Read the Label
Captions. Food labels. Dioramas. Encyclopedia entries from 1988. The Bible – for a quick flashing decade before all the shine rubbed off of its tight binding. Did I mention food labels? Many of those. Few postcards, since I don’t know many travelers. Too many gratuitous status updates (too many of those written, too). A share of subtitles. And also, a few letters.
“Don’t forget short stories,” Jenn tells me from the futon. My old college roommate is flipping through an Express promotional magazine as I’m standing before our rusty gas stove in our newly acquired apartment, flipping pancakes, sort of. “You constantly read short stories, too.”
“That’s a little conventional,” I tell her. “Haven’t you heard? According to Professor Price, I’m quirky and irreverent. Convention is now my ex.”
I don’t manage to flip the pancake. It tears in half and I make a half cooked stack in the center of the frying pan. Jenn hums in agreement and flips another page.
“I can see that.” She pauses on an item. “Damn, that’s pricey.” She tosses the expensive pages down on our tiny, square Ikea table. “What is this even for, anyway?”
“I’m just listing the crazier crap I read, to remember some things, mostly old nasty stuff that you and I don’t talk about. Because that’s always fun.”
“Right,” Jenn replies, then sniffs. Charred Korean pancake smells like a buttery stir fry of cauliflower and bread; it’s made of neither. In fact, its base is more similar to a mound of enriched flour fried in sesame oil. “Why is it called a Korean pancake if it’s not really a pancake?”
“Not an American pancake? I don’t know. Can’t say, except that it’s flat and fried. Maybe they think it’s the same thing.” The sizzle of the pan flares up like a snake. I get burned a bit, but my small granite counter takes most of the spray of oil. I stab a section that’s seceded from the rest of its unit with a wooden chopstick, charred at the tip. “Want a piece?”
Jenn looks at it, smells again its scent of burnt bread, rich now in the open space that serves as our living room, and declines nicely. “Pass, thanks.” I layer the pieces of the fried patty onto my plate and bestow a graceless amount of soy sauce.
“I don’t have anything to say,” I lie and chew at the same time. “Or write, or…whatever.”
Jenn resumes flipping, the sounds of pages and silverware filling up space between the futon and the kitchen. “I’m sure you can think of something.”
I lean against our cheap little faux granite countertop in our tiny 1.5 bedroom apartment, chewing away at the meal I just made, orange-red from red bean paste and fermented cabbage (kimchi, call it kimchi like the real Koreans do). Outside our apartment, the neighbors’ empanadas and beans produce the most prevalent smell drifting in the hallway. My dinner’s a little strange in comparison. I’m in an old Brooklyn building, after all, not a neighborhood with a large Korean population. It’s strange even to me, when for eighteen years all I’d eaten were good ‘ol American beef patties (which I disliked), with or without cheese (which I eventually became allergic to), or the occasional take-out – not food products that come with Korean packaging labels that I can’t even read.
I’m used to reading food labels, brand names, cooking instructions, anything that can tell name the proper steps I need to take in order to prepare a meal. I was raised in a family of descended European generations that have long lost the need to pass on recipes or “secret ingredients.” A meal is perfectly fine if it comes in a box; this is and probably always will be my default belief, but there’s plenty to explore outside of a boxed-in label.
Korean food is about freshness and flavoring, preparation and meticulous measurements – it’s a mess compared to the microwave instructions that make me most comfortable. I wouldn’t have tried it before I went away to college, though it’s not as if there was a place to try that kind of foreign cuisine, not in the rural suburbia from where my family hails – from where I hail, maybe? Except no, that’s not quite right.
When I was five, my parents let me see my second birth certificate, touting large print letters reading “U.S.A” across the top. My first birth certificate was a thin piece of carbon paper that served its purpose during my first four months in foster care in Seoul, which had a smaller, imperfect English translation of the “Republic of Korea” across the top. Upon meeting new people, I find it’s best to clear up any discrepancies between commonly confused labels regarding Pacific Asia at first meeting, rather than wait for the impending social faux pas that entraps an unsuspecting person who believes, as my mother once plaintively said, “It all just seems the same.”
It’s close but not quite, as the “Republic of Korea,” also known as South Korea, is indeed separate from the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” which is more commonly known as North Korea and is neither democratic, about the people, nor a true republic. Other important papers that had to be locked away in my fireproof box with my birth certificate were mostly the ones with “citizenship” and “naturalization” heading the pages, proving that my associations are far from communism.
Sometimes, when a coworker or an acquaintance asks me where I was born, I tell them, and they ask for clarification: “Are you from North Korea, or South?” It’s easier then to clarify: “Yes, I’m North Korean. I’m really a spy. In fact, if you don’t want this conversation recorded, stand back two yards.” Sometimes they don’t get it.
Sometimes, no one gets it, as I figure out early, while standing in the checkout line of the grocery store, reading food labels, reading brand names, looking for instructions. I’m shifting my weight at the end of the counter, watching my father transfer the load from our shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, when the pimply, frosted blond cashier rings up my father’s Budlight and then turns to me. “ID?” He asks, tentatively and oddly, which makes sense, since I’m twelve years old at the time.
“What?” My father barks and stares at the kid. I stare too, confused, because I’ve never before been made to feel like I’ve done something wrong by a person little more than my older brother’s age, and even if so, not in the checkout line. But I’m still twelve and imagine a big cartoon question mark above this kid’s head, maybe in glittery blue ink like a gel pen. My father, though, can’t be distracted.
