Eating together as a way of building community in the Korean Canadian diaspora
Written by Elise Yoon
There’s an unspoken, familial comfort in being in a room that smells of japchae.
This was the case on Saturday October 21, in a room at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, where each table was set up with Bloor Street’s hodokwaja, kimchi from Busy Bee, and kimbap placed in the middle, not unlike the table set ups you’d find in any given gathering of Korean people. This event, however, was not with my family or a church, which, for me, were the only two contexts for Korean gatherings growing up. There are few spaces as a racialized person you can feel at ease, or at least make you realize you haven’t been at ease in so many spaces until you’re in one surrounded by people who look like you and eat like you.
This was Woori Maum Communal Table: Where are we from?, the first event of a three part series hosted by Woori Maum Korean Canadian Mental Health Association, exploring the Korean Canadian experience by looking at where we came from, where we are now, and where we are going.
Korean and non-Korean people alike gathered together on that Saturday to enjoy a panel discussion on cultural and personal ties to food while sampling japchae, bulgogi, gujeolpan and a persimmon drink called sujeonggwa for dessert. There was no better way to start the immense conversation on Korean Canadian experience, but through what has always brought us together: the act of sharing food.
The first panelists, Grace Park and Olive Suk, brought us bujimgae and japchae and shared their stories in Korean. Attendees who weren’t Korean as well as children of Korean lineage with partial grasp of the language had the benefit of a written translation. I thought to myself in this moment how rare it was to be at an event that was accessible and relevant to both me and my parents simultaneously. Although they weren’t present, I knew they could be, not only because of language, but because when Olive talked about her struggles as an immigrant parent raising two children in a new country, I thought of my own umma and appa. She spoke of feelings of isolation in being a foreigner in Canada, and how making food in a community kitchen brought her a sense of purpose and community, not to mention a taste of home. As we sampled the japchae, Olive spoke about how it is a Korean party staple. I knew exactly what she meant as I chewed on these slippery noodles, and remembered new year’s dinners of japchae mounds next to a hill of kimbap that you know the women in your family spent all morning rolling.
Food as healing was the theme that emerged of the evening. Panelist Jason Lee spoke about memories of food insecurity as a student youth and the impact this had on both his physical and mental health. He reflected on how learning to make Korean food brought him closer to the culture. Another panelist named Grace Cho (behind community meal project Manimogo) spoke about what makes our parents happy regardless of financial or immigration struggles: knowing their children are well fed. I thought about how my parents show their love by telling me to eat lots, and how, on hard days, the best comfort food is my mother’s doenjang jjigae. Hearing these stories, I realized how food heals us, not only by its nutrients and nostalgia, but also by bringing us together as a community.
Panelist David Cho noted how the beauty of Korean cuisine is that it’s communal. In a Korean household, you always set the table with a variety of banchan (side dishes) in the middle, and the occasional shared plate of fish picked on with chopsticks by the whole family throughout the meal. It is this act of sharing food that makes this community; cooking for each other and knowing our loved ones are eating the meals that go back generations on a land that has only had us for the 1st or 2nd. It is a way of connecting to our ancestors, however far we may feel from them in the complexities of assimilation and lost language. It is a way of connecting to each other, by eating together and finding home in each other as foreigners.
I believe panelist Olive said it best: even if we don’t talk a lot, through eating together there is community. I thought about how migration splits our tongue, and the dinner tables that mend us back. Meals we ate in silence when there were no words to say in either language. Forgiveness asked for in a helping hand in the kitchen. The love in cooling down a spoonful of jjigae for your child.
As moderator Harriet Kim reminded us at the start of the event, food is a verb. The process of growing, fermenting, eating, sharing food is at the heart of Korean identity and culture. It is this experience of food that makes us. The smell of japchae in a room. The image of our ummas making kimchi in a large steel bowl on the kitchen floor. The soups we all eat as tradition (ddukguk on new year’s day, miyeokguk on birthdays). It would be a lie to say that my cultural ties are as simple as a plate of starch noodles, and that my Koreanness has never caused me pain. But that’s essentially the point. In the hardship and heartbreak of something as nuanced as diasporic identity, food remains so simple.
As integral food is to our cultural identities, our access differs. I think about the young Korean student living on their own for the first time. I think about the families relying on items available at food banks and the meals at drop-ins. I think about our elders at homes and hospitals. Rising prices of fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts, or neighbourhoods without culturally-specific grocery stores. Sometimes, we don’t get to choose the foods we eat. Sometimes, we live isolated from our communities and families. There is no doubt these factors have huge effects on mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and it is why initiatives like Woori Maum Communal Table exist. Spaces like these are meant to start the conversation on common struggles, to feel less alone, and to empower one another over a shared meal, with food that belongs to us.
The following article is also published on LooseLeaf Magazine.
Keep updated on Woori Maum’s next event by subscribing to their mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org or following on Facebook @woorimaumtoronto.
Event supporters @busybeekimchi and @hodokwaja are also available on Instagram.
Elise Yoon sits on the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council as Education Co-Lead and is a poetry editor at LooseLeaf Magazine. You can email her at email@example.com.
Photographs by Bomkee Photography | @bomkeephotography