It made us hate ourselves a little that we found the Korean restaurant in the New York Times travel section, but Bret and I went anyway, on a July afternoon in Baltimore when the warm air clung to us like an unwanted blanket. We’d missed the train from DC, which would’ve been twice as fast and three times as air-conditioned as the last-minute Megabus we’d ended up taking earlier that afternoon. A day of dragging our bodies around Baltimore in July–burdened by thick socks, black clothes, and deep frugality–had left us impossibly sweaty. I was desperate to feel lighter.
Instead, we ordered seafood pancakes and a small mountain of Korean fried chicken coated in gochujang. Our server was a young Korean woman about my age, and when she took our order, I resisted a familiar urge to ask whether she sees a lot of Asian women come by with their white partners. But the desired lightness would be delivered with our check, in the form of two little bottles perched on top of our receipt. The sight of that fermented milk drink made me giddy, so sweet and cool on my lips. Somewhere in the back, I knew there must be an entire fridge stocked with those miniature bottles, in five-packs covered in shrink wrap.
There are a lot of ways to tell you’re in a Korean home, but one of them is a pack of Yakult in the kitchen. As a kid, I’d see them in rows in my cousin’s fridge in Seoul or in my imo’s apartment in LA’s Koreatown; I’d grab one on sight, eager to peel back the red foil cap. The anticipation was delicious, though after a few sips I was usually over the taste.
If you don’t know Yakult from childhood, you might recognize it from its cameo as a “Korean yogurt smoothie” in To All the Boys I Loved Before, which has apparently boosted its sales. Like the protagonist in that film, Lara Jean, I have a Korean mom and a white dad. And Lara, too, (kind of) dates a white guy who loves Yakult. Though it’s not the taste of Yakult I love, I like that Bret does like it; it’s a thrill to watch him down the pale peach potion with such gusto. I like that he doesn’t make any claims about Asian culture or flavor palettes, afterwards; I like that he doesn’t say anything, really, except that he used to drink Yakult at a Japanese neighbor’s house as a kid.
However flawed Yakult might be as a metric of someone’s acceptance of non-whiteness, I pay attention to it. And it is flawed. Bret is enthusiastic about kimchi, but that doesn’t mean he’d be happy to send our (very hypothetical) children to Korean school, or to give them Korean names. No amount of banchan or fish cake or red bean desserts will predict Bret’s willingness to confront the way a colonial legacy weighs on our relationship. But it’s there: it makes me happy to watch someone I love consume the food that built my childhood. With each sip, he undoes an ounce of my self-doubt about dating someone white.
“Within commodity culture,” as bell hooks wrote in her essay “Eating the Other,” “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” When I read this, I think of being 18, when I might’ve been this dash of seasoning to someone: a white boy a few years older than me who liked to emphasize his family’s Italian roots. The summer before I left for college, we drove in his silver BMW along the California coast, and at a Chinese restaurant, in my hometown, I remember that he told me how he loved that I was mixed race.
In words that I hope to someday memorialize on a t-shirt, he called me exotic but familiar.
This phrase, “exotic but familiar,” reminds me of the way hooks characterizes the “seduction of difference.” Sexual desire for women of color can affirm white men’s progressive attitude without threatening their own privilege; that I was only part Asian meant that I could be just the right amount of spice to flavor BMW boy’s life, leaving the status quo intact. A hint of Korean chili pepper in an otherwise neutral palette.
I never had Yakult with him. I wonder if he would’ve delighted in the taste.
I’m worried that for me, too, consumption is a substitute for a deeper self-acceptance.
I guess I’ve always pretended to like Yakult more than I do. It looks and tastes like being a kid to me, and though I’ve never really loved Yakult’s tanginess, or the milky texture, my first impulse is to gush whenever someone mentions it (or tteokbokki,or samgyetang, or any staple of a Korean childhood). The alternative responses seem disastrous. If I decline an invitation to grab bibimbap with a friend, will they think I’m not really Korean? Will they see me as more white than Asian, the way I wanted to be as a kid?
I’ve been living in my mixed race body for 23 years, and yet an invite to a Korean meal can still set off a full blown crisis. If you challenged me to a Yakult drinking contest, I’d probably accept, and try to ratify my Korean-ness with each and every fruity sip. If I can’t speak Korean, I can pretend to like Yakult.
My friend Chris and I talk about this sometimes; he’s also Korean and white, and we met at a party when he overheard someone ask me what I was. But being Korean doesn’t have much to do with our friendship; it’s hard for us to talk about that side of ourselves, besides the food we like, the way our mothers treat us, and a mutual guilt that we didn’t try harder in Korean school. Sometimes we exchange the few Korean words we each know, even though slipping those phrases into texts makes me feel like an imposter. Recently, Chris went out with a full-Korean woman who teased him for being a halfie; we laughed, since it’s how we feel sometimes too, that we aren’t quite Korean enough to be Korean at all.
I think both our mothers hope that we someday make a public declaration of our Korean-ness, once and for all. Last month, I was back home in San Francisco having breakfast with my mom and Bret, when my mom mentioned that, if I ever get married, she’d like me to have a traditional Korean wedding ceremony. This was news to me. At least, she said, she’d want me to wear a hanbok, the traditional wedding gown. I wonder: it’s easy for Bret to like Yakult, but what about the rest? Who knows how his Irish Catholic family would react to seeing him in a hanbok, or about a wedding that’s Asian at all? I’m not sure how they’d feel, but I’m certain they’d at least be open to a little Korean food at the reception.
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