Family & Relationships: On My First Thanksgiving After My Mother's Death, I'm Thankful for My Immigrant Family - - PressFrom - US
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Family & Relationships On My First Thanksgiving After My Mother's Death, I'm Thankful for My Immigrant Family

22:46  27 november  2019
22:46  27 november  2019 Source:   oprahmag.com

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One writer reflects on her Korean-American family's interpretation of Thanksgiving in the wake of the loss of her mother. © Monica Chon One writer reflects on her Korean-American family's interpretation of Thanksgiving in the wake of the loss of her mother.

There’s something special about the combination of kimchi piled on top of slices of turkey, salty sweet honey ham next to crispy chive pancakes, and sticky Korean short ribs butting up against creamy mashed potatoes. When I think about my family’s Korean interpretation of a Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings, even the cranberry sauce feels exciting again.

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Growing up, every Thanksgiving was a tug-of-war. The part of me that wanted to fit in at school had a deep-seated need for the picturesque Americana holiday we see gracing the covers of November magazines.

But there was another part of me—a side I kept hidden and only allowed out on the weekends—when I would get lost in the never ending aisles of the Korean grocery store, H Mart, trying to convince my parents to buy me my favorite snacks like choco pie, spicy shrimp crackers, and red bean popsicles.

This deliciously confusing, split-personality fusion of cultural forces shaped my identity as a Korean-American. But on no day—and on no dinner plate—is it more apparent than Thanksgiving.

Instead of focusing on a turkey, my mom would rise early on Thanksgiving morning to throw soaked mung beans in the blender, mixing them with bean sprouts, green onion, peppers, and kimchi to make mung bean pancakes. She’d marinate the galbi ribs with a little bit of soy sauce, honey, and her secret ingredient, kiwi, to get perfectly tender meat.

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Sometimes we’d get a whole roast duck, or go to H Mart and buy pork belly, or pick out a fish for Korean-style sashimi. We’d order a small turkey or a honey ham from the American grocery store. I’d bake cornbread and mash the potatoes—and there was always a can of cranberry sauce. We’d end our meal with pie—of course!—but also Asian pears or persimmons because of my mom’s longstanding Korean belief that no meal is complete without fruit for dessert.

But our most consistent Korean interpretation of Thanksgiving abundance meant we served not one, not two, but at least three different types of kimchi. Just like the classic Thanksgiving feast includes many sides, ours had many side dishes as well—but most involved kimchi.

a bowl of food on a plate: Three varieties of kimchi. © 4kodiak - Getty Images Three varieties of kimchi.

Everyone has different preferences and recipes for kimchi. Some Koreans insist on napa cabbage over radish. Others like it with a heap of briny oysters mixed in, or prefer kimchi that’s been left to ferment, while some eat it fresh from the mixing bowl. My mom’s kimchi was packed to the brim with some combination of salted preserved shrimp, anchovy sauce, and hot red pepper paste, but I could never get the recipe. “Watch and learn” she used to say. I wish I had.

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For Thanksgiving, we ate my mom’s kimchi, made earlier in the year and well preserved in our Samsung kimchi refrigerator we brought back from Korea. We’d also have kimchi made in Korea during Chuseok—Korea’s own version of Thanksgiving. Considered one of the most important holidays in Korea, Chuseok is a multi-day celebration where generations of families gather together to thank their ancestors for a bountiful harvest. And every year, a family friend in Korea would internationally express ship a batch of kimchi they made while gathered with their family during Chuseok. It would arrive freshly packed with dry ice, ripening in time to serve as another option at our Thanksgiving.

Eventually, my mom had to give up control over our kimchi inventory. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and the years of chemotherapy that followed brought on mouth sores, bloating, and nausea. Suddenly our trips to H Mart involved buying kimchi...but it’s not the same. Somewhere between the large metal bassinets of napa cabbage and bowls of secret red pepper paste used to stuff every layer of cabbage emerges an emotional umami flavor you can’t taste anywhere else.

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a plate full of food: Women wearing red gloves preparing Kimchi © Martin Moos - Getty Images Women wearing red gloves preparing Kimchi

When your sense of home starts to fall apart like that, it’s painful. Every time I’m reminded of this upcoming Thanksgiving in the form of exuberant hallmark-level exaltations of food, home, and gratitude, the back of my throat tightens, because I’ve lost a lot recently.

a person wearing a black hat: This Thanksgiving, I'm Thankful For Mom's Kimchi © Courtesy of Monica Chon This Thanksgiving, I'm Thankful For Mom's Kimchi

Last year, my mom passed away after fighting an all-consuming eight-year cancer battle. The fiercest woman, she immigrated to Oklahoma by herself in 1984 to teach at the University of Oklahoma Medical School and get her PhD in genetics. She eventually went on to work in cancer research.

She beat her own cancer twice, but over the last year, it returned to consume her. One of the most painful things was watching her relationship with food deteriorate as kimchi gave way to blended foods and protein drinks she could barely swallow.

That final year, she suggested I stay in Washington D.C. where I was working for Senator Cory Booker’s congressional office. She told me to spend Thanksgiving with a friend because she understood the quiet devastation of sitting around on a day of celebration when nothing was the same. I insisted on coming home, but just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, she faded away. For months when I closed my eyes, all I could see was her emaciated body unable to tolerate even the smell of kimchi.

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Ever since, I’ve been drowning in questions. Will Korean food ever taste as good? When someone you love unconditionally, leaves you behind, does that love still exist? When you feel such deep trauma, can life move on?

As the entire country gets ready to hunker down on a day meant for food and gratitude, I have a lot to digest. But I’ve come to the conclusion that in difficult times like these, we need Thanksgiving the most.

So this year, I’m thankful for my Korean-American family. For my mom, who came to this country in pursuit of a higher degree of education. For my dad, who came here in high school and worked a union job in construction to pay for college. For my grandparents, who brought our family over with nothing but pure faith in the American dream. For my mom's side of the family, who still live in Korea and send me homemade rice cakes.

I’m thankful for the Korean church that provides our congregation with a sense of community in this country. For the family friend who owns the most mouth-watering Korean fried chicken store. For the Korean woman at my old salon who made sure my nails looked on point. For the Korean ahjumma and ahjusshi operating the dry cleaners near the Capitol building who were proud of me—a complete stranger—for working in Congress. For the employees at the H Mart who communicate in a hybrid of Korean, English, Chinese, and Spanish to keep the store fully stocked with soybean paste and marinated beef.

I’m thankful that I look around and see so much richness in my community, because it helps my pain start to lift as the loneliness fades and the fear slowly subsides. Now, when I close my eyes, I feel ready to dream again.

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On Thanksgiving, in the comfort of home, no struggle can take away the beauty of immigrant food, the fusion of traditions on a plate, and the hard-earned sense of gratitude this holiday brings.

Those of us from immigrant families take solace in the knowledge that nothing worth fighting for is easy. As the world shifts like sand beneath my feet, I’m grateful there will always be kimchi at the Thanksgiving table.

Related video: Southern holiday etiquette 101 (provided by Southern Living)


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