Keeping My Mother's Culture Alive
Driving, Waiting, Cooking, Eating: The Things I Do to Keep my Mother’s Culture Alive
Every January 1st my mother would wake me and my two siblings up early before breakfast. The three of us would trundle out to the car, still groggy from the early wake-up call, yet excited for what we knew would follow. We would make the drive from Montclair, New Jersey all the way to Flushing, Queens, a place I remember as inhabited mostly by Koreans. The drive was never too long, an hour if we were lucky and evaded traffic, but a grueling three hours if we were unlucky. We would sit patiently, hiding our anticipation and feeling our stomachs grumble and growl. The combination of sleepiness and hunger would result in a peaceful silence in the car, punctuated occasionally by the radio or someone whispering, “Mmm...soooooooooup.” My mother never made breakfast; our first meal of the New Year could only be one thing. The familiar drive through Korean store-lined streets would alert me, James and Isabelle to what awaited us. My sister Isabelle is the oldest, and thus earned the right to sit in the front seat for the majority of our childhoods. At least until my brother James, the middle child, had a tremendous growth spurt and could not fit his gigantic 6'5'' frame in the backseat with me. As neither the oldest nor the largest, I was – and still am – always confined to the backseat and forced to peer around the heads of my siblings to see the outside surroundings.
Finally, we would see the big, red sign above all others, advertising our long-awaited destination: Kum Gang San. The Korean restaurant emanated overpowering smells of seafood, spices, and sticky rice as soon as we would open the doors. The eclectic aromas would hit our nostrils and send our senses into overdrive as they tried to process the overwhelming smells. My mother would speak to the owners, the waitresses and the busboys in Korean, conversing rapidly in a language that was nonsense to me and my siblings.
My mother, Susan Sonhe Yoo, was not born in the United States, but in Seoul, Korea. She lived there with her family until she was nine years old, and then immigrated to Long Island, New York with her parents and older sister. My grandparents were in their late forties when they came to the United States, and they did not lose their cultural traditions. By the time I was ten, they both still spoke very little English. Despite being raised in a Korean household, speaking the language and eating the food, my mother lost some aspects of her culture and deviated from tradition as she grew older. The first of these deviations was marrying my father – an Irish-Scottish man who was distinctly outside of her ethnic group – and subsequently raising three children to speak only English. This departure from traditional values and practices is the result of many variables: the relocation to a new country at a young age, the desire to assimilate and fit in with those around her, the pressure to detach herself from anything foreign or ethnic, and the need to feel American. My mother felt this need to shed her cultural practices in exchange for American assimilation when she was a young immigrant. As an adult, my mother now reflects upon her childhood in the United States with guilt and remorse. Her memories of being a member of the only Korean family in town have forced her to recall how she disregarded her cultural traditions and practices at that time. The shame and regret she feels for disavowing her culture as a child have subsequently led her to practice Korean traditions and instill them in the lives of her children.
My siblings and I would sit down at a table, anxiously awaiting our mother and the food for which we had driven over an hour. We would wait for the familiar, big pot to descend on our table, followed by tins of rice and neat, little, white bowls and ladles. We would stare, entranced, as my mother scooped the soup up slowly, swirling the contents around so we all got a little bit of everything. The spicy, soothing soup was full of rice cakes, onions, boiled eggs, vegetables, and coveted pork dumplings. Usually there are only about seven or eight dumplings in the entire soup, a tremendous flaw only redeemed by how unbelievably delicious they are. Isabelle, James and I still consider it a momentous triumph if we get more than one dumpling in our bowls at a time. With ladles poised, we would look to my mother, waiting for the smile and the gesture that meant we could begin. Half an hour later, bowls empty and stomachs stuffed to the brim with dumplings, rice and broth, we would leave satisfied.
설날 or Seollal, the Korean New Year, typically lands around the end of January and the beginning of February. It changes every year because Koreans follow what is called a lunisolar calendar, which is a combination of the solar and lunar calendars. The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon phases, and generally lasts 354 days. The solar calendar is used in the United States, and measures a year as the time it takes the Earth to perform one revolution around the sun, which is usually 365 days. Seollal is celebrated with 떡국, or tteokguk, a traditional dumpling soup. It is supposed to be eaten on the first day of the New Year as a means to bring good luck. Tteokguk has many other meanings, such as bringing in the New Year with good health and happiness. It is also believed that the soup grants another year of life. This ritual to preserve health and life demonstrates the fear of death in Korean society. As individuals, Koreans can eat tteokguk with the assurance that they will live at least another year. The soup itself represents a continuation of the life of Korean culture. As the soup is eaten, the mortality of the individual is preserved, as well as the mortality of the culture.
