By Katie Zdunek
Twelve ramekin-size white dishes are brought out on a brown plastic tray by an older Korean woman who speaks broken English and spends her time between the front and back of house. We, the largest and only multicultural family in Koreana II, sit in the middle at long, pink laminate covered tables to celebrate my birthday and Jeffrey’s adoption day dinner, while several Asian families sit at four-tops that hug the walls near the barred windows. We thank her as she places a tray on each end, not knowing one tray will only be picked over by Mom and my nieces, Maddy and Caroline, my family’s pickiest eaters.
Caroline is “very cute,” the elderly woman tells us in English. She looks directly at Jeffrey and me. I think she thinks my nieces are my daughters, she doesn’t realize that they’re half-white.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence, neither are the odd looks my older brother or I get when we’re out with one or both of our white parents. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, where we were part of the 2.2 percent of the population that’s Asian, according to the 2010 Census Bureau, we’re accustomed to sticking out in a sea of white. We’re well-seasoned with racial encounters, like being called a “chink” or a “Jap” and being told to “go back to your country,” and innocent instances like this.
We both smile and thank her. We are not even biologically related, but the way that we bicker and banter, who could tell? We don’t try to cross the language barrier to explain words like “adopted”, “not biologically related” and “mixed race.” Still, she must wonder what these four Koreans are doing with the trio of white people.
Disposable wooden chopsticks reach to grab bites of yellow soybean sprouts and cucumber slices rubbed with gochujang and gochugaru, spicy red pepper paste and powder, and garnished in sesame seeds. Jeffrey goes for the traditional kimchi, fermented cabbage that gets its heat from the gochujang and gochugaru.
“Oh my god,” Jeffrey says with satisfaction and a Southern drawl that confuses people.
Dad, across from him, uses his own chopsticks and picks up several pieces of the pickled cabbage. The rest of us share the other tray of ban chan. Mostly though, it is just me. My younger brother, Chris, who looks exactly like Dad, opts for diced tofu. Chris, who was the unexpected blessing — a biological child after my parents adopted me and my brother– or the “Chosen One,” as Jeffrey and I have jokingly called him.
I work my way through the appetizer dishes quietly, blissfully, clicking my chopsticks together in between bites. I gravitate toward the spinach dish. It’s simple, sautéed in sesame oil, but the light, nutty taste of sesame makes my mouth water. Jeffrey’s eldest daughter, Maddy, leans forward in her seat across the table, her brown eyes scan over the brown tray.
“What is this?” she asks.
We point out what we know for sure first, the kimchi and cucumber kimchi, but our family’s knowledge of Korean dishes is limited. We move to naming components we can identify: spinach, sprouts, radish, tofu. We tell her which are spicy and which are not. Satisfied or bored with our response, Maddy sits back in her chair and talks to my mom, whose chopsticks rest in their red paper wrapper, untouched.
Caroline is more interested in playing. Like Jeffrey, she can’t sit still for long. She climbs out of her seat and brings out a Frozen toy she brought to the restaurant.
“It’s Princess Ew-sa,” she says, introducing Chris and me to the handheld figurine, whose face is also emblazoned on her shirt, blue plastic jewelry, and matching dress-up shoes.
Chris laughs from across the table. We watch as she sets Elsa on the table and turns around to dig in her little pink purse again. Chris reaches his lanky arm across the table and pockets Elsa. He and I exchange glances. He raises a finger to his mouth, motioning to keep quiet. Caroline and Maddy are the younger siblings he never had.
“And this is Olaf!” Caroline says excitedly, putting the happy little snowman on the table. It takes her a second. She looks at Chris and I, then grins cheek to cheek.
“Heeeey! Where is Princess Ew-sa?” She asks us.
We laugh, play dumb.
“Did you check under your napkin?” Chris asks.
“Maybe she fell off the table?” I suggest.
We tease her for a moment before Chris gives the blonde toy back.
Chopsticks click. I’ve polished off the soybean sprouts and the tender spinach. I pick from dish to dish now, I try pepper-garnished bites of everything, spicy and tangy on my tongue. The ramekin of kimchi near Jeffrey and Dad is empty. The three of us negotiate turns at the dwindling dish of cubed radish kimchi.
Our dinner will arrive soon, but Jeffrey and I continue to graze while Mom and Dad ask Chris about college. We join the conversation occasionally, but we don’t stop eating.
Our family comes to Koreana II four days a year at most: my adoption day, Jeffrey’s adoption day, my birthday, and his birthday. December and January are the highlight of my year, with my birthday, my adoption day, and Jeffrey’s birthday compressed into a month’s time. Mom’s parents never made us traditional Irish food and now that Dad’s Polish parents have passed, it’s the only cultural dinner we have meaningful ties to.
We are a mix of those who would rather eat steamed rice and anything covered in teriyaki, and those who could eat Korean red pepper garnished dishes until our tastebuds are sore from overexposure to heat. It’s a small cultural dive, but it’s the closest Jeffrey and I’ve come to sharing interest or any bond over our shared heritage. It’s a taste of a life I might’ve lived had I never been adopted, surrounded by the people that are the only home I’ve ever known.
Mom waits for her entree while Chris dabbles, like Dad, who’s willing to try anything. Jeffrey and I gorge ourselves as if we could eat our way home.
We are a melding of cultures, but this decade-long tradition, like our family, has never stuck out to me as odd. Even in Kentucky. This is just my family.