Mrs. Snow is the oldest woman I know. She has hair the color of straw in the sun, cut bluntly at the forehead and shoulders like a ragdoll’s. She keeps a shawl draped across her desk in case the room gets chilly. Her breath always smells like a cross between steamed peas and a sneeze. Every afternoon at school, she whisks me out of the room past the laminated sign by the door that says Ms. Jackson’s 2nd Grade Class! for my English lessons.
We’ve been doing worksheets written in big bubble letters. Like connecting a phrase on the left to its respective contraction on the right, dragging a pencil line from I am to I’m and cannot to can’t on a sheet of paper. There’s a cartoon dog sitting in the corner for no reason.
Mrs. Snow says I look bored. I don’t answer her partly because I don’t quite wrap my head around the concept of boredom or how to respond and partly because I’m frustrated.
“How about we learn something new today, then?” she says. “Something fun. Like rhyming.” She explains to me what rhyme is—when two words share the same vowel, like dog and fog, hike and bike. We went over vowels a few weeks ago.
Mrs. Snow picks something out of her bookshelf and sets it down in front of me, right on top of the worksheet I’ve rushed through in the hopes of leaving sooner. My pencil rolls past the edge of the desk and rattles against the floor, but we don’t reach for it.
She points to the author’s name. “This is a book by Maurice Sendak. Can you say that with me?”
I stare quietly. Mrs. Snow flips through the book, turning to random pages to show me glimpses of cross-hatched illustrations.
“Mau-rice Sen-dak. He wrote all the words. And he drew all these nice pictures,” says Mrs. Snow. “He’s one of my very favorites.”
I watch her flip through the book over her lap with a smile, as if looking through old photo albums. She reminds me of my grandma sometimes, when we’re having fun. They both have this private way of smiling, of adjusting their glasses and watching me play. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking about that’s so nice.
She sets the book back down in front of us. I read as she sweeps her finger under each word. Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice.
This is the first poem I’ve ever read.
In the cafeteria one day this blue-eyed little girl named Emily scrunches up her nose when I open my lunchbox.
She asks, what is that?
We call this 주먹밥. 주먹 meaning fist, and 밥 meaning rice, as in rice shaped with the fist. Or rice the size and shape of a fist. There’s this toughness about the name that I feel describes my mother perfectly.
My mother, who took the time to cook a pot of rice and dress it with sesame seed oil, vinegar, salt, and a smidge of sugar. She tossed the rice while it was still hot, so the sugar and salt would dissolve more easily. She did this with bare-handed poise, distributing seasonings between each scalding grain, careful not to crush them. The skin of her hands is tough and thick after years of handling heat and spice.
When Emily scrunches up her nose and asks what is that, this is what rushes through me. But there’s no word for all this. There’s no word for watching my mother form a shell of seasoned rice around chopped salmon and rolling it in toasted sesame seeds, no word for learning the right amount of pressure to pack without squishing through years of repeated tradition, no word for even the simplest of go-to meals that have been passed down to me with no verbal instruction, no word for the way my mother licks her thumb when she slides a single perilla leaf from the stack like turning a page of a book, or the sound of it when she lays it down at the bottom of my lunchbox to keep the rice from sticking, no word for the art of prepping, sharing, watching, eating, tasting, the kinetic and olfactory language of caring for one another.
But at home, we call this 주먹밥. 주먹 meaning fist, and 밥 meaning rice. I haven’t learned the word fist yet, not that it’s of any use when Emily asks what is that?
I panic. I’m afraid of saying something stupid. I know what a fist looks like, but I don’t know what it’s called. They’re for punching. I tell Emily I’m eating punch rice. Punch rice? She’s raising an eyebrow. I’m giggling uncontrollably. It’s not that anything is funny, at least not in that moment. This might be the first time I’ve ever felt like living is decay in slow motion. This might be my first panic attack. I’m drawing more attention to me than the question itself. Emily rolls her eyes and turns away to eat her lunch.
Xenophobia doesn’t always look like a monument of shame. It doesn’t always look like ridicule and jeering. It looks like a room full of people and nobody to sit with. It looks like conversations buzzing all around me with no way in. It looks like one person at a time, taking notice of the ways in which I differ, and expressing quiet disinterest and revulsion. No one big public humiliation. Many small, private disappointments.
Years later, my mother and I will call these rice-balls amidst Western company. It’s a functional name at best. I can’t help but feel that in the process of translating and explaining, some element of poetry evaporates from the name.
