China!

Two years ago, we leaped at the chance to go to Japan and Korea. I had finished grad school at long last, prices were shockingly affordable, and we’d saved up enough vacation days to make it happen. After hoping and scheming for thirteen years about trying to go “some day,” we suddenly realized that some day was now. In the months leading up to our departure, I wrote about our trip research, the sites we looked forward to seeing, and what the trip meant to us as part of our journey together in a multicultural relationship. I also talked about what it meant for us to experience Asia together for the first time, including the concerns we had about being accepted or rejected, the glorious time we had while there, and the difficulty we experienced during re-entry.

Since then, though, I’ve only written haphazardly. I guess I had a hard time summoning the enthusiasm for ordinary life that so easily gushed out of me when thinking about our life-changing and life-affirming trip. Well, that, and we’ve been busy with grad school #2 – Mike’s heroic but admittedly insane participation in an accelerated MBA program, which started just after we returned from Asia a year and a half ago. We also moved, had some job changes, some family illnesses and . . . voila, here we are – already a quarter of the way through 2015!

Well, today I am finding renewed vigor for my Sonoran Hanbok project, not only because I have missed it (I really have) and because I have more to say (I think I do!) but because we are preparing for another trip to the mother continent. And this time, we are going to where much of pan-Asian culture and civilization truly began: China. March 23, 2015, Missy with Goat

China! We’re going to China! So far, we’ve purchased our tickets and received a Year of the Goat plush as a thank you present from the airline. He sits on top of our couch and reminds us every day about the adventure that awaits us in a little more than two months. I don’t know yet exactly which sites will be on the itinerary, but we’ve narrowed our destinations to three very different cities: Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. I’m anticipating that at the very least, we’ll see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and The Bund. But beyond that, I still need to do some research. And study Mandarin. (Today was my first lesson via Pimsleur!) I’m hoping we’ll get enough under our belts to at least ask for directions on this one. And of course, we also have to apply for our visa.

One thing at a time. Everything at the same time. Between work and school, we don’t have a lot of time to spare, and the trip will soon be upon us. It’s a lot, but it’s just the kind of “a lot” that I love most. A chance to break out of my comfort zone and see the world from a new perspective, to feel new breezes, taste new dishes, learn something, grow a little bit, and share in a discovery together.

I’ve already got goose bumps. Ready or not, here we come!

Where is Chuseok?

Back in 2007, before we moved to Poland, I scoffed at the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving overseas. While some people get misty-eyed at the thought of family togetherness and brined poultry, I personally never cared that much about the holiday and didn’t think I would miss it. I was therefore surprised and humbled to see what a few months abroad can do for one’s nostalgia. It felt strange as weeks passed in the month of November following All Saints’ Day (instead of Halloween) and Polish Independence Day (instead of Veteran’s Day) and enormous Christmas trees went up in the medieval square. Even if I didn’t particularly enjoy pumpkin pie, I had never experienced the lead-up to Christmas without it. And without the energy, for better or worse, of U.S. consumerism. As holiday tunes piped through the loudspeakers, I felt like Christmas had jumped the gun somehow. My calendar had lost its bearings.

What did Thanksgiving feel like when it wasn’t Thanksgiving and there weren’t paper cutout turkeys and tacky orange bunting everywhere? Of course, we could be privately thankful within our own flat. And, just like in the U.S., they had harvests in Poland. Furthermore, given that I was in an international program, maybe we could have gotten together with fellow expats to celebrate. Yet, we didn’t. Unable to have it the way we had always known it to be, it would have seemed like a half-hearted sham. Most of the foods at the feast are not only New World foods from a European perspective (not a lot of yams and squash on hand in Krakow), but they are also derivative by design. My family makes them a certain way, every year, because. From boxes and cans. And so, to painstakingly craft them from scratch would strangely have made it feel even more artificial. We didn’t end up celebrating, but instead went to class just as if it was an ordinary day, because it was. For dessert that night, I slurped kiesel, a kind of soupy Polish gelatin, and called it good. But as I went to bed that night, I felt a little sad that my holiday was happening, without me, on the other side of the world.

