We drove north on highway 101, heading to my grandparents’ house. My dad’s parents only lived a few hours away from us, so we would go there for holidays whenever we could. We curved this way and that along the coast and away from it. In the seat next to me, unbuckled, sat a large platter of my mom’s Kimbap, covered in plastic wrap. I could smell the sesame oil and garlic seasoned spinach, the Bulgogi, the carrots and the omelet pieces smooshed together and held hostage by a perfect roll of white rice and seaweed.
I studied the number of ferns my mom had added to each roll—trying to decide whether or not I would need to discreetly remove them, or if it was a small enough amount to allow them to blend in with the rest of the flavors I loved. The heat from the freshly cooked and assembled spheres clouded the layer of plastic wrap hovering over them. The scent made my stomach growl. My mom made Kimbap to eat as afterschool snacks, for my dad’s weekday packed lunches, and on road trips—and it was agonizing to sit next to it for hours in the car.
When we got to my grandparents’, the first thing I noticed was the table brimming with dish after dish of food. Just behind their plaid his-and-her arm chairs sat trays filled with potato chip- and cereal-topped casseroles, and pies baked to a perfect golden brown. The dishes blended together, working together, their colors matching like the rich colors of fall. My mom placed her Kimbap on the table. Our food offering took its place among the rest, proud and bright, like summer. Its scent was undiminished by the other scents, eluding the obvious that it didn’t quite blend in. It was the interruption on my grandparents’ table, the break in an expected conversation of tastes and recipes. I wondered: was the Kimbap lonely because of its distinction?
Later, on a long summer visit to South Korea, we had the opportunity to spend extended time with my mom’s side of the family. It was my first time in Korea. After a few days, I quickly realized that other Korean kids didn’t have freckles like I did. Our dark heads blended together in a sea of the same shade of black, but the spots on my face and the sounds coming out of my mouth interrupted all of my efforts to blend in. I was their “American cousin.” And no matter how much I thought my heart and my taste buds bent in the same direction as my cousins, my European roots convinced them otherwise. They understood each other, but it took extra effort to understand me. I was aware of every bit of it. I was Korean, but not Korean like them.
The first night we were there, my mom had instructed me before bed to eat whatever my aunt gave me for breakfast the next morning—whether I was used to it or not. At breakfast, I asked for mul, proud that I knew how to ask for water without hand motions. My aunt put a glass of water on the table. Next to my water, she placed a spoon, a bowl of rice, and an unknown fish—she then cracked an egg and poured the raw contents over it all like a bow on a gift. Remembering my mom’s words the night before, I took another sip of mul, and dug in—trying to separate my thoughts from my taste buds. Could I eat the contents of this bowl to prove I could be familiar, no matter how many freckles lived on my face? Could I eat like my Korean family did, without any interruptions giving way to my otherness?
Being mixed race and mixed cultures feels like a million interruptions at the table of homogeneity. As a little girl I learned that it’s impolite to interrupt, but now as a woman I am learning something new: some interruptions are needed. Some interruptions are made by God for such a time as they come. They become necessary placeholders, offering a new seat at an old table. Their divergence saying: welcome, be here, be whole, show up with all of your bright, un-matching, non-casserole colors and a good side of Korean freckles, take up that space at the table, grab your spoon. Be fearfully and unapologetically you.
Cover image by Tran Mau Tri Tam.