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Always Be My Kimchi-jjigae

The Netflix comedy echoed my upbringing, reminding me how food provides both pain and healing.

By Carol Eugene Park 21 Jun 2019 |

Carol Eugene Park is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism. She is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @carolparkk.

Always Be My Maybe is billed as a romantic comedy about two childhood friends, both born of Asian immigrants, reuniting as adults.

But for me, it’s about much more — food, family, culture, race and loneliness. And especially the healing power of food.

The movie, which debuted on Netflix at the end of May, begins with 12-year-old Sasha Tran coming home from school to her empty house in San Francisco. We hear a voicemail — Sasha’s mother says she and her husband are working late, and Sasha should make herself dinner.

Sasha helps herself to fried spam ham and white rice topped with furikake seasoning. She eats alone and watches a family eating dinner together on TV.

Then her best friend and neighbour Marcus Kim knocks on the door and invites her to dinner. She has to help eat the soup his mom is making, he says, because otherwise he’ll be forced to take the leftovers for school lunch.

“Nobody wants to sit next to that kid with Thermos soup,” Marcus pleads.

Life is different inside the Kim household. Marcus’s mom is preparing a traditional Korean stew called kimchi-jjigae and enlists Sasha to help.

The scene is a simple introduction to the characters. And I wanted to be there, chopping vegetables in the warmth of that kitchen.

When I was in elementary school, my mom was a stay-at-home parent for a few years after my younger sister was born. I loved coming home from school because I would spend hours in the kitchen with her preparing dinner. Our haven was a narrow, closet-sized kitchen with white paint chipping off the walls and a small square window facing the neighbouring building’s maroon brick wall that blocked all sunlight.

It was a time each day when I had my mother to myself. Like Sasha, I helped cut vegetables, rummaged through the fridge for ingredients, and did a taste test before I set the table.

My mom often made kimchi-jjigae in part because it was my favourite Korean dish. But it’s also easy and requires few ingredients. With only ripe kimchi, hot pepper paste and water, you can make a basic form of this simple but delicious dish (find our recipe in the sidebar of this article). For our working-class family, it was a staple.

And kimchi-jjigae is comfort food. The hot, spicy and savoury broth and softened kimchi taste of home and belonging.

The kitchen scene in Always Be My Maybe reminded of those times with my mother and how short that period was. Even now I picture her ash-brown, curly-permed hair pushed back with a cloth headband, and an emerald nylon apron wrapped around her waist, protecting her white tank top and baggy grey shorts that were two sizes too big.

But nostalgia wasn’t the only thing the scene provided. My life’s mission had been to get as far away as possible from my parents and to see them as little as possible. The result: precious time with them had been lost. I felt guilt.

“맛있게 잘 먹겠습니다” (I will eat deliciously)

When I left my hometown of Hamilton, Ont., to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, my mom asked me if I could live a year without eating Korean food. I told her I was “Canadian enough” to not crave the food of my people.

I was rejecting my Korean-diasporic identity, not because I was ashamed of my heritage, but because it meant I could disassociate myself with my working-class background and the stress and childhood traumas that often accompany an upbringing in an immigrant household.

Sasha never explicitly rejects her Asian-American identity, but the Americanized Asian fine-dining restaurants she runs represent a kind of rejection of her childhood, a time in which her parents were constantly working.

As an adult, Sasha is a renowned chef. She and Marcus visit Best Luck Dim Sum, a Cantonese restaurant from their childhood (which in real life happens to be Vancouver’s own New Town Bakery in Chinatown).

Sasha expresses her surprise at the longevity of the business and remembers it as having terrible food. But she takes her first bite of dim sum and questions her memory. “Why do I remember this place as so bad?” she asks.

“Because that’s how you remember your entire childhood,” Marcus replies. “You painted the whole thing with a shit brush, but that’s not true.”

851px version of CarolEugeneParkAndMom.jpg
Writer Carol Eugene Park and her mother. As a youngster, and even now, ‘Korean cuisine consoled me in a way that no person could.’

For both Sasha and me, Asian food symbolizes loneliness and a lack of family support. I explicitly rejected consuming Korean food, and the connection between food and family, to show I didn’t need parental support and the affection of my mother as I left for university.

