I have vivid memories of visiting my grandmother’s house as a child. I know the way so well—the exact subway car to get off at so we’re closest to the exit stairs, the swirl ice cream machine we always pass where I beg my mom for a cone (“just this one time!”), the correct right turn to make (it’s the second one, not the first or the last). In my memories, we arrive at her gate, the one with giant lion-faced metal door knockers with rings in their mouths. I reach out quietly to grab one, knowing as soon as it creaks her dogs will start barking like mad.
I know tons of people have similar childhood memories of visiting their grandparents, whether it was a long, cross-country drive or a quick bike ride up the street. But my grandmother, who I saw every summer, lived on the other side of the world.
I’m Korean American, born in Detroit after my parents moved from Seoul in the ’80s so that my dad could attend grad school at Wayne State. Most immigrant kids can be split into two categories: A. You were born in your home country and moved as a kid, either as a baby that’s too young to remember your homeland, or during your school years, splitting your childhood in two. B. You were born in America—maybe you never really learned to speak the mother language, save for a few words and cultural touch points from your parents.
Unlike most immigrant kids, I experienced two distinct and unique childhoods at the same time. One was decidedly American, where I attended a super-white, largely Jewish school on the weekdays. The other was more fragmented—Saturdays at Korean school, Sundays at Korean church, weeknights at home eating my mom’s Korean food, dinners out in Koreatown, and an annual summer immersive program in Seoul where we’d live at my maternal grandmother’s for three months before flying back for the start of the next school year.
Looking back, this was an absolute privilege. My parents sacrificed their own assimilation to ensure their children’s connection to the homeland. Cross-continental flights carting two young kids and multiple “immigration bags” (called thus in Korean because they were made to stuff all your life’s possessions) back and forth every summer weren’t cheap or easy. Every June we whined and begged to stay home, to go to pool parties with our friends or a regular summer camp. And every September we pleaded to stay in Korea, to have another play date with our cousins, to move back to where the people looked like us and the food nourished our souls.
From Our Shop
A (Very) Brief History
As I spent every summer in Korea, I was able to witness its incredible evolution from a poor developing country reeling from the devastating effects of colonialism and war to the culture and tech powerhouse it is today. Korea’s society was ravaged during the first half of the 20th century by the Japanese occupation. My grandmother was forced to adopt a Japanese name, speak and study only Japanese in school, and bow at the neighborhood Shinto temple every morning. Erasure of the Korean identity was so real and imminent—who are we without our names, our language, our choice of religion and culture, our food?
The surrender of Japan to Allied forces at the end of World War II put an end to Japanese colonial rule in Korea in 1945, but the Korean people barely had a moment to recover before the country was divided along the 38th parallel into two zones controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Korean War broke out in 1950 as the two sides fought for power over the whole country, during which over 3 million people died, the majority of which were civilians. Among them was my grandmother’s oldest sister, who was shot by soldiers during a walk back home through the mountains.
Those who survived the war endured countless hardships. My grandmother and her sister fled south with her sister’s baby to escape Seoul, which was captured four times by communist forces. Separately, my grandfather lost ties with most of his family who lived further north when the 38th parallel was abruptly drawn. By the tenuous armistice that “ended” the Korean War (the countries are still technically at war), South Korea faced a near-impossible road to recovery. Food was heavily rationed for decades as the country worked towards social stability and focused on industrializing and growing its economy through the rest of the 20th century. South Korea is now the only members of the United Nations to have been upgraded from the developing economy group to the developed.
Immigrating In the ‘80s
By the 1980s, South Korea had recovered enough that those in my parents’ generation were more regularly attending college, but the more desirable opportunities were abroad: better education, better job opportunities, and the American dream. This led to a rise in the number of Korean babies adopted abroad, foreign exchange students, and immigrants.
My father was one such immigrant. The youngest of four children (two of whom had already immigrated to the U.S.), he immigrated to Detroit for graduate school. During this time, he traveled back to Seoul where he met and married my mother, who then also made the move. A year later I was born. We spent most of my childhood moving around the country for my dad’s jobs—New York, then Alabama (where my sister was born), and finally California (where we eventually settled down).
Korean Food Memories Through the ‘90s
The Koreans who had immigrated to the U.S., like my parents, were working to establish their own communities stateside. By the 1990s, the Koreatown in Los Angeles was one such burgeoning community, anchored by churches and restaurants that served as meeting grounds for immigrant Koreans and their Korean American children. During the school year, my parents would regularly drive us into town for bubbling pots of soft tofu at Beverly Soondubu and big platters of steamed pork belly ssam at Kobawoo.
