get back to Busan so we can pack and take a high-speed train across the country for our flight out of Incheon. Their faces fall at this news. They purchase our bus tickets and stand as a little congregation of three, unsure of how to part ways. I have just met these people, but they have shown me such kindness. I don't know if I will ever see them again, and the good-bye is excruciating. Aunt Mi Yang, my uncle's wife, blurts out, "I love you!" and I am gobsmacked by a realization that is as true as anything I've known: I may or may not be Korean, but I am part of this Korean family.
A week later, when I am back in Alabama, my uncle calls my mother and says he feels terrible about how the day went—that they didn't like how the restaurant served such an oddball version of bulgogi, that the lake suffered from drought, that the flowers weren't blooming. The day was a disaster and they had failed. I find this reaction to be very Korean, and very Southern—self-doubt and regret, plus something else, a deep obligation. We Southerners and South Koreans want you to know that we know when things aren't perfect, and we'll always point out the flaws before you do. I reassure my mother that, for me, the day was perfect. The reluctance of rhododendrons is not important when you find, in some far corner of the world, part of your place in the world.
All that day in Hapcheon, my aunt and uncle fed us. Food, of course, is used everywhere to signify the bonds between people, but these people, this food, this place: It all had huge significance to me. Bulgogi, dumplings, raw fish, and milky-sweet confusing rice beer felt as much a part of my DNA as field peas and boiled peanuts did back home. Which was why I could stand by a lake a world away from Mississippi and be moved to tears by a shy dancer in a rented dress, knowing that I had been loved.