Never in a million years did Marja Vongerichten think she would become the unofficial ambassador of Korean food to the United States. Her story is well known at this point. Born to a Korean mother and an African-American serviceman father, at the age of three she was adopted by an African-American couple, Colonel James Allen and Margo McKay. She credits her parents and their meticulous record keeping, for being able to easily find her Korean birth mother again. Shortly after she was adopted, her father, Colonel James Allen searched out Marja’s birth mother in order to gain more background information for Marja. Mr. Allen found Marja’s birth mother by going door to door in a small town in Korea. When he finally located her, Marja’s birth mother was disappointed to learn that Col. Allen was not there to return her daughter. By that point, Marja’s birth mother wanted her daughter back. Despite it being too late for her to reclaim her daughter, Marja’s birth mother still sat with Col. Allen and gave him an enormous amount of information for and about Marja. It was this knowledge that later allowed Marja to easily find her birth mother when she was nineteen.
Ironically, when Marja did find her birth mother, she was living in Brooklyn, New York. Not far from where Marja had traveled many times for acting auditions throughout her youth. For the reunion with her daughter, Sooki, Marja’s Korean mother, made her a traditional Korean meal of dishes she loved as a child. It was the first time Marja had had a Korean meal since leaving Korea when she was three. Fittingly, it was a homecoming for her. Her love for the tastes of her birth country was re-ignited. Much to Marja’s surprise, the reunion with her birth mother was also a baptism, of sorts. After her home cooked meal with her birth mother, Marja’s mother drew a bath and proceeded to scrub Marja from head to toe. Motherhood regained.
While growing up in Northern Virginia, not once did Marja see another Black and Korean person. (Other than her brother, who was also adopted and is African-American and Korean.) Marja considers herself fortunate to have been adopted by an African-American couple. Unlike the typical Korean adopted person who was raised by a white family, Marja did not grow up with racial identity issues. She did not wish to be something other than what she was, as many Korean adopted people experience. Instead, because she resembled her parents, she “identified strongly with the Black community. I never felt like I was…missing, even my Korean culture, so much.” Though …”there is also racism within the African-American community,” that she experienced. Until high school, “…I went to all white schools and I certainly didn’t look like anybody else which was a little tough but in terms of at home, no, I did not have any identity issues.”
The summer before she was to start high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington D.C., she was given an assignment to read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Attending Duke Ellington gave Marja her first exposure to an all Black community and it “did something for me. I felt really proud and really connected to this culture, which again, was represented in my family but not in my day-to-day community where I grew up.” At the school, she had her first constant exposure to positive imagery of the Black community, “I really embraced Black power and felt very proud…I just embraced it wholeheartedly and I loved being there.”
A happy side effect to finding her Korean mom, for Marja, was also discovering the Korean part of her identity. When asked how she describes herself now she said, “I say I am Korean and Black and I feel equally both. People have asked me how I can be both and I tell them, it’s not about blood percentages, it’s about how you feel in your heart and I feel equally connected to both. It’s hard for people to grasp this sometimes.”
Chloe, Marja’s adorable eleven year old daughter with husband Jean-Georges, who is Alsatian, Korean and Black asked one time whether she and her mom were African. Marja explained to her daughter that, “…yes, mommy has ancestors on her side that are from Africa, that’s why we are called African-American but if anybody asks you what you are, just tell them that you are the world.”
By the time Marja gave birth to her daughter, she had already found her Korean birth mother. Yet, as many of us know, becoming a mother can have quite a profound affect. Marja’s honesty in talking about her experience as a new mom was refreshing. To her surprise, Marja went through a period after having her daughter where she totally rejected her Korean mother. “I didn’t want her moving in and swooping in and taking my time [as a new mom] to rebuild what she had lost. I was really afraid of that and I just was like – ‘I don’t need any help!’ Then, of course, after three months of being deliriously tired… I wanted her help. I think having a daughter brought up and out resentments that I didn’t even know that I had. My parents had always told me [the typical adoptive parent rationalization for being given up] that your mother did the most selfless thing she could have done and she did it because she loved you.”
After Chloe was born though, Marja really questioned whether or not it was, in fact, selfless of her Korean mom to give her up. She would look at Chloe and feel the visceral bond of mother and daughter and wonder why her mother didn’t do whatever she had to do in order to keep her. This questioning all came to a head one afternoon when Marja had a blow out fight with her mother because she did not like the fact that her Korean mother would criticize the way in which she took care of Chloe. “I remember we had the biggest fight ever, I exploded, I was like how dare you criticize me when you weren’t even there?! I really just turned that knife in her heart but I was so frustrated because I thought, she is the last person who could ever criticize me. It was this ego thing.” Marja and her mother made up quickly after the fight. “That’s the thing about your biological mom, I’m not saying there is conditional love with your adoptive parents but I think as adoptees we always feel a sense of having to make everyone happy because there is this fear in the back of your mind of abandonment…So, I grew up a people pleaser and I knew with my birth mom I could basically tell her I hate her… and she would still be there. It’s just this innate kind of bond.”
When she thinks about this now, Marja knows that she is extremely fortunate to be able to give her daughter everything. She is more compassionate in thinking what it might be like to instead be a poor, single mother. And she is grateful that she will never know the awful decision of whether or not to give up a baby in the hope that someone else could provide a good education, regular food and new clothing for her.
Marja also recognizes that had she been brought up by her Korean mother, she probably would have resented her. Her American mother is a well educated civil rights attorney and she has always been a strong, independent role model for Marja. Her Korean mother would not have been such a role model. Being close to both of her mothers now gives Marja the best of both worlds. As may be true for many adoptees who become mothers (definitely for the writer of this Profile!), having Chloe, Marja said, “…has been healing…motherhood has a reconciling power to it.”
In addition to being the star of the hit PBS documentary, “Kimchi Chronicles” and being passionate about cooking, Marja also runs her own interior design firm, MV Designs, LLC. She has plans to design a furniture line that mixes the Korean aesthetic with a modern sensibility. Who better to design such a line than Marja? Since one could easily describe her in the same way. It is no surprise that her favorite clothing designer is Helmut Lang – polished and modern, again, just like Marja. (I was coveting her gorgeous, wrap sweater during the interview!) (And ladies, for no other reason than the fact that Marja has gorgeous, luminescent skin and the fact that I am an admitted product junkie – I asked her what her favorite skincare line is and she said Amore Pacific. Natch!)
Marja is also a spokesperson for Children Inc., an organization that she highly admires and through which she personally sponsors six Korean children living in orphanages. Additionally, last summer she personally hosted a group of mixed race Korean kids through the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation. In the future, she plans on continuing and expanding her philanthropic work. Just don’t call it philanthropy because she humbly believes it is merely doing what she can and should be doing to help make the world a better place.
Marja Vongerichten is the host of PBS series, Kimchi Chronicles, a program about Korean cuisine and culture, that is equal parts food and travelogue. She is also the author of the Kimchi Chronicles companion cookbook, which was just released this year. She lives in New York City with her husband, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and their daughter, Chloe. follow Marja on Fb and on twitter @marja_kimchi