Where is Chuseok?

I often think back to this experience when Chuseok rolls around on the lunar calendar. Every late summer we debate whether we should observe one of the most important Korean holidays of the entire year. We could technically do part of the ritual, since sadly we have a gravesite to visit. But beyond cleaning it, we wouldn’t be able to do much more because rules at this cemetery expressly forbid any kind of pouring of alcohol or bringing food or leaving objects. Also, given that it’s Phoenix, the entire cemetery is basically dirt. And it is still 110 degrees F (over 43 C). Not that we couldn’t bow our heads anyway – we certainly feel enough love and devotion to go out there and sweat in the dust – but we would attract a lot of attention and I don’t know that I, as the European American spouse, should push for this if my husband and Umma aren’t.

Mike & Halmonee (Grandma) on Thanksgiving, 2008.

Mike & Halmonee (Grandma) on Thanksgiving, 2008.

We also lack the family spirit of the holiday. Although we could gather with my husband’s mom, aunt, and grandmother, they haven’t observed the holiday with any regularity since moving to the U.S. 20 – some years ago. If we show up in hanbok (which we don’t actually own) and begin bowing, it would be seriously strange. They probably don’t even realize that it is coming up this weekend, so disconnected from the Korean calendar are they after all this time. Plus, given how they were dislocated during the Korean Civil War and then struggled for decades following, I don’t know if they ever really celebrated this holiday in its modern form. So, our attempt to perpetuate the holiday traditions of my husband’s family would have to take place despite his family, in a way that they might have never experienced themselves, and that feels weird. Especially when, as the elders, it should be more about them than my own desire to participate in their culture. Moreover, even if we did complete the duty part of the holiday, we would, sadly (and somewhat selfishly) also miss out on the fun part.

This drives home the realization for us that a holiday is a cultural phenomenon, not a private act. Without experiencing the atmosphere, the festive décor in stores, the tantalizing holiday products on offer, the food and traditional activities, and even the ungodly traffic of the weekend, we have to wonder if it is possible to really call it observing or participating at all. After all, there is actually nothing to participate in, and nobody to participate with.  (Maybe it would be different if we joined a Korean church, but I don’t think we should do that just to go to cultural events). So, there will be no official, standard Chuseok happening here.

But instead of our all-or-nothing mentality from Poland, we will reach for what we can grasp, which will probably be some jap jae and songpyeon, washed down with baekseju. Maybe we’ll go to Gogi, our favorite local Korean restaurant, or to Asiana market. Or maybe, in a non-traditional twist, we’ll just give it a nod by curling up for another episode of our current K-drama. When living between cultures, one  must compromise and make modifications. Sometimes events happen without us, and celebrating out of context with whatever we have on hand, the best we can, might be all we can do. And as we go to sleep, we can hope that one day we’ll see ssireum and ganggangsullae live, and maybe even brave the seesaw. In a hanbok. Maybe even with Halmonee by our side. For now, we simply embrace the holiday in our hearts, and plot our next visit.

To those celebrating, and those who wish they were celebrating, Happy Chuseok. Wherever you are.

Korean Culture: Obscure niche to mainstream cool?

As an older Millennial, I’ve often felt that I was just a few years ahead of the curve. Not in terms of being more advanced, but rather in being interested in or wanting certain things that weren’t really available yet. As trends have gained steam, I’ve been surprised and delighted, but sometimes also caught off-guard, by how supposedly niche interests of mine have gone mainstream.

Korean culture is one of these areas.

