WHEN MY GRANDPARENTS were teenagers they both fled what is known today as North Korea. My grandfather and his brothers left their sisters at the house and went south — with a plan to reunite a few weeks later once the civil unrest blew over. Days later, the U.S. erected the 38th parallel, the border which divided the nation. They never saw their sisters again. Later in life my great uncle applied to a service that searches for lost family members. After years, he received a grainy, fax copy of a black-and-white photo in the mail, showing two women in traditional Korean dress. It was the sisters — alive and living in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, they were 60 years older.
My great uncle visited them, entering through North China. He brought them small gifts like lipstick and toothpaste. He filmed much of his visit on a handheld video camera. In part of the footage, the sisters perform a song they had written to the family they once knew and would never know, like me, singing each of our names between sobs. They looked healthy, well-fed, and well-dressed on camera. They told my uncle they were living good lives. While visiting, he was paired with a driver who was also monitoring his movements at all times.
A generation after North to South, there was East to West. My grandparents, having established a life and a family together in Seoul, later moved to America. My mother was 11. I found her old report cards from the school they sent her to in Rochester, New York. Teachers wrote of her speaking no English but trying very hard to understand. She sat at the “Asian table” in the cafeteria for many years. Art class, she told me, was her only saving grace. It needed no translation.
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I’m not sure if these are the reasons my mother never spoke to me in Korean, or never took me to Seoul, where many family members still live. The choice to leave behind parts of one’s heritage in order to move on is complicated and personal, impossible to ever truly understand.
What I can relay is that for many years I understood that kimchi was too smelly, too spicy, too other for my white friends. That was until the opening of Woo Lae Oak, the sexiest, chicest Korean restaurant in SoHo, where all the waiters were models and all the diners seemed to be as well. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. You’d walk down the broadest set of stairs to a runway: thick quartz tables on the right and an open kitchen (still a new concept at the time!) to the left, hissing with the shrill, rhythmic sounds of sear and slice — ribbons of blinding white-orange fire lighting up the space like day. Each table had a built-in grill in the center where people could get the Koreatown BBQ experience, only seated beside other white people in slinky camisoles and boho jewelry amid angular dishware.
I was always just so excited to be there (the cherry on top was going to the bathroom by myself, sauntering down the walkway with a kid’s hilarious sense of purpose). Yet so much of that excitement was the weirdness, the funniness of contrast: of messy, bubbly fermented stews I’d eat at my grandparents in the context of this slick prettiness. Myeolchi — tiny, salty, chewy, dehydrated anchovies — in SoHo! I was young, but old enough to comprehend how those things had never gone together before.
We’d bring friends, and my mother would do the little show: “So this is ‘ban chan,’ they’re like side dishes, this one is very spicy!” (Probably wasn’t.) “This one you’ll like!” (Probably the blandest.) She’d handle the meat grilling: deftly placing raw strips onto the whistling irons with chopsticks, then dropping them, dripping with oil, onto our plates. A family friend once took over the grilling. I remember him placing down the paper-thin beef and pork, then flipping it over, and over, and over again. But didn’t he know you set it down and then leave it alone? Flipping it just once? To keep in the juices? I wanted to correct him but everyone was having fun. Plus, the other kids seemed pretty jazzed by the white rice and the pajeon — Korean scallion pancakes. The bottom of the flavor totem pole, I thought. But they’d get there, I recall understanding. You couldn’t expect too much too soon. More dehydrated anchovies for me!
Gastrodiplomacy refers to a government’s effort to increase the standing of their nation’s brand through food — to up their influence abroad, in essence. Woo Lae Oak, opened in 1999, was just the beginning. There was a wave coming, what is known today as hallyu, a Chinese term describing the seismic growth of Korean influence within all facets of culture — a plan that was constructed and subsidized by the nation’s government long before I first entered those dinners in SoHo. A plan that’s since experienced a success of breathtaking scale.
What followed, in a flurry of sheet masks and creams, was K-beauty. In 2014, Korea had more beauty exports ($1.067 billion, shared by the Korean Pharmaceutical Traders Association) than imports — for the first time in history. Last year, according to Statista, their beauty export had multiplied by six, valuing at around $6.11 billion, with the U.S. ranking the fourth greatest importer of Korean beauty goods in the world behind China, Hong Kong, and Japan. The 10-step skin routine captivated us, in a philosophy that favored dewy, glass-like skin over layers of heavy foundation. I watched, with a level of awe and detachment, as my friends plastered their faces with sheet masks, swearing by their efficacy.
