The Last Batch: Kimjang and Grieving

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

These are the five stages of grief according to psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. We do not move through these stages in order and not everyone experiences every emotion.

I could not deny death, because death is undeniable. I was not angry, because she would have wanted me to be at peace. I was about as depressed as a doting grandson could be, and the first night I spent in her hospital room, I accepted that she had a bright red ‘DNR’ bracelet fixed onto her left wrist.

I also found myself bargaining for just a bit more time with her—one week to be exact. She died just a week shy of her 91st birthday. My aunts from New York and Korea had been planning to visit her in our home in California to celebrate, and I wanted to use the occasion to resolve a lingering regret I never got around to settling.

Six or seven years ago, my grandmother made her last batch of kimchi. Making kimchi is a straightforward yet labor intensive process. As a child, I remember the sights and smells vividly. She wore a bandana and planted herself in the ‘kimchi squat’ for hours as she hovered over giant basins of Napa cabbage, assiduously massaging the leaves with salt and red pepper flakes.

The squat took a toll on her knees and lower back, so it was inevitable that she would have to give it up one day. When time finally caught up with her, my New York aunt flew across the country to help her make one final batch. I was also living in New York at the time, but I didn’t make the trip; the significance of it was entirely lost on me. I would live with a swelling regret ever since.

As my eye for stories became more acute, this intimate portrait of mother and daughter bloomed in my mind with a maturing sense of commemoration. I could visualize their aged hands sifting together through shaved radish and sweet rice gelatin. I scripted their dialogue in my mind as they fell in and out of silence. There was always laughter.

I was also learning more about the life, death, and rebirth of Korean families, and the ways in which artifacts and rituals serve as memory for the bodies that have long since passed. Because kimchi recipes are handed down generationally, they also belong within this mnemonic heritage. Koreans refer to this handing down as Kimjang—the custom of making kimchi together as a family or community. It is collective and quite literally an oral history spoken through the inheritance of ingredients and cooking techniques.

Although I didn’t have the language for it at the time, what I really wanted was to experience Kimjang with my grandmother. With my aunts, mother, and grandmother coming together for her 91st birthday, I was eager to not let this opportunity pass again.

I bargained hard for that week. I begged and I pleaded for it. But I lost.

This is the undeniability of death.

***

Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.

Koreans take their cues from nature to produce kimchi. In the spring, they take to the seas to catch fish, anchovies, and shrimp, which are later fermented to enhance kimchi’s flavor. In the summer, salt farmers toil away under oppressive heat to yield sea salt, which is crucial in preserving temperamental vegetables. In the fall, chili peppers, originally brought over to the peninsula nearly 500 years ago by Portuguese traders returning from the ‘New World,’ are dried and then ground into a powder. The harvesting of cabbage signals the impending arrival of winter, and the start of the Kimjang season.

Before corporations took over the mass production of kimchi, Kimjang would give occasion for families and communities to gather and make enough kimchi to last everyone through the winter. Our ancestors (and some modern-day traditionalists) stored kimchi in large clay pots, which were buried underground during winter—a primitive, yet ingenious form of refrigeration.

There are over 200 different types of kimchi today. The differences are shaped by variations in regional topography and climate. For example, in Chungcheongnam-do, where my family is from, people rely heavily on salt rather than on fermented fish. The variations are not just regional, but familial as well. Each family has its own recipe, and these were traditionally passed down through a matrilineal line. In past generations, when a daughter married into her husband’s house, she would bond with her mother-in-law through Kimjang and was expected to adopt her new family’s way of making kimchi. In this way, filial bonds were cemented and a precious family heirloom was preserved.

And so, kimchi and the women who prepare it follow a natural order—from spring to winter, from grandmothers to mothers, mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law, from life to death. Death had denied me participation, and what’s more, I am a son, not a daughter. Nevertheless, I was determined to disrupt the natural order of things—a bold intrusion.

Chalk it up to denial.

***

Chop. Soak. Salt. Mix. Ferment.

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“There are many steps, but not everyone does them all,” explained my aunt.

“Just like grieving,” I thought, as I layered the red pepper paste onto the willowy cabbage leaves.

“As long as you use good salt and the cabbage is fresh, it will be good kimchi. But it’s all about the salt. The salt must be good.”

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Finally, we were all together. My two aunts, my mom, my uncle, my cousins, and I gathered over large basins in the kitchen and placed the funeral portrait of my grandmother at the head of the table. Time to learn the family recipe.

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Intermingled between all the chopping, mincing, and mixing, my mom and my New York aunt share stories about their early days in America. Apparently, there was a lot of swearing.

