More Than Serving Tea


Thanksgiving Turkey and Kimchee/Kimchi

Of all of the American holidays we adopted as we became a hyphenated family (Korean-American), Thanksgiving is the one that has evolved into a part of our family tradition. We have gathered for the occasional 4th of July, Memorial Day or Labor Day barbecue, days off of work making it possible but not locked into a tradition requiring scheduling around extended family and in-laws.

There is the story about  Mom roasting a duck because all birds wrapped in plastic look the same or memories of opening a can of cranberries but not having the foggiest idea of what to do with that ruby-colored gelatinous cylinder on a plate. We tried to set an American Thanksgiving table as best we could and then added the real fixings – white rice, kimchee, mandoo, jjapchae, bulgogi and smaller plates of more banchan. Sometimes there was water or sparkling apple cider or barley tea. We learned about pumpkin pie but didn’t complain if there was an unexpected plate of dduk.

Learning about “Pilgrims and Indians” was a part of my childhood experience though I don’t remember much except visiting my second grade classroom. We were moving to the suburbs and Miss Thompson was my teacher. Her classroom was decorated with turkeys made with pantyhose wrapped around wire hangers decorated with construction paper feathers. Moving from Chicago’s Northside to the western burbs was culture shock enough. Walking into a room full of stocking turkeys…well, I think I was just surprised to see pantyhose used as decoration. (Was I the only kid who grew up seeing her mother darn holes in pantyhose with some thread and seal the repair with nail polish?) What I would only later take in was that the feathers included written descriptions of the things my future classmates were thankful for. Turkeys=thankfulness. I get it!

Since then I’ve also learned turkeys=trots, bowls, platters, carving and a whole heckuvalotta work. Our family has never trotted or played football on Thanksgiving, but we know about embracing tryptophans. I have become the Thanksgiving host, and while I haven’t yet mastered the perfect gravy or dressing recipe I’ve tried brining and glazing my turkey (brining, definitely brining). The number of people at our table or tables changes from year to year, the amount of Korean food fluctuates (this year my kids are asking for mandoo, odaeng and curry to accompany the turkey) but there is a comforting and familiar rhythm to the afternoon and evening, starting with a crescendo of voices as family arrive and ending with a turkey-induced quiet and dessert over Black Friday strategies and lists.

We’ve never talked about the pilgrims or the Wampanoag Indians at our Thanksgiving table, but as I have spent quite a bit of time this year sharing bits and pieces of my family’s story – our journey from Korea to America and my journey from Korean infant to Korean American adult – I am reminded that there is a part of our family’s story and that of my Christian faith that resonates with being both the “other” and becoming and being the “hosts”, reluctant or not.

I suppose the way our dinner table looks, expressed on the faces, in the names and in the food, is a reflection of that American history  – “others” alongside the “hosts” trying to to understand one another and find a place at the table or a way to reconfigure the table to include both the turkey and the kimchee and the older American history alongside a more recent history.

It’s not a perfect history, nor is it a perfect turkey, but I am incredibly thankful.


Mom’s-eye View of High School: Hey! You’re Asian!

Elias is eight and still trying to figure out what it means that his tae kwon do black belt certificate reads citizenship as “American” even though he knows he is Korean. Korean American. Hyphen optional.

So when a random high school girl came up to him and his fellow Cub Scouts at the home game and asked to take a picture (imagine hearing high-pitched voices: “Look at the little boys in their uniforms! Ohhh! They are sooo cute!!! Oh my god! I wanna picture!) he shied away and then joined in on their rock star moment….

“Hey! You’re Asian! Stand next to me!” said the boldest of the bunch, an all-American/Asian American teenager. She gently, with the bubbly enthusiasm only contained in teenagers, nudged Elias over to her side.

I had been at the football field for almost two hours already having watched Bethany dance with her poms squad, cheered on a friend’s son playing defense, chatted with another pom mom, watched the marching band do their thing and Elias and the Cub Scouts raise the flag.

And honestly hearing that girl scream, “Hey! You’re Asian!” was the least surreal moment of the evening for me. Her observation put me at ease because it simply confirmed and affirmed what I was feeling and seeing and thinking that night.

