Culture through kimchi

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 11:59pm

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Courtesy of Jakub Kapusnak via Unsplash

I’ve always been insecure about my Korean-ness, or to be more specific, my lack thereof. For the longest time, I’ve felt like I had become too Americanized, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. So many of my friends would joke and say “Natalie, you’re so white” or make comments about how I was a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). I internalized these things and, pretty much, believed them. I had grown up in America with the classic sugary cereals and Lunchables — when my mom would give in to my plead — just like the other white kids.

 

In addition, my lack of knowledge regarding the Korean language and culture didn’t really help my waning sense of Koreanness. I was so insecure in my identity as a Korean that I essentially gave up on learning anything about Korean culture and assimilated. I swapped out Korean Saturday school for Saturday swim lessons and made the switch from Korean lunches with rice and banchan to the more typical American ones that fit between two slices of bread. But the one thing that constantly confirmed my roots was kimchi.

 

Except, I don’t like eating it.

 

This surprises almost everyone because people assume that all Korean people must love kimchi, mostly since it’s usually the only Korean dish that they know. So, while my distaste for kimchi may be an argument for my lack of Koreanness, I try and make up for it by making it.

 

Ever since I was little, I remember going on grocery store trips with my mom to the Han-Mi Mart to get ingredients for kimchi: rice powder, salted shrimp, garlic, gochujang, red pepper flakes, soy sauce and a massive box filled with heads of napa cabbage. After we returned from the Han-Mi Mart, she would immediately start cutting the gargantuan heads of cabbage into quarters with a large knife and throw them into a salt bath. Once the cabbages were soaking, she would start the pepper paste with a mixture of rice powder and water in a large pot on the stove. She would then dump a whole bag of dried red pepper into the pot along with crushed garlic and a container of salted shrimp. I remember her standing in front of that massive pot stirring and stirring until it was finally ready.

 

My sisters, my mom and I would sit on the floor of the kitchen with large, shiny metal bowls in front of us. We carefully brushed the pepper paste across the leaves, making sure that every part was blanketed. Once we finished a head, we would place it into a glass jar and move onto the next one. This took hours, as we would make kimchi in bulk. By the end, it was always 10 or 11 at night. Our backs would be aching, and our legs would have fallen asleep from sitting on the floor for so long. But, we would always end at the kitchen table, tasting the scraps of kimchi that fell off of the leaves with some rice rewarding ourselves for the laborious task we completed. It was this long arduous process that connected me to my heritage, for I was participating in a process that my ancestors did. They probably sat on the ground slathering pepper paste onto leaves of cabbage and felt the same back pain that I did. While our glass jars of kimchi go into the fridge, theirs went in stone jars that were to be buried in the ground. Kimchi helps to ground me in my culture, and because of that I would take the back pain any day.

 

So, while I may be different from a Korean person who grew up in Korea, my Koreanness isn’t compromised by also being American. I inherited my Koreanness and I learned my Americanness. I am both. I love that I get to savor my mom’s homemade Korean food, especially the stewed kimchi soup that she makes with the aged pungent kimchi. What I love even more is that I get to learn her recipes and make them for my own friends and family to continue a Korean tradition, for it is all about sharing. But, I also get to enjoy quintessential American foods like french fries and malt shakes, so I truly get the best of both worlds. And, when those worlds collide, beautiful things happen like kimchi fries: a delicious manifestation of my cultures coming together and creating something new. Something like me.