When I was little, I thought I could pass for white. If you know me, you know this is hilarious—because I look just like my mom, who is 100% Korean. (My dad, by the way, is a very warm, funny white guy.) Growing up in small towns in Mississippi in the 1970s, I just wanted to believe I was like most of my other friends: decidedly all-American. I would commit lies of omission all the time, neglecting to share that I had an Asian mom who often perfumed our house with the funky smells of kimchi, dried anchovies, and simmering seaweed soups. Instead, I boasted of her chicken-fried steak and gravy. But that all changed in middle school, when, at a sleepover I hosted, I gained the confidence to share my mom’s japchae with my friends. This dish—a classic Korean recipe featuring slippery glass noodles tossed with meat and vegetables—was my absolute favorite growing up (still is!). I always loved the chewy texture of the noodles, the interplay of nutty sesame oil and savory soy sauce, the hint of sweetness, and the garlicky wilted spinach. My mom had made a large batch, and there were leftovers in the fridge. They weren’t intended for my sleepover friends, because of course I didn’t want to serve them Korean food. But then I did. In the middle of the night, between movies and fueled by a mean case of the munchies, I gathered up the courage to introduce my friends to japchae. “Eww, that looks like worms,” one friend said upon the unveiling. Deep breath, Ann, you know this is damn good food. After some gentle coaxing, once the intoxicating aromas of sesame and garlic registered with the hungry girls, one of them took a bite, and then another. They loved it! Even cold straight from the fridge! We took turns pinching a clump of noodles between our fingers, leaning our heads way back for dramatic effect, and then dropping the deliciousness in. We gobbled up every single bit. That was a turning point for me. Little by little, I began to embrace the Korean side of my identity, mostly through food—because food, for so many of us, is an immediate gateway to our culture. I often cook Korean dishes for my family so that my children, now in their early teens, can feel some connection to their Korean roots. And you know what? Japchae is their favorite. When we eat it, I tell them how my mom used to make it for me when I was a kid. I tell them about how, when I went to Korea and made japchae in a cooking class, the instructor told me that it’s important to honor each element with its own seasoning and cooking method, to fully bring out its best and to preserve its color. I tell them that the dish was once considered royal cuisine but has now become more commonplace. In this way, food serves as a means for us to connect to our deeper heritage, helping us understand the depths of who we are. And for me, I know more now than ever who I am—not fully white, not fully Asian, but something beautifully in between.
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