There is no ‘F’ sound in the Korean language, so my mom’s preferred curse word was ‘son-of-a-bitch,’ which snapped off her Korean tongue like a whip. When she found out what it meant, she realized that she was being inaccurate. After all, it was both male and female customers who were verbally abusing her at the hamburger shop she managed. She fashioned ‘daughter-of-a-bitch’ to refine her vernacular.

For my aunt though, operating a coffee shop in 1970s Brooklyn required that she access a much broader range of vocabulary. Unlike my mom, she had to perfect her F’s.

Like the time she finally confronted a group of teenagers who had been harassing her store for months. As she hopped over the counter, butcher knives in each hand, she shrieked, “Get the FUCK outta here you, motherFUCKERS!!” This must have been perfectly enunciated because they ran out of the shop and never came back.

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My other aunt who never left Korea, mostly listened in quiet contemplation. When she was younger, she ran away from home to avoid her problems, a regret that hung over her like a shadow even to this day. I imagine she was looking at her older sisters with a mixture of admiration and horror. Butcher knives? America had thickened their skins and stiffened their spines. Was she thinking on her regret? I wondered.

My uncle is the maknae—the youngest sibling. He dutifully fulfilled the man’s traditional role in Kimjang, by alternating between taking naps on the couch and wandering into the kitchen to sample the food and offer unhelpful suggestions. His cackling laughter filled the room like a symphony.

My grandmother would not have approved of the language, but she would not have understood it anyway. The laughter though? She would have understood the laughter.

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***

Winter gives way to spring.

Kim In Tae marries Myung Ki Chang. They give life to Myung Sang Hoon. Myung Yoo Na. Myung Dok Wha. Myung Sun Hwa. Myung Sang Oo. She teaches them about the importance of salt.

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Her four living children are together, teaching me—the intruder—the family recipe. And we find a reason to laugh together. Life gives way to death, but through Kimjang, there is rebirth. I bear witness to it all with her portrait on the wall.

It wasn’t exactly what I bargained for, but the kimchi was still good.

We used good salt.

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Photo credits: Laura Chung, @MissButtercupLC, http://missbuttercup.com/

Love is a Language

Those of us who sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed in the final moments of her life said all the things that could be said. But for family who were far away, messages of love, farewells, and pleas for absolution were relayed through mobile phones pressed against her ear, or text messages read aloud.

My cousin texted me her final message to halmuhnee. She wanted to let her know that she was sorry that she never learned Korean well enough to speak with her.

This is a poignant sorrow that many of us sons and daughters of immigrants know all too well—a longing sort of regret. Thoughts and expressions are formulated in the brain in perfect English sentences; they make their way through a labyrinth of busted synaptic connections, finally arriving at the mouth as a garbled mess, and then aborted in favor of the few Korean phrases we do know well:

Sarang-haeyo (I love you).

Jal-jahyo (Sleep well).

Suul-puhyo (I’m sad).

Gohma-wuhyo (Thank you).

Meahn-haeyo (I’m sorry).

Sarang-haeyo (I love you).

Again and again, in the futile search for some other Korean word or phrase that might rise to meet the moment.

Sarang-haeyo! Sarang-haeyo! Meahn-haeyo! Jal-jahyo! Halmuhnee, Sarang-haeyo!

The few words at my disposal, as they have all my life, failed to say all the things I wanted to say.

***

My grandmother, Kim In Tae, died on December 25, 2017 after suffering an unexpected and devastating stroke two days earlier. She was 90 years old.

We told everyone who needed to know. The word spread across California, to family on the East Coast in New York and Virginia, then across the Pacific Ocean to our relatives in Seoul and Seosan. But the reaction I’ll remember most is when we broke the news to our longtime housecleaner, Maria. When she came into the house, I told her that halmuhnee had passed. “Sick?” she asked, hoping that she had somehow misunderstood. “No, Maria. Muerto.”

Her eyes immediately welled up with tears. It’s as if she had been holding her breath for the past 15 years, dreading the inevitable moment when she would be invited into a house without halmuhnee there to welcome her with a hug and a cup of tea.

There is an indescribable magic in this. My grandmother spoke Korean and no English. Maria spoke Spanish and no English. She came twice a month for 15 years to clean the house and in all that time, halmuhnee spoke to her only in Korean—No need to clean the living room today. Can we cancel the next cleaning? You did a nice job today. Your son is very handsome.

Maria understood none of this language, and yet understood its meaning. And over time, all those cups of tea, pats on the back, shared smiles, and cleaned mirrors became a language of care. Somehow, they saw into each other. Halmuhnee loved Maria, and Maria loved halmuhnee, an impossible relationship.

