A 김치 Story

When I think about my life before I was shipped to the United States as a preschool-aged orphan who had survived the orphanage and who now needed to survive White America in a small rural town as the new Asian daughter of two white parents, all I can think about is how much I must, MUST, have missed Korean food, or worse, perhaps I felt as if I was being punished by now being forced to eat shitty white people's food. And I know what you're thinking, "Shouldn't she be grateful to be housed and fed at all?" To which I respond, "Fuck you."

When the bodybuddy/lifemate and I first moved back to Korea, I cried nearly every time we ate out at a full sitdown restaurant. Something was dawning on me, and it wasn't until we moved back Stateside (temporarily and then we got stuck here due to these Happy-Covid-Times) that I realized what that dawning was many years earlier.

If you know my parents, you know that they enjoy talking about what I was like when I was a child (like all doting parents, one imagines). My adoptive mother's anecdotes revolved around how I babbled (as a four-year-old child, I spoke Korean. I wasn't babbling, obviously), how I would only drink Pepsi, how one time I cried and cried and was babbling so my mom put me on the phone with my social worker and she translated my cries as a desire for more Cheerios, how I arrived already knowing how to cut up veggies and help out in the kitchen. My adoptive father's anecdotes revolved around how I was so scared when I arrived, and my older brother tried to help me open my Hershey's, but I thought he was taking it from me, so I started to cry, but my older brother was so friendly, counting to me in Korean to help calm me down (as he practiced taekwondo but knew no other Korean than counting one thru ten), how I used to waddle like a duck (a problem solved by my adoptive father's insistence that I practice walking up and down the hallway with a book on my head [something for which I am actually quite grateful]), and how, when I began to speak English, I spoke like a little old Italian grandma.

And then, at some point, one of the two of them would recount how I would "eat ketchup on lettuce," and the whole family thought that this was hilarious.

Obviously, I had little to no opinion about myself at that time because I have absolutely ZERO memories of my life until about second grade. There's a vague memory of my kindergarten desk and the nametag taped to the top of that desk, but other than that, there are no real solid memories for me until about second grade. And what I remember most about second grade is my love for Flamin' Hot Cheetos ($0.99 for the "big bag" at our local City Market, circa 1993, with the total being $1.01 after taxes, so bringing one dollar and one penny to the store was easy).

And then, I moved to Korea with the express purpose of living there, and then having the sort of life where I bounce around the world, living easily between my homelands. The bodybuddy/lifemate worked full-time as a kindergarten English teacher (duh), and I worked part-time as a tutor and substitute teacher (at a different hagwon location) and wrote my first two books.

If you've ever been to Korea, there are a few things you notice right away. If you live in Korea for more than two years, there are even more things you notice after all that time. And if you live in Korea your whole life, you probably don't notice some of the things that foreigners notice because Korea is that water you've grown up in. This dynamic is what I believe makes my experience in Korea so unique. Obviously, everyone has a unique experience as I cannot experience what you experience, but due to the similarities in backgrounds of most English teachers (four-year degrees, a general desire to be in Korea, etc.), I know that I have the type of experience that only Korean adoptees can experience, and among Korean adoptees, I was not an infant when I was adopted, so even among the "unique," I have a unique perspective.

The thing that I noticed (and I'm not saying that others did not notice these things, as I actually know that they did notice a lot of things that I also found interesting … my point is that even though others may have noticed things, they didn't necessarily have a personal revelation about themselves when learning/observing Korean behavior, etc.) is that Korean children eat what the adults eat. There are no "kids' menus," there are not even other options that might be kid-friendly. And when you teach at an English academy, you realize that Korean children are really good eaters. Obviously, there are exceptions, but they are few.

And what is the main food object of their desires? KIMCHI.

All Koreans love kimchi, and kimchi loves Koreans. Kimchi, I would argue, is life in Korea (perhaps tied with eggs or else eggs come in a very very close second). And if you've ever eaten kimchi, then you know it roughly resembles some sort of leafy green, drenched in what can only be described as a red sauce. Something, perhaps, that looks an awful lot like ketchup on iceberg if you're a small child who knows what kimchi is but doesn't know how to make it herself. Obviously the lack of spice most likely convinced me that I was not making kimchi out of my attempt to make kimchi.

And so, when I think of my little baby self, I get so sad thinking about how sad and miserable I MUST HAVE BEEN when I think about what I've learned about how Korean children eat. Not only was I stripped of my home life and thrown into an orphanage full of strangers and not my family, I was sent around the world to a culture that not only eats horribly bad and blandly but also, I was sent into the arms of a family who would not be internationally-minded or considerate enough to consider my food needs. And since neither of my parents had been to Korea themselves, the importance of kimchi in my life was completely unknown to them.

And I, I alone, in my tiny little psyche, had to survive.

Survive I did, thrived even.

But when I think about what I had to go through, and that on top of all of that, I was a straight-A student, I also get pissed that so much pressure was put on me to succeed beyond my own survival of transracial transplantation.

The thing that probably pisses me off the most, at this stage of my adulthood looking back on all of the obviously oblivious mistakes my adoptive parents made, the thing that makes me the most angry is when I watch the way that my adoptive mom tends and cares for her two yorkies. They are on a special concoction of yorkie-tailored meals; they always have been. Since the time my adoptive mom acquired them (married christian pastor boinked the spanish tutor and the subsequent divorce meant the dogs needed a new home, and obviously, I've been a recovering christian for decades now), she's put in so much effort to make sure that their "sensitive diets" are tended to with five dollar cans of food and perfectly doled out mixtures of exactly what their breed needs.

I, on the other hand, was born as a Korean eating Korean food (and if you've ever eaten Korean food, you understand) who was then "punished" by being forced to another land that eats really shitty food, like frozen peas, carrots and corn in baggies, dry chicken, etc., and my adoptive parents did absolutely nothing to create any sort of food stability for my racial difference. Sure, I believe that they did their best and tried to expose me to Korean food whenever they could, but we lived in a tiny white rural town, deep in the mountains of Colorado, so unless we traveled to the Front Range, there was no Asian food to be found beyond the attempts at sushi and the local american-style chinese restaurants (the wealthier town next door had more, but we were not wealthy).

As a Korean adult who can make her own decisions, I immediately began including Korean food stuffs into my life as soon as I could when I left for college, and these days, I even make my own kimchi regularly (I learned while living in Korea, and since I'm back Stateside, I have to make my own because it's so fucking expensive here). Obviously, I have zero complaints about making kimchi as my complaints revolve mostly around the fact that kimchi isn't just everywhere. So now, my life and my eating habits reflect both who I am and what I need as the person I am.

When I look back on my life and the life that was provided for me when my destiny looked bleak, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for the life my adoptive parents provided for me. I am, however, also aware of the damage that I survived at the hands of every adult who was responsible for my well-being. And so, if there exists a point to this writing, I'd say that the point is simply: If you're an adult imbued with the responsibility to raise growing people, i.e. children, it is your duty to raise them into the person they are, not the person who you want them to be. And if these growing people can speak, but you do not understand them, they are not babbling; you are the monolingual idiot.

Originally published at http://ladypolarity.wordpress.com on September 14, 2021.