What makes Myong Feiner identify herself as Korean?
What makes Myong Feiner identify herself as Korean? I posed this question to Myong Feiner, owner and chef of Myong Gourmet, a Pan-Asian restaurant that recently opened in Mt. Kisco, New York. Myong Feiner, simply known as Myong, identifies first as Korean, and second as Jewish.
Cheigh Myong Ho started out as one of six children in a very small rural town on the way south toward Busan in South Korea. Myong’s family, like so many Korean families, were split during the Korean War. Her father was a South Korean but her mother hailed from the North. Myong’s mother decided to stay in South Korea with her husband and her two children, while the rest of the family moved back to North Korea. Unfortunately, once separated, Myong’s extended family was lost to future contact or communication.
In 1977, at the age of seventeen, Myong decided to pursue the American dream. Myong’s older sister by eleven years, sponsored Myong to come to the United States where she was living with her American husband. Although Myong’s sister was able to look after her to some degree, Myong worked hard to pay for college at Pace University by working as a short order cook at a diner. In recalling that time in her life, Myong reminisced that she came on her own at seventeen, was able to pay for her own education, and by the end still had enough money to buy a new car.
As the only Korean person that most Americans had ever seen, Myong had to deal with the racism of the times. In order to deal with the great language barrier, Myong walked around with an English dictionary which she became her bible. She started her studies at Pace in pre-med courses, but after realizing that the Latin skills needed for medical school were too difficult to learn and master while learning English, she changed her focus to Scientific Illustrations. Myong felt that was a good fit for someone who was detail oriented and technical.
After graduation, rather than starting her job in her field, Myong worked as an Art Director for a newspaper in Scarsdale, NY. In keeping with her creative side, she moved into different fields throughout her career, designing men’s clothing and small leather goods, as well as Interior Decorating. In 1998 she got married, and soon afterwards she converted to Judaism, changed her last name to Feiner, moved to Mt. Kisco and had two children, both of whom were raised in the Jewish faith.
Living in Mt. Kisco, Myong became very involved in the Jewish community. Although she was the only Korean, she found a community in the local synagogue that she attended faithfully for about twenty years. As she raised her family in Mt. Kisco, she was always cooking for family and friends. Everyone loved her food, and Myong realized she had a talent for cooking.
Ironically, Myong has never used cookbooks and the only cookbook she owns is a copy of the “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker that her mother-in-law gave her years ago. Myong has a unique talent for being able to taste dishes and replicating the food on her own. It seems she inherited her talents from her mother, a very creative person who could draw, paint, knit, make clothes and cook. Her mother would make Kimchi that was not only delicious, but also very innovative.
Myong put her talents to use by teaching community members and friends how to cook. She progressed to making sauces, salad dressings, and vinegars to help out at school fundraisers. Her homemade condiments sold very well and Myong decided to open a small concession stand located in a gym. Myong freely admits that, in the beginning, she had no idea what she was doing but thought she would sell simple things like sandwiches and muffins. After a year she started to make different kinds of foods and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Her customers started making requests for foods with Myong’s own spin on things and she would go out of her way to fulfill these requests. The foods were a hit but Myong found that running a concession stand by herself was too much work. She decided that it was time to have a real business and make some real money from her culinary gift.
Myong worked with investing partners to open a small café and catering business. She did very well for five years. Unfortunately, the partnership dissolved. This is what led Myong to strike out and open Myong Gourmet, her current restaurant. The restaurant is known for serving eclectic, yet healthy and delicious food. Myong comes in early to start cooking for her deli selection and she has a chef who takes over to cook the dinner menu. Although she still works very long hours (she only sleeps about 4 hours a day), Myong is happy with her successful growing business. She enjoys being an established presence in the community both professionally and personally.
Within her community and friends, Myong thinks that many of the folks would identify her as Jewish even if she sees herself as Korean first. Her two children have stated that they are very proud to be Jewish, but understand that they are also Korean. Myong feels that her Korean identity is still strong, not because of language or growing up surrounded by the culture, but because of traditions. To her, traditions are what identify someone as Korean.
For a person who does not have Korean friends and has raised herself in the Jewish American culture, Myong was still able to keep some of the Korean traditions. During her wedding, she wore her traditional Hanbok. There are pictures of her children on their 100th day birthday and the Dol table was set for her kid’s first birthdays. Every New Year, her family celebrates with traditional Korean food and the bowing ceremony for the family. Most importantly, she continues to share her memories of growing up in Korea with her children.
Like most parents, she has stories of growing up in more difficult times. In the small rural town in Korea where there was no electricity and plumbing, she would have to walk for an hour to get to school. Myong has memories of secretly learning to ride a bicycle, although girls were not allowed to ride. She also remembers finding out how difficult it was to really plant the rice in the rice paddies. Although Myong has only been able to return to Korea once, she still feels her Korean connections through family members who come to visit, and from the siblings who live nearby. Her Korean family, the work ethics she learned from her parents, the traditions she keeps, and the memories she holds are what make Myong Korean.
Myong Feiner is the owner/chef of Myong Gourmet Restaurant in Mt. Kisco, New York. You can find out more about Myong’s new restaurant here: http://www.myonggourmet.com/