When I make dumplings, I think of Christmas. I am transported back to my childhood and my grandparent’s house in a Florida golf community. My halmoni, mom and aunties are sitting around the square table in the breakfast nook, chattering in Korean and folding tasty fillings into doughy pillows. Later, the dumplings will be steamed, pan-fried or boiled.
I fold along with them, though my versions tend to be over-stuffed and a little sloppy. Still, it’s great to be the kid amongst the grown-ups. Most of what they say sweeps over my head, but I can usually get the gist by interpreting the tone of their voices. If they are speaking in whispers, chances are the subject is one of the men sitting over in the living room in front of the TV.
I still love to make and eat mandu. It’s the tastiest of nostalgia, Christmastime or not … These were made with beef, kimchi, zucchini and tofu, a little twist on our old family classic.
It’s important to get rid of as much liquid as you can. So salt the zucchini for 10 minutes before rinsing, and squeeze out as much juice as you can from the kimchi. The former should be chopped small enough not to make big lumps and possibly tears in the skins. The latter can be whirred up in the food processor, quick and easy.
My second cousin and his beautiful family came out to California recently from Missouri. I feel so lucky to have such amazing people in my life. This is a picture of my second cousin once removed, who is a Korean Panamanian Chinese European American and a true delight.
I remember taking my first Asian American Studies class freshman year of college. I loved every minute of the lectures, it was a whole new world to me. I also loved my professor, who had written one of the seminal Asian American textbooks used at universities around the country.
My T.A., however, was a different story. She didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual.
One of our semester projects was to interview someone from the Asian American community. This paper was to serve two purposes. First, it was to teach us that the lives of Asian Americans around us were a part of Asian American history, and second, to teach us about the process and importance of recording oral history.
Like many of my classmates, I chose to interview a family member—in this case, my mother. I interviewed her while home for Thanksgiving break, and painstakingly transcribed the recorded interview before turning in the paper.
Back at school, I had a dorm mate who was also in the class. He was more of a science guy and had asked for help with his writing. And what a mess it was. He had chosen to tell the story of his grandmother, who, back in prohibition days, had sold bootleg alcohol down in Chinatown. I had never known another fourth-generation Asian American, so I found the story riveting, if messily told, and worked hard to help him organize the paper and tell the story right.
A week or so later we both got our papers back. My friend got an A+ and I got a B-. On his paper, our T.A. had written that it was a fascinating tale but he should work on his writing. On mine, she wrote that, while excellently written, it wasn’t an interesting enough story.
Wow. My mother’s story wasn’t interesting enough? Who could say that to an 18-year-old kid?
It went unsaid, but I knew what she was thinking: The story of a Korean American woman moving with her family to the States and marrying a white American was not the narrative she wanted to hear. It was not the version of Asian American history that pleased the activist language of our coursework.
It was the kind of story that propagated academia’s definitions of assimilation, of bowing to the mainstream society, to Eurocentric beauty ideals, etc.
The crazy thing is that my mother’s story, and my story at that, is so much a part of what made and is making post-1965 Asian American history. If you look at patterns of what the community calls “out marriage,” it is an undeniable statistical reality. One that continues to grow, whether the community welcomes the idea of interracial marriage or not … It is a reality that many Asian immigrants married Americans of other races, just as much as it is a reality that some people came for economic reasons, others as refugees and still others as wives of military personnel.
I never felt the same about that T.A. again.
I did, however, continue to take Asian American Studies, which I eventually majored in … And I joined Korean American, Pan Asian-American and multiracial Asian American organizations throughout my undergraduate years. The latter brought me into a fold of fascinating people and interested academics and inspired in me a strong desire to help redefine what it means to be Asian American. I got to travel to conferences, speak on panels and even participate in documentaries about the movement to include mixed race individuals as a legitimate part of the Asian diaspora.
I continue to be involved in the Asian American community to this day, thanks to other instructors who were much more encouraging and inclusive about my identity and interests.
Whether your relatives came over on the first diplomatic mission from Japan or flew east into LAX in 1985, you are still part of Asian American history. Your grandma could have sold illegal liquor in the old Chinatown or, like mine, worked tireless hours, folding and refolding towels in a family-run Georgia motel. Either which way, they came to the States and made it work.
So I’m proud of my Korean immigrant mother who married a Connecticut-born frat boy she met on a blind date … Because she made history; she made part of what is Asian America today.
After note: I hung out with my old dorm mate two years ago while in Maui for a wedding. (He’s an optometrist there.) Over dinner he mentioned that paper and thanked me again for helping him get an A. Ha. A happy ending for all!
As I’m going through a Japanese cuisine cooking phase, I’ve been studying up a lot on the subject, watching video series on YouTube, like Cooking with Dog, and pouring over my favorite Japanese cookbooks in the tub (favorite pastime).
I’ve realized that sometimes I’m not sure if something is Japanese or Korean … For instance, the above-mentioned omurice. Now, I first ate the omelet-over-fried-rice dish while studying abroad in Seoul. We would slather ketchup all over the tasty egg and then dig in with one of those long, wide Korean spoons down to the steaming rice below.
But then, I look in my Japanese cookbooks, and there it is: omurice. So which one is it?
And then there’s the matter of rabbit-shaped apple slices. My mother made these for me my whole childhood. It was the only way I would eat apples, which I never much cared for … Even today, I never eat apples (thought I do love apple sauce, juice, pie, etc.) But I guarantee that if you slice an apple up like a bunny, I will finish the whole thing!
Then, earlier this year, I discovered the apple bunnies in the pages of The Just Bento Cookbook, which states that all Japanese kids grow up knowing and loving these tasty treats. What? They’re not Korean? How can that be?
But I guess growing up where no one else’s mom packed apple bunnies in their lunches, much less roasted seaweed squares and stinky kimchee, I had no one to compare with … There wasn’t another Korean kid in my class until high school and certainly no Japanese!
I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter whether apple bunnies or omurice originated in Japan or Korea. They’re still a part of what I see as my amorphous and ever-changing Asian-American culture/identity. But I’m still curious who invented them.
Here’s a video on making omurice on “Cooking with Dog.”