Words by Kee Byung-keun
I am not sure what to tell you. We know that food is language. That food is memory. We know that food is our most important cultural heritage, because everyone needs to eat. But I cannot tell you a simple story of the food of my childhood. To say that I was reared in the American South on the basic, but beatific food of the Delta and the Cajuns would not be a sufficient narrative. And were you to see the face of the person writing this, you would not believe it. No one has ever believed me. There is a certain kind of expectation that accompanies me. Like some faithful dog that is beloved, but also won’t shut up. I am never very far from myself, except to say that I have always lived at a great distance. I have always been very, very far away. There are things that I am expected to know, to answer for, that I have no real knowledge of. I have learned to say what people want to hear. Partly for my own personal curiosity, but mostly of a frustration that I do not know more than I do. I have tried to fill the hole excavated by the expectations of others.
Because I am human, and I want to survive in the world. I have acquired all manner of stories in this quest, but I am afraid that almost none of them are my own. When you travel, when you read, when you seek to know more about why we, as a species, eat the way we do, you learn that all great food comes back to place. And to presence. And that someone is from somewhere and that this is the way it is supposed to be. So I present to you the problem at hand. The reason why I am (at the most generous) a mythologizer and (at worst) a liar. I am not from anywhere. I am a product of the wars and depravity of the previous century. Of the high cost of being poor in a world where human life is a cheap commodity in the service of development and gross national product. I am one, and there are many millions more, that has been pushed outside of time. Outside of history. Into a world without heritage or memory.
I was exhumed from the political and economic destitution of 1980s South Korea. I was exiled into the deepest part of the American South. Marooned along the bayous and prairies of Louisiana. And now I live in Tokyo, a city poised somewhere between the edge of civilization and its highest conclusion. The bowls I serve from are empty more often than not. I tell most of my stories second hand, even if I am the one that lived them. And I am always met with disbelief when I say that the only language left at my disposal is English. So I am only in the third paragraph and I have already established a situation where the only things I can tell you will be false. But that is the way of my world. I am a genuine fake.
We are very worried about authenticity now. We are driven to obsession to know who it is that is authoring our culture. Who it is that has the right to author culture. And most controversially, who has been stealing. An ironic symptom (or perhaps a product) of our overly informed historical moment is that we have this collective sense that we are missing something fundamental, something vital. We are very concerned that we know nothing. Which is unfortunate, because we are supposed to know a lot.
We are afraid that losing sight of the continuity will mean we are losing sight of ourselves. That is, if we cannot find the pure strain of our cultural inheritance, it will become obfuscated in the rearview mirror. That we will be trying to move forward only to find that we don’t have any idea where we have gone. Context is, as in all situations, king. The difficulty is that we do not live in vacuums. The ties that bind us are not all neatly color coded and stitched together in tightly knit uniforms. There will not always be a trail of breadcrumbs back to the source. We will not always recognize our own. Sometimes we will forget. And when we forget, we remember differently. If we can remember at all.
But still the need to defend ourselves! We are all moving through the world. And the world itself is moving faster and faster around us. It is, in fact, getting harder to locate who you are in the modern world. The human heart craves stability. MFK Fisher wrote that the heart wants three things above all else: food, security, and love. And isn’t that as true today as when she wrote it? As true as it has been since the dawn of time? We are on the streets of London, of New York, of Los Angeles, of Paris, and of Hong Kong, and we want to know where it is that we are located in these raging networks. We are trying to ground ourselves amidst a world that is increasingly detached from itself. Where do I locate the thread that will lead me back? Who will speak to me in the language of my ancestors? Who will know how to call me home? And there is a frustration, because the voices do not sing as loudly as they used to. There are things drowning them out. The roar. The din. The songs of other people trying to find their way home. The more desperate cries of people just looking for shore. We want to believe that something in us will respond to the signal. That something in our bodies will just know. Like a beacon on choppy seas. But the truth is, it is getting harder. The signal is less strong than it was. Or maybe it has even changed. Our memories are mutable enough, but sometimes the place you are trying to go back to is not the same place you left. The static pictures we use to decorate our hearts are dishonest. Home changes too.
But how we wish we could go back. We want so badly to re-remember. We want to know that the tastes of our nostalgia are every bit as intense and pure as the generative experience. That in spite of the wear and tear on our bodies and our hearts, we will always have that one thing to go back to. A very particular smell. A certain spice. Specific heat. Or the way it would lay comfort around our still tender, but perhaps less fragile, souls. We want purity of memory when we know the world is not pure. We want safety in the libraries of our recall. And the affront comes to us when we are very far from home, when we are very far from ourselves, and we think we see what we are trying to get back to. We only think we see it. Because we know it’s not there. How could it be? There are too many miles. Too many years. And far too much forgetfulness. But we are human and to be human is to very often hope beyond hope. And we put ourselves in these positions where we know we will be disappointed. We go in. We recognize the words. Even if we recognize that the context is wrong; that it is maybe not quite right. And we try, in spite of ourselves, to find that food, that security, that love, that is so important. So elemental to our human condition. And we bite and we swallow and for a small eternity of moments we hope that it will be right. But it isn’t. We look up. We look around. We are not in our grandmother’s kitchens. We are still very far from anywhere. We don’t know who made this food and we don’t know why they made it. We are angry and we are frustrated, because this has messed with something in our core. A few stones have been moved around on our equilibrium. Our memories are a little more dim.
The trouble is that, like so many of us have been dislocated, our cultures and heritages have been dislocated too. They did not always travel with us either. The world is frighteningly capable at disconnecting people from themselves. It is why every recollection I have of kimchi, a food that is existential to Koreans, occurs at a certain distance. I was born inside these traditions, but I was quickly and totally removed from them. My exile was, in a word, absolute. I know that it is important to my people, because I have been told that it is important to my people. I enjoy it, because I am told that I am supposed to enjoy it. I do not posses primary memories of this in my home. I grew up on gumbo and fried shrimp po-boys. I ate kimchi when I was told that I was supposed to eat kimchi.
But even then, it figures into a part of me. Some deeper seeded desire for home. A place beyond exile. Jjip-ae-kal-lae. I, too, want to go home. I, too, have been looking for the way back. And I have been told that if I eat the food of my people, speak the language of my people. If I learn to sing the same sad songs and weep the same sad tears, then I too will find the door that was hidden so long ago. It means something to be from somewhere. To have a heritage that belongs to you. You are told that it is rich and beautiful and unique to you. You understand by it’s scarcity that it does not come easily. That a loss as significant as this will come at a high price to find again.
But then you notice that the things that were unknowable to you are now everywhere. And with an ease and nonchalance that makes them seem cheap. Disposable. Even banal. Everywhere you go, Korean ingredients are the latest fad. The hottest trend. Kimchi adorns everything from hamburgers to tasting menus. Western chefs tout them as the latest salt on their innocuous cuisine. And you feel like you've been had. This thing that was so important, so key to undoing your alienation is just another fetishized commodity. It’s ubiquity offends your own imagined history. And worse than that, you see in this item transplanted from its native context as reflective of your own dispossession. The tools of your own reconstruction are now as disconnected as you. The romance is gone. The things you needed to rebuild your own lost life are now on sale everywhere. Poorly made and disabused of meaning. The way back is gone. All so the office workers of the imperial center can have a more interesting lunch hour. You’re not going home again. Your culture isn't there anymore.