The Smell of Kimchi – my grandmother


kimchi jarsMy grandmother, Harmoni, walked in pendulum motion—left, right, left, right—in a pace that was soft and matched with time. As she walked next to me, I looked up to see the sun shine on her silvery gray hair and her dark skin that was patterned with deeply formed lines and brown spots. As we matched our walking rhythm, she began her tale once again about how I should have been born a boy. Her deep voice, interspersed with occasional laughter, accompanied our ritual walk to church on Wednesday evenings along the dirt ridden paths of Busan, Korea. As we walked back home in the cool summer evening, Harmoni reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bundle rolled up in her handkerchief. As she unwrapped it, I could smell from a distance the sweet sour smell of kimchi pancakes.

The smell of kimchi was pervasive and pungent, just like Koreans in our persistence in being a small yet distinct Asian country. Kimchi was an acquired taste, based on the tolerance of hot peppers. At first bite as a child, my eyes watered and I choked on the hot ground peppers as I swallowed big gulps of barley tea. I eased into the kimchi tradition by starting out in baby steps. I soaked the kimchi in water to wash away all the ground red chilis. Without the peppers, the pickled cabbage had a nice salted sour flavor that complimented well with rice, soup, and other side dishes. And soon, I acquired the taste to regular kimchi, cut into small-sized pieces.

kimchi pancakes“Here,” Harmoni said while handing me the kimchi pancakes. “Go ahead and eat. I got them from Mrs. Yi’s house where we had prayer service this morning. They had so much good food there. I haven’t eaten like that since your grandfather died!” She said while laughing.

I eagerly ate them as I did any food Harmoni gave me. She was an expert at packing food. Whenever she came back from church events or dinners, her pocket bulged. She had a keen eye for food. She quickly pulled out her handkerchief while no one was looking and secretly collected her loot. At home, when Mama bought food on special holidays, we noticed the dishes slowly move toward Harmoni, then disappear mysteriously. A week later, we would catch her pulling something out from under her pillow or pile of clothes. “Oh, I didn’t have an appetite then,” she would tells us. “So I just saved my portion for later.”

korean food spreadDuring school, how I longed for Harmoni’s food of great abundance, which I imagined with great detail when my stomach growled with hunger. Unlike the warmth and comfort of home, I adjusted to the regimen of unexplained beatings, harsh words, and frequent hunger. Each school day started with a small empty pit in my stomach, growling in its emptiness for some edible food to swallow and push down. When the students were released for lunch, I grabbed my lunch sack and ran outside to the sitting area where I quickly opened up my tins as the smell of kimchi reached my nose and reminded me of comfort, intermingled with the aroma of seasoned dried fish and seaweed. I grabbed my chopsticks, scooped up some rice mixed with picked kimchi, and eagerly placed them in my mouth where I tasted its savory flavors and chewed away vigorously as the lesson plans of the day quickly disappeared in my mind with a reminder of pleasure and comfort.

Harmoni told me stories about the past that made me understand more about my place in this world, as my identity slowly formed with the lessons learned at school. She painted for me a world before inventions, where servants still bowed down to their masters. She had many in the big house in Pyongyang, before they started to notice helicopters and airplanes flying in the air. Soldiers started to move into town, and children no longer played out in the streets past dark. In school and in town halls, people were taught how to hide during air raids, and how to pack for the journey south.

So Harmoni left all that behind to start from nothing in Busan, in the southern port of Korea, where enemy guerillas pushed the civilians before aid came from America. Luck came, then went again with the war. Then it came again, with hard work helping Grandfather at his acupuncture shop.

“Harmoni,” I asked, “What is luck, Hamoni?”

“It’s fortune, that some people have, and some without.”

“Can you find it? Or get it someway if you’re without?”

“I guess so.”

“Does believing in God bring luck?”



And I looked down once again and wondered if luck would come my way even without a pepper. “How would it be different, Harmoni, if I was born a boy?”

“Oh,” she replied while looking down. “It would have been easier for you. You don’t know it now while you’re young, but later when you grow up, you will find that the life of a man is a lot easier than it is for a woman.”

“Will you be able to come with us to America?” I asked.

“That I do not know,” she replied while looking down with a sad expression on her face.

“Oh Harmoni,” I said while avoiding her eyes. “I will miss you immensely.”

With those words, she stumbled on her knees, and grabbed my feet into her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. “Oh, you are from my first son, who came from my womb,” she said between her deep cries. “I thanked the world for him. He brought me luck. And so you… so shall you also.” I felt her deep tears fall on my feet, and the world before me swept away like a memory.

Harmoni came out to the train station as I left Busan to another world across the big ocean where people had yellow hair and white skins and talked in another language. There she stands in the photograph, in her gray hanbok dress. There she is, smiling, making me laugh to brighten up my day. And there she is, holding my hand tightly with her hand, full of deep wisdom through winding paths, giving me all she could before I left Korea, to embark on a journey to America.

kimchi in jarsAvailable on Amazon, issue 2013

Soon to be in a book, The Smell of Kimchi.




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