"Korean Soul Food" by John Hansen
I awoke to an overbearing smell of hot sauce. It was that time again. The time I could not invite anyone over to my home, knowing they would simply not understand. I could hear dishes clanging against each other, and the kitchen faucet's steady stream.
I got up, walked over to one of the bar stools, and watched as my mother prepared the kimchee. She smiled at me when she noticed I had taken a seat without saying a word. I didn't want to interrupt her concentration while she prepared the common Korean dish, but the smile on her face made me want to help her through this grueling process—adding spices, mixing, lifting heavy pieces of cabbage to the rugged cutting board.
I could never conjure up the guts to help, though. At sixteen, I was a neat freak, and the process of making kimchee was a messy one, probably giving someone with OCD a nervous breakdown. I could see my mother struggling with her arthritis at times, pausing to rub her hands or fingers after combining the green onions and chili powder.
Communication between middle-aged Korean women usually takes place in the kitchen, sitting at a small table with a variety of colorful bowls and lids used to contain steaming white rice, fish, and most importantly, kimchee. The discussions are robust and raucous to the impassionate observer.
Every other Saturday a group of these women invaded our home. "Ah… John Boy, you so cute… where's Mom?" "John, you big now, grow so much." I walked them into the kitchen and the women began conversing in Korean, which I didn't understand. I did not want to be asked if I would try the kimchee my mother prepared the previous night. I longed to get away, away from the broken English, the freedom they took from me in my own home. I kept a great distance when they began to eat; I couldn't bear to watch. Bits of food would be seen while they talked with their mouths full. When I grew tired of looking at the Kobe Bryant poster on my wall, and the MLB baseball logo on my bedspread, I made a brief appearance in the kitchen.
The community meal was the center of attention, and the place where interchanges took place. I usually heard the women from my room, even though it was on the other side of our gray ranch style house. It might seem like yelling to American people, but it is perfectly natural for Korean women to raise their voices in excitement in times of fellowship. At times, the piercing voices would cease, and a breakout of loud laughter would follow. It was contagious. If I had friends over during one of these visits, I always studied their reactions. Most cringed. After a moment, I usually saw them gaze confusingly back at me, their curious, wandering eyes looking for guidance and comfort. I would tell them that this was normal and there was nothing to worry about.
During the meal, they conversed around intricate bowls and jars decorated with bright patterns and whitish oriental writing, none of which I could make out. Sometimes the food in these containers looked and smelled nauseating. Brown mush, reddish and yellow sauces, fish with eyes looking back at me. I wanted to scream to my mother, "Why can't you eat regular food, American food, like other moms?" None of my friends' mothers ate strange shaped and odd smelling foods on a constant basis. Why did I have to deal with it? Of course, I never told her this.
When you first encounter the smell of kimchee you will be startled. You may find yourself trying not to sneeze from all the foreign spices you just inhaled. A salty but potent smell will encapsulate your senses. I think I adapted to the scent of kimchee at birth. The smell of it was never offensive to me, and was an integral part of our culture—something I have come to learn over the years. The vibrant red pepper, garlic, ginger, and green onions mixed with salted cabbage had to be expertly prepared in large containers. Kimchee, cut in fine pieces or cubes, is usually eaten with others. "That is the Korean custom, and always has been, John." The hot spices in its red sauce become part of your connection. The kimchee serves as a reminder that your mother and her kitchen come together as one.
These gave character to an otherwise mundane home in Iowa. Most of my friends' homes contained the same decorations. The various craft ornaments, wallpaper, and furniture made everyone's home seem alike. My house was no exception but for a few things in the kitchen. A Korean calendar hung unnoticed on one of the white walls. In the corner, a white rice cooker sat next to the stove. Sometimes, if my friends came at the right time, they could see a steady stream of steam oozing out of the top of the odd contraption, like the eerie fog in a horror movie.
Apart from the smell, the taste for kimchee did not come naturally for me. At age seven or eight, my initial reaction to it was utter disgust.
"I don't want to, ugh no, get it away from me."
"Just please try it John, just one time, come on."
"I hate this, I hate being Korean."
There were many small arguments such as this during my adolescent years. I usually cried, and gave my mother hell every time I saw her pick up some kimchee and rice with her silver chopsticks, holding her hand underneath to guide it to my tightly closed mouth. A silent rage filled the room. The kimchee was too hot, too sour, and the pervasive garlic imbedded in my tongue. Tenderly, my mother tried to coax the cabbage on my palate, but it became clear to her that I was thoroughly westernized at a very young age.
Though my family always ate together at the dinner table, we would not share the same kinds of food. My dad, an Anglo-American, eats only a select variety of Korean dishes. However, kimchee is something he enjoys immensely. On some days, my mother would have to stand a bit longer on her feet to cook two meals—one for my father and I, and the other for herself. The stove had more than two pans simmering on it at a time, and the oven was always on. The grimace on my mother's face made me feel guilty for putting her through this extra work. She did eat American, it's just that she enjoyed her native cuisine; it was healthier, and she couldn't just give up on her heritage.
Sometimes during dinner, my mother would put random pieces of Korean food on my plate. It looked very odd sitting next to a piece of chicken or steak. As a child, I was a good sport and tried most things; however, I vowed never to try kimchee. Some kind of natural force (or my own stubbornness) was holding me back. She was neither discouraged nor distraught by my aversion. She smiled and turned to her own meal.
At thirteen, I made a concerted effort to try this dish that took her so long to prepare. The taste was unbearable. The spiciness was overpowering, and the texture was coarse and unmanageable. A gagging sensation started at the back of my throat, and made me spit a half-chewed piece of cabbage onto my white dinner plate. The sauce splattered in every direction, painting my dish with tiny drops of red liquid.
During the next couple of years, if I ever saw kimchee on my plate, I would lock myself in my room and not come out until my mother promised I would not have to eat it. But then, at sixteen, a maturity overtook me. The day after waking to my mother working diligently in the preparation, I saw her sharing the meal with her friends in the late afternoon, and a strange sort of awareness set in. I felt ashamed of what I had put her through. I realized that I was guilty of treating my mother with a stern harshness for a foolish reason. The relationship between me, my mother, and her food needed to be resolved.
This time, there were absolutely no surprises. My mother and her friends were not taken aback by my craving for kimchee. They seemed to expect it. I could see the smirks on their faces. It had been nine long years, and for some unknown reason, I was drawn to the scorching vegetable dish. I picked up a pair of wooden chopsticks from the table and pinched a cube, holding it over the blue dish until the red sauce stopped dripping. I slowly brought it to my mouth, knowing I could not back out and disappoint my mother even more. I began to chew the crunchy, zesty, and cold kimchee, and felt the cabbage's soft smooth texture slide all the way to my stomach. I glanced at my mother. She had a proud smirk on her face. Somehow my mother knew that my soul would eventually find itself in the cabbage and small talk that brought life to the kimchee. I smiled and put the chopsticks down, only to begin sneezing seconds later.
Copyright © John Hansen 2007.
Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2007.