In a bite, a dream

Something beautiful and delicious happened tonight, at the most suburban and quotidian of places. A trip to Whole Foods yielded not just a head of red cabbage but a 4 pack of mochi.

We rarely buy this Japanese treat in Phoenix for the simple reason that it is often dried out, due either to our extreme desert climate or the time-delay effects of shipping the top stuff from California. After tonight, though, we stand corrected. Apparently, quality mochi does exist here. We just didn’t know where to look.

These mochi were soft. Supple. Moist. Delicate. Bursting with flavor. And as we drooled over each bite, we were reminded in a visceral way that we must find a way to get back to Japan. Because even if we can find these particular treats, doing so only reminds us of all that remains out of reach.

For although globalization allows us to sneak tastes and glimpses of faraway places, there is nothing like actually physically being somewhere. To hear the breeze whistle through the trees at Meiji Jingu. To feel the pulse of humanity in Shibuya. To stand before the wonder that is Asakusa. And to do it all before jetting off to Seoul, which has an even tighter grip on our hearts.

Such dreams cost money; alas we do not have a trip on the horizon. But tonight, in an unexpected but appreciated surprise, we were temporarily transported back. Three months to the day that our feet first carried us through customs at Narita. And for that, we are certainly lucky.

Material world, dream world

Sometimes we rejoice in living within two cultures, but sometimes it strains us. After all, it means straddling conflicting realities, each with its own expectations, assumptions, rules, norms, and pressures. What we want and who we are can get lost in this in-between space. As the Korean saying goes, when the squid and the whale fight, it is the shrimp that gets a broken back.

This morning it so happens that the materialism of Korean culture has got us down. Specifically, the emphasis placed on acquiring the outward symbols of success (which ties into “face” as well) at the expense of what we US Millennials might call “our dreams.” Or personal goals. Or self-actualization.


Making the most of your life doesn’t mean the same thing in every culture. But we’re trying anyway. Copyright 2013 Melissa Hahn

We took MIL to see “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” While she dozed intermittently, my husband and I shed a few tears about the meaning of life. It wasn’t so much that it was a great film (it’s not), but it struck all of the places in our hearts that needed validated:  The reminder that life is about taking leaps of faith and following our hearts, of having profound experiences, and in cultivating a life of purpose and meaning. Which we both define as seeing the world and pushing ourselves to grow as much as possible.

It’s times like this that we face the fact that no matter how comfortable we may have felt in Asia, our psyches are profoundly imprinted by the template of American culture. And unsurprisingly this is all highly threatening to MIL, who wants nothing more than for us to accept “the box” and all of the extrinsic satisfaction that comes with it. Just get a good job honey, keep your head down, stay at the office later than your boss, be loyal, and scheme about ways to get and save more money on the side. Then we will have the resources to buy things that make us comfortable, and she can finally sleep well, assured that we have a good life.


Ah, the holidays. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

I understand why she feels this way. At least I think I do. For someone who grew up fleeing the approaching North Korean army and enduring a kind of poverty I cannot imagine, material wellbeing is essential. She went to bed with an empty belly, sat near the charcoal stove at school to keep her fingers from freezing, and sacrificed much to give her only son the future we now enjoy. The trouble is not in empathizing, but in knowing what her story means for our lives. Entangled in the web of family life, it can be hard to discern where her dreams for us end and our actual lives as individuals begin.

Americans, of course, often sacrifice their dreams in order to keep up with the Joneses or to provide for their families, and especially in light of our unravelling middle class, dreams now seem an out-of-reach luxury for too many. And even when the economy was strong, most adults eventually gave up on becoming an astronaut or rock star and took office jobs instead. Even so, the abandonment or foregoing of what we really want out of life is understood as a tragedy, something to fight against and even mourn. Walter Mitty truly begins to live by letting his own inner light dictate his actions. In Korean media, it is the other way around: the dreamer finally grows up and listens to his parents, conforms, and finds fulfillment in the family-determined expectations.

Two different perceptions on how life is and should be – settling vs. striving – are hard to paint onto the canvas of one coherent soul. So you see, as we embark on another year, some conflict overshadows us. Is it possible to be filially pious in a Korean context while also pursuing the individual life that US culture demands and encourages? I’m not so sure. But the beat of our inner drummer compels us to keep exploring, to keep striving, and to keep living a life that is authentically ours. Even if the tallest nail gets pounded down. 2014 is the Year of the Horse and we’re ready to run free.