Takematsu

Fourteen years ago, what I knew of Korea was limited to what I could experience firsthand in my Phoenix bedroom community of Glendale. Mike and I went on our first date at a local Korean and Japanese restaurant, Takematsu, where I tasted my very first kimchi and dolsut bibimbap. I had tried to do some research ahead of time, but because I couldn’t find good sites online dedicated to this topic (it was 2000), I resorted to the encyclopedias of culinary culture found at our local library, where I worked. (I may or may not have spent a bit of my afternoon shift trying to wrap my head around descriptions of fermented fish cake). Otherwise, my grasp of Korea was limited to knowing that there had been a war there, that there was a North one and a South one, and that my mother-in-law had some really pretty decorations in her house.

Snelling

Things improved slightly when we lived in the Twin Cities. As someone who was studying Russia, I wasn’t learning more about Korea in school than the pitiful bit I already knew. In daily life, there weren’t really opportunities for engaging Korean culture, either. I don’t think it even crossed our mind to try. However, because we did not have my husband’s mother to cook for us, we had to venture outside our apartment and find Korean food for ourselves. Our journey took us to a gritty section of a St. Paul street called Snelling, which had two restaurants – Shilla and Mirror of Korea – and a tiny grocery store no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Although the intention was initially just to obtain some good food, the experience of going to this microscopic Koreatown was my first real experience of Korean America outside my mother-in-law’s home or a restaurant. And, I think it was a watershed moment in our interest in engaging Korean culture, both for its own sake and for what it meant to my husband and the identity of our family.

2003 in Minnesota: Korean culture seemed infinitely far away.

2003 in Minnesota: Korean culture seemed infinitely far away.

Stepping into the market, I saw another side of Mike – his Korean side – for the first time. I’m not sure whether this was because he was tapping into it more, and that is what struck me, or whether I was seeing what had always been there with new eyes, in the context of this new experience we were having together. In any case, that tiny store was a treasure trove of cultural encounters for me. It was the first time I had been anywhere where absolutely no English was spoken. (Even in parts of Europe, which I had been fortunate to visit, it seemed English was omnipresent). Where customer service meant frowning at me. (Did they hate me? Had I made them mad? Did they not like to smile?) Where I hardly recognized a single item for sale. (What were all of these mysterious cans and plastic containers?) Where I felt too big and too loud, somehow. (Why was it dead silent in here?) And where, amid what was to me a zone of total foreignness, my husband magically knew what to do.

He started pointing out what the different foods were – the bean sprouts, the red bean jellies, the dried seaweed – and while selecting what he needed from a suddenly accessible menu in his head, he began to tell me stories. He remembered Shrimp Crackers and Choco-Pies and the cherished moments of childhood bliss that went with them. He remembered having fish cake on a stick from a street vendor, and the joy he felt as a small boy as he drank the broth that came with it and dipped the stick into the available sauces. He said Anyonghaseyo and bowed slightly to the shopkeeper. And he chided me for counting my change in front of the clerk, explaining  that it would look like I was accusing them of stealing.

It was an awkward experience (I didn’t understand why I was the one seen as rude when they were the ones scowling at me), but I was hooked. As the years passed, we found ourselves regularly going back. The grocery store became a locus of our shared discovery, where he remembered fragments of his childhood and I became acquainted both with the culture and this side of him. It also served an additional purpose: Amid a Midwestern landscape which we found isolating and alienating, this was our own little world on the prairie – one he belonged to, I was starting to get to know, and that we could explore together.

Hallyu

Our experience of Korean culture might have been limited to those monthly trips to Snelling and our sometimes vain attempts to cook Korean food in our apartment if it were not for a very important phenomenon: Hallyu. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is to much of the world what “The British Invasion” of pop music was to the U.S. back in the 1960s. And it brought us face to face with contemporary Korean television, movies, and music for the first time. This was in the early 2000s, before digital streaming, social media, and blogging became so widespread. To learn about top Korean titles, we therefore had to painstakingly scour English-language Asia sites for reviews, buy an expensive import version on YesAsia, and then hope we liked it when it arrived. While we had a few misses, most films, like Il Mare, were well-chosen. Swept away by the wave, we soon filled our shelves with everything from Windstruck, My Sassy Girl, My Beautiful Girl Mari and Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox to Memories of Murder, Tae Guk Gi, Old Boy, Dae Jang Geum, and Jumong.

