I started making 김치 (kimchee) a little over a year ago, after many years of obsessing about trying to make it. This wasn’t going to be one of those look up the recipe online and give-it-a-go situations. I have too many Big Feelings associated with the not knowing of a thing that tastes and smells familiar yet remains elusive in process, method, and chemical makeup. It was one of my cultural failures when I was younger, along with learning to speak 한글 (Hangul). It was emotionally difficult enough that I stopped trying. It was an act of willful forgetting to avoid the pain in re-culturation to a culture I felt I should already know.
This is a picture of my 할모니 (halmoni, grandmother) and me, the one time I made kimchee with her.
I was 18 – geez, look at my long hair! Soon after I would cut it off in defiance of what I did not want to be perceived as. A stereotypical Korean girl - one with long hair. I cut it off because it didn’t represent who I was in gender expression. And yet, here I am more than 25 years later, thinking of halmoni and the forgetting that landed on her. What did I give up in my forgetting? What was she forced to give up in the need to not remember? We had a wordless relationship because of the language gulf between us, yet I still miss her. She had survived the Korean War and moved her family, including my father and his siblings, from the north to the south. They were refugees seeking safety.
What are the things that were forgotten and lost along the way? One of my father's older brothers died during this time of invasion and war. He was 6 years old. Where did the grief go, when there was no space to grieve? Where is this tucked away in my body, in little quantum packets of energy? I feel the vibrations. These threads locate me through time and distance. My 한 (han) erupts when I forget things I sense I should know and remember. Things I almost remember.
Salt the cabbage
Salt and wait
The plants are thirsty
The word for ‘hug’ in Hangul
Rinse the cabbage
Rinse and drain
You should be less salty
The skin chill of the snow
Lock the door
Seal the jar tight
The harm is real
The harm is old
Tighten the lid, keep it trapped inside
The news hurts
It is fermenting, these wounds
Salt in wounds
Hanging in the trees
How to Be around other bodies
Hiding in the earth scent, tucked and coiled
The feeling of safety in body
Salty and sweet, alchemy
Shoulder curls over heartspace
Ripe wounded heat
The knives cut the distance
That I am whole
My 동생 (dongsaeng/younger sister) Marsha held my hand through making kimchee when she visited me for the new year in 2021. (She held me through remembering how to be around other bodies again, too. Initially, my body revolted). She had spent some time making kimchee with our 큰엄마 (keunomma / father's older brother's wife) 송자 (Songja) and 사촌 (cousin) 윤숙 (Yoonsook), both of whom are incredible cooks. They told Marsha, who in turn told me, how to make 청 (cheong), which adds sweetness to the tang and spice of kimchee.
How did I not know previously about cheong? (Is not knowing the same as forgetting?). Cheong is pomegranate seeds (or cranberries) layered with sugar and set to dissolve for a year. Yes, a year! This fruit mixture ferments into a sweetener which turns into vinegar which turns into wine. It is a beautiful erosion to watch over time. It is living decay, akin to watching light liquefy and disperse. The jars lived in my mudroom which is the same place I ferment my kimchee. The aroma lets you know you've arrived at a Korean home when you come in the door.
(Is not knowing the same as forgetting?) Not knowing about cheong is equivalent to how I feel about not knowing about 한 (han/grief, rage, regret) and 정 (jeong/connectness, deep attachment, love). It hollows me. I did not know these words that have no equivalence in English. They are mirror-twins.
More equivalencies erupt when you look at the words for 청 (cheong) and 정 (jeong). As my cousin Yoonsook points out, they are differentiated only by a pen stroke and yet tied together because the essential ingredient is time. And, I would add, these are processes that create chemical and spiritual alchemy.
When I tried making kimchee again for the first time on my own, I forgot the crucial first step of salting the cabbage. I couldn’t remember how to do it… I mean I completely blanked out. It disturbed me. Something was there, but I couldn’t remember. Initially, I didn’t even remember that I needed to do it. I was so upset, and acknowledge that it was an outsized reaction. A reaction of old, fermented energy.