“Tu abuela era una señora especial,” said Maria, as she wiped away her tears.

***

Love is a language. I know this because I loved my grandmother and she loved me. And we both knew it deep in our bones, despite the fact that we rarely made use of words to express it. Instead, it was the unspoken ways of speaking that bound us.

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Halmuhnee changed my diapers. She made me American food when I was embarrassed by Korean food, and made me Korean food when I finally came to my senses. She did my laundry and folded my clothes. She hugged me and held my hands. Rain or shine, she would stand outside to wave goodbye as I drove away. A week before her stroke, she gave me $50 to buy me a pair of jeans.

I bought her In n’ Out cheeseburgers. I drove her to church and walked her over to where all her friends were sitting. This way, they could see me and heap praises on her for her treasured grandson. I hugged her and held her hands. I kept my vow to not touch alcohol until I was 21 because she had two alcoholic sons, one of whom had succumbed to the disease. She told me often that I was the son she had always prayed for, embodied proof that God’s faithfulness was unfailing and true. I bought her flowers for every birthday and Mother’s Day.

Words are luxuries in a loving relationship, not essentials. In the absence of words, the small and big gestures of care take on a deeper hue, not so different from the heightened senses experienced by the blind and deaf. Every fruit peeled, every hug, all the laundry folded and car rides given—these everyday gestures were what we relied upon to say the sentiments contained in the language of ‘I love you.’

And they were enough.

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***

Words do have their uses, of course. I started this blog in the hopes that by learning more about my family history, I could locate myself within a broader context that has shaped my identity and my voice. Over the course of the past two months, I approached this by conducting a series of hour-long interviews with my grandmother. Thankfully—and miraculously—we completed the interviews only four days before she had her stroke.

Six interviews are wholly inadequate to capture the fullness of a person’s life. But the interviews and the timing of her death were enough to make me feel as if I had been gifted her story. Now that her body is gone I find it somewhat ironic that words, which failed to mediate our relationship in life, are all I have left to recompose her in death.

In light of this sad turn of events, my young blog has already arrived at a crossroads. The original goal of discovering my voice by tracing family history now feels somewhat self-serving. But when I think more carefully about the nature of stories, perhaps I wasn’t so far off the mark after all.

My grandmother lived a rich and purpose-filled life that spanned nine decades and two continents. She gave life to five children who had children of their own. She lived to be a great-grandmother. The arc of her story served as an irrigation pipe allowing other stories to sprout and to flourish in its wake. When I think about it this way, the stories I had planned to tell here were her final gifts to me. By receiving her story these past two months, I learned that so much of her voice is in my own.

The choice, then, between finding my voice and honoring her story is a false one.

They are one in the same.

***

Halmuhnee, just before you closed your eyes for good, you opened them. I know it was because you wanted to see us all one last time. We said our goodbyes, final messages we wanted to leave you with. I couldn’t get the right words out through the tears, so I’ll whisper them to you here.

I have your story now and I’ll take care of it. I have your story now and I’ll tell it well. So rest well.

Sarang-haeyo.

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Gwajul, Pancakes, and the Power of Pawns: An Introduction

In 1872, a man named Kim Jong Suk was born in Chungcheongnam-do, a province in the west of what is now South Korea. He was my great-grandfather.

Like many others in the peasant class, he was a tenant farmer who tended a rice paddy. He earned some money on the side by turning some of his harvested rice into gwajul, a traditional Korean snack. Making gwajul was a laborious, time-consuming process. The rice had to be soaked in water for 5 days. The grains had to be pounded into a paste, and then kneaded with rice wine, honey, and water. It had to be soaked again, dried (in shade), and fried twice in oil. The fried snack was then coated one last time with honey and finished with sesame seeds. The whole process took nearly a week to complete, but with the extra money he made selling gwajul to local stores, he was able to scratch together a living that was marginally better than most families in his area enjoyed. He even managed to send all four of his children, including my grandmother, to school.

My grandmother—Kim In Tae—was born in 1926 in Obneri, a neighborhood of Seosan city. At the time, the Japanese occupied Seosan along with the rest of the Korean peninsula. To my grandmother, who was born into this reality, Japanese presence and power were simply the normal state of affairs. She even spoke with a benign sort of fondness about the Japanese people in her life—of her teacher, Shimada, of her neighbors who farmed rice in an adjacent plot.

But she also remembers the many young girls in her neighborhood who were lured by Japanese recruiters promising foreign adventures and alternative life horizons beyond the provincial boundaries of Obneri. These women would eventually become ensnared in a system of sexual slavery instituted by the Japanese military—the so-called comfort women, who are memorialized today through the constellation of statues that dot Korea’s physical and moral landscape.

