On my first trip to Korea as a child, what I was most excited about was Tteokguk. I knew the rice cake soup my mom made for me came from this country, and I imagined getting to eat it every day.
From the moment we arrived and jumped into our first taxi, I sank right into being there like a little girl who had been a long way away from home. I studied the brown beaded taxi-driver’s seat and the white covering underneath it. I listened to the sound of his jaw chomping on a piece of chewing gum, and watched the way his lips smacked from his profile. I noticed each time he looked into the rearview mirror and furrowed my brow, trying to grasp the words he exchanged with my mom. I remember how I felt like I should know what he was saying and what my mom was saying in return, the meaning like something I was about to say, but forgot for the moment.
Korea has always felt like that to me: like words and recipes on the tip of my tongue, forgotten and just out of reach, removed for the sake of survival everywhere else in the world.
That was the summer teenage boys spit on my sister and me. We were walking along Haeundae Beach. I had a little plastic light-up ball that my parents had bought me the night before from a street vendor, and I proudly carried it like a symbol of my connection to other Korean children I had seen.
They spit on us from behind, laughing and using sharp-edged words I didn’t know. I remember wiping the moisture from the back of my calf, and trying to comprehend what had happened. Later my mom and dad eventually explained that they had spit on us because we were biracial Koreans.
Despite my love for Tteokguk, I didn’t know it was the soup Koreans ate for Lunar New Year until I was much older. I just knew I loved it when my mom made it and that I couldn’t get enough of spoon-searching for the white ovals in my bowl. Before that first trip to Korea, I thought that love was enough. But no matter how many soupy rice cakes I consumed throughout my childhood, I was missing just as many details, if not more, that a million other Koreans knew. At some point I began to believe these missing details disqualified me as a real Korean girl.
I made Tteokguk to celebrate Lunar New Year last Saturday. It’s the second or third time I’ve made it on my own, and it gets better each time. But each time I stand over the pot, measuring the guk-ganjang and letting the tteok sit in a bath of cold water, I hear whispers suggesting that I’m a fake. It’s like those high school boys in Haeundae are still standing behind me, looking down on me, uttering derogatory comments at me and my claim to being Korean.
My kids sat around the table, excited at first, remembering how the white slices of chewy deliciousness symbolize a fresh start for the new year, and how they resemble the moon.
Then, one of my kids complained about the egg slices, another about the green onions, and one of them would only drink the broth.
I sent my mom a picture of the soup, hoping that she would approve what it looked like, and wouldn’t respond with questions about why it looked so dark (like last year when I used the wrong kind of soy sauce), or if I’d forgotten another important element.
Home happens easily for some of us. Traditions are passed down on easy-to-read recipe cards and keeping them takes little effort. We make and celebrate the things that come naturally without thinking that there’s something we’ve forgotten. But some of us are born from a womb of cultural loss, and we have to work hard to recover from those losses.
I heal a little bit more each year, each new attempt at getting the Tteokguk right. Celebrating Lunar New year feels like one year after another of restoration, of introducing tastes and textures to my own kids and battling with them over the details of their heritage that float in soup bowls: the green onions, the roasted gim, and the bright yellow sesame-flavored slices of egg. Every year I work to push back against the lie that says I’m not Korean, and the lie that tells me to give up and assimilate. I won’t find this work in a list of familiar ministry opportunities at any church I know of. But, I know I need to give space to this. I know that it’s good and right to show my own kids how to taste and see what no one should be allowed take from them or diminish for them: God’s image pressed into every part of their cultural identity. This is kingdom work too.