It has always been my favourite time of the year.
Hangawi, also known as Chuseok (추석), falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, an important national holiday in Korea. To second-generation Korean-Canadians, it is simply referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving”. This year, Hangawi runs from October 3rd-5th, when the moon comes into full bloom.
As a child, I remember extended family members gathering at my grandparents farm, near Suwon, bearing gifts, platters of half-moon rice cakes (송편), and a year’s worth of stories. It was a festive time, with plenty of activities to keep the children busy, but also a time when the spirit of our ancestors were honoured in elaborate ceremonies, with everyone donning elaborately vibrant hanboks (한복).
Immigration to Canada, with its familiar and urgent contingencies, brought an abrupt halt to all that. Assimilation meant the end to those sweet and savoury rice cakes, and the lunar calendar, in favour of a curiously oversized fowl with its legs poking the air, and precisely at dinnertime every second Monday of every October. For the first five years in the new country, rubbery turkey meat and globs of tepid gravy from a can is what awaited us at our cousin’s house. Each year we exercised our imaginations to avoid attending that dreaded meal.
But times change. With practice, we learned how to keep the turkey moist, but by then some of us kept turning our heads back. The Prodigal Son was homesick.
The fifth annual Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017: Hangawi was held within walking distance of Toronto’s original Koreatown, where so many of the first wave of Korean immigrants to our country sought refuge and some semblance of collective remembering. Artscape Wychwood Barns, a multi-faceted community hub, is, like the event itself, a unique merging of the old with the new. Hosted by the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Toronto, it was a lavish celebration of both traditional Korean cuisine (한식) and Korean-inspired contemporary dishes – a meeting of the landed-first and born-second generation Koreans.
Music, with one eye looking back and the other looking forward, accompanied the festivities. From a traditional drum disruption and the formal 12-stringed gayageum (가야금), to a Canadian version of K-pop, vaguely nostalgic sounds filled the halls.
But it was the main course that the 350+ guests came for: Korean food. And lots of it. Staples including bibimbap (비빔밥) and kimchi (김치) and japchae (잡채: sweet potato starch noodles) were offered in abundance by the three major Korean supermarket chains in the GTA (P.A.T, Galleria, HMart), as well as a spectacular buffet of some of Korea’s finest traditional dishes by Seoul House Restaurant.
Over the years, there has been a welcome increase in the numbers of non-Korean guests attending the annual event. The role of Korean cuisine has finally caught up to the other “soft technology” exports of South Korea, all of which came in the form of Hallyu (Korean Wave), particularly from the K-Pop music, TV drama, and movies sector.
I gave a talk about Hangawi and demonstrated the preparation of seasonal apple-pear kimchi, sharing with the audience the true spirit of Korean cuisine: fermentation. Without this labour-intensive method of food preservation, it is virtually impossible to imagine what a Korean dining table would look like. Fermentation has become the latest go-to word in health and wellness circles, but it has served a unique function and purpose in Korean cuisine for thousands of years. Yes, it is good for your digestive tract. Yes, capsaicin, the active ingredient in the most recognized of Korean seasonings – the red chile pepper – is an effective remedy for pain, not to speak of obesity; but it’s sole purpose has always been to produce nutrient-rich food during the long Korean winters, when fresh ingredients were scarce – mothers over hundreds of generations have understood this. And this idea has moved many of us to pass these traditions along while also looking for methods and ingredients in our backyards to harmonize with it.
I invited two talented second-generation chefs to join me at the event, both of whom have been pushing the envelope on Korean-Canadian cuisine over the past few years. Jane Jhung of Lee Nam Jang Restaurant, reimagined kimchi pancakes (전) with good ole fashion Canadian bacon; and Jongwan Kim of The Korean Kitchen, took a torch to his bulgogi (불고기) and gave it a classic French baguette twist to it. Both were huge hits and I am very proud of their continued efforts to move forward while gently tugging along our shared culinary history.
This was a memorable night, with all those in attendance intent on celebrating one of our significant moments. It did much to positively illuminate Korean culture, our people, and its food. Time to put down the daily papers, turn away from the internet news sites. Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017 revealed to those whose eyes may be clouded by current affairs, what the true spirit of being Korean looks like.
Honourable Consul General Kang and Consul Jeon, the Cultural attache, along with his assistant, Grace Ki, and their team of staff and volunteers, should be commended for creating an evening like no other in our city, our country. Because of this night, and thanks to them, we are all proud to be Koreans today.