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When I stare into that somber, dignified gaze captured so well by these statues, it’s impossible not to think about my grandmother. I think about how different her life would have been had she been whisked away by the Japanese. I think about the labor poured into Kim Jong Suk’s gwajul—the extra money that afforded school for his four children—I can’t help but wonder what role, if any, this might have played in sparing my grandmother from a lifetime of slavery.

What I do know is that labor like this is never meaningless—that no matter how menial it feels to knead rice grain into honeyed confection, acts born out of love can reverberate in profoundly consequential ways.

***

In 1981, my parents immigrated to the United States. They spoke little English and had trouble distinguishing between the values of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, one of the many ways American money can be unaccommodating to foreigners. And while most Korean and Asian immigrants opted for businesses that would limit their linguistic and cultural liabilities, my parents, for reasons unknown, went the other way.

They started with a small hamburger shop in Anaheim, California that served, almost exclusively, English speaking Americans. They would later go on to buy an IHOP (a franchise specializing in pancakes and American-style breakfasts), which at the time, served an older German-American clientele.

Those early years were hard as one might imagine. Not only were they trying to run a business without an intuitive grasp of money, they were often racially demeaned by customers who still insisted on service with a smile. My father tried smiling his way through it; my mother learned an English curse word or two.

They did all this—running a business, dealing with racist customers, managing a staff, raising a family—in a foreign land at the age of 25. My mother would later admit that if she knew then what she knows now, she may never have left Seosan. It was the sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision that only precocious 25-year-old immigrants could have made.

In 2008, I told their story as part of my graduate school application to Columbia University. It was about immigrants and education and upward social mobility. I wrote about how, despite not knowing the actual value of money, my parents were able to whip those foreign dollars and cents together with gobs of pancake batter to produce a different sort of value.

There was an irony there—something about the value or meaning of money—that I couldn’t quite tease out in the essay, but somebody in admissions must have understood what I was trying to say. I was accepted into Columbia University, completing an improbable rise from rice paddy to humble hamburger shop to the skyscrapers of New York City.

***

I start Betwixt and Between utterly powerless, which is another way of saying that I start utterly disconnected from my history. Over the course of my life, I’ve only managed to hear scattered anecdotes about what life was like for my grandparents and parents before I was born. In a sense, life began anew for them when they immigrated to the United States, and as their child, I was raised with the myopic belief that history began for me in Garden Grove, California in 1984.

When I started attending school, I learned that my history actually began in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I dutifully memorized and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I called George Washington my founding father, and my mind and spirit expanded from east to west, as I wholly embraced the moral imperatives of manifest destiny.

I imagine that for many immigrant children whose own histories were obscured by an ocean, or a broken language, or a Houghton Mifflin textbook, the instinctive urge would have been to adopt this foreign history as their own. And this is only natural. We all have a burning desire to belong, especially to a story that claims to bind together classmates with teachers, neighbors with strangers, oppressors with the oppressed, and all races, creeds, and religions in between.

As natural as this may be, it is both cause and consequence of our colonized state of being. If that sounds harsh, consider for a moment what it means to adopt a history authored entirely by colonizers, the victors of westward expansion. In doing so, we come to expect, and in some cases demand our inheritance, an entitlement inhered to us through a legacy we think is our own. Yet to secure our claim, we are often content to be the watchers on the wall, defending at all costs the authors of our adopted story, and the titleholders of our birthright. We allow ourselves to become pawns in the games they play.

And theirs is a brutish, yet highly effective sort of power: White supremacy. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. Neoliberalism. The domineering norms that obscure or otherwise suppress narratives that stray too far from the approved scripts of the American Dream. It is same power the Japanese military used to reduce complex, radiant individuals into comfort women—a sanitized term if I’ve ever heard one.

But what would it look like for pawns like us—the rice farmers, slaves, housewives, immigrants, Koreans in America—to simply step off the chess board in search of our own histories? There is power in this kind of reclamation, rooted in our many forms of expression—our art, our food, our music, our dance and language—all forms of storytelling that inflect color and vibrancy into a graying social order.

This is the sort of power I aim to tap into as the author of Betwixt and Between. In the process of learning my history, the story of my family, I hope to find a voice that speaks more prophetically into the present.

As it turns out, all those foreign dollars and cents have some value yet undiscovered.

 ***

Here are the questions I want to explore:

What does Asian-American voice sound like?

What does this voice have to say?

What does it offer American culture?

What does it mean to speak powerfully?