The tradition in my family is to eat tteokguk on New Year's Day according to the American calendar year, and not the Korean lunar year. It embodies my very existence and my relationship to South Korea. It is a Korean tradition, kept alive in the United States of America, modified and adapted to fit my culture and the culture of my family. I may fail to perform other Korean traditions and practices, such as speaking the language and eating the food. I visit Han Ah Reum, a Korean market, only twice a year to stock up on big bags of rice, bulgogi, japchae, kimchi, rice cakes, red bean buns, and other Korean foods. I butchered the pronunciations of hal-abeoji and halmeoni when I used to greet my grandfather and grandmother. I might fail to learn the language completely, which some will criticize and consider an impediment to understanding the culture. However, my mother ensured that I would have a small part of my Korean heritage ingrained into my life through a tradition as simple as New Year's soup.
With the ritualistic soup eaten, my mother, sister, brother and I would climb back into the car, ready for the drive back home. The car ride back would usually be characterized by “the itis,” a condition known in my hometown that results in lethargy and deep sleep following an enormous meal. It was never a burden or an inconvenience to spend hours in the car for a bowl of soup. It was part of the tradition; it was waking up early, driving for hours, entering the restaurant that served as a gateway to our culture, eating tteokguk, and then hearing my mother's familiar words on the way home. She would always remind us in the car, “Wherever you are in life, make sure you have this soup every New Year's Day.” It did not have to be at Kum Gang San. It could be eaten at any Korean restaurant, bought from a store, or even cooked at home.
The beauty of the soup tradition lies in the fact that it can be performed anywhere. My family and I would not go to Kum Gang San every year; sometimes my mother would cook it at home, other times we would celebrate with family, or family would come visit us. Despite the symbolic nature of the tteokguk – as a preventative measure against death – it has a deeper meaning for me and my family. It is integral to me because it is the one Korean tradition that I know and can perform well. I may not be able to speak Korean, but I am more than capable of eating a bowl of soup. However, I would not have to eat the soup if I did not want to. My mother does not force me to know about my culture or to maintain its traditions. I eat tteokguk every year because it is delicious, and because doing so makes my mother happy. In recent years, I have noticed the increasing amount of my mother's stories and subtle recollections brought up in conversation; memories of her childhood in Korea, the taste of a particular Korean dish, and the names of family members now dead or in far away places. It has prompted me to reflect upon her ties to Korea. Her greatest ties, her parents, have both been deceased for five years. This is not only an unbearable loss of loved ones, both physically and emotionally, but a substantial loss of cultural resources. Her parents, with their strict adherence to nearly every Korean tradition and ritual, taught my mother everything about her own culture and served as a connection to Korea while they lived in the United States. Their deaths severed this connection, creating within my mother an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness.
My siblings and I used to eat the soup because my mother wanted to expose us to our heritage. As we grew up, we did it because it became one of our family traditions. Now, I do it because I want that taste of soup to be my first meal of the New Year. I do it because I want my mother not to feel alone, and not to feel as though her culture and her parents' culture is being lost on us, her children. The soup gives me comfort, both physically and mentally. The taste, so familiar even when made by different people, is something that I associate with my mother and with my grandparents and their old, little home in Long Island.
If I were to fail to eat tteokguk one year, there would be a deep, nagging, and unsettling feeling within me. Life would not end because I failed to eat the soup, but that year would be marked forever. I would attribute anything bad or upsetting that occurred within that year to the lack of my New Year's soup. So while tteokguk may not provide good luck, it has become as ritualized as brushing my teeth at night. If forgotten or neglected, there exists a mingled sense of regret, shame and remorse; when performed, it provides a sense of security and contentment. It also provides me with a connection to both my mother and her culture in a simple yet powerful act. Tteokguk strengthens my mother's ties to Korea and combines the essential elements of her culture – traditional food and native language – in a way that allows me and my siblings to practice, appreciate, and remember Korean culture.
Catherine Foley is a freshman in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University. Her interests include writing, reading, baking, eating, blogging and travelling to new places. She hopes to combine all of her interests into one major that will launch her career in writing and publishing. Her ultimate goal, and childhood dream job, is to become a food critic in New York City and other major cities around the world.