As for me, it’s a kind of homecoming, a return to my culinary and spiritual roots. Sure, if you wish…like Odysseus looking toward Ithaca. And like those Greeks of old, we Koreans speak our own variation of the proverb: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.”
This extraordinary event has been a healing journey for many, especially for me.
These days, it’s a slippery slope- championing what we share in common versus what sets us apart. Perhaps it has always been the case.
Today, anyone who includes “community, dignity, belonging” in their mission statement- personal or organizational- sounds mildly delusional. (This is the moment during Happy Hour chatter when you pretend your great grandmother is calling you on your cell.) Those three words, especially when corralled together with only punctuation marks to separate them, is perceived as morally lazy, emptied of meaning, ossified into cliché. And in the current funhouse environment of double-think, where we can supposedly (against all scientific proof*) hold a true and untrue thought at the same time and in the same space, some of us are left confused by what to do with our own intrinsic -and beautiful- human instinct to pay it forward, do some good for the world.
Community. Dignity. Belonging.
What do those words really mean? Who lives those values anymore? It used to be attributed to small town folk everywhere, no thanks in part to the collective amnesia that is induced every Christmas by It’s A Wonderful Life and its high priest of the head-fake and turn-around (home breaker to saint of community-building, in two hours), Jimmy Stewart. But there is increasing evidence in our hyper-connected world that the very raison d’être of small-town values, even if it has been feeding off zero-caloric nostalgia, are eroding.
But all good organizations, like good writers, will steer clear of clichés, ossified or not.
A great story moves forward with concrete nouns and verbs. A great organization executes its values through an action plan. Forget about asking why about “community, dignity, belonging”. The answer is bound to be a snoozer and you will ask for the bill before your date ever gets to finish her dissertation. The real question to ask is: How? And this comes to us vividly when another set of questions are being asked around the same time: What would happen if? What happens after? Good mechanical questions for both narratives of organizations and organization of narratives.
Earlier this year, I was asked by an old friend, Kate Swift, a master Japanese restaurant manager in her past kimono-ed life during the Edo period, if I would consider engaging in a fundraiser with her organization, Extend-A-Family, Waterloo Region, whose mission statement, incidentally, includes those three aforementioned words. She wanted to reach people in the Kitchener-Waterloo area who were not familiar with the great work they do.
“What would happen if we did a sushi-making workshop? Could we really tap into a network of people beyond our usual generous donors and community?”
“What happens after? Would these human sushi rolling machines want to deepen their involvement in the organization?”
The answer to both questions, of course, is YES.
Established in 1981 by parents of children with developmental disabilities, EAFWR began with a simple “how” question: How do we “extend-a-family”? (The hyphens are hands, bridges, scaffolding.) How do we create community, dignity, belonging for those too often left feeling like they are standing outside the gates looking in (recall Jimmy standing on the bridge at the end of the movie)? Well, to start, how about by finding matches for supported families with other volunteer families residing within those gates? Maybe they’d be okay with it, yes? It was an a-ha! moment for them. Many came out and opened their gates. Good folk, you see, keep reminding us that love and giving are the true beacons in human relations, even when so much of the bumper-to-bumper activity in our daily lives leaves us feeling like we are about to capsize.
This model of support- and it has been a powerful adhesive for the people of Waterloo (just check out how many programs they get off the ground each year)- continues to be foundational for them.
And an inspiring lesson for the rest of us.
The event was held at the gorgeous local craft beer distillery, Descendants, with some of the freshest sushi-grade fish on this side of Tsukiji Market generously donated by T&J Seafoods. The fundraiser sold out quicker than you can say “Cucumber maki, please, arigato!”
We raised lots of money (and temakis), but more importantly, deepened a community’s engagement with this organization’s good and great vision.
It was fun and deeply satisfying. People helped each other off the slippery slope, climbed a well-made staircase by the handymen and women of EAFWR, and stood together proudly on the promontory.
Easy climbing. No dissertation. There will be a second date.
Yeah, we belonged there. Just a group of welcoming strangers feeling the genuine camaraderie of a shared mission. Telling each other feel-good stories and meaning every word of it.
*For those more inclined toward a mathematical proof of my point, here is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And when you are done, Einstein, come join us up here on the promontory. You deserve a hug.
Everything you need to know about Korean BBQ in eight minutes, while firing up some laughs with Lainey and Mel in the process.
Check out Sang Kim’s latest appearance here.
Tolstoy was only half right: while it is true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, not all happy families are all alike.
