Apparently there is a kimchi shortage in Korea right now.
I was sitting on the train last week with my backpack filled with food I had just purchased from the Korean grocery. I opened my bag to get out my book for the train ride and the smell of kimchi wafted out and made me salivate. Meanwhile, a white man sitting next to me crinkled his nose, and out of my periphery I could see that he turned his face to stare at me with disgust.
Kimchi is pungent. It can smell like many things. It’s fermented cabbage with a bunch of other ingredients. And even though it comes sealed in a jar, the odor is so powerful it always seeps out. Kimchi is a combination of tastes: spicy, salty, sweet, salivate-y. Yummy.
I always have a jar in my fridge, and when you open the door the smell of kimchi hits you in the face.
My train ride reminded me of a story my mother told me long ago. She said when she first moved to the States, before we were born, she would bring her lunch to work. She would bring the standard kimchi, rice, and other side dishes. She kept it in the communal fridge, as all the other employees kept their lunches there until eating time. However, she said, the other employees complained about the smell of the kimchi so she had to stop bringing it. She said people would whisper about how even her skin smelled like garlic.
Now, kimchi is sold in most gourmet groceries and I am learning the jars sell quickly at steep prices. There is something inside of me that is conflicted about the mass marketing of kimchi. On the one hand, I appreciate that people are willing to try new foods from my culture. On the other hand, I think about how the very food that is now considered “gourmet” here used to be the topic of derision toward Koreans. Kimchi is not gourmet. It is the bare minimum that is on every single table at every single Korean meal.
I think about how when people meet me and find out I’m Korean one of the first things they say is, “I love kimchi.” Though I know the intention is benevolent and it’s an attempt to bridge cultural understanding, please think about how narrow minded this sounds to me if it’s the only thing you say. I will not have bonded with you because you’ve made that statement. In fact, I will be less likely to want to build with you because it indicates a parochial, reactionary response.
Korean food is still at a point in this country where if you eat it, it means a Korean probably introduced you to it at some point in your life. I like this. I like that someone has that opportunity to present their culture to someone else they care about. Now, if you tell me you love kimchi because someone in your life that is significant to you introduced you and helped you create a relationship with the culture, then I will listen. There is a difference.
If I love you, this means I have made Korean food for you. Today, I’m going to release some homemade kimchi. Making kimchi is not a simple process. There are many steps, it is laborious and involved, the ingredients are many, and it is time consuming not only to prepare it, but also to let it ripen. I know my guidelines stated I would not be giving away perishables, but I’m making an exception here because I made this personally, and the timeliness of the kimchi shortage in Korea is a unique opportunity to share something about my culture. Letting go to learn. And though it is perishable and perhaps outside of the guidelines I set myself, I am also giving with it the extraordinary set of takeout tupperware. Good one.
I would rather my culture be shared responsibly and freely to communicate the true essence of Korean culture. Kimchi is not gourmet. It is the people’s food. What is being bottled and sold as gourmet at outrageous prices is the very same thing for which Koreans have been shamed and shunned. Let’s contemplate that.
[I created the 365 Release Project to practice non-attachment, letting go and change by giving away 1 thing a day for 1 year. The background, vision and guidelines to the 365 RELEASE project are here. The running list of everything I have released is here.]