Authentic Asian cuisine is a part of Sasha’s lonely childhood. Her Asian cuisine as an adult, modified for American fine dining, implicitly conveys her decision to move away from the norm — relying on her parents — and adapt to a new way of life that leaves behind what was lost — a childhood where evening meals were shared and parents spent time with their kids.

I also was expressing the hurt and loneliness I harboured for years over the countless evenings my brother, sister and I ate dinner while our parents worked odd jobs as cashiers, a hairstylist, a bakery delivery driver, and waitress.

Sometimes we heated up leftover dishes our mother had prepared for us after a night shift. We quickly learned to fend for ourselves — to cook, to be self-sufficient. I envied my friends whose parents were home and available at 6 p.m. on a school night to eat dinner as families.

My brave words to my mother about not missing Korean food were a lie. Food was my coping mechanism for stress, anger, sadness and loneliness. I could always rely on a bowl of kimchi-jjigae or Korean-style ramen to soothe my teenage angst. Korean cuisine consoled me in a way that no person could.

But Korean food also reminded me that I was the Other, a child of Korean immigrant parents whose lives were consumed by working odd jobs with inconsistent hours to survive in Canada. A bowl of kimchi-jjigae reminded me of the many times I ate dinner alone without conversation at the dinner table.

In middle school, a close girlfriend invited me to dinner. I was so stressed I didn’t eat lunch that day. I was unsure how to behave, what was expected of me, and how to feel comfortable around her parents.

The meal was delicious, homemade and hearty. But I was uncomfortable with the laughter and the conversations shared between parents and kids. I felt like I was having an out of body experience, watching this family update each other on their day, cracking jokes and passing plates of steamed broccoli, baked potatoes and pasta salad around the table.

Halfway through the meal, I had to excuse myself because I was experiencing a mild anxiety attack. Sitting there, at an “ordinary” family dinner, I couldn’t comprehend how a meal could be filled with love, bonding and belonging. It felt strangely staged.

The next day, I asked my friend if dinners were usually like that at her house. I’ll never forget the look of confusion she gave me. Her parents believed a meal ought to be shared with family, she said, and not eaten alone.

I’d never felt so lonely.

잘 먹었습니다 (I ate well)

Most of Always Be My Maybe follows Sasha as an adult. She’s a successful celebrity chef who whitewashes Asian cuisine to appeal to privileged white Americans. She has a thriving career and business, a supportive best friend and money.

Sasha’s resentment towards her parents is a running theme, but her parents don’t make an appearance until 25 minutes into the movie. When they do, Sasha’s reaction to their surprise visit portrays her annoyance and awkwardness.

But the visit from her parents takes her immediately back to the truth for many children of immigrant parents. Childhoods are remembered as a time when parents were away working to offer them the possibility of a more comfortable future. Dinner times, particularly, were haunted by their absence.

When Sasha cooks a lavish, gourmet meal in a sterile kitchen and eats alone in a dining space straight out of an Ikea catalogue, I felt incredible loneliness watching the camera zoom out as her dining area grew and she shrank.

Successful adult Sasha lives a domestic life no different than her childhood. She eats her gourmet meal alone, like she did as a child, and seems comfortable with it. I have the same experience.

I’ve become so used to eating by myself that any family dinner, informal or not, stresses me out. Like Sasha, I’ve grown comfortable with the silence of eating alone. I still feel awkward and out of place when my friends invite me for dinner at their houses. I wear my outgoing persona, putting on an act to disconnect with the discomfort affection at the table provokes.

Watching Sasha’s parents visiting their daughter at her workplace and making efforts to spend time with her was like déjà vu. My parents now make a comfortable living, no longer stressing about money. They have more time to spend with their children. Family dinners are the norm now, according to my siblings.

Always Be My Maybe is a chick-flick, but also about forgiveness and working-class and immigrant struggles. It’s about how children who have experienced this kind of loneliness find different ways of healing.

For Sasha, that was mastering cuisine. For me, it was acknowledging that my mom woke up at dawn to cook my favourite Korean side dishes and came home after night shifts to cook so we had a delicious Korean breakfast the next morning.

I moved out of my parents’ house five years ago. I visit only during the holidays and the summer months. I usually arrive at the house well before my parents get off work.

But when I go into the kitchen, I can always expect to see a big pot of kimchi-jjigae my mom made to welcome me home.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Film

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