The notion of Korea exporting a definition of beauty befuddled me, something I can only now identify as internalized racism. Throughout my entire life, any time an aspect of my face was complimented, it was for the way an element of whiteness shone through. My eyes, though ever so slightly almond, maintained a roundness, with a definitively creased, hooded lid — slanted enough to be called exotic, i.e., other, but Western enough to be called pretty. “The best of both worlds,” someone once said. My Italian nose, though a lifelong point of insecurity in its broken asymmetry, was the opposite of the shorter, flatter shape more closely associated with Asian heritage. The same genes flowed through my hair, which, though dark, thick, and immune to frizz, grew increasingly wavier. I had been highlighting it and ombre-ing it for years, and at one point basically fully dyeing it light brown-blonde. And all around me, white girls were spending their dollars on Korean beauty.
This European gene dominance, this racial untraceability I not only reflected but leaned toward, also meant I looked nothing like my mother. My mother was, and is, beautiful. Always slenderly petite, with thick, inky hair and skin utterly devoid of lines, she could pass for 30 though she’s almost 60. Her face is as square as mine is oval. Nothing of my physical mold was taken from hers. Our lack of resemblance, and her youthful features, led to a denial of her motherhood my whole life. We were mistaken for friends everywhere we went.
“No, this is my daughter! I’m her mother — this is my baby!”
She’d make joking asides to my father and me, his carbon copy, that people always thought she was the maid or the nanny. I’d scoff at this. At the ridiculousness of it — at the fact that she probably said it donning a Birkin or some other explicit marker of Western belonging. And why would she not want to look like my friend? Why would she not also celebrate the algorithmic mystery of my face as others did? “Future face,” as someone once described it — the racially ambiguous beige on beige all of humanity will one day resemble. But of course there was something better than looking like my friend: It was looking like my mother. This delegitimization of motherhood would be something I’d hear about increasingly as a broader experience of non-white mothers to more white-presenting kids — the feeling that no matter how closely you hold your children, you’re still mistaken for the nanny.
I imagined my mother on her first day of school in America, understanding not one word. I wondered what she would’ve felt if she could have known that one day, stadiums full of young people around the world would be collectively and joyously chanting in her native tongue.
In 2019 I took my mother to a BTS concert. This brings us to one of the greatest forces of the Korean Wave, of hallyu: K-pop. BTS, a boy band containing seven vocalist-dancer-world ambassadors, has been called this generation’s Beatles. The year we attended the concert, they became the first group to have three albums reach No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 Chart within the span of 12 months — the only other group to have achieved this since the Beatles themselves. More recently, they spoke at the U.N., accompanying Korea’s President Moon Jae-in as “special presidential envoy for future generations and culture.” Talking on climate change, the importance of vaccinations, and the power of digital communities, the group spoke words of encouragement, support, and profound love for this generation of youth. Over 1 million people tuned in to watch live on the U.N.’s YouTube channel. A day later, the video views clocked in at around 12 million.
Their fans, known as the BTS ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), are a force unlike anything I’d ever beheld. At that 2019 concert, an endless stadium of all ethnicities sang-screamed at the top of their lungs along with each BTS member — all in Korean. Everyone was crying. I was too. For different reasons. I imagined my mother on her first day of school in America, understanding not one word. I wondered what she would’ve felt if she could have known that one day, stadiums full of young people around the world would be collectively and joyously chanting in her native tongue. Toward the end of the concert, she turned to me and said, “I’m so proud to be Korean.” We held each other's hands. I wanted to sing along so terribly, but I myself did not know the words. So I swayed and listened to the thousands who did, full of an aching pride I could not quite claim.
In 2020 a foreign-language film won Best Picture at the Oscars for the first time in history: Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” My mother brought me to see it at the IFC in Greenwich Village. At that point, she had already seen it three times. While absolutely stunned by the ingenious plot, the slick set design, and the marvelous actors, there was something else I saw that I had never before seen on a big screen: the campiness, the melodrama, and the slapstick of Korean entertainment.
The plot centers around the Kims, an unemployed family who are rich in street smarts. They scheme their way into a wealthy family’s life by each posing as qualified, unrelated individuals — an English tutor for the daughter, an art teacher for the son, a chauffeur for the dad. In the final leg of their takeover — replacing the current housekeeper with their own mother — the Kims hatch a plan to set off the housekeeper’s peach allergy and frame it as the tuberculosis she’s been hiding. The scene plays out somewhere between soap opera and traditional opera: classical music and slow-motion choreography as the Kims flick peach fuzz at the unsuspecting housekeeper. There’s fake hot-sauce blood, eyes widening in horror, and violins vibrating in a grand finale! It’s comedy-tragedy at its finest. And something else — it’s so uniquely Korean.