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A merry mixed Christmas!

We’re hosting my MIL for Christmas – a surprisingly new experience given that we’ve shared a family for so many years. While some things are the same with this arrangement, like her cooking duk mandoo gook, others are different. For example, having it at our place seems to mean that we celebrate alone, without the Korean chorus of my husband’s aunt and grandma. Strange to discover how foreign it feels without their running dialogue about us and with us in a language that we barely understand.

Yet there are new delights as well. In keeping with the Korean belief that you cannot truly know someone unless you drink with them, we got her slightly tipsy and at last heard stories she had never shared before. These little snippets, perhaps meaningless in another family, are rare treasures for us. So much history is cut off, and so much of the family dynamic remains concealed behind hangeul and reticence and a desire to cleanly abandon the old life, that there is a lot that we simply do not see, hear, or understand.

But on a night like tonight, over the Polish mead that we bought in remembrance of our former lives in Krakow, and after a meal of tamales, and before watching Harold & Kumar (MIL’s choice), we had the rare chance to see the life behind the mask of motherhood.

And so on this international holiday – one that has cut like a river across cultures while also being shaped like so many terrains, we celebrate the gift of our mixed, magical, and sometimes incomprehensible lives. To mothers, to sons, and to the promise that we can come together in a moment of peace and rejoicing.

Merry Christmas.

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Hapa Holidays!

Please forgive my shameless attempt at a pun.

I’m just pretty jazzed about participating in Everything Hapa’s conversation about holiday traditions that blend East and West. I’m never sure if I should join in discussions like these because many of these types of sites seem set up with the Eastern half of the person or couple in mind, and obviously I’m the Western half. I do not want to intrude, or take up space that is not meant for me. But, when I saw that one of their contributors was a Polish woman who had married a Japanese man and subsequently become interested in the multiculturality of their family, I went for it. Now it is up on their site, and you can get a little glimpse into our varied family traditions if you so desire.

While my humble little contribution is special to me, of greatest interest to you might be the rest of their site. For example, you can start preparing for Hapa Day 2014 with statistics about the rise in mixed marriages around the world and tips on what gift to give (hint: it’s tasty). Or, you can keep up with the latest Asian designers who are influencing global brands. There are also links to other pages of interest, travel apps (why did I not see these before our trip?), a regularly updated section on food and dining. and suggested films to add to your Netflix queue!

Best of all, Everything Hapa normalizes and celebrates the diverse reality of our lives and those of many of our friends. And in doing so, it not only offers community and functions as an important symbol, but also claims territory for those of us living (in all our forms and ways) at the intersection of Asian ancestry and another culture. What are you waiting for? Go take a look.

And maybe have a bite of butterball or jap jae.

Acknowledging imperfection

It’s no secret: we really miss being in Asia. My mouth misses sipping jujube tea, my spirit misses the temples, my mind misses the challenge, my eyes miss the palaces, and my heart misses the exuberance of it all. Even my body misses the time zone: it seems this week I am either sleeping until 3 pm or waking up at 4 am! (No fun when we have a houseful of eager company who are very much living in THIS time zone).

But, there are some things that I didn’t love about Tokyo & Seoul with my whole self, and which, reframed in the spirit of U.S. Thanksgiving, can be stated as things I appreciate about my life here. Here goes:

1. Not having motorcycles drive in crosswalks or on sidewalks (As in Seoul)

2. Being able to use our debit and credit cards basically everywhere (Unlike Tokyo)

3. Not having to throw toilet paper in the trash can (Seoul)

4. Not having to wonder about typhoid in the water (Korea)

5. Being functionally literate and able to speak in full sentences in my own language

6. Not being run over, pushed, or ignored (Seoul, Chinese tourists at Narita)

7. Not being an exotic object of fascination with my hair, eyes, and frame

8. Not being one of the only multicultural couples

9. Having abundant public trash cans!

10. Having full access to the Interwebs on our cell phones (we didn’t have the right system or pay for access in time in Asia)

11. Having a wider range of American food at our disposal than fried eggs and toast

12. Generally knowing where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.

13. Not living out of a suitcase.

14. Not having a bathroom wall made of glass (Seoul)

15. Understanding the full meaning of events and interactions

16. Not being 17 hours ahead of family & friends.

So, 16 things to be grateful for this morning :) But I still miss it all.

