How does an asexual Korean American yoga-nun crone celebrate Valentine’s Day?
With a kimchi party, of course.
Friends gathered as we mixed gallons of napa cabbage kimchi in deep red pepper brine, with garlic and carrots and scallions, then stuffed into jars to sit for a couple of days to ferment to one’s taste. What could be more celebratory and heartwarming than bright red jars of homemade kimchi sitting on windowsills in the winter sun?
But the community center where I live didn’t necessarily agree. A staff member, a 60-something white man, asked me later that week, “What was that smell coming from the kitchen? It smelled like….bathroom.”
“Oh, that,” I explained cheerily, telling him about the kimchi party, and how delicious kimchi is and how good for our health. But inside, I was shrinking, receding into a too-familiar feeling of embarrassment and shame.
My mother took care of my father as if he was a child, as all good Korean wives are trained do. I remember she would not feed him kimchi in the morning. He enjoyed the traditional Korean breakfast of soup, rice, and a variety of banchan (sides), which never included kimchi, while we kids indulged in the toxic sludge of sugary cereals. She said it was because she didn’t want him going to the office reeking of garlic and fermentation.
And so I learned the language of shame, at the breakfast table, denying ourselves the cultural heritage and health benefits of our national food, as an effort to fit into mainstream white culture. I took my mother’s practice as a matter of course, and never had kimchi for breakfast, until I moved to Korea for a sabbatical in 2014.
I lived with my friend Jung-In, who, herself, was in the process of rediscovering Korean culture after 9 years of American schooling. I happened to be there during kim-jang, when the entire month of November is dedicated to harvesting all the cabbage on the peninsula to pickle into kimchi for the year to come. Every school, church, temple, home, and community center devotes itself to big kimchi gatherings, that everyone pitches in to, plastic-gloved and elbow deep in huge tubs of kimchi.
All that to say, during my time in Korea, we ate kimchi morning, noon, and night. Probably my internal flora was the most robust it had ever been. I came to realize that Koreans in Korea didn’t have my mother’s silly rule of no kimchi for breakfast, didn’t have the worry about smelling of garlic, because we were unified and supportive of each other’s foodways.
For American foodies now, kimchi is de riguer, and you can find it at farmer’s markets in tiny mason jars with rustic labels slapped on, for $15 a quart. At a fancy grocery store in Toronto, I spied Italian style, deep-fried rice balls with pork and kimchi. The possibilities, as white folks have discovered, are endless.
But instead of undoing the decades of internalized shame, I mostly feel angry.
Dr. Mario Martinez points out that inflammation is a response to an inner wound of shame. At first I resisted this idea, but after some frank inner inquiry, I understand that shame has lain beneath much of my experience as an Asian American. The same way our faces turn red when we’re embarrassed, with a flush of circulation, when we feel ashamed, our whole body inflames. Over years, it becomes autoimmune disease.
Every one of my immediate family members has died of shame, ie autoimmune diseases. No heart disease or cancer for us. Instead, we go off in a blaze, our bodies’ immune systems turned inward, attacking itself in self-flagellation.
The inflammation moves around my body like a tourist. Mostly I bear it in my respiratory system, nose and sinuses, or worse, lungs and bronchioles. Sometimes it’s in my gut, the deepest parts of myself churning. Other times I experience it on the skin as eczema, which homeopaths say is the healthiest reaction on the spectrum of healing because it’s on the outermost layer of the body.
So when a Thai restaurant owned, staffed, and catering to white people, called “Katoi”—derogatory Thai slang for transgender femmes—opens up in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Detroit, how do you think I’d react?
I haven’t always identified as a cisgender woman. I’ve only recently stopped buzzing my hair, as an experiment to see if my hair is playing a role in my overall health. On the spectrum of queerness, I place myself primarily as asexual, and my boyish, androgynous frame seems to reinforce this. For a number of reasons I have happily been choosing non-sexual forms of intimacy with both men and women, and have been partner-free for the past 6 years.
Nowadays with my longer hair, I don’t routinely get called “sir” anymore, but I still bristle at impositions and assumptions of gender, and support gender nonconformity. Meanwhile trans folks, especially when brown and black, are the most victimized, ostracized, at-risk members of society, experiencing the most extreme oppression and violence, on the furthest peripheries. Apparently none of that deters cis owners of Katoi restaurant from appropriating the most superficial aspects of gender nonconformity for fun, coolness, and profit.
The combination of the appropriation of Asian culture and the exploitative use of a derogatory slang term for profit has me waking in the middle of the night, recalling a variety of microaggressions that accumulate and manifest in my body as trauma:
A roommate walking into the kitchen while I was eating kosari, a Korean root vegetable. “Whatcha eating? Worms?”
My white ex-husband and various white friends, politely, or impolitely, declining to even taste my food. My white friend who told me she was afraid of my refrigerator because she didn’t recognize the food.
My white classmate in a dance class joking about how I smelled of garlic.
My children embarrassed at leftovers they took for school lunch, and begging instead for Lunchables.
A friendly cooking competition in which our team prepared a traditional Cambodian pork and ginger dish, and was told by a judge that it tasted like cardboard.
I’ll bet every Asian in America has been othered by their family foods, and has hidden it, been embarrassed by it, and internally experienced it as shame. But suddenly, it’s adopted by white people, who triple the price while halving the portion, top it with a sprig of cilantro, and serve it in a chic setting in a gentrifying neighborhood.
It doesn’t undo my shame. It reinforces it, as a matter of fact, because it reifies white supremacy, which tells me that I am less important, less trustworthy, less powerful, and less human than a white person. That my contributions need to come in a white package to be valued. If I am what I eat, unless I can fit into a certain kind of box, I am unappealing, even repulsive.
If you are a white person reading this, and you have, most likely unknowingly, been on the harming end of such actions, I hope you will listen without getting defensive. Believe me, I don’t need to hear your side of the story. Find a savvy and sensitive white friend unafraid to call you out, to process this with. If you go to your brown and black friend, they may feel a need to be supportive. After all, this is our training, a habit which took me nearly 40 years to break.
And to my Asian comrades, have some kimchi with your morning eggs. Dab it with some stinky fish sauce. Smell of garlic all day and night. Do it for your ancestors, who died for your freedom to be wholly yourself. Do it for the generations to come. May they, and you, be shamelessly glorious, in all that you eat, and do.