It could be any day of the week, it could coincide with a birthday or a holiday, it doesn’t matter. There’s no distinction between any given Thursday and the odd Thursday my mother goes to the store and picks up the ingredients for it. The specialness and where it falls is random. Maybe there’s a sale on pork or my father’s run especially ragged at work, maybe my mother is bored. Whatever the case, if I stop by the family home at the right time, there it will be. The process randomly unfolding with no big whoop about it, happening like it could be any other day, any other meal, and therein lies the celebration—it gives one a sense of possibility.
My mother cleaves the bones loose from a huge hunk of pork belly. She fills a sauté pan with green tea powder, star anise, quartered onions, slivers of ginger, and twelve cloves of garlic. She halves the length of pork belly and folds the chunks into the pan skin-side up like two fat snakes of raw dough, fills the pan with water, and simmers it with the lid on for an hour.
I sometimes sit in the kitchen and watch the glass lid sweat while she prepares a slaw of red pepper paste, slivers of radish, and glistening raw oysters. A pot of five-grain rice steams away in a pressure cooker on the countertop, next to a stack of fresh napa cabbage leaves awaiting a quick pickling, all white and mute yellow like young daisies.
This is called 쌈. Or at least a variation of it. 쌈 can mean anything. Grammatically, all the word implies is wrapped. We eat variations like bite-sized pieces of grilled beef tenderloin dipped in a mixture of sesame seed oil, salt, and pepper, wrapped in lettuce with raw garlic and soy paste. Or grilled pork stained crimson with a spiced marinade. Sometimes we eat cold slices of raw fish wrapped in perilla leaves, with a sweet red chili dipping sauce.
Similarly, I’m told by a friend of mine that a taco can actually be anything served on a tortilla. The Spanish etymology of the word taco reinforces this—taco, originating from the Spanish word for plug or wadding. According to an article called “Where Did the Taco Come from?” in Smithsonian Magazine, this derives from the use of plugs made of paper wrappers filled with gunpowder, used as explosive charges by silver miners in Mexico. So a taco is a taco is a taco. It doesn’t matter much what it’s filled it with. If it’s eaten in a tortilla, that’s a taco. A taco is a taco is in some ways a 쌈.
It must be less disorienting for my husband to hear me speak full Korean on the phone than it is to be seated for dinner with me and my parents. My mother always tries to make something special that he’s never eaten before. Tonight, we’re having 보쌈. She shows him how it’s eaten in the best English she can muster, interjecting between clauses with Korean expressions of uncertainty or pause.
“You eat it like this,” she says. She picks up a piece of pork belly and pats it against a tiny bed of rice inside her cabbage leaf. Her chopsticks are quick, but deliberate. “Next the oyster salad.” My mother gives the ending Ds of words like salad syllables of their own. “Oh, is very delicious. Is like, 거 뭐야? Like special treat, for you. My new son.”
My father makes some joke about never expecting a son-in-law at this table. I turn to him and say, “아니 왜 그려셔? That’s so not necessary.” The deadpan American English snark I’ve picked up from living here in conjunction with a melodramatic child’s why are you like this, slurred by a rural Korean dialect that my grandmother taught me. It’s a dialect a lot of metropolitan Koreans can’t even understand.
Bear eats timidly beneath my father’s close gaze, flexing his chopsticks as everyone marvels at how well he does for a white boy. My father chides him endlessly on how little rice he eats. Isn’t it so salty, my parents want to know. You must take more rice, my father will say. Americans are so skinny. But Bear didn’t grow up how we did, he grew up in a nice Midwestern home where people didn’t talk with their mouths full or ever yelled. He didn’t grow up watching his mother stuff a whole pork wrap the size her fist in her mouth, and chew for the next five minutes while assembling a new one. It’s actually a little offensive to us in some way. It’s inconceivable to us that someone would eat all these fermented, seasoned, marinated dishes with no rice to temper the sourness and salt. It’s inconceivable to us that he could understand how our food is really supposed to taste.
Bear wants to try everything. A little bit of everything without getting too full on a boring old side of rice. It’s all so new to him.
But rice is present at every single meal in a Korean household. In fact, our word for food or meal—밥—also specifically means rice. Rice is a must-have and to call it a side is somehow too simplified. It’s more like 반찬—ranging from as pedestrian as kimchi or tofu, to as lavish as spicy grilled octopus and sirloin—all the dishes we eat with rice, are the sides. Regardless of whether or not any Westerner tries to call them the centerpieces.