The almost digital kiosk for ordering food, helpfully located outside a delicious ramen place near Omotesando. For someone who has trouble deciding what to order, this low-stress approach of letting you take your time before entering the restaurant is so appreciated! Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn


Gangnam Station. It’s not all horsey dances. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

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Re-entry woes + determination

So, we’re home. As the cliche goes, the party’s over, and tomorrow it’s back to work.

I knew it would be hard to leave Asia, given what a great time we were having, but I didn’t expect to be so bummed about what greeted us upon our return. Sorry suburban sprawl, but you’ve got nothing on the nightlife offered up by Shibuya and Apgujeong. To be fair, you’re not meant to. But now that we’ve experienced shopping at 10 pm, hanging out at coffee houses till 11 pm, and grabbing late night street food after that, we’re a little underwhelmed.

Compared to dusty sunsets over strip malls, the heady cosmopolitanism was intoxicating with its array of technology, artistry, and history. Soaring skyscrapers set incongruously next to ancient palaces, metal metros zooming past wooden shrines, fishcake vendors operating in front of glitzy department stores, calligraphy shops situated next door to upscale galleries… It was a veritable potpourri of life, emanating a vitality we’d never experienced before.

Travel is always a heightened form of living, in the way that plopping into a new country requires you to instantly navigate new terrain in a new language, with new cultural behavior. But usually it is a relief to come home to our routine, to get back to our own ways of doing things.

This time was different. We felt at home in a way we never have in Amsterdam or Vienna. Maybe because it actually was Mike’s first home, and because it felt so similar to being in his mom’s house. Perhaps because we cared more, and were so invested in the experience. Probably because we “get” Korean culture more than Polish or Italian culture, even if our pronunciation falters.

We were utterly captivated, and are determined to go back. Time to refill the piggy bank!

View of marvelous Tokyo from the top of city hall. Some of the best things really are free! Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

Indeed. Wishes from my water bottle lid in Narita. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

One of our only photos together from the entire trip. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

봉은사 Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple founded in 794 A.D. Be impressed. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

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Small joys of Seoul

Tonight when we got back to our hotel, I layed on the bed and sighed, “It’s good to be home!” What I really meant was that it was good to be out of the cold, but you can also guess what was behind my Freudian slip: We really love it here.

With that in mind, here are some of the little joys of Seoul:

1. Piping hot street food for freezing mornings and nights. So far we’ve had fish cake on a stick, chestnuts, little donut balls (bong), cinnamon pancakes (hotteok), dried squid (ojinga), and fish-shaped fried dough filled with red bean paste, twice. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try the street sausage (sundae) or egg, but we still have 2 days ;).

2. Ondul! The heated floor feels SO good to your cold achy feet, and it heats up the room nicely, too.

3. Shared uses of space. Streets have retail space in stores, on the sidewalks, on upper floors, underground, and all through the alleys. I know I’ve only been to a few areas, but I really like how this enables shoppers and vendors at different price points to be in the space together. (I’m wondering what Gangnam will look like).

4. Cute and clever bath and body products. Yes, I know the whole whitening thing is controversial. But beyond that, there are adorable hand cream jars shaped like penguins and pandas, as well as a broad range of lotion face masks (as in Japan, but with different scents/ingredients like squash). Tonight we bought something I can’t wait to try: foot lotion masks, which, from the diagram on the box, may turn out to be socks. Made out of lotion.

5. Night owls. We just got back and it’s nearly midnight, which is apparently nothing for Seoulites (we saw a lot of people heading out), but we needed to escape the Siberian wind. Coffee Bean was open until 11, as were many of the stores (in the nightlife districts).

6. Speaking of CBTL, this is a city of cafe-goers. Local and international chains as well as popup and mom and pop shops are on every corner, at least in the Namdaemun/Myeongdong/Gwanghwamun/Jongro areas we’ve spent time in. And you know what? It’s so much better than at home. The baristas take the time to pull the shots and froth the milk properly, they mix the drink artfully, and the whole scene is so much calmer as they use a pager system to let you know your drink is ready. We’re totally spoiled now, seeing the way some things could be.
Of course, other things strike us as odd or annoying, but that’s for another post. Out of room on this app again! :)

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