Korean immigrants were also faced with the challenges of recreating food from home in a new country. My mom, who strived to cook us Korean food for every meal at home, would shuttle big bags of gochugaru, seaweed, and dried anchovies from our yearly trips to Korea. The LAX customs agents were familiar with this process, simply asking “kimchi?” before waving us through. The need to adapt to local ingredients also gave rise to new dishes like LA Galbi (which uses the flanken-style short ribs commonly found in Mexican supermarkets) and inventive concepts like all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ (since meat was more plentiful in America than Korea).
Meanwhile, South Korea was finally experiencing real economic regrowth as technology (Samsung, LG) and car manufacturing (Kia, Hyundai) companies boomed. My extended family also grew, as uncles and aunts married and more cousins were born. My mom, also the youngest of four, has an identical twin who stayed in Seoul with two kids around the same ages as my sister and me. I think my twin aunt and her family were the reason we traveled back to Korea so often from such a young age, the one constant home port in a sea of new homes and new schools.
Food was always a gathering place for my family. Our presence in Seoul during the summers was a good reason for the whole family to eat together. With my maternal grandfather, we would eat naengmyun (cold buckwheat noodles) several times a week at restaurants like Woo Lae Oak, which still serves North Korean-style food today. Naegmyeon was my grandfather’s lifeline to the place and family he was forced to abandon, and it became my connection to him. A man of few words, he’d quietly prepare his meal as I watched, adding the tiniest drop of vinegar to mix into the broth, slurping his chewy noodles with the beef brisket and cucumber slices before finishing off the pear wedges as a little “dessert.”
Growing up with my grandparents, for whom the traumas of war were still so real and present, had an extreme impact on me. Watching them eat was a little window into their childhoods. It was my maternal halmoni (grandmother) who taught me how to pour hot water or cold tea into the dregs of our rice bowls to scrape up every last kernel of rice and drop of sauce. She did this as a kid when food was scarce and grew accustomed to the taste. As she aged and fell prey to dementia, it became the only thing she was able to eat.
I adopted their traditions and small rituals in the same way—the specific progression of eating my noodles, finishing my rice with a swirl of hot water—as if to feel the way they must’ve felt, and as if my identity could also be taken away from me at any moment. It made me feel more Korean to eat like they would eat, because they were the most Korean people I knew: Koreans who had lost so much and fought so hard to hold onto their own identity and nationality.
Growth & Transitions In the ‘00s
The IMF Crisis in 1997 revealed serious issues and debts within the country’s economy, which triggered a huge setback in growth as exchange rates skyrocketed and household incomes plummeted. Koreans felt the squeeze once again, but the country recovered from the crisis within a few years, resuming its steady and then exponential growth. This was most apparent in the technology sector—Koreans were quickly adopting smartphones, implementing citywide cellular and internet networks, and expanding their transportation systems more quickly than their American counterparts. I remember riding the subway and watching people watch TV on their phones (underground) a good five to ten years before this technology was ever introduced in America. It felt like a peek into the future, like my very own time machine.
As I aged into that really fun awkward phase known as puberty (chaotic in any culture), my existence as a Korean began to come into question. I ran high school track in sunny California, which gave me a tan that was trendy in America but met with disdain and racism in Korea. I felt this transition most when settling into the time change upon our June arrivals at my grandmother’s apartment. My mom would wake up early to set the breakfast table—this was both her filial role and rent payment while we were living there. By 9 a.m. there’d be a full breakfast spread of rice, soup, and banchan (side dishes). I’d be pulled out of bed bleary-eyed, and the first thing I’d see was usually the big beady eye of a broiled croaker, which was unsettling having spent the past nine months waking up to Honey Bunches of Oats before school.
But, my Korean food education continued to grow, since food was always the center of focus for our family. Over our full morning spread of Korean food, we’d talk about what we should eat for lunch as we scraped our bowls. My uncle loved to drive us deep into the countryside to eat at a new matjip (“tasty house”) he’d heard of from his drinking buddies. I’d fall asleep in the car and wake up at a duck barbecue restaurant that baked foil-wrapped sweet potatoes in the fire while you ate for a sweet and nutty post-meal snack. Once my paternal grandfather passed, we began to regularly visit his mountainside grave (upon which, per Korean tradition, my name is also permanently engraved) to give jesa, adding another new tradition of memil guksu and buckwheat pancakes afterwards to our yearly itinerary. I loved going to the si-jang with my halmoni, who’d pick up stacks of soy sauce-marinated crab banchan or bags of yukgyejang. With my mom, we’d stop at the donut shop for a mid-afternoon treat like old-school kkwabegi and oily red bean ppat donuts, or at the bunsik shop for a plate of ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes). Our days were spent filling the time in between meals.