Rice sometimes doesn’t even need sides. There’s fried rice made with kimchi or sweet ground beef and onions. There’s the cold dish 비빔밥 meaning mixed rice, made with dressed vegetables, pepper paste, and a runny fried egg on top, or with raw fish and peppers, garlic, a garland of mugwort. For a snack, we eat 떡, where rice flour is kneaded into chewy dough.
In its most invisible and essential form that I know, rice flour is stirred with water into a slurry that can serve as glue, or a binder. My mother has used this slurry to tame peeling wallpaper or affix a photograph back onto the pages of an old album. Kimchi, at least in its most traditional and widely appreciated variety, can’t be made without it.
Yet the way someone might love the taste of water, the taste of rice and its merit, what gives it weight as a concept are ineffable. I can understand why somebody wouldn’t get it. Because I can’t quite explain.
A white friend of my husband’s buys herself a fermenting crock for Christmas. She says she wants to try her hand at making kimchi with her new gift to herself. As if it’s something to try one’s hand at. I have never heard of such a thing as a fermenting crock.
Her kimchi comes out soggy and wilted, the leaves translucent yellow like snot, shredding from nothing but the weight of their own dampness. I can’t explain what went wrong, just that by looking, I can tell it’s very wrong. See I can’t clarify the science of kimchi, I can only recall an oral history of its process.
When I was a toddler, I was already peeling whole onions and cloves of garlic. I’ve been doing that shit so long, I can probably do it with one hand and my eyes closed. I’d sit next to a big metal basin with my great-grandmother, shucking dozens of these things smooth. My grandmother and my mother would sit at a different basin, one mixing rice flour and water into gruel, the other rubbing coarse-ground salt into halved heads of napa cabbage. They’d make six heads at a time, at least. Otherwise bothering to get together and gathering supplies, all the hours of effort weren’t worth it.
They’d tuck salt along the veins of the leaves on each head. It had to sit for at least two hours, drinking up the moisture and salt. While waiting, somebody would sliver up matchsticks of radish and carrot. Chop up garlic chives and water dropwort, mince some ginger, salted shrimp paste, the peeled onion and thirty cloves of garlic to mix with several cups of red pepper powder into the rice slurry. This is rubbed into the napa cabbage, all six heads, between every single leaf, with bare hands.
My grandmother thinks you can’t feel enough with disposable gloves on, and she’s been making kimchi since before they were even invented. It might sting less, but the lack of sensation isn’t optimal for even, precise distribution of salt. I hear all these stories about beauty rituals, girls learning to groom themselves. Looking back, we had none of that. What you did in the bathroom or in front of a mirror was your business to figure out. The women of my mother’s family did not shave or wax their legs. This was the rite of passage in our house, this was the good pain our mothers taught us. The kind of pain that made us tough and numb. The kind of pain that by looking, one would never think a shriveled, paper-skinned, shrimp-spine woman like my grandmother would withstand for hours at a time.
What I knew was my mother was a woman who slept with curlers in her hair. I don’t know why or how to use those curlers. What I knew was my mother was a woman who made kimchi. I know why and how to make kimchi.
In a way I’m vindicated when Bear’s friend asks what happened to her batch of kimchi. But all this does not make for constructive diagnostic criteria.
So there I am sitting in front of the TV when my husband, a pink-collar white boy out of rural Illinois with the long diphthongs to prove it, sets a plate of something in front of me. He’s tried his hand at an omelet with leftover pork belly, kimchi, hoisin, a little bit of pepper paste, all that Far East goodness I keep in the house kind of thrown together in an experiment. Here’s the thing—it’s delicious. Bear is a chef, after all, and he slings some of the best burgers and skirt steak sandwiches I’ve ever had. He makes his living at this bar and grill in downtown Palatine, a bluesy rock-n-roll joint where he’s the chef and the only chef, and it’s hard to dismiss his comfort noshes as simple bar food when he’s roasting marrow in the oven for his chili. When he’s making his own sundried tomato gravy for the meatloaf. He knows his shit.
But I’m struck by this wave of defensiveness. I feel offended—not by the plate he’s presented or the design of its contents. It’s a good, hot plate of food and I’ve never snubbed my nose at a meal. There’s something about it, though. Like if I were to pick it apart, I could say he didn’t caramelize the kimchi separately, which any Korean worth their salt should know to do. He didn’t do this, do that. But it’s beyond that—I know it’s beyond that because this is my husband making me breakfast. We’re not on an episode of Chopped.