“She’s my daughter.” He explains slowly and reticently, completely confused as to why anyone would possibly ask his daughter for an ID while he buys beer in the grocery store.
The kid’s eerily silent and mumbles something about policy. My father’s face shows more backwards confusion, but while we wait for the store manager on duty to walk over and investigate my lack of a pre-teen driver’s license, something grimmer starts to show in his facial muscles.
Finally, the large female manager lumbers over. “What’s the problem here?” she asks.
“Yeah, um,” the poor kid starts to say. “ID?” he says. In my mind, I decide to add exclamatory little lines around the question mark above his head.
“Well,” the manager replies after giving my blond-haired father and me a once-over. “Who is she, exactly?”
“She’s my daughter!” My father exclaims again, hand tight around his credit card, ready to pay and wheel away as fast as the shopping cart can squeak through the parking lot. I’m still standing in front of our half-bagged groceries, reading things like “Lays,” “Golden Rod Pretzels,” and “Bison French Onion Dip.” I’m looking down or to the side, reading more labels.
“Steve, if it’s his daughter, it’s okay.” The manager snaps her neck over to look at Steve and tells him to finish the transaction.
With his head down, Steve rings the Fruit Loops, the Yoplait, and the Bounty paper towel remaining on the conveyor belt, and my father jabs all the necessary buttons to pay. The plastic bags make crispy noises as I perch on the edge of the shopping cart, ready to be rolled out to the parking lot. The grocery bags read, “Wegman’s, Est.” in green font, but I can’t make out the year printed afterward.
My father packs the last of the bags into the cart and grips the handle tightly. As he rolls away from the checkout counter, he’s shaking his head. He turns around once and asks the kid, “What’s wrong with you? Are you just off today? Or what?”
After we get home, I stand in my mother’s pristine white kitchen with red trim and Coca Cola paraphernalia everywhere. I’m pounding on the rim of our newly purchased jar of pickle slices with the butt end of a butter knife after many failed attempts to pry it open. The clang, clang, clang makes a triplet rhythm as I abuse the whole rim. I hurt my hands trying to twist the lid off again. It still won’t give.
In the living room, my father’s tenor is hitting notes more high strung than the metal clang. Judging by the enunciation on the hard-hitting consonants, I can tell he’s very angry. I can picture him pacing back and forth in front of my brown-haired mother, tracing the familiar path in front of the blue felt chair that she’s probably sitting in, with her thin lips pursed and her white chin resting on her hand.
“D’you know what he must’ve thought she was?” My father’s telling her. “You know what he thought she was. That I’m some – What, that she’s my child bride or something? Un—fucking —believable, this town.” His pacing is loud and our floorboards creak beneath the thin carpeting my mother wanted laid down in the living room.
I tear off a strip of paper towel to dab off the condensation that makes the jar too slippery to hold onto firmly. “Claussen Kosher Dill Slices,” the label says. “Always keep refrigerated,” it says. I read it once, twice.
“Un—fucking—believable, this town,” my father exclaims again. I hear the plaid couch swoosh out all its air when he lands on it. The lid on the jar of pickles finally makes a loud pop as I twist it. My parents suddenly stop talking in the other room. I roll one slice into my mouth and grab another for the trip back to my bedroom floor. I pop the lid back onto the jar and make my way past the living room. Passing by, I don’t hear my parents’ voices again.
Standing in my own kitchen, I see my roommate make another face. “That smells disgusting,” she says, referring to the jar of fermented kimchi that I’m screwing the lid back on and storing in our refrigerator. My dishes clatter on top of the pile already in the sink as I clean up the rest of the mess that I’ve made.
“But spoiled cabbage never tasted so good,” I say and run the faucet.
A friend who I met during my sophomore year of college introduced me to kimchi, as well as bulgogi, bibimpop, and the infamous Korean pancake. I took a liking to the new food suddenly and devotedly, making small runs to Flushing and Koreatown to visit tiny local markets, where many faces that resemble mine have easier times navigating through the narrow aisles than I do. I stand in line at the mini checkout counters, brushing through awkward conversations with the cashiers in equal tones of broken English and broken Korean, sometimes remembering other awkward moments at other checkout counters, and sometimes not.
Korean food has bursts of drama to it; bold flavors and loud colors. The problem with shopping and cooking with a different cuisine is that I can’t read half of the labels on the food I make (if only everything came in simple pickle jars), and that unfamiliarity is startling and unnerving sometimes. So I started to work my way around the labels, ignoring instructions and generally moving by instinct in the kitchen. My roommate finds it irritating: “We used to be able to shop at the same places,” she says. “We used to eat all the same things.” She’ll learn to adjust. All I can do is match the lids that I can recognize with their respective holders and snap everything back into place. I’ll never win at trying to read everything. And eventually I gave up the notion of knowing exactly what I’m doing with myself.
Last month, I re-read a favorite short story of mine about a man’s family’s history of heart disease. The story was called “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I thought the style was hip, though it had flaws in its boldness, like a new fusion dish. I might get around to reading his longer works one day, maybe when I’m more practiced at instinct and reading between lines. In the story, a thirty-something year old recounts how his family shares something like three dozen heart attacks between his brothers, his father, his uncles, and himself. It made me terribly curious to think about what kind of experience that is, to share a disease with your family, especially in something so primal as the heart, running rampant through the bloodlines as something familial, but constantly aching.