Rediscovering Korean Food in the 2010s
I stopped going to Korea when I was 17, as I prepared to go to college. I attended university on the East Coast—far away from my mom’s home-cooked meals, far away from L.A.’s Koreatown. I felt like I was living a wholly “American” life for the first time. I didn’t have to code switch between languages and cultures, and I was surrounded by peers who came from all over the country, and all around the world. I didn’t miss Korean food, and instead I relished in discovering that I loved to cook. I had risotto for the first time at one of the many delightful Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, I spent a month cooking carbonara every night until my body rebelled, and I baked countless cheesecakes for my roommates.
I still didn’t miss Korean food—not really—until my first fall living in New York after college. I contracted strep throat a month after moving and I could barely swallow or keep anything down. I cried on the phone to my mom late one night because the only thing I really wanted to eat was jook, the rice porridge that she and my halmoni would cook for me whenever I was sick in Korea. The only place that I knew had it was Woorijip, a small takeaway banchan shop in NY’s Koreatown, but I was too weak to take the train, and it felt too wasteful to take a $30 cab on an entry-level salary. “But if that’s what you want to eat, and if that’s what will make you feel better, then you should do it,” said my mom, giving me her maternal green light from 3,000 miles away. That plastic pint container-full of abalone jook, along with that phone call, reframed my relationship with Korean food as true, healing soul food.
My interest and dedication in rediscovering Korean food only grew after that. I started learning more about its history and context through food popups I started hosting under the moniker Yooeating, through which I felt like I could finally share and talk to others about the Korean food that I had grown up eating. Kimchi was no longer just a stinky lunch box food (they sold it regularly at the Korean-owned bodegar near me), and people were starting to know what gochujang was without my having to add “Korean red pepper paste.”
An Ongoing Journey Between Two Countries
My first trip back to Korea after college was packed with trepidation. I hadn’t seen my cousins in years, my grandfathers had passed away, and Korea felt foreign for the first time instead of feeling like home. I was an adult now, no longer just a kid tagging along with my parents on holiday. I didn’t feel like I fit in. As I moved through the subways, I was a good four to six inches taller than the people around me who were bustling about their daily lives on their way to work or school or to meet their friends. I couldn’t shop in Korea anymore (my mom and aunt’s favorite pastime) because everything was too small for my American shoulders and my American feet.
But, I could still eat. I realized that my parents had always been on their own journey to rediscover the Korea that they’d left behind, to relive the foods they’d eaten with their aging parents or in their school-age youth. Now, I joined them on this journey. We had naengmyeon for lunch, where the absence of my grandfather loomed. We sought out haejangguk restaurants, even though my parents never drank and had nothing to haejang (cure a hangover), but because we loved how the spicy stew made us sweat. Multiple times throughout the day my dad treated us to a big bowl of patbingsu (shaved ice with red bean), his absolute favorite childhood snack.
It took me many trips over the years to shake that feeling of being a kid in Korea, each visit a new exercise in assimilation back into the mother country. Even when I traveled solo I found myself retracing the steps I walked as a child, eating at the decades-old restaurants we frequented as a family, reconnecting to that familiar taste. But as I continued to visit Seoul, I felt the city change ever more rapidly with each trip. Neighborhoods sprawled further away from the city center, swaths of new apartment complexes sprouted up in the blink of an eye, and social systems like the subways, card payments, and restaurant bookings modernized rapidly. I always felt like not quite a tourist, not quite a local, which may be similar to how my parents must have felt.
Korean food and palates were changing too, becoming sweeter, spicier, and soon, more worldly. At first I didn’t want to eat at any of the trendy restaurants where people were lining up. But over time I find myself relaxing, and opening up, to the ways Korea is changing and the ways it can continue to change me. Visiting Korea helps me to remember how I grew up, to immerse myself in Korean language and culture, and to evolve along with the country and its people.
My upbringing between Korea and America had felt like blips in a time machine. I’d pop up a year later in the same place and wonder anew where I was, how things had changed, how I would fit in again. But my ability to walk between these two worlds has also led me to become an anthropologist of both, as well as a translator and storyteller, sharing the nuances of my experiences in this wonderful little country.
On this most recent trip, while I was writing this piece, I journeyed back to my grandmother’s house. I’ve always wanted to visit again but had no reason to—I didn’t know anyone there anymore. I took the same familiar trains, now incredibly modernized and packed with commuters, and transferred at the same station still filled with fish cake and gimbap hawkers. When I got off at my grandmother’s station, I was struck by how eerily familiar it was. The swirl ice cream stall was gone, replaced by a bakery within the same space. I walked down the stairs to the street and the main intersection looked the same: the fruit guy was yelling out the day’s specials while permed, hunched-over grandmothers (none of them mine) picked through his wares.
Here, in the heart of my grandmother’s neighborhood, things still seemed so much the same. But her home was gone, long since demolished to make way for a taller apartment building. There was no gate, no lion door knockers, no dogs. Instead, I just stood in the doorway of the memory of my Korean childhood, a long way from my own American home, still a bit trapped in the threshold.