Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Whole Fish for Breakfast

[Previously posted on Kimchi Mamas.]

In my early 20s, I used to think it was important to marry a Korean. Not that I was particularly attracted to Korean men. I wasn't. And even though their incessant harping weighed down on me, it wasn't only because my parents wanted me to bring home a Korean boy with an advanced degree and the perfect Korean family.

Mainly, it was because I couldn't see how a non-Korean could fit into our family.

For decades, our family of five had lived as if we were stranded on an island. We had no relatives in the US. My parents had very few friends. We no longer attended church. The time they didn’t spend at our dry cleaners was passed snoozing in front of a TV. We didn't have family activities apart from eating. We hadn't taken a family vacation since the mid-80s.

In our relative isolation, we had our own way of doing things. On Thanksgiving, we didn't carve the turkey. After tearing off the drumsticks and the wings, my mom piled random chunks of the bird onto a dish. Once we shredded it further with our chopsticks, we chased turkey bites with kimchi and other banchan. For regular meals, we ate things like pressed pigs' ears, oxtails, and various roots that we couldn’t name in English. We often ate the same things day after day. We double dipped with our chopsticks. On birthdays or Christmas, we didn't always exchange gifts in nicely wrapped boxes. Sometimes, we forgot to celebrate each other's birthdays -- or put them off until the timing was more convenient.

There was also the language issue. My mom doesn’t speak English. When we sat down to dinner together, the children spoke English to each other. To our parents, we spoke Korean, the only language they spoke with each other. Often, we ate without speaking at all. Silences were particularly noticeable on the few occasions we ate out. I longed to have engaging conversations about politics and current affairs, books, anything -- rather than the often repeated "eat this, eat that, don't eat too quickly" that came out of our parents' mouths.

I didn't think of us as a normal family. At least not the kind that seemed to exist out there. I didn’t know how a stranger could fit into our fold. Much less a non-Korean stranger who didn’t have parents like mine. What would he think? How would he communicate with my mother? What would he think of our eating habits?

More than anything, I didn’t want an outsider entering our family and judging my parents the way “Americans” often seemed to. It was bad enough when a contractor turned to me for interpretation even when my dad was speaking English. Or when a white couple passed us as we were eating kimbap on one of our infrequent outings to a Long Island beach, and the lady stopped to point her finger at our lunch as she exclaimed, “Look, Bob, they’re eating sushi!” Or when our store customers slowed down their speaking, simplified their vocabulary, and increased the volume when speaking to my mom.

I can’t remember all the incidents that made me clench my teeth and cross my arms. All I remember is the feeling that our family’s small haven should be protected against outsiders who couldn’t possibly understand. Not that I thought of all outsiders as racists or malicious people. We just had different backgrounds, and I couldn’t imagine others understanding us in our own light, against our own backdrop of social and cultural norms, without processing us through the prism of American life.

Most of all, I think I was worried that if I introduced a “foreigner” into our home, I would see my parents more through his eyes. I already caught myself doing it when we dealt with store customers. When my mom spoke to a customer, her accent seemed unusually pronounced. And the three or four layers of shirts and sweaters she usually wore to keep warm appeared mismatched and shabby. Her hair needed touch up and her shoes needed cleaning. My dad’s emphatic English, usually articulated as if he were delivering the Gettysburg Address even during normal conversation, made him sound like a caricature at times. Sure, that’s how they appeared now that we lived in America, but the least I could do was protect them on our side of the threshold.

And I wanted my future husband to be able to see them as they really were. To be able to laugh with us when my mother ran out of the bathroom covering her nose at the stink of her own fart. Or to understand why my father so often repeated his stories about the time he had to give up his valedictorian position for that kid from a rich family. To understand that how they appeared here was a distortion of a kind.

In my late 20’s, I gave up this idea of meeting a Korean man. Maybe because I met more than my share, and I realized that I was scared of becoming that Korean daughter-in-law who cuts fruit symmetrically or plays the piano. Maybe because when I met a Korean-American guy who had an investment bank internship on his resume followed by Harvard and Wharton degrees, I saw a failure of imagination and originality rather than his hard work – something I feared in myself. But more than anything, it was probably because I was no longer living at home and I felt freer to live my life without trying to make everything fit into one big jigsaw puzzle.

