김치 Kimchi

Design by Helen Huynh

엄마, (1)

Every day for eleven years, you packed lunch for me. I used to sit in that crowded elementary school lunchroom, elbow to elbow with kids carrying Disney-themed lunch boxes and my own stackable, mint-green containers in tow—so eager to devour your newest creation. 불고기 (2), 잡채 (3), 볶음밥 (4), staples of Korean cuisine and my childhood. I remember opening each container: one with the main dish, one with rice, and one with the side dish of your choice. My eyes would widen with joy as the delicious treats revealed themselves. Looking at the PB&Js and leftover pizza slices of those around me, I secretly thought that I had the best lunch and therefore the best Mom. And in my naïveté, I assumed others thought the same—that my lunches were delicious, their jealousy raging quietly inside them as they nibbled on their cold-cut sandwiches. 

But then Topher came along.

“Ew, what’s that smell?” His face twisted in disgust, trying to find the source of his annoyance. He rose, bobbing his head towards each of our meals. At last, he found the culprit: my lunch. More specifically, my 김치 (5). Eyes wide, I looked towards my little containers and curled into myself, trying desperately to disappear. 

I remember you telling me the story of 김치. How it was an equalizing food, the poor and the noble both enjoying the dish. How it sustained our ancestors in the most trying times, its fermentation ensuring its longevity. And I have such fond memories of 김치. I remember how every two weeks, you would hoist that huge red tub, big enough to fit three small children, onto the kitchen countertop at our restaurant. I remember you and 아빠 (6) slicing up countless heads of Napa cabbage, tossing them into the tub with grained salt, 고추장 (7), and other spices. I remember the arch of your back as you perilously leaned over and mixed the ingredients with your calloused hands, your body silently agonizing in the act. I remember holding down plastic garbage bags over one of our many used soy sauce buckets as you dumped fistfuls in, setting it aside to let the 김치 ferment, age, bask in its glory. 

But there I was, listening to Topher admonish the fruit of your labor, our cultural staple. 

When you picked me up from school that day, you immediately noticed my tear-stained cheeks. “무슨일이야? What happened,” you asked with urgency. Through sniffles and snot, I recounted the story: Topher, 김치, and all. You listened, one hand cupped over my trembling ones, another caressing the small of my back. You said that it was okay, that he was wrong and that 김치 was entirely delicious, that he just didn’t know.

But then 김치 disappeared from my lunches.

There were other changes, too—not super dramatic, just enough to prevent any further incidents. 불고기, 잡채, 볶음밥 came in new, pink, and airtight containers. Side dishes consisted of “low-odor” substances like soybean sprouts, and you even threw in the occasional cold-cut sandwich (the saddest days for my appetite, but the easiest days for fitting in). I hadn’t asked for any of these changes. You saw my tear-filled eyes that day and knew something had to be sacrificed. Back then I thought little of this, and I even appreciated the thought you put into fitting the other kids’ palettes. 

Flash forward eleven years. You’ve just shipped me two gallon bags of 김치 and my suitemates and I can’t get enough. Every time I tell someone I’m Korean, they talk about Korean BBQ and the culturally-seasoned will even mention 김치 and its “raw, rich flavor.” The more passionate ones exclaim, “Do you listen to K-Pop,” “I love Jimin, from BTS,” or “I’m so excited for the US remake of Crash Landing on You.”

I can’t help but think that it’s so weird. Don’t you? Just a few years ago, we were hiding who we were, trying to assimilate and mix into the white-washed melting pot of American conformity. Now, our culture is celebrated—but only the parts that are palatable to white culture, its shiny surface cleansed of decades centuries of discrimination.

엄마, for so long, I hated who I was. I wanted to be white. To be “normal.” To “fit in.” And it wasn’t just Topher. It was the people who I saw on TV, the beauty standards I bore no resemblance to. Being white meant being popular, smart, rich, happy. Being me condemned me to wanting all those things but never actually being those things. But here I am, surrounded by white people who seek to engage with our culture. Haven’t you heard? It’s the newest, hottest, exotic thing people want to get their hands on. 

I feel angry. Not towards Topher nor any particular Koreaboo who obsesses over K-Pop, K-Dramas, K-BBQ. My anger is directed towards the greater, systemic trends that have made our culture a “fad” while leaving the actual Koreans—you—behind. Sure, some say that appropriation leads to appreciation—but appreciation of what? Music, TV shows, food? If anything, it only manages to conceal centuries of oppression, racism, xenophobia, under the thin veil of a materialistic “appreciation.” Because while they have fun enjoying the beautiful fruits of our cultural labor, your own labor remains under-valued. Our mother tongue—the very words they sing—ridiculed. Our people abused on the streets. 

I know what you’re going to say. They just want to enjoy our culture. They just don’t know that their innocent enjoyment is, in fact, harmful. The individual cannot be blamed for a history’s worth of harm. And when I think of Topher, I see what you mean. He was eight years old and didn’t know better. He did not mean to hurt me, even if he did. In the time that has passed, I hope that he has learned, that he has tasted 김치 and has learned to appreciate its rich aroma. I hope people continue to embrace K-Pop, K-Dramas, and K-BBQ with open eyes, while refusing to pay blindness to the disparities between the appreciation of our culture and the mistreatment of our people. And I will always eat my 김치 and I will think of you, 엄마.

사랑해, (8)
김나라 (9)

(1)  Pronounced “umma,” Mom
(2)  Pronounced “bulgogi,” literally “fire meat,” thinly sliced marinated beef
(3) Pronounced “japchae,” stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables
(4) Pronounced “bokkeum-bap,” fried rice
(5) Pronounced “kimchi,” a staple side dish, fermented spiced cabbage
(6) Pronounced “appa,” Dad
(7) Pronounced “gochujang,” red chilli paste
(8) Pronounced “sa-rang-hae,” I love you
(9) Pronounced “gim na-rah,” my name in Korean

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