There really aren’t that many of “us” out there, and even for that young girl she noticed. It mattered. She found a connection, no matter how superficial it may seem to you or others. It was the closest thing to “jeong” – the Korean concept of deep sympathy and connection shared with others – I had experienced all night.

And with a flash and a photo op she was gone.


Why Can’t I Just Shut Up?

I have a problem. My internal filter doesn’t always work. Sometimes thoughts that aren’t fully formed but in the process of being “felt” come out of my thought bubble and rush through my mouth.

My parents did the best they could, teaching me to be appropriately silent first in the way children are supposed to be silent and then in the way young ladies are to be silent. Opinions are best left in the head, and simply naming my alma mater should be enough to gauge intelligence. Words, particularly spoken ones from my mouth, aren’t necessary. Besides, who would want their son to marry an outspoken, opinionated woman? Those traits aren’t high on the “myuh-new-ree” (daughter-in-law) list.

There are times when the properly trained Asian American woman-ness kicks into high gear, almost as if someone dialed me up to “11”. I can smile, nod, look like I am in agreement with whatever is being said and then walk away without a word. It happens, I swear.

My parents also knew enough to know that some things were irreversible. We were here in America, and one day (or almost 40 years) their firstborn would be an American. They struggled to keep the “Korean” first through language, dance, songs, food, worksheets and flashcards and hyphenated “America” by reminding me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Or is the oil?

I suppose that is part of growing up part of a generation raised to be bicultural – Korean and American – and finds itself developing a third culture – with or without the hyphen – that takes not the best of both worlds and rejects the rest but takes both worlds and creates something both familiar and new with its own best and rejects.

So there are times when I get squeaky. The dial gets turned the other way, and I can’t shut up. The raging extrovert in me, the angry Asian American woman who is tired but clearly not tired enough to shut up comes out and I hate when that happens because I hate that I feel like I should apologize for bringing to the conversation a different voice, a different perspective.

I can talk about things other than race, gender or class. It’s not always about race or gender or class. But many times race or gender or class (or all of the above) are in play. And the other night it was soooo easy. We were discussing The Help
, and there are still hours of thoughts and questions inside my head. Last night was just a taste. Why couldn’t we have started out with something lighter like a Nicholas Sparks book? Bahhhh!

No spoiler alert here for those of you who are still on the library’s list for the book or in the process of reading it. You know that the book touches on issues of race, gender, class, friendship and love. And if you read this blog you know that those issues are what keep us here in this cyberspace.

But those issues are uncomfortable, and it’s not always easy to go from discussing our feelings about a book to how those feelings translate into real life when it’s all so new and we don’t yet know our similarities let alone our differences. But how could I not talk about how I see life in our town as being different but not so entirely different than what we had just read? How could I not bring up how the rules of engagement between the junior league women and their help are as subtle and dangerous as describing “suspicious” cars and their drivers in broad generalities? Don’t we still have subtle lines drawn and communicated about who belongs where? How could any of us read the book and not choose to be uncomfortable if not for one night?


Life and Death and Life In Death

It has been a long week.

By the end of tonight I will have been at the same suburban funeral home three out of seven days this week. One evening and morning were set aside to mourn the loss of Peter’s uncle, and one evening was set aside to mourn the loss of a friend’s father.

The two deaths this week gave way to opportunities to talk. I talked about my mother-in-law’s death with my husband and my sister-in-law – what we remember from the days leading up to and after her death, feelings and memories that rose to the surface after being together at the beginning of the week for Peter’s uncle’s wake and funeral.

I talked around death as my parents shared with me some details about their estate since it’s never a good time even though it’s always a good time to talk about life insurance policies and living wills.

All this talk, and I’m tired. I’ve been to many memorial services and wakes, but I have found those of first generation Korean immigrants to be some of the most mournful, sorrowful, and emotionally draining. Outward expressions of grief are limited to the occasional sob and cry, but the room is filled in black with a respectful, honoring, but heavy grief. No one but the presiding pastor speaks above a whisper, and stories are told without smiles or laughter.

