What it Means to be Korean in the West

Mu -- Spicy Korean radish. Photo by Tim Evanson. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While searching for a Korean radish called mu to make her grandmother’s soup, Vivien Lee meditates on family and food—what it means to be Korean in the West—where the burning desire for individuality is at odds with the communal approach to life, food, and family in the East.

Every other New Year, I’ve withdrawn from the potentially memorable (or not so memorable) eve of clinking champagne flutes with strangers to rise soberly at 6 a.m. with my family in Virginia, for an ancestral food ceremony called jesa.

These early mornings usually begin darker than day; a Prussian blue while my father wakes to light candles, opening the window to call his late father’s spirit in. The table takes a few hours to set, glorified with plates of dried fish, rice wine, jujubes, persimmon, pear, liver, and rice cake soup for my grandfather. After three rounds of synchronized bows, my sisters and I sit by his portrait to whisper gratitude and think of the other Lees who came and left before us. Once our silence is pardoned, we eat. Just as everyone’s ready to be done, grandma surprises us with more food, this time, with bowls of radish soup. During the Korean War she’d known what starvation was, and since then she has made sure that no one ever leaves a table still hungry. Eat more, she always insists.

Read the story