Fermenting My Asian American Identity

How I stopped rejecting my Korean heritage

Jamie Frater

My partner asks me what’s for dinner. I shrug. Something Korean. Since the pandemic arrived in Oregon ten months ago, our dinner has been a home-cooked Korean meal more often than not. My palate seeks little variation. Our fridge is stocked with banchan like dubu jjim and hobak buchim, while my go-to main dishes include tteokbokki and doenjangjjigae.

I learned these flavors from the food my mother fed me—the right amount of sugar, soy sauce, and garlic. When, as an adult, I’d ask her how to make a dish, she’d shrug and recite a list of ingredients with measurements etched into her hands, not her mind. So I learned how to technically cook Korean food from my—and the internet’s—other cherished mother, Emily Kim, also known as Maangchi. I ate my way through her videos, blog posts, and recipes, fusing my mother’s flavors with Maangchi’s precision to recreate dishes from my childhood.

I haven’t always enjoyed cooking Korean food. It’s an aspect of my life that has crept in slowly,  paralleling my journey of coming into my identity as an Asian American.

 

I like to imagine I was incepted and formed in an onggi, a large ceramic vessel used in my culture, surrounded by the tangy smells of soy sauce, dried anchovies, and kelp, fermenting in a salty, fishy, acidic brine under the strong summer heat. As the weather cooled, the fumes would cease, swirling upward and out to meet the spirits of my ancestors in their graves. And when it was time for me to come out, my family would tap at the clay, a small crack giving way to large shards. Through the debris they would see me, a sticky black ball, perfectly fermented and ready for the world.  

Instead, I was pushed out of my mother’s small body in a sterile hospital room in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The first faces I saw, other than those of my mother and father, belonged to the white nurses and doctors who handled me. They instructed my mother how to breastfeed, handing my six-pound body over to her. My mother had been in the US for less than ten years and still couldn’t comprehend full conversations in English. My father listened intently, translating when my mother would give him a quizzical nod, her black bangs glistening as they lay plastered to her forehead.

I grew up in this sterile environment of whiteness, learning a culture that my parents knew little of. As I got older, the warm, sticky rice that I had so loved as an infant became detestable to me, the smell of sesame oil and the stain of kimchi feeling like permanent attributes amid the flavors of Lunchables, Pop Tarts and Twinkies. International Day at my elementary school became a sharp point of embarrassment and a reminder of my difference: my mother paraded trays of kimbaprice wrapped in dried seaweed, often with bulgogi and pickled daikon, similar to a Japanese sushi roll—that she had spent the whole night making, while I cowered in the corner, wishing she had brought corndogs instead.

I taught my mother how to make ham sandwiches for me, pleading with her to buy me Zebra Cakes at the grocery store for my school lunches. I also developed a white palate in other areas, starting with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Harry Potter, and WWJD bracelets, and later embracing The OC, The Real World, and skimpy Hollister skirts.  

Up until a few years ago, my culture remained distant to me. I rejected anything that reminded me of my difference, including my parent’s expectations. “Why don’t you make As?” they’d demand. “Are you hanging out with boys again?” they’d interrogate. “Why don’t you come to Korean church?” they’d plead. My parents pushed me to embody the model minority myth that so many Asian Americans like me inhabit. Our parents prodded us toward high-speed, high-stakes success, hoping we would reap every ounce of fortune from their years of backbreaking work. 

There was one other Korean girl in my high school class. Her name was Bora, and she represented everything I hated with her stellar grades, unhip clothes, and dutiful disposition. My mother asked me again and again why I couldn’t be like her.

I rejected my parents’ expectations as a means of ridding myself of my culture and what it represented. Instead of 4.0 GPAs and Ivy League acceptance letters, I turned to mediocre grades, parties, and my token Asian status to find acceptance from my white peers and define who I was. My friends nicknamed me the “Blazin’ Asian,” which had less to do with my attractiveness than with the pot smoke around me.

 

I began to dabble with cooking Korean food after college, out of a distant feeling of duty and an emerging need to reclaim my cultural identity. I had just moved to Portland and gained two biracial friends of Asian descent, and realized I could be both cool and Asian. I would drive thirty minutes to stock up at H Mart, excited for the adventure. But failed attempts at rolling tight logs of kimbap expertly, like my mother did, left me feeling even more alienated from my culture.

As my friends’ interests matured and diversified, I learned that being the token Asian meant I was the de facto cultural ambassador for Korean culture, despite my complicated relationship with it. 

 “Jen, let’s go to a Korean restaurant together since you know,” a friend would request.

“Know what?” I’d always inquire.

“What’s good!”

I took this task on with ease: “Sure. Yeah. Let’s.” The routine was always the same. I’d see how impressed they were that I could read Korean characters, even if I had no idea what the words meant. Sometimes they’d ask me the significance of a dish, and I’d shrug. “Who knows?” I’d say between spoonfuls of rice.

It wasn’t until I began to understand myself as something other than a white person that things began to shift, shards of broken ceramic coming undone one by one. Where I once saw genuine curiosity, I began to perceive an insidious assumption that I could represent a country I had only visited twice. 

