Today, my mother taught me how to make doenjang jjigae.
I had asked her to show me, since I’m moving into an apartment-style at school in August and I won’t have a meal plan.
Besides, I’m not sure if a life without jjigae is a life at all.
I sat at the wooden island in our little kitchen as she boiled the broth, added the meat, the vegetables. The doenjang paste.
“I wish I could tell you exact measurements,” she had said rather breezily, “but you know Koreans don’t do that.” So every time she would add a new ingredient, I would rise to hover over her shoulder, trying to commit to memory that for this amount of broth, I should add a spoonful of doenjang about this size. I let every image marinate, every word sink into my brain. I ran through the steps in my head as she spoke, nervous I might forget something one day and make sub-par jjigae for my friends one day.
I remembered that my social anthropology professor, who is Korean, once told me that food can sometimes be a measurement of culture. Of Koreanness. Through my anxiety that I wouldn’t have the right instincts to make a good jjigae, I realized that statement may be a defining factor of my third generation Korean American experience.
Some of the most treasured words I’ve ever heard are: “You eat that? You really are Korean.”
As though Korean taste is inherent. In the blood. If you are Korean, then no matter what language you speak, where you grew up, what you look like, your face will light up at the sight of a steaming bowl of seolleongtang.
In general, I didn’t really grow up questioning my Korean American identity. My mother is 2nd gen and my father 1.5 gen, which means that they had the unique opportunity of more consciously determining my level of Koreanness. Consequently, I grew up firmly rooted in the sacred middle ground between “Korean” and “American”. I unapologetically was Emma Ji-Eun Park, the girl that eats ddukguk for dinner just hours before watching “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”. The girl that loved One Direction before she loved BTS. The girl that loves her first name, but feels sad she never hears the middle one.
But there was always something missing. Like many of my second gen friends, my parent’s English is better than their Korean, so I grew up in an almost entirely English-speaking household. Even my grandmother speaks fluent English. I’ve never been to Korea before– I want to go, but my friends and family want to go back.
I found myself proving my belonging at mealtimes, devouring anything in front of me, feeling pleased with myself every time I heard someone say I eat so well, that I must be Korean. Though I knew that I was Korean, I knew it must not always be apparent to the people around me, and I was glad to have something that seemed to solidify my identity.
Even now, especially now, as a college student learning to become independent, my level of Koreanness feels more like a conscious choice, and it often gets expressed through what I eat. At school, there’s no parents to make sure I eat Korean food, no enforcement of any Korean culture. I chose to take Korean as my language requirement, I speak Konglish with my friends. Though I complain about it, I actually love the feeling of craving Korean food, because I love that I miss it. That I need it.
KoreanAmericanStory.org has taught me that being Korean American isn’t about tangible cultural experiences or skills. But it has also taught me to recognize that parts of me stem from a time I was unaware of that truth.