As we watched, we witnessed steady improvement in production value, and came to recognize patterns in storytelling, plot devices, relationship tangles, and challenges for the characters to overcome. We fell in love with stars like Jang Dong-Gun, Lee Young-Ae, and Song Kang-Ho. We relished the opportunity to see Korea in a modern light, to better appreciate its regal past through court dramas, and to be exposed to unresolved parts of its history through films like Silmido. Most of all, we saw something we had never seen before: Male characters who reminded me and Mike of himself. Not simply because of surface similarities in appearance, but because of the portrayal of different kinds of Korean masculinity. I can’t overstate what it meant to see a leading man – the hero, the love interest – be someone other than a square-jawed all-American bro. And to see Korean men playing complex, multidimensional parts other than the eccentric sidekick to the “normal” white dude. Guys who felt affection, anger, surprise, and worry with the same expressions and reactions as the ones I so often saw on my husband’s own face. It was like discovering a piece of our authentic selves and the world we were creating together, arriving in a box from thousands of miles away.

Streaming the mainstream

Koreatown, Los Angeles. Our go-to for all things Korean.

Koreatown, Los Angeles. Our go-to for all things Korean.

When we returned from Minnesota in 2005, little had changed in Glendale, but Korean media had become even more accessible thanks to Amazon and Netflix. By the time we returned from additional sojourns in Poland and Atlanta in 2008, technology had improved even more. BluRays, smartphones, consoles, and streaming services were all taking off, and soon we were able to watch Korean media on-demand through sites like Drama Fever and Crunchy Roll. We also began taking our first trips to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, where we discovered the wonders of Korean malls. After pigging out in the ridiculously delicious food court, we could buy dual-language books, ingenious home goods, and of course, more media. Soon we were making regular pilgrimages so we could fill our bellies, rejuvenate our souls, and stock up on essentials like Epik High and Rain. Thus, as we entered the second decade of this century, it seemed that as long as we knew where to look, we could find nuggets of Korean culture. And yet, for all of our interest, it still seemed to be something peculiar that we and we alone were interested in, at least as far as other Americans were concerned. Our embrace of Korea was just one more exotic thing that we were interested in as strange globe-trotting people.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Psy’s Gangnam Style started playing on the Top 40 radio station in that very same Glendale. When I suddenly realized I was no longer the only white girl at the Korean spa. When columns at major news outlets started devoting space to Korean businesses, social life, fashion, music, and movies alongside the typical pieces about North Korean saber-rattling. When books about how Korean pop culture was taking over the world started being discussed in Marie Claire. When articles extolling the hipness and irresistibility of Korean culture starting populating my Twitter feed. When blogs about Korean culture started springing up everywhere, exploring and critiquing not only media, but also social issues like multiculturalism, poverty, and racism. When schools and companies started asking me to help them better understand their Korean students and clients. When other white women started expressing jealousy and admiration that I was with someone who was part Korean (a refreshing change from the remarks I’d had previously).

Ahead of the curve or catching up?

Although this transition has been a long-time coming, in some ways it has caught me off-guard. After so many years of having to painstakingly search for and learn about everything from its food to its pop stars on a journey that was part scavenger-hunt, part research thesis, it is a bit weird and strangely irritating to see newcomers have so much information and access at their fingertips. Like an old person, I think, “where is the hard work?” in this era where one simply clicks on the next show in the Netflix queue and never has to go through protracted inquiry and deliberation, making hard choices about which expensive imported show to watch next. Not only that, but it is also strange to have this part of us – which society formerly seemed to reject – now be upheld as the wave of the future and the epitome of cool. Of course, I’m thrilled for Korea. It deserves its time in the sun, and its success and popularity have nothing to do with me at all. But, on a personal level, after enduring disinterest, rudeness, hostility, and rejection for our embrace of Korean culture – which is not something exotic to us but is a real and living, breathing part of who my husband is, and by extension, what our life is like – it is a little odd to see it suddenly become a fad.

