2007 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place

Most influential encounter with Korean culture
Cecilia Ahn

The night dawned young on a senseless Friday evening, and I was sitting in a restaurant staring at a menu. An aging Asian man sitting on the adjacent table snuck a peek over towards my drifting eyes and wondered what a Korean girl was doing with a curly-haired Hispanic boy. Ignoring his cold stare, I sipped tea from a grey ceramic mug, scanned the four-page menu, and finally decided on the sullungtang. A group of rowdy soju drinkers let out a silly clamorous cheer, and I lifted my eyebrows with an inquisitive curiosity.

With a raised voice, I asked David what he wanted to order. A sweaty-fingered waiter then power-walked to our table, and pushed his falling glasses up towards his face with his thumb. He took out a pen and a piece of paper, and, in English drenched in a Korean accent, mumbled, “What would you like to order?” David glanced at me with a mischievous smile, and with a British accent, said, “Ah yes, young lad, I would like to taste your yookgaejang, and soondae. My lady has not yet had the opportunity to place her order, so if you will, please focus your attention on her.” Blushing, I pointed at the picture of the sullungtang in the menu. The waiter hesitatingly glanced at David with a sense of interest and bewilderment, scribbled something on the paper, stuttered a “thank you,” and walked to the refrigerator to take out five soju bottles, which the drinkers were persistently signaling for.

I took out the wooden chopsticks from its paper cover, and broke the two sticks apart. “My next challenge in life,” exclaimed the frustrated David, “is to master the art of using chopsticks!” I shook my head in laughter, fixed his hand posture, and witnessed his first taste of the epitome of Korean food and culture – kimchee. He slowly, but steadily, picked up a piece of kimchee and placed it inside his mouth. Chewing on it, he looked at me with beaming eyes, and smiled with satisfaction seeping through his sanguine cheeks. Dramatically changing to a French accent, David said, “Tis like having a light croissant and a cappuccino on a cold Sunday morning while sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower with your lover!”

A group of people wearing hanboks walked in, and David eyed them until the hostess led them to a table. He traced the designs on the hanboks with his fingers in the air like a brandishing wand, and he asked me if I owned one. I told him about choosuk, Korean New Year’s, and my grandparents’ birthdays. Wearing hanboks to these events were a must in my family, so I, inevitably, had to have one. He looked at me, and with a German accent, said, “My dear, I would love to see you in one of these elaborately decorated dresses one day for I believe that you will look absolutely stunning!”

I watched the waiter hastily approach us and place two bowls of soup and a plate of soondae at out table. David stared at the soondae with intense curiosity and apprehension, and blurted in a Scottish accent, “My, my! Looks like haggis!” I giggled and watched him use his chopsticks to put a piece of kimchee and soondae into his mouth. He then sipped yookgaejang, and coughed as the hot and spicy soup scorched his throat. His curious fingers reached for the gochu, and he bravely dipped it in the dwenjang. I watched him put the gochu into his mouth, and a loud crunching noise was followed by teary eyes. As he wiped his tears away, I asked, “You ok, David?” “I’m Hispanic!” he exclaimed, “I’m used to the spiciness.” I chuckled and handed him a napkin. David asked, “Is this a typical meal in Korea?” The corners of my lips twitched upwards, and I proudly gave him an affirming nod.

Living in America as a first generation Korean, I grew up rejecting my heritage and thrusting myself in American culture because I wanted to be accepted by my peers. However, my attempts were futile, and I found myself stuck between two worlds – the Korean world, which I was ignorant to; and the American world, which I had grown accustomed to. This meant that I didn’t quite fit into either realms – I was labeled as an Asian in American society, thus, I was, and, currently am not, viewed as a full American. On the contrary, I was labeled “too Americanized” by Korean culture, thus I was not, and currently am not, seen as a full Korean.

I was oblivious to famous Korean stars like Rain and Super Junior, I didn’t watch Korean dramas most of my Asian friends were obsessing over, and I refused to speak Korean. However, I realized I must be proud of my heritage instead of being ashamed of it when I had dinner with David. Meeting someone who was so interested in Korean culture made me recognize how unique Korea is, and undermining its distinctive customs only made me a hypocrite because I advocated love and awareness for all traditions.

Yes, I am a Korean-American, but I am still impacted by small daily events that teach me more and more about myself and about my country.