Posted by: 지인 | 20 March 2008

Come on, kimchi, light my fire

As I read this article, about a Korean adoptee who is a dancer on tour with Celine Dion returning to Korea for the first time, the part about how she first tasted kimchi — and how it seemed to trigger her questions and curiosity about her identity and Korean heritage — hit home for me.

It was much the same for me, too.

Not the world-tours-with-music-divas part.

I mean, the kimchi.

My tongue didn’t make first contact with Korean cuisine until adulthood. I was about 21 or 22 when I tasted kimchi and bulgogi for the first time as I dined at a combination Korean-Japanese restaurant one block from my apartment, with a hapa-Japanese friend. (Double-whammy: It was my first encounter with sushi as well.)

And I didn’t love it. Not the first time. I remember trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing. Sure, sure, I’d eat the kimchi. No problem. (Ouch, my sinuses!)

I really didn’t love it. Yet there was something provocative and visceral about it that I couldn’t put my finger on, like a scent or a strain of music that your memory can’t quite place, or maybe the muscle memory of a lost extremity.

I wonder, if I had declined that invitation to meet my friend, who lived just across the street from me, and never walked over to that restaurant, would I still be where I am today? Would I still have unlocked that part of me that was drawn, as if by magnetic force, back to Korea, to search, to be reunited? Would I have made the strong circles of fellow adoptee friends who now support me and nourish my life on a daily basis? Would I still be a closeted Asian, laboring to be accepted and embraced as no more, no less than all-American, and-I’ll-thank-you-very-much-to-not-ask-stupid-questions?

I don’t know. I’d like to think that something else would have elicited the ensuing slow tidal shift of exploration (of self, of past) that crept up on me, like the gradual melting of ice caps, rather than rushing in like a tsunami. But I really don’t know.

Today I eat Korean food at least once a week. Half the top shelf of our fridge is occupied by a motley assortment of kimchi jars of varying vintage and variety.

Strange now — or not strange at all — that most of my close friends are like me, ethnically Korean, transplanted by adoption.

Strange back then, that for the first time out on my own as a young adult, I ended up living one block from one of the two Korean restaurants and adjacent Korean groceries in the entire city. (Perhaps stranger, still, that the other Korean restaurant & grocer was an extra 1/2-block away …) And I had walked past them every day, twice — once to campus, once back. So many times I had peered in through the window, too intimidated and too resolute to allow myself to feel curious. I had walked on by, ignoring the tiny voice inside me that said, “Go in.”

“Just go in and have a look around.”

But I didn’t.

It makes me a little angry at my past-self. What was I waiting for — a personal invitation?

Or just a little more time?

* * * *

I’d love to hear from fellow transcultural, transnational adoptees: Can you identify a “trigger” experience or experiences that prompted curiosity about your identity/heritage?



  1. Really interesting article and post. I guess I had a similar experience, tasting Korean food for the first time ate age 23, and I didn’t fall in love right way but there was something about it that was very instinctual, like I had tasted everything in a past life. I was just a baby when i was adopted so it’s not as if I would have eaten those foods before leaving Korea. I kept going back and eating more Korean food after that, and eventually I realized I was addicted. For me it was sort of the trigger that led me to become more curious and more open with my past and my Korean roots. I would bet that food is a strong factor in many adoptees’ experiences getting to know their birth culture.

  2. I love the comparison to a lost extremity. That’s how it felt for me too. I remember my friend asking me when I first tried kimchee “Do you remember the taste?” which I thought was hilarious because I was adopted when I was 5-months old. I don’t think they fed me kimchee in the crib.

    But then again maybe they did.

  3. Mmmm…

    I was into Jpop (Japanese pop) at the time, and I was browsing around mp3 rotations a few years ago and I managed to stumble across a Chinese pop/rock song. And I thought, “Why not? I’ll give it a chance. Who knows, I may like it.”

    So I downloaded it, and after the first few listens, I realized something: this was my mother tongue, the language I would have learned.

    And it struck me at that moment, perhaps for the first time, that my blood and heritage was Chinese and not Caucasian, however successfully I had assimilated into Canadian culture.

    So then I asked my mom if I could see my adoption files and pictures. Half a year later, I sent out the initial letter to my Chinese family. I think I had needed more time to process out the idea of contact, of finding where I was born and reconnecting with my culture.

    That was the beginning of my journey. Sorry to ramble!

  4. I first had kimchi when I was about 10 years old and wasn’t crazy about it. Then, when I was about 22, I had it again and loved it. Still do. But I think one of my major curiosity moments/turning points was in college when I read my first Korean novel (a novella, actually) called “A Room in the Woods.” Changed my life and got me wanting to write.

  5. I don’t know if I can point to a specific experience or point in time as an awakening of sorts, but food has definitely been a powerful way for me to feel connected to Korea and Korean culture. Some things (like 김치) have definitely been an acquired taste, while others (like 두부 찌개) have been delicious from the first bite.

  6. I think it was just timing. 🙂

  7. I had been exposed to korean food as a kid going to korean camp. My parents swear i didn’t like kimchi at first exposure, but i didn’t believe them, perhaps because it would admit i was not truly korean?

    I remember telling my mother-in-law how much i really love kimchi and she shook her head and said, “I think that’s in your blood.” I just love the sound of that….something that just came with me because i’m korean.

    Are you a Piper?

  8. Hmm, what is a Piper?

  9. i used to eat kimchi at korean camps starting when i was eight b/c it grossed out some of the other campers…they were totally in awe of me, as i was secretly gagging on it b/c i didn’t like the taste but was too stubborn to admit it…but like lissyjo said, maybe i was also too stubborn to admit that i wasn’t a korean-korean…

    but for me, i never knew when “it” happened and i started physically craving it. but it did, and now i go through at least 1 jar of kimchi per week, sometimes 2 if its been especially rough 😉

    it was definitely an acquired taste…but once acquired, it has been getting stronger…hmm i’m hungry–wonder if i have any left in the fridge…hmmmm

  10. i remember buying a small jar from a grocery store, like fred meyers. i think i had tasted it at some cultural fair at college….but kimichi was the first real foreign food to enter our house, ever. no one else wanted to try it, “it smelled like garbage”, and abrothers and afather always teased me about it. i loved it. in a way i didn’t care that they didn’t want to try it, ’cause it was my special thing. my connection to my people, my past. and i didn’t have to share it with them. 🙂 * speaking of, I had some of the BEST kimchi the other day when hubby and i went out! *drooooool* and the other dishes were drooolicious too.

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