On Our Radar: Mississippi Chinese Lady goes home to Korea
Ann Taylor Pittman wrote this article for Cooking Light, which won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in the Food and Culture category.
Southern to the bone, I don’t look it. I look Korean or, as I sometimes still overhear in the South, “some kind of Chinese.” But I speak no Korean and, before going on my pilgrimage, knew embarrassingly little of the culture. To me, Korean heritage was mostly about food: the traditional dishes my mom would cook every now and then, after driving up to Memphis for ingredients at the closest Asian market. We loved some of the dishes she made—especially sweet-salty marinated meat and any kind of noodle dish. But she also made funky soups, always in this little gold-colored pot. The rest of us wouldn’t join her, wary of the burly flavors.
Those were dishes my mother made for herself: comfort and consolation, taken in solitude. I imagine how it must have been for her to make food alone and not have anyone to share it with—sad for any mother, especially in a place where no one spoke her language and where this was the only part of her culture she could re-create. I ask her now if this hurt her feelings. “No. No, noooo,” she says. “Because the food was so different. So strange from what Westerners are used to.” My mother, I discovered, didn’t have the luxury of learning to cook from her mother; instead, she taught herself to cook in America. “I just guessed,” she says, “remembering the taste I had a long, long time ago.” She adds, with a confidence that makes me proud, “I’m pretty creative, you know.”
Our family never went to Korea when I was a kid, and later I assumed this was because Mom, having escaped, was in no hurry to return. Fine by me. I didn’t want to go. I was ruled, well into high school, by a childish hunger to just be like everyone else. But as my dad now explains, “We just didn’t have the money to do it.”
It wasn’t until college that I began to use the K-word to define myself. That’s also when I started researching and cooking Korean food, working—as my mother did—from memory rather than instruction. Finally, at 42, having long been immersed in the world of food, I figured it was well past time for me to go to the place from whence, through my mother’s side of the family, I half-came. Food would be the obvious door-opener. On the Web, I easily found food bloggers and experts who would welcome me. I would eat my way around Seoul, nibble through the coastal city of Busan, where my mother is from, and then head to the small town of Hapcheon, where I would finally meet my Korean relatives.
In Seoul, no one spoke to me in Korean; apparently they knew by glancing at me that I was not one of them. This was a bit of a disappointment. I decided that, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, I am simply American-sized.
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