The Kimchi Effect

“What’s your middle initial?” adults would demand as they filled out my forms.

“Y,” I would mutter, staring sullenly at the counter I was too short to see over.

A blank stare, and then a scolding: “You are an impertinent child. Where is your mother?”

As a middle child of the 60s growing up in rural Maine, a state that is still 96% full of 100% Caucasians, I would get this look a lot from librarians that couldn’t figure out what to do with a five-year-old with a reading list. These books were written in the language of Sunday school, because my Korean immigrant father was the pastor of a Methodist church with an all-white congregation, and it was important to blend in by speaking excellent English. As far as my parents were concerned, language held the key to successful assimilation in this new place called New England. Every Sunday, good Yankees and a few French-Canadians filled the hard Puritan pews, wherefore my second language was Québecois (used to chat with the old people during Fellowship), followed by holiday Latin from the Cokesbury hymnal. My two siblings quickly learned to keep their mouths stuffed with local treats, because everybody knows that it’s rude to sing with your mouth full. They were not frightened by exotic dishes such as franks n’ beans, chop suey, and whoopee pies. Me, I stuck with wholesome sticks of pure, delicious, cow-milked, hand-churned, I made-it-myself butter – and kept right on talking. Loudly.

I was a human megaphone, blurting everything that crossed my mind. WHY IS YOUR HAIR BLUE? WHY DO YOU SMELL LIKE BEER? WHY ARE YOU TAKING MONEY FROM THE COLLECTION PLATE? When other little kids would stick their index fingers on their sides of their eyes and pull back, giving them “slanty Asian eyes,” I would bellow, “WHY ARE YOU MAKING THAT FACE?” without a hint of self-consciousness. As I waited, full of naïve curiosity and grape juice, those index fingers turned into pantomimed guns pointing at their own heads. Uh oh. With eyes wide and chins pulled, they’d watch in mounting horror as bearded fathers in Sunday camo lurched forward with dark expressions promising that Spankings Shall Be Administered, Thus Sayeth the Lord (you little shit.) BOOM! Suddenly their suicidal cheeks would turn red with the knowledge that tomorrow morning was Monday school, and they’d spend the rest of the day with the Kindergarten teacher – whose actual name was Bunny Chase – asking sweetly if they needed to go potty because of all the squirming in their seats. The ching-chong-chinese scenario almost never happened twice. When it did, I punched them. If the nose I broke belonged to a boy, we’d wind up friends. If it was a girl, I’d have to tell her that nose plasters were super pretty and then make her my best friend. I ended up being a remarkably popular nerd.

Thus I learned that church politics didn’t work on the playground. To survive American public school required a right hook and certain degree of diplomacy, whereas church merely required judicious applications of violence. Naturally, I thrived in the kitchen, because it’s the only place left in the modern world where nice girls can wave a knife around without being arrested. Also, my mother couldn’t cook. Every year, she repeated the Thanksgiving ritual called My First Burned Turkey, served with a congealed side of green bean casserole using the French’s onion recipe. We’d wind up eating Cheerios in homemade soymilk using beans mailed to us from her mother. In a word: blech. My halmoni would also send us regular installments of toilet paper, underwear, and kimchi. If you think about it, her packing list makes perfect sense, for these three items are closely related to the regular consumption of indigestible food. You don’t make it through the Korean War with nine young children by refusing to accept that certain realities are true. These realities include the following:

Sex makes babies.

Babies make poop.

So do cats. This does not mean that cats are babies.

Koreans have large appetites.

Beautiful Korean women fart.

Kimchi is both the reason for and the solution to this problem.

Predictably, I identified with the kimchi because it too is concentrated, weird, and turns into a stealth weapon in a pinch. Once, I used kimchi to get rid of an ambitious fellow who’d risen from his own seat and plopped down next to me on a long flight back to the US from France. He was clearly hoping to fulfill some geisha-girl fantasy that, alas, mixed badly with my fear of flying and unladylike tendencies. Desperate for a nap, I finally reached down, loosened the snack jar of kimchi in my purse, and watched smugly as his American eyes began to water from powerful aromas wafting up from underneath my seat. Grinning evilly, I counted down: five, four, three, two, and…success! With a jerk, he stood up and slunk away, convinced I had just unleashed a fart so lush and capacious that he’d never be able to match it. His ego just couldn’t take the competition from a girl. (And where did I find that jar of kimchi in Paris, you may ask? Ah, that is another story…)

So what if kimchi smells? It also wonderful for the digestion, giving you the kind of guts that can take just about anything. After decades of eating the stuff, things that made me whiny and miserable in childhood now seem like gifts, just as growing up with insults gave me a thick skin that –hey ho! – doesn’t wrinkle. Until I left Maine for boarding school, my only exposure to “ethnic diversity” came from the deck of the Starship Enterprise. No wonder I decided to boldly go where no man has gone before, and started poking into faraway places all by myself as soon as I could. Along the way, I learned the value of punctuation, “Don’t Eat Grandma!” being the example everyone loves to repeat. (Where oh where to place that comma?) Eventually, it dawned on me that this lesson applied directly to my old childhood routine, for “Y?” said with a smile and a question mark changes everything: it gets rid of that pesky period and whisks expectations away along with it. Since I can’t stop and smell the roses because they make me sneeze, why not huff the homemade kimchi and whack up a wild turkey while I’m at it?

“Korean people,” my Yankee neighbor mutters.

Huzzah! It only took forty years, but finally, I’m not a Chinese coolie or a Japanese geisha, but a properly Korean ajuma. Now that’s progress.

deerhuntinginparis-sm1Paula Young Lee is a faculty Fellow at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the author of several books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee; on facebook at “Paula Lee, Author”; or look for her in-progress website and blog, WeedCuisine.com.