I was also not readily in the know about the murders of two Asian women in Albuquerque a few weeks ago, because I had disengaged from the news. (Is not knowing the same as forgetting? What is lost/gained in a collective not knowing? Because very few people know about these murders). How did I not see something so close to me? Was this an act of willful forgetting? It is not the first time I could not name the harm that was close, but my body knew of the harm. My body senses and remembers. It seizes into itself.
What else am I forgetting? What else is tucked away in these unfoldings that I don’t 'know' or have access to? What if the thing I don’t remember is something old and something new? What is here?
What is here is the psychic and bodily significance of what I have inherited but cannot recognize in my cognitive space. These are the blooms I carry that were seeded long ago. I want to remember again, so I can heal these wounded spheres back through time. These are the ticklings of remnants that live in the shadow habitat. Making kimchee is a rhythmic process that ignites something new. It is a form of transmutation – of alchemy. Time is key. Time to be and grow… slowly. Time to acknowledge, sit with, release, transform. The attention in the background creates the new thing in the foreground. This is the realm of the abstract made material through iterative practice. Making kimchee helps me remember something I do not have words for, in the same way making my work allows me access to something I cannot name. I’m trying to name these things, but it is difficult. There are no words for energies that are seenfelt.
passed away on
March 20th, 2015 in Atlanta.
Her name was 백연근 (Yeongeun Pack)
when she immigrated to the United States in 1978.
Korean women do not change their last names when they marry,
but she was given her husband’s last name – 백 (B/Paek) – by United States officials through the process of immigration. During this procedure, my white mother ‘translated’ the surname of my father’s family - 백 - to P-A-C-K to make it easier to spell and for white Americans to pronounce. Halmoni's name before immigrating to the United States was 이연근 (Yeongeun Lee). During the war, she grew and traded soybeans for beef, cigarettes, and butter to sell on the black market to American soldiers stationed in Seoul. Halmoni was born during the time of Japanese colonization of Korea and was given a Japanese name. She was born and grew up in 캉개지 (Kang Gae Ji) on the Korean side of the mountain close to China, way up north. Way up north at the foot of 백두산 (Paek Tu Mountain). 백 (Paek) is the same as 백 (Pack).
We are of the mountain.
She was the youngest child, had two elder brothers and her family were wealthy farmers who grew corn and rice. Her remembrance lives in me.
2015년 5월 20일
할머니 성함은 1978년 미국으로 이민 오셨을 때
Yeongeun Pack (백연근) 이였습니다. 한국여성들은 결혼할 때
자신들의 성을 바꾸지 않지만 할머니는 이민 절차 과정에서 미국식으로
남편의 성 백 (B/Paek) 으로 바꾸었습니다. 이 절차 중 우리의 백인 엄마는 아버지 집안의 성 백을 미국인이 발음하기 쉽고 쓰기 쉬운 철자 P-A-C-K 으로 번역하였습니다. 미국으로 이민 오기 전 할머니의 성함은 이연근 (Yeongeun Lee) 이였습니다. 전쟁 시 할머니는 서울에 주둔한 미국군인들에게 콩을 소고기, 담배, 그리고 버터로 암시장에서 거래를 하셨습니다. 일본 식민지 때 태어나신 할머니에게는 일본 이름이 있었습니다. 한국 북쪽으로 올라가다 보면 중국과 가까운 산 캉개지라는 곳에서 태어나셨고 자라셨습니다. 저 북쪽 백두산 기슭에서. Paek (백) 은 Pack (백) 과 똑같습니다.
할머니는 위로 두명의 오빠가 계셨고 옥수수와 벼농사를 짓는 부유한 집안의 막내딸이였습니다. 할머니의 기억은 제 안에 살아 있습니다.
Original translation by 이민선 Min Sun Lee.
Poetic refinement by 양다혜 Da Hye Yang, 박성덕 Sung Duk Park, 양생환 Saeng Hwan Yang, and 진초의 陳超義 Jonathan Chan.