When I first introduced Jeff to my parents, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s not Korean and doesn’t speak the language. The conversation was stilted at times, and my mom spent most of the lunch smiling and nodding along. At one point in the car, my mom reached forward, tapped him on the arm, and said, “Jeff, you learn Korean. I’m too old to learn English.” Jeff just smiled and nodded.

A few months later, we visited them for a few days in their Long Island home. After making fun of my second grade school picture, in which I bore a remarkable resemblance to the cartoon character Nancy, Jeff made himself at home. The following morning, he didn’t even flinch when my mom served him a whole fish for breakfast. And even though he hates fighting fish bones, he worked his way through the whole damn thing, telling my mom how delicious it was. And I was ready to give him a thousand kisses.

No one thinks about the love that comes with a whole fish prepared for breakfast. But I do. I thought about it when my mom asked me over the phone a few weeks later why I didn’t prepare some of that fish Jeff liked so much. I think about it when Jeff orders a cod fillet at our favorite Italian restaurant. When I see him make room for us – and for my parents – in our lives, as we plan for our future.

Nowadays, all the cultural hodge-podge that preoccupied me in my 20s no longer seems so confusing. And I am relieved that I wasn't foolish enough to try to force everything to fit together when I didn't know any better.


  1. Beautiful post. I enjoy your blog in general, but these are the posts that shine.


  2. Two questions: Do you cut fruit symmetrically for your non-Korean husband now? Did your husband go to Harvard/Princeton/Wharton or their ilk?

    Frankly, I don't like the juxtaposition of the lack-of-imagination Korean man that demands you cut fruit symmetrically to the genteel white man that graciously eats your mom's fish to completion.

    I usually enjoy your posts. But this one... it kind of offends me and saddens me. Yeah yeah, everyone will say to "get over it," "stop being so insecure," "everything is based on merit, not the color of your skin" -- but if Harvard/Wharton "lacks imagination," I really don't know how to proceed. Maybe I need to go to Yale Law AND win Survivor?

    I agree with Ruth. This is a beautiful post, but in the style of Amy Tan and Miss Saigon. Facially beautiful, but covertly sticking it to the asian male.

    With Love,
    Harvard/Wharton Hangook Namja

  3. Hi, Anonymous at 6:46,

    I didn't mean to offend Asian men. I thought some men could read it that way, but I was trying to say that those perceptions were based on my own insecurities. And the fruit cutting part was really about mother in laws than the men. Sorry if the message didn't get through.


  4. I commented over at Kimchi Mamas and am bookmarking your blog. I loved this post!

  5. You write best when you write about your own personal experiences dealing with cultural differences and identity issues in general.

    I am not Korean, but I am from another eastern culture. And when you write, I feel that you are writing for me, that you are writing my story. Your story bridges cultures and experiences in a truly amazing way.

    You are a gifted writer.

  6. Hi Shinyung,

    Your writing is like therapy! It's exactly how it is! I struggled with the same feelings. I did marry a Korean Ivy League guy and I strugged to figure out the expectations of my in laws the first couple of years (lots of fruit cutting and cute garnishes: trying my darnest to please). But like your fish loving husband, I realize that my husband's love for me was expressed in his unconditional love of me and my family. That feeling is universal. If you find someone that makes you and your family feel uncondtionally loved...you have scored in a big way! I'm glad you are well. Keep up the writing. Alice

  7. I really like this post. Of all your posts, I really do believe this is the best one and reveals again why you should be a writer. Unfortunately, you also included the typical anti-asian male view I find so strange. Imagine a black man saying he wasnt attracted to black women. Or any other racial group saying the same of their counterpart. I am happy for your old and new family. I am happy you are in a loving committed relationship. But I think it is sad how certain racial gender groups turn away from their own. I do believe it is a form of self-loathing and insecurity. This is not to say that your loving relationship with your husband is not valid. I support interracial relationships-I am the product of a long line of mutts but to reject ones own as not attractive is quite another. Will your future son or daughter do the same and only find white partners attractive?

