My Korean American Story: Ko Im
My relationship with a certain pickled cabbage, you could say, is complicated. Kimchee became symbolic of my Korean identity, for obvious reasons and otherwise. But my personal journey mirrors the evolution of the Korean American experience overall, too.
My father was on a plane to where America’s day begins, the day my life was about to start in 1986. I’m told my mother was in labor at a Seoul hospital, while appa was en route to Guam. He once told me I am synonymous to his leap of faith that we could have a better life away from my place of birth. Of course, I’d still grow up eating kimchee on an island, two thousand miles southeast of motherland.
Kimchee is made via fermentation – much like beer, sauerkraut and yogurt. My maternal grandmother in the small, southern city of Jinju used to store kimchee in those traditional jars. Sometimes, we would dare to sneak in kimchee through our travel bags through airports on our visits back and forth from Korea – but the security guards knew. They could smell it, and in the nineties, they just let us pass. I mean, it wasn’t going to pose any real danger!
Do you remember when some crazy Koreans claimed they didn’t get the SARS virus back in 2003 because their immune systems were hardened by kimchee?
You can even learn to make your own kimchi, a la blog recipe. Nowadays, everyone’s got a H-mart around the corner and a kimchee fridge in the kitchen. Most people who live in cities have likely seen the likes of the reddened, garlicky vegetable. They say it’s good to have a healthy dose of chili pepper in your system, much like it’s good to watch scary movies to let out a scream. For me, it served as a lesson I would never forget.
For the most part, I don’t remember exactly what I ate for lunch at school when I was little. I would take my quarters to the snack shop for a popsicle during recess on a hot day (it was almost always hot) at my private school on Guam. My childhood on the island was filled with lunar new year celebrations, barbeques called fiestas and chicken wings by the pool – a little bit of everything, and looking back, I loved it. And as a foodie (or a fat fourth grader) I’ve had many a good meals, yet one memory sticks out like a sore thumb – a particular lunch period in third grade.
It was ticking closer and closer to 12:15 p.m. My teacher asked, “what’s that smell?”
I knew in my heart – my quietly but quickly pounding heart – it was the pungent kimchee my mom had packed for me inside my lunch pail. Why, as guilt and shame creeped into my consciousness, I thought, couldn’t she have given me a baloney sandwich with carrots instead? When it came time to let out the Pandora’s box and open the kimchee compartment, my teacher either asked or told (it’s hard to remember since I may have tried to block this memory) to go outside the classroom and eat on the bench instead. I was stunned, but being the good tiger daughter, I obeyed. Amazingly, a few of my classmates felt sorry and joined me. It wasn’t until I came home and told my mom the story did I realize at a young age what audacity the teacher had! My angered father went to the principal of what’s actually quite a diverse school and so forth came an apology.
Not a stellar student before, I made straight A’s that year. My parents started believing in me, too – and so the dreams of becoming a fashion designer were gone. Lawyer? Doctor? Well since then, I became an honor student and graduated from not one, but two, Ivy League universities. Something to make my parents doubly proud! But, I think I found a part of my voice that third grade day. Sure, I didn’t speak up to my teacher (I was meek or respectful, no doubt) but discovered how much words could mean to a person, how much they could make a difference in someone’s life. So, I also become a leader throughout my young life. A president of one club or another, a writer for the local newspaper – and now, a local broadcaster who speaks up at 6 p.m. on the tube, sometimes for those who might not have a voice. I hope that my ability to empathize with others make me a good journalist.
Like the smell of kimchee though, the embarrassment from that day lingers. But again, I think that’s when I learned that I could stand for something and became acutely aware of my culture, upbringing and heritage. Sure in high school I would only eat kimchee in the morning then ask my mom to bring Burger King for lunch but I still crave it – no red pepper flakes, tabasco or ginger can replace that red, fermented vegetable. They say kimchee is healthy for you, like doses of humility and life experiences. Over the years, I developed a bold personality after that incident. I’ll have kimchee with my pizza, so what?!
Now kimchee has become an ingredient in Asian American fusion cuisine. From what I ate growing up – kimchee soup with spam, kimchee fried rice with spam (the obsession with spam will have to hold for another story) to what’s nouveau now – kimchee tartar sauce. But change is interesting, mixing things up can be good. And Koreans, as well as kimchee in America, is here to stay, in one form or another.
Ko Im is a boradcast journalist who lives in Salisbury, MD.