Our sushi workshops frequently parachute me into the homes of families, usually those with young children, and, more often than not, into affluent homes, where families can afford to create one-of-a-kind sushi parties. (Part of the proceeds from these private workshops go toward subsidizing the work we do in public schools and libraries, high-risk communities, and charities that carry the workload of extending open arms to the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. It is our own small way of what we call “rolling it forward”, and Sushi Making For The Soul was founded with this in mind.)
When Charley was asked what she wanted to do for her 10th birthday, there was no question: a sushi party with her besties and her younger sister, Paige. It was an all-out Japanese affair: from the decked-out dining room, to the traditional kimono dresses and sun umbrellas, and finished with Charley’s mom’s jaw-dropping home-made sushi cupcakes.
From the moment I entered their home, there was unencumbered enthusiasm, Paige in particular wild with anticipation. Charley and her friends were savvy, smart, and, on this day, created sushi most adults would have envied. They were also unusually literate about issues around food insecurity and literacy. But there was also something else, something particular about the energy in the home—something that struck me as unique, and which I couldn’t put my finger on until days later. And this brings me back to the opening line of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina.
At workshops for children and young people, which comprises a third of the private events we do, I often feel like a sociologist working the “field”. From downtown condos to palatial residences on the Bridal Path or Rosedale; from dining rooms to church basements, backyards and libraries, I am making mental notes and mobilizing some inner Geiger counter to collect “data”- mostly qualitative- about the nature of happiness. The subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of a comparatively happy child has become an unofficial area of study for me. And having engaged with so many such children, I’m confident I have a good intuitive feel for it.
At Charley’s, there was a genuine sense of delight and curiosity, yes, but these qualities exuded not only from the children, but also her parents, Elyse and Dax, as well. Between Charley and Paige and their parents, it was a house filled with a touching light and warmth. To be frank, one of the better examples in recent sushi workshops of an examined family life, driven with an animated joyfulness at its core.
So, afterwards, I did something I never do: I asked Charley’s parents for insights into the “secrets of familial happiness”. I think it gave them pause, something more to chew on than just a California Roll. It is in our nature to get to the bottom of why we are unhappy and we do so with uncommon zeal. By the billions of dollars, therapists and pharmaceutical companies have banked on this quest. But how to articulate something so mysterious, possibly elusive, as happiness? After all, traps are sprung to catch rats, not kittens.
Elyse grew up in a Jewish household in Toronto and Dax in a Christian home in Sarnia. Both come from families with deeply-entrenched religious and cultural traditions, but Elyse is matter-of-fact about why they came together: “same values” that allows them to “make it work”. Marriage as a verb and not some rusty noun on cinder blocks in the not-so-proverbial matrimonial junkyard. “We also both have wonderful, loving, supportive families. My kids are so lucky that both sets of grandparents adore each other.” No question the relief that comes from averting this universal kind of familial anxiety. Most of us know what it feels like to gather with extended family in a space that is wrought with tension and distrust- think Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the in-laws. The ramifications on Charley and Paige would have been predictable if their grandparents didn’t like each other. Invariably, rancor prevails, gets passed on like a germ, and modelling a mature look-how-famously-we-all-get-along becomes all too rare.
Bell Hooks, in her book All About Love: New Vision, explains what happens to the modern family when parents choose to make diametrically opposite choices from their own parents when it comes to marriage and raising children. Without knowing, they swing the pendulum the other way and model relationships to their own children and partners after that of their grandparents. It’s a two-generation cycle, she suggests, repeating itself without much self-awareness, without an effective self-critical apparatus. It is happiness hammered out of resistance. But we also know that the other way- the “linear” or imitative marriage model- fails almost fifty percent of the time in our country. That Elyse and Dax choose to follow an imitative model is revealing. That Elyse is also a refugee lawyer offers another insightful slant: “In my job, there is often great despair. But I find happiness when I am able to help others at their darkest times.” We do that, many of us; we come alive, a fire is lit in some prehistoric part of ourselves, when we genuinely offer hope to others in the face of crushing despair. Hence, the adage she and Dax follow to the letter: “a parent is only as happy as his/her most unhappy child”- a great nugget about parenting if ever there was one. At the heart of it is empathy, which has always played the most defining role in creating a happy family, a healthy community, a better world for our children.
Perhaps, it is my own comparatively unhappy childhood that has me seeking for answers from parents like Elyse and Dax. And perhaps it is the same reason why I find so much elemental joy in engaging with children like Charley and Paige in the sushi-making process. It’s child’s play, redux.
I have no idea.
What I do know is this: a family like this one is happy in its own way and for seekers like me it might just be best to let it remain inscrutable. But for Charley and her family, it appears every birthday will always be a very happy one.