Thursday, June 13, 2013

What’s In A Smell?

My house suddenly smells like Koreatown. For anyone who knows about real Korean food, the smells can be intense, overwhelming and all-pervasive. Like the smell of honeysuckle in the thick heat of Faulknerian summers, the pungent smell of fermented bean soup (doenjang jjigae), the distinctive odor of spicy, pickled vegetables (kimchi), and the smell of fish frying are equally and integrally woven, like DNA, into the memories of my childhood. But my relationship to those smells has always been a contentious one. I’ll spare you the dissertation (for now, at least) on the complexities of growing up in a biracial and multi-ethnic household, but the smells wafting out of my kitchen in the here-and-now and embedding themselves, literally and metaphorically, in the fabric of my life epitomize that dichotomous relationship between the two parts of myself—Korean and American.

My early years, as funny as this sounds, felt more Korean somehow. My Korean grandmother lived with us until I was about 7. She spoke very little English, and Korean food was a staple around the house at nearly every meal; often we ended up with some bastardization (I suppose now we might call it “fusion”) of both “American” and Korean food. For many years, we did double-duty on Sundays, going to both English-speaking and Korean-speaking church services. And I often played with other Korean/half-Korean kids while our mothers squatted on someone’s back porch or patio making vats and vats of kimchi to divide amongst themselves, to bring to the elderly or the sick, and to store for those communal lunches after church on Sunday. Though I was always vaguely aware during this time of the way in which I straddled two cultures, of the way I never fit, exactly, in one place or another, it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I realized how deeply and profoundly I had internalized that feeling of “otherness.” At 15, my dad had just retired and we were living in the south, away from the safety and abundant diversity (oddly enough) of military life, and I had one of those Their Eyes Were Watching God moments—you know, the one where Janie discovers, upon seeing a photograph of herself, that she is black and not white. My moment happened when an adult, who was supposed to be supervising an activity, pulled his eyes into a slant and made some kind of disparaging “ching-chong” remark. I instantly felt myself flush hot with shame, anger and helplessness. All of those little differences that I’d noted and tucked away somewhere inside of myself were suddenly writ large across my body; when I looked in the mirror that night, my skin looked yellower, my eyes seemed more slanted, and my body felt foreign.

Prior to that moment, however, I’d felt those feelings of otherness most acutely in relation to the way that our house smelled because of the “strange” foods that we ate. My friends would occasionally wrinkle their noses or ask with blank and unreadable faces about the smell upon opening the refrigerator and getting their first whiff of kimchi. And I’d explain, embarrassed and annoyed—at them for their rudeness and at myself, at my mom, at my “other” culture—what it was. I made mental notes and promises to myself that when I grew up, my house would smell like clean laundry and baked goods—or that at least that it would be neutral-smelling enough so that food odors wouldn’t cling to me as I left the house, signaling my strangeness, my foreignness. Somehow, after all these years, I still get hung up on this: I rarely buy kimchi unless I know we are going to eat it in one sitting or I send it home with friends to let it stink up their refrigerators.

But with my mom’s arrival came all kinds of Korean ingredients that now line my pantry and take up space in my fridge. The house had begun to smell a little like my childhood homes, and I wondered anxiously if the smell would ever dissipate. And then my mom got sick on Monday. She asked me and my sister to make her a particular soup, one that starts with sautéing dried Pollock in sesame seed oil. As we set about the task nervously—worried we wouldn’t do it right, more worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep it down—I realized how disconnected I’ve become, in this second half of my life, from my Korean roots, and I began to feel the tug of that other part of myself that I abandoned in front of that mirror when I was 15. Panic welled up in me from some long-unspoken place. What have I forgotten? What questions have gone unasked? What stories has my mother been unable to tell or have I been unable to hear? The ties that bind me to her and to that part of myself that I haven’t yet begun to fully explore feel tenuous at best. Now she’s tired and sometimes forgets or confuses things that have always been common narratives in our shared history. Now I feel the constraints of time and space in all of our interactions. Now, I worry that when the time comes and those smells do dissipate, I will also have lost the way home to some part of myself. 


  1. I remember when I first moved to the US. I remember for the first time in my life feeling like I was 'different'. I didn't understand American culture, I had an accent when I spoke English, and to top it off, I had poor parents who couldn't afford the 'coolest' clothes. I had never felt that sense of separateness before. By the time I was twelve, I had learned how to blend in. I learned how to fit in and in the process I learned how to erase and deny a part of myself. Through the years I've learned to make some sort of peace with the two halves of myself, but straddling two cultures can be a challenge even now at the ripe old age of thirty-two. I've tried to explain this experience to people before but I think you just explained it far more articulately than I ever have.

  2. I remember attending Korean services with you & thoroughly enjoyed the "togetherness". I was often jealous that I was just a "plain old white kid". Even in my adult life, I've longed for that "togetherness" feeling in church. I remember gazing at the women, lost in their own deep conversation that I was separated from (not just from the language barrier), and wondering if I would ever have that feeling as an adult. I also loved the smell of your house & the different tastes I encountered.

    Is it strange that the things that made you feel separated, are the same things I used to envy? :)

    As always, eloquently written.

    1. So funny how that happens, huh? I hope you’ve found some of that feeling of togetherness somewhere, even if it isn’t in church. And, thanks for reading and always brings me right back to those days. Thinking of you fondly.