K-dramas, another force behind the Korean Wave, is a genre that, while diverse in nature, spanning sci-fi to historical, romance to horror, also reflects a consistent spirit of over-the-topness. This spirit can be seen in myriad ways: downright absurd cliffhangers, impossible situations, soul-crushingly unrequited love, wailing tears in the rain (but also close-ups of one silent drop down a cheek), epic action scenes, plots that develop at 10 times the pace of American shows (they’re in love already?!). It’s entertainment on speed, a quickness ironically tempered in other ways. Due to a more conservative national censorship, K-dramas are exceptionally wholesome — nudity and sex basically don’t exist — which also drives their skyrocketing popularity across the Middle East, in countries like Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
So when I heard a critique of “Parasite,” on how the “slapstickness” and the “at times, overacting” distracted from the plot, I felt a silent flash of what I now recognize as anger. The idea that someone would think sanitizing a film of its native spirit would up its intellectual value felt insulting. But insulting to whom? Me? I knew about the world of K-dramas through snippets playing in the background at my grandparents’, through hearing about them from non-Asian, sheet-mask-wearing peers who were more tapped in than me. In growing up exclusively on an amalgamation of white-girl, sequined, fashionista content like “Gossip Girl,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Sex and the City,” it’s not as if I had any close ties to Korean entertainment. And yet I had the urge to tie this person to a chair before an endless loop of four-and-a-half hour, zero-dialogue indie films of blonde hair wisps, camera flare, and a hand dangling outside a moving car window. “Can you focus on the plot now?! Not too distracting for you, right?!” I’d say, with a balaclava over my face.
“And the Oscar goes to … ‘Parasite.’”
The memory still gives me chills. I leapt up from my seat and screamed. My mother and I FaceTimed. That night, at 1:50 a.m., she texted me: “My heart is bursting with pride!”
And it would continue. I would go on to watch “Minari” during the pandemic, recognizing my mother and her family in the film’s family, struggling to realize the American Dream. New York’s COTE would open to wild success as “New York City’s first Korean Steakhouse,” the first and only of its kind to receive a Michelin star. I’d see pajeon and kimchi fried rice and sweet cinnamon Korean pancakes at Trader Joe’s. A street-food shop called Two Hands would begin to pop up around downtown Manhattan, selling Korean-style corn dogs. My friend would teach me about “Blinks” — fans of Blackpink, the K-pop girl group with a following as loyal and passionate as that of BTS. Another would tell me about Hana Makgeolli’s tasting room opening up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, offering the traditional, fermented rice drink that was forecasted as the “boozy beverage of 2021.” “Squid Game” would be projected to become the most popular show on Netflix — in the history of Netflix.
As for my feelings, my questions around belonging and heritage? I no longer focus on all the ways she and I are different. I now see all the ways we are the same.
The tragic irony of late is that as love for Asian culture has risen, so have hate crimes. My mother recently asked me if she’d look less Korean on the street if she bleached her hair platinum. No, she would just look like a slightly more avant-garde Korean, I told her. With damaged roots. Her comment gave me perspective though, once again, on the ways you make yourself smaller, on the things you choose to leave behind to survive. Why would she have wanted to speak to me in Korean if it was the thing that relegated her to isolation in the not-so-distant past? Why would she want me speaking her language now, identifying myself as someone more vulnerable to an attack?
As for my feelings, my questions around belonging and heritage? I no longer focus on all the ways she and I are different. I now see all the ways we are the same. We’re both creative and highly visual. We can both be outspoken, at times temperamental (my partner lovingly describes it as “fierce”). We’re both physically expressive, sharing a penchant for goofiness and theatrics. When I was young, whenever we were inside an establishment with good acoustics — think marble floors and high ceilings, i.e., anywhere fancy and thus deeply unsuitable for theatrics — she’d break into bouts of fake tap dancing, drifting off into corners where only I could see, and furiously click her shoes into the ground. How I’d laugh!
The questions of where I come from — whether I have the right to say I come from there, whether I seem like I come from there — are irrelevant. I know where I come from. I come from the woman who made me. I come from my mother.
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Hisham Akira Bharoocha Illustrator
Hisham Akira Bharoocha is a multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York, working across various mediums including large-scale murals, paintings, drawings, collages, audio/visual installations, and performances.