No more pasta please

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 3:01pm

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Christine Jegarl/Daily

I begged my mom to pack me American food for lunch every day. I wanted perfectly prepared meals with sliced green apples in a brown bag and a cute note on the napkin. Almost every day from elementary school to high school graduation I ate either turkey and Swiss or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I prayed that she didn’t run out of time in the morning and resort to slapping sticky white rice with bulgogi beef into a container because on days like this, I knew I would be eating alone.

In the cafeteria, my peers would crowd around me and point at my main meal of the school day. They would sometimes pick it up and pass it around, bring it up to their faces for inspection, and eventually toss it back to me — calling it smelly and weird. These moments never ended. Even in high school someone glared at my pierogies and yelled across the table, “Ew, what is that? You brought dumplings to school?!”

I dealt with this pain and discomfort by stubbornly convincing myself I didn’t like Korean food. I stopped eating with my family at dinner, instead making my own pasta and taking it up to my room. I didn’t accept any of the homemade dishes my grandma made and let my sister eat it all. I didn’t go out to eat at Korean restaurants, afraid that people would be able to smell the kimchi on my jacket afterwards. Before friends came over, I walked through my kitchen and hid anything Korean in the cabinets for the perfect facade. My disillusioned self believed and desperately hoped that if I just rejected everything Korean, including food, I would one day wake up white and life would be simple and easy.

Then I went to college and started having late night cravings for my mom’s kkori gomtang (oxtail soup). When I was up late studying for an exam, I couldn’t stand the idea of eating even one more microwavable mac and cheese. I missed studying at home, where my mom would come into my room with a plate of Asian pears perfectly skinned, cut and arranged into a circle. I missed my family, a place of belonging and familiar food.

In college, I stopped caring about what I ate in front of other people. As soon as the option of Korean food was gone, I desperately craved it. I started to understand what my parents had meant when they said Korean food had so much more flavor and variety. I realized I had been in on this secret the whole time — the secret concoction of tasty yet healthy food, a composition of ingredients and tastes unique to the Korean people. I explained to friends that Korean food was more than just barbecue — Buddha bowls are a rip off of bibimbop, you can get poke bowls for half the price at the Korean grocery store, and soju has always been extremely popular — just not in America. I had been part of this secret club, but by the time I finally let myself enjoy it, when I could finally breathe, it was too late. I was in college, hundreds of miles away from home and from my mom’s food.

I craved Korean food so much that I started mixing together random ingredients and reminders of my childhood. Hidden on a shelf at Kroger, I found a small carton of gochujang (red chili paste). I mixed that with microwavable sticky white rice and gim (dried seaweed) from Amazon Pantry. I close my eyes and savor the very slight taste of childhood in this pathetic mélange of ingredients. As I stand in the kitchen hoping that the bowl in my hands will turn into something much tastier, I am sad that I can’t have the food of my upbringing, and I am regretful that I rejected it when it was available to me. I am ashamed that I denied my family and my culture. I am also confused as to why I ever thought Doritos tasted better than Korean shrimp crackers.

When I am homesick or stressed, more than anything I want my grandma’s home cooked meals with fresh produce straight from her garden — the truest form of farm to table. I miss the Korean grocery store where the nice employees would give me extra samples of the fish cakes and my dad would let me buy Korean chips against my mom’s rules. Non-Koreans probably don’t know the relief of smelling ramen with fresh scallions and poached egg cooking in the kitchen instead of hot cocoa after playing in the snow. Nights in meant baked yams that were so sweet and delicious they didn’t need marshmallows or any other toppings found in the candy aisle. Nights out meant driving 45 minutes to go to our favorite soondubu jjigae (spicy soft tofu stew) restaurant and laughing for hours on end.

I reminisce about shaved ice with red bean paste and an assortment of toppings after playing in the backyard. Even when I was sweating and overheated, I used to swat my dad’s hand away and insist on spinning the ice shaving machine by myself. Then when we ate buldak (fire chicken), I would grab him for help as I both cried and laughed from the spiciness. My family would coach me through the pain, as learning to handle extremely spicy food is a sign of being a true Korean.

These were the times when no one ridiculed me and made me feel different for what I ate because I was only surrounded by my family. I never had to explain myself to anyone because my family understood me, inside and out. It was only when I started elementary school and opened doors to people outside my home that I suddenly felt vulnerable and abnormal. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong for people to outcast me, and dealt with the frustration and loneliness in a futile way.

When I left home and got sick for the first time in college, I fully realized that no one would ever love me as much my family does. While I was doubled over, they weren’t there to bring homemade rice porridge to my bed. Back home, someone used to always bring it on a tray, set with a glass of water and the exact amount of medicine I would need for the rest of the night. As the years went by and the decorations on my walls changed from Jonas Brothers posters to a Michigan flag, my family was always the first to take care of me. The rice porridge was all I wanted when I was sick and that’s still all I want.

For now, I have random Korean snacks and recipes I try to compile, even with no Korean grocery store nearby, and I am trying to make up for lost time and memories by learning, asking and participating every time I am home.

Now when I go home, my mom picks me up from the airport and we go straight to a Korean restaurant. I sit with her and my grandma, the three generations making dumplings together. I drive to my grandma’s house and ask her about her childhood in Korea as I eat the japchae (glass noodles) she makes for me. I am trying to watch Korean movies without subtitles so I can re-learn the language. I am still trying to apologize for the times I was too embarrassed of my Asian identity to walk next to my parents in public.

I am apologizing for a lot, but I am also trying to learn. The one thing I know for sure is that I will never again say no to the food my family offers me. To reject their food is to reject their love, and I have spent too many years already selfishly doing just that.