[Letters]Community of the heart
This is the story of how kimchi changed my life.
I am a 49 year old American white guy, married to a wonderful Korean lady for 22 years now, and I have enjoyed living among Koreans in the Los Angeles area for the last 26 years.
Through a series of tragic events I wound up living as a virtual orphan, bouncing from one home to another, until at age 17 I was on my own. Then my life began to change.
In 1981 I was working in an auto shop and made friends with a young Korean customer named Ronny Jung.
We became drinking buddies and I gladly listened to the Korean rock ’n’ roll he liked. I learned a few words of Korean.
Ronny’s father was impressed and seemed determined at that point to teach me the Korean alphabet. As I would sit in the living room waiting for Ronny, Mr. Jung would bring paper and pen and sit close by me, telling me of the great King Sejong, and how he commissioned the creation of the Korean alphabet.
Much to my annoyance, Mr. Jung would go over the consonants and vowels and insist I try it, saying “Korean is easy, it’s very scientific.” I tried my best to humor the old man, though I had no intention of learning how to read Korean - but I was learning and didn’t even know it.
About two months after I met Ronny we stayed out drinking very late one day. In the wee hours of the morning, Ronny introduced me to kimchi.
I had expected it to be rubbery and chewy, but to my surprise it was crisp and fresh like an ocean wave breaking on the rocks. It fizzed in my mouth. All at once there was an explosion of flavors in my mouth like a rainbow of colors to the eye; kimchi was spicy and salty, and yet sweet and aromatic. I had always liked spicy food, but this was more than flavor, this was a culinary experience.
Ronny’s mother gave me a little of her homemade kimchi in a jar; that didn’t last long. She also gave me some Korean pancakes that were made with potato flour, green onions, and kimchi. It was incredible food.
I soon found a small store that sold Korean food. The owner’s wife was also impressed by the fact that I knew a few Korean words and she taught me the names of most of the products in their store.
I was so encouraged by this that I went out and bought a book and tape to learn more Korean. During that time I also learned how to prepare Korean dishes.
As it turned out, the store owners were Christian, and they invited me to their church. The service was very formal and I didn’t understand a word of it, but there was a genuineness I could feel. After service we had a small meal of Korean food and fellowship.
Their curiosity about me seemed to have no end. They asked me all kinds of very personal questions. Was I married? What kind of work did I do? How much money did I make? What did my parents do? How many brothers and sisters did I have? How old was I?
But I wasn’t annoyed or offended, in fact I was happy to have the attention. My own people had ignored me most of my life.
They were also very impressed with the few words of Korean I knew. When they learned that I was basically an orphan living alone in a small apartment it seemed to trouble them. “You must be very lonely,” they said. Then, by the third or fourth week I had attended the church, several of the members asked if I would like to live with them in a boarding house. They said it would be good for me; I wouldn’t be lonely and my rent would be cheaper, and I could help them learn English as they taught me Korean. I agreed.
The experience was the first real family I had had in a long time. It was almost as if I had been adopted.
From that time on my life changed in ways I cannot begin to describe with mere words. I stayed in the Korean community and married into the great culture I have come to love so much. My heart calls them “my people,” and I think the rest of America could learn a great lesson from them.
George Posten, Los Angeles, California