In 2019, the ceramic shards gave way to a new me.

I spent three months in Vietnam that summer, speaking with locals who knew and understood their culture better than I ever will of my own motherland.

Despite language barriers and the seemingly chaotic traffic, Vietnam was a release for me. Having spent twenty-nine years in all-white settings, I had never been able to experience myself as an Asian among other Asians.

Vietnamese people would peer at me with curiosity as I wove through lines of motorbikes and plastic stools where the stores and cafes spilled out onto the sidewalk. I would make eye contact with them, seeing again and again the question in their eyes: “What are you?”

White tourists wouldn’t glance twice at me, always regarding me as an Asian from Asia. I found comfort in my invisibility and distance from them, and began to observe my English-speaking counterparts. They were so self-assured in their mannerisms, speaking loudly and diving headfirst into the throngs of motorbikes. I’d watch the drivers swerve, looking back at them with confusion and disgust. 

I encountered a few white expats and listened to them complain about the primitive nature of the Vietnamese, their inefficient ways of doing business and their inherent laziness. Their rhetoric echoed a similar sentiment to the history books that had taught me about the primitive and savage ways of the East, as told by white missionaries and explorers. 

When my partner, Matt, came to visit me in Vietnam, I was reminded again about whiteness and its privilege. With him, I filled a Vietnamese trope—the Asian woman who uses her beauty and sexuality to attain the power and status associated with whiteness. The city of Hanoi was rife with Vietnamese women who flocked to white expats.

At a wine bar run by a British expat, I watched two beautiful, drunk Vietnamese women lounging on the patio, wearing elegant short skirts and high heels. Their eyes half-open and gentle smiles on their faces, they sat with a white man whose shirt was nearly undone and face was drenched with booze. His hand, chubby fingers glinting with gold, rested on one of their legs. The Vietnamese people both hated and revered men like him, chasing after white tourists and businessmen for their money and prestige only to look down upon the Vietnamese woman who dared to marry one.

“Excuse me, mister!” I’d hear on the street when I was with Matt. No one ever tried to sell me anything.

We visited a pho place where I had been going for three months. The woman who managed the operation never once smiled at me, only acknowledging my presence to take my order or give me change. When Matt and I rolled up together, a smile as wide as her ears appeared on her face. “Hello!” she exclaimed. I was taken aback, and paused, shaken by the change.

These moments allowed me to reflect on whiteness and how I exist in relation to it. I am not white but have and will always be adjacent to whiteness without enjoying its privileges. 

I barely spoke English when I was in Vietnam. I tried to learn the language as best as I could. I rented a motorbike and learned how to weave through traffic organically, realizing that what looked like chaos was actually a steady stream of nonverbal cues. I wore face masks, like everyone else. I took salsa lessons in Vietnamese, learning that dance instructions require less language fluency than bodily coordination. I employed the tactics of assimilation I had used my whole life, trying to fit into a culture that wasn’t my own.

In this attempted transformation, I began to accept myself as an Asian American. The rejection of whiteness, while shocking, felt right. I finally felt my insides shift, challenging the banana stereotype that I had held for so long, turning yellow to match my yellow outer peel.

 

With this newfound sense of self, I’ve found new interests, friends, and values. Cooking Korean food is no longer a unique experience that requires hours of planning and prep. I only think in terms of the trifecta of soy sauce, sugar, and garlic, and find it hard to consider any other flavor combinations than the one my ancestors perfected over centuries. Hanging out with friends who look like me and whose own bicultural stories parallel mine has become a regular, steady rhythm as my community continues to blossom. Reading stories and consuming media that reflect my experiences is no longer a novelty. I breathe Asian American in everything I do because that is who I am.

Recently, I made tteokbokki with friends who share my inherited palate. “Jal meokkesseumnida, we each recited before our first bite. We slurped and smacked in silence like our parents had done, ignoring the western tradition of closed-mouth eating we had been taught so well.

“Ommo!” my friend gasped as a slippery rice cake escaped her chopsticks.

The familiar sound reminded me of my family. I saw my mother wearing red rubber gloves and slicing kimchi on our pink Formica counters, and I saw my father bowed over a spicy bowl of kimchi jjigae, his balding head glistening from the heat. The binds of family and culture are strong, and in moments like these I feel strength in fusing the past with the present. My culture is no longer an appendage or a repressed facet of myself. Instead, it has fermented into something deeper that represents all of who I am.

Comments

6 comments have been posted.

Profound

David | February 2021 | Memphis

Beautiful piece from a beautiful soul!

Dana Schultz | January 2021 |

Beautiful read. Thank you so much for sharing this piece. It touched my heart in unexpected ways.

Shian Gutierrez | January 2021 | Milwaukie

Beautiful writing; personal, moving and imaginative.

Julia Babcock | January 2021 |

Gorgeous, compelling writing. And so important.

Jeanette | January 2021 |

Great article!! Lovely read. Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives!!

Rhonda T | January 2021 | New York

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