  8. Hi, Anonymous at 7:03. Thanks for your comment. I think you mis-read what I wrote. I wrote that I wasn't "particularly" attracted to Korean men -- which isn't to say that I wasn't. Just that I wasn't attracted to them above others. And I think it's a jump on your part to assume that "others" only refer to whites.

    I think attraction is a very complicated issue. I don't have a "self-loathing" problem - and I admit that I have my share of insecurities, but who doesn't. But I think being an immigrant - as I am - from a culture that is very male centric - as Korean culture can be - poses new concerns for (some) women when they move to the US. And marrying into a Korean family can come with some constraints and expectations. I won't go into all of them here. I wasn't trying to say that I didn't want to marry a Korean man. My point was that I no longer felt that I HAD to. And the person I fell in love with turned out to be Jeff. And I don't hold his racial background against him. Neither should you.

  9. Have you read "Trail of Crumbs" by Kim Sunee?

  10. Clicking on your posts, opening up your prose line-by-line is so like picking up a fancy chocolate and unwrapping the gold foil and tasting the candy inside. I love it. Each and every one of your posts. They're so good, I'm not even jealous. I'm just contentedly licking up each word and phrase and sliding through the smoothness of your sentences. Aaaaah! Beautiful. Thank you, again.

  11. Hi, Anonymous at 2:18, I haven't read the book. Did you like it?

    And hi to Gudnuff. You are TOO kind!

  12. Re. "Trail of Crumbs" -

    Yes, I did like it on the whole. It's a pleasant read, and if you are interested in food (French cuisine - the writer lived in France for many years), and exploration of (korean) identity, you might enjoy it, too.

  13. Thank you for this post!

    I am a 26-year-old Korean-American woman with the same problem that you had in your 20's. I don't date Korean men and I am not particularly attracted to them (or the prospect of being related to their mothers).

    I hope that I can find someone, Korean or not, that will eat a whole fish for breakfast just because he loves me.

  14. I just stumbled upon your blog and from what I've read so far, I love your entries! Thank you for being so honest and real. :) You depict your emotions and feeling so well. I look forward to reading more!

  15. I understand what you meant because I was on the other side at about the same age. I grew up in the same kind of Korean family and could not imagine, back then in the 80's, how my Santa Barbara bred Italian American girlfriend could fit in as a myu-ne-ri (lol). It just goes to show how short the horizon is for the young. I know you didn't mean anything in particular against Korean guys, same way I don't have anything against Korean women. In fact I married one.

    I do think your writing is better and strikes closer to home when you write what you know, like in this piece. But do let your imagination and words run wild sometimes. You're not writing briefs anymore.

    I enjoyed this piece very much.

  16. p.s.

    Not that I am a good writer, but I would avoid the last short sentence/paragraph summation.

    I don't mean to criticize but I think most of your readers are already in tune with what you have written so far and don't need a summation.

    Let your stories carry the moral/theme but don't spell it out.


  17. I know this has nothing to do with your blog…
    As an Asian man, going to Harvard etc. doesn't cut it with attracting Asian women? Wow…Juxtapose this with the strong black women lamenting the fact that there are no professional educated black men. The other day I saw a white man in his sixties making out with a young Asian woman in NYC. We don’t see this type of relationship the other way around, do we? How do we explain it? Simple. White privilege. That’s why Asian women in America think they are empowered but in reality, the white man is worshiped as the ideal partner consciously or unconsciously . Asian men don’t have that freedom and we get kicked in the wayside by society, especially by our own counterparts. Why do we have to be constantly viewed as the Neanderthals of America? That’s why people like Amy Tan can exist and succeed here at the expense of silenced Asian male voices.

  18. Great post, Shinyung! Sorry, I misspelled your name on a previous comment. I read your blogs and I feel like we are twins; we've had so many similar experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I'm so glad you reached out to me. btw, I go to Northern California frequently, so email me back and let's get together sometime!