A bite of happiness at the bakery in Koreatown Plaza.

A bite of happiness at the bakery in Koreatown Plaza.

It’s a paradigm shift that we like, and which definitely benefits us as it provides ever-increasing access and also more approval from the mainstream. However, it also reorients our own relationship to Korean and American cultures and how we see ourselves occupying the sometimes contested, uneasy space in between. What does it mean to us, now that it is perpetually available? No longer an act of rebellion, but now even more cherished, has anything really changed at all? I don’t know. Yes? Maybe? No? I’m not sure we have to know. But it’s something we think about with a combination of bemusement and appreciation as we laugh uproariously while streaming Rooftop Prince. While we sound out Korean lessons streamed from Pimsleur. As I listen to the Secret Garden soundtrack – streamed over Xbox Music. As I prepare to give a short talk at the office about my recent trip to Seoul and the photography I did there. As I reflect on my work with my Korean students and consider ways that I can continue to help them during their transition to the U.S. school system. As I help those in the film industry better engage with directors and producers from Korea, who they feel would be a great visionary fit for their projects. And as I munch on dried gim seaweed snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Maybe the answer is that Korean culture is simply here to stay, that it is finally a legitimate global influence, and that it’s not about who liked it first. (At any rate, there are certainly, many people – Koreans first among them – who appreciated it long before I walked into that grocery store on Snelling so many years ago). Perhaps, like long-fermenting kimchi (or maybe a fiery bulgogi), it is finally ready to be enjoyed by the masses. With such richness and so much to offer, it’s about time.

We’re just lucky to be a part of it.

In a bite, a dream

Something beautiful and delicious happened tonight, at the most ordinary 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.

The incredible mochi we bought at Tokyo's Tsukiji market.

The incredible mochi we bought at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.

These mochi were soft. Supple. Moist. Delicate. Bursting with flavor. And as we drooled over each bite, we were reminded in avisceral way that we must find a way to get back to Japan. Because even if we can find these particular treats here, 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

An American Girl. Sometimes I just want to follow my own dreams.

An American Girl. Sometimes I just want to follow my own dreams.

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. We took Umma 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 coming on the heels of our own international adventure, it struck all of the places in our hearts that needed validated. For example, the assertion that life is about taking leaps of faith and following our hearts, having profound experiences, and cultivating a story 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 must 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. At our core, we’re still individualists, optimists, and people who believe we can shape our lives to our liking through grit and hard work. This is all highly threatening to Umma, 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.

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, jockeyed for a seat 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.

My tireless mother-in-law. Even when she's visiting us, she's still hard at work.

My tireless mother-in-law. Even when she’s visiting us, she’s still hard at work.

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 by mainstream Americans 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. To do what you want is childish and selfish – a juvenile impulse that one eventually outgrows.

Two different perceptions on how life is and should be – settling vs. striving – are hard to reconcile in a single 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.

A merry mixed Christmas!

We’re hosting my mother in law for Christmas – a surprisingly new experience given that we’ve shared a family for so many

Getting in the spirit with some pre-holiday photoboothing!

Getting in the spirit with some pre-holiday photoboothing!

years. While some things are the same with this arrangement, like her cooking a rice dumpling soup called 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 hangul 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 Kraków, and after a meal of tamales, and before watching Harold & Kumar (her 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. 메리 크리스마스!

Hapa Holidays!

A blended Christmas under Chandler's Tumbleweed Tree.

A blended Christmas under Chandler’s Tumbleweed Tree.

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 greater 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.