Cultural identity is a funny thing, especially for those of us who look different from the people we see everyday. It’s bold enough to be in your face every morning as you brush your teeth, looking back at you from the mirror, telling you in no uncertain terms that you look different. Yet it’s subtle enough to temporarily drown out, if you turn up the noise in your life—plug your ears, close your eyes and blather on and on; for a moment, it’s non-existent. Eventually, you run out of distractions and at the end of the day, it’s still there there, staring back at you from the mirror.
In the ignorance of my youth, I tried to distance myself from everything Korean—I eschewed anything that might possibly betray my Korean-ness: food, language, friends. Anything that had a possible Asian theme, subtext, association, etc., I kept at arm’s length. I felt kimchi was the biggest Judas—the distinctive aroma that emanated from the few Koreans I did know was a clear indicator of what it meant to be Korean. More importantly, it was something to avoid, lest someone be hip to the fact I was Korean.
It wasn’t until the end of my college career that I begin to embrace my cultural identity, including that quintessential frontispiece of Korean culture, kimchi. The Evergreen State College and the aptly named Seoul Restaurant in Olympia, Washington, were the venues for my cultural homecoming. I immersed myself in Asian American culture, reading Asian American authors and discovering that I wasn’t alone in wanting to fit in, even at the expense of abandoning those things that made me, me. It was finally OK for me to eat Korean food without being ashamed. I was tasting all the wonderful flavors I had so naively deprived myself of, all in the name of assimilation. I had been ashamed of who I was; but in food, there is forgiveness.
It’s fifteen years later and I still eat kimchi. I adore it. One of restaurants I choose to eat at now is (again, the aptly named) Diaspora in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio is about as far geographically and culturally as you can get from Korea, but Diaspora’s food rings true. For this Korean American transplant, kimchi reminds me who I am, no matter where I am.