Photo displays may include pictures filled with smiles and fond memories, but the photo by the casket, often marked by two black ribbons around the top two corners, is an expressionless headshot. It’s as if the person knows they will not be around to see this photo that captures life and death. It’s not unusual to see rather large flower arrangements adorned with messages of condolences written on ribbons or banners from the deceased’s or surviving family members’ Korean high school or college/university alumni association.

Some of the traditions, even in Christian Korean funerals, are connected to Korea’s Buddhist roots where the dead are wrapped in yellow hemp; the men of the deceased person’s family wear small bows made of yellow hemp and the women still wear small white ribbons (white being the color of death and mourning) signaling to the world around them that they are in mourning.

I once told my mother that I would not want to put my own children through that kind of memorial service when I die. My mother quickly shot back, “That is how you show respect to us when we die.”

The wake for a high school classmate’s mother was the first example of a different way to celebrate life and death. I walked in and was quickly alarmed and confused. People were sitting casually in small groups around the room, some dressed as if they were headed out to a nice lunch but there was enough color and lightness in the room that surprised me. I was wearing all black. (Actually, I wore a lot of black in those days, but that’s for another post.) They were talking, laughing, sharing tears and memories of my friend’s mother. There was talk about life in the presence of the dead, talk about life with life and laughter.

But in neither my Korean or American contexts have I found a good space to talk about death, particularly death in light of the living. I find it fairly easy to talk about those who have already died, but death and ways to celebrate life in death are more often than not reserved for the moments as families plan the funeral.

So it has come as some relief in the weightiness of the week’s events that this week began with Easter and last night was spent  preparing for Sunday’s worship service…

There’s a day that’s drawing near

When this darkness breaks to light

And the shadows disappear

And my faith shall be my eyes.

Jesus has overcome and the grave is overwhelmed

The victory is won, He is risen from the dead.


Rooting for Gold, and Waving Taegukki and Old Glory

The Olympics are fun. We see great sportsmanship and whiny losers. We see patriotism is not unique to America, and apparently neither is the practice of covering your face/balding head/body in your country’s/team’s colors with face paint. We test the kids on their limited knowledge of national flags. We dream, even for a moment, that our kids will be inspired to try something new but not something as crazy as the skeleton. And we pick our favorites and cheer for, root for, celebrate with or shake our heads in defeat for our team.

But in some families like my extended family, it’s complicated and fun because of who we are – Americans, Korean-Americans, Koreans. My parents and I had an interesting and momentarily tense conversation over Apolo Ohno, and we probably sounded a bit like a version of the Korean and American press. And then we settled down to a barbecue feast for dinner. My dad said grace in Korean (which my husband and children cannot understand, but I told the kids their grandfather asked God to remind the kids to obey their parents) and then we passed around the baked beans, brisket and ribs, and then turned on the television to watch more speed skating.

What has been so interesting to me has been my older son’s reaction to the Olympics. During one of the speed skating events, he was quick to notice that there was a Korean skater competing against an American skater. His reaction? “Hey, look! There’s a Korean and an American! Cool! Who do we root for?”

I swear I  have never whispered in his ears, “You are Korean first.” (I remember hearing those well-intentioned words and walking away deeply confused and conflicted because wasn’t I both Korean and American equally, at the same time?)

We’ve explained to him and our other two children they are Americans whose cultural and ethnic roots are originally from Korea. We’ve explained in different ways as each of them mature and experience life what the term Asian-American or Korean-American can mean and why I identify myself that way. We’ve explained to them why we bow to our elders on New Year’s Day and the significance of the rice cake soup, and they simply lord over their non-culturally Korean friends that they get gifts for Christmas and cash for New Year’s.

It bothered me a bit that he would feel like he had to choose, but then I had to stop. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that he proudly and delightfully identifies with both even though none of our children have stepped foot in South Korea and could one day become the President of the United States.

His pride in his Korean ethnic and cultural roots are not a result of being rejected by Americans (which was the case for me), and his pride in his birthright as an American isn’t born out of a jingoistic arrogance about America’s superiority (which I have often been on the receiving end). My journey, thankfully, is not his, and I am learning so much from his.

He asked this morning how the Americans and Koreans finished after last night’s events.

Corban, we all did well.