Food For Thought

Food and Cultural Identity – My Hapa Story

(Photo: My mom getting more  mileage out of my Hanbok on Halloween circa 1991.)


I had just started a questionnaire. It asked my ethnicity and allowed me to “check all that apply,” an option that didn’t exist when I was younger.

Then, it asked me to select which one I identified with most. 

As a biracial Asian and Caucasian person, I can never be defined as one without the other. It’s like asking me to say one of my parents doesn’t exist.

From the ages of two to eight-years-old, we lived on a diverse military base where there were other half-Korean kids like me. We shared the same experience of living in a dual racial and cultural universe. Then, my dad retired from the Air Force and we moved to a very small, very white, rural Illinois town (technically a village) near our extended family. 

Korea became even more foreign to me (and still is), despite growing up with a handful of Korean customs passed down by my mom and learning a few things from our seldom visits to her homeland. I can’t speak Korean fluently (although I study with a tutor). And I don’t look Korean – my ethnicity is *especially* shocking for Korean people. (I’ve since learned that should a Korean person ask my ethnicity, I can never say I’m half-Korean or Korean American. Instead, I should make the distinction that I have a Korean mom, and an American father.)

Consequently, I could more closely relate to my white friends and family than the few Koreans I knew while living in Illinois. Despite this, I still felt different. Because I was different.

Even if I wasn’t considered a part of the Korean community, compared to the white American community I looked different, my upbringing was different, and most notably – I ate differently. 

Food Is The First Bridge To Culture

While a language barrier creates obstacles that extend and delay cultural learning, food is immediate. My greatest tie to my Korean heritage is through my taste buds.

Do I understand the words to K-Pop songs? Nope. Do I turn on subtitles when watching K-Drama? Absolutely. Did I make faux-pas mistakes when visiting Korea? Unfortunately, yes.

BUT – can I make kimchi jjigae and roll gimbap? Yep. Did I devour miyeok guk (seaweed soup) after having my kids? You betcha.

The taste of soy, sesame and gochugaru (Korean red pepper) shaped my palette growing up. When I was very young, my mom would scoop the juice from her kimchi jar into my rice as I begged for more “rice and kimchi juice!” We snacked on seaweed, dried squid and rice cakes. I’d watch my mom make gimbap and steal the thin slices of egg from her prep plate.

While I also loved grilled cheese, waffles, fried chicken and other dishes my Midwestern friends and family enjoyed, I could never live on that alone. I’d still need my fix of that salty-spicy-sweetness that Korean food provides.

Having given up on speaking Korean to me and my brother and assimilating into American life, it was important to my mom that we know and love Korean food. I know that at times she felt lonely when she couldn’t speak to us in her native language, or when we couldn’t fully understand why and how she did some of the things she did. But the food was something special that connected us to her and who she was before leaving Korea.

Because of this, my Korean-side is very much a part of who I am. 

When I went to Korea for the first time and couldn’t speak a word to any of my many relatives, they were thrilled to see how I enjoyed Korean food. Even if we couldn’t speak to each other, enjoying the same meal was something that brought us together. 

That’s the power of food – it’s the first bridge to culture.

This connection between food and culture would remain a dominant theme in my life beyond  my own cultural identity, when I too married someone from another country. 

 Reaching Out With Food

During my first trip to Turkey, I traveled by myself as my then-fiancé was already there. I connected in Germany, where the man seated next to me on the plane said something in Turkish. I looked at him and shrugged. He tried German. I smiled nervously and shrugged again. He shook his head with an expression that said, “What’s your plan, idiot?” 

I said, “I’m American” in Turkish, pointed to my engagement ring, then said “Gaziantep” – the city where I was headed. He mentioned something about baklava (the city is famous for the dessert). “Yes, Yes. I like!” I said, then named a few other dishes. The wall had come down. He  gave me a big smile, and we both kept naming different Turkish dishes until the plane took off. 

When meeting my in-laws for the first time, they too were so happy to see me dig into each meal whole-heartedly and correctly identify different dishes. They had expected at least some apprehension about the food. From my experience with my family in Korea, I knew if we couldn’t speak to each other at least we could enjoy the food together. 

Shaping Our Cultural Identities With Food

Two years later, my mother-in-law came to stay with us for the first time in the States. Conversation was off the table; nevertheless, she started showing me tips in the kitchen. I watched her and understood her by tasting and following along. She gave me all of the instructions in Turkish as if I understood every word. (Over time, I did start to understand the words.) Living so very far away is hard for their close-knit family. Stockpiling our freezer and teaching me the ropes to Turkish cuisine was her way of making sure my husband regularly thinks of his homeland, and our kids are tied to their heritage. 

Food provides us with sustenance not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Food evokes powerful feelings that’s tied into our identities. Without certain foods, you feel incomplete. Some dishes link us to our past – our favorite childhood meals or recipes handed down by our ancestors. Some dishes become a part of who you are later in life, through the people you meet.

Now, I’ve grown so accustomed to eating Turkish food I couldn’t imagine not having it on my home menu. And while I can’t go without Korean food, I miss my “American” food sometimes when I’m abroad. Like most other people, my food needs are related to who I am and my diverse background. The same will be true for my children. They are Turkish-Korean-American and as a result, my kitchen is as well. 

When I first heard the term “hapa” I latched on right away. It’s a single word that defines something that was always too complicated to explain. In short, hapa means from mixed ethnic backgrounds. That’s what I am. It’s also my family. And the dishes on my hapa family table bring us closer to the culture of our parents, and grandparents.

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