It’s like any time a white friend suggests Korean barbeque. Or when I see a Food Network special where some tattooed white dude with a 19th century looking beard-and-mustache combo introduces viewers to this kimchi al pastor bánh mì monstrosity he peddles from a food truck that sends out location tweets. It’s like when white people tell me how much they love kim-chee and bull-go-ghee without pause, as if there exists nothing irreconcilable between the two languages and their respective sets of phonics.
It’s like, don’t touch my shit.
It’s difficult to articulate because I know it’s not rational, much as possessiveness over anything in itself is rarely rational. But as a bilingual immigrant from Korea, as someone who code-switches between Korean and English daily running errands or going to the supermarket, switches between those two and the second-nature combination of them that I’ll speak with my parents and siblings, switching on and switching off these at times unfeasibly different sounds, dialects, grammatical structures? It’s fucking irritating. I’ll be honest, it’s as simple as that. I don’t want to be stingy about who gets to enjoy all the fermented wonders of my native country—I’m glad all this stigma around our stinky wares is dissolving away with the rise of Gourmet Appropriation. But when my husband brings me a plate of food he made just guessing and snooping around a list of stable ingredients that I’ve curated over years of my burgeoning adulthood with the implicit help of my mother, my grandmother, her mother who taught me the patience of peeling dozens of garlic cloves in a sitting with bare hands, it puts me in snap-me-off-a-hickory-switch mode.
My experience with the curiosity of white folks has ranged from genuine friendliness to suspicious aggression, and everything between. It surprises me every day that I meet somebody so interested in Korean food, going so far as to making their own kimchi at home, without ever having met a Korean person before. It’s not bad, but there’s a part of me that wishes they’d ask me what I think instead of trying to make sure I know how friendly they are. Instead of Bear chucking a bunch of Asian ingredients together, I wish he’d ask me how something is made. When I bring home a bowl of 설렁탕, I kind of wish he’d taste it, appreciate it, ask me how it’s made, ask me when I used to eat this as a child, what does it mean to our people, before he’d go digging around for the sriracha.
Here’s what I’d tell him or any white friend if they’d ask first.
Get the sriracha away from your 설렁탕 or so help me. That’s a personal insult to my grandmother and the country of Thailand at large.
This dish is not meant to be spicy. There is a time and place for things. Though the ethnocentric landscape of the Western cultural lexicon may have led you to believe everything Korean is spicy, this is something else. We are more than one palate of flavors and textures.
설렁탕, to me, is a dish that saved my life. There’s no way for Bear to understand this without my explaining it. When a doctor said I was too skinny as a baby, my grandmother rinsed the leg bones of an ox and simmered them for hours and hours, nestled into a pot with a whole onion, a pound and a half of radish. Meat would slough from bone, soft as cream. Marrow would melt into a rich broth that held the complexion of milk. It isn’t possible to make less than a week’s worth of 설렁탕—it takes too much work to throw away on one meal, and the broth can’t be squeezed out with less than two heaping pounds of bones. My grandmother would condense this bobbing protein, all this fatty warmth, into a bottle of formula just for me. She said it would help me put on weight. And it did. She’d serve whatever was left of the soup to the family as dinner for weeks on end. She would float chopped green onions and silvery hanks of vermicelli in a bowl of 설렁탕, and set a table with a bowl of rice for each of my parents, her husband, herself. Those bones are throwaway cuts of carcass here—some butchers give that shit away. But back then, back there, ox bones were precious. 설렁탕 is a delicacy. A luxury to keep you warm through winter.
We keep a shallow dish of salt and pepper at the center of the table to season our own bowls. It’s not meant to be spicy. The marrow should be enough to warm you, if you pay attention and let it. The preciousness and painstaking preparation enough to stay your hand. Or so help me.
When I set a dish in front of someone, when I take somebody by the hand and walk them through the plaza of a Korean supermarket or restaurant or my mother’s kitchen, I’m not there to feed them something new. Our recipes are not party tricks. I’m waiting to share something rich, and old, and long-simmered. Something beyond the names for things. Something easily recognized for comfort and tenderness, something familiar, save for perhaps in another language.
"Sung Yim is poet, essayist, and B.A. candidate of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Contrary, The James Franco Review, and Hooligan Magazine. They are a bilingual South Korean immigrant residing in Illinois."