When I was thirteen or maybe fourteen, I went to Korea with my family. I had been before, but was now newly a teenager and finally aware of all the expectations that weighed on me as a gyopo—a Korean raised overseas. I understood the obligation I had to the aunts and uncles who stayed behind so my mother could get an American education. I understood the filial piety I owed them as my elders and my mother’s elders. In other words, I was no longer afforded the privilege of being the ignorant American cousin. It didn’t matter that the only Koreans I saw in my suburban Florida community were related to me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak the language. I had a responsibility, unspoken, to prove I hadn’t forgotten where my people came from and that my parents were raising me right.
My mom, the youngest of nine, left me in the care of her eldest sister while she went to a business meeting. My aunt was and still is a wonderful and kind woman, possessed of equal parts warmth of spirit and a kind of flinty determination to survive. Even then, she was small and fine boned with incredibly pronounced cheekbones and a mole the size of a dime near her chin. She looked like my mother, but both sharper, all planes and angles, and gentler, as if those edges were softened.
She took me to lunch at a very nice, bustling neighborhood restaurant somewhere in Seoul’s rambling vastness. We didn’t have a lot of common words, but by this point I had been to K-town in New York plenty of times and had even, as a child, been to Korea. I thought I’d eaten my share of Korean food. And by that I mean, I’d had the beef soup with rice cakes my mom made for the New Year. I’d had the barbecue that was rising in popularity in the US. I’d eaten bibimbap and thought it was fine.
Here, we were without a way to communicate preferences. My aunt wanted to get a nice simple lunch for her American nephew. She ordered me a fish stew. I’d had a version of it before and, while it was far from a favorite, it was basically fine. Fish, clams, shrimp simmered in a broth flavored with miso paste and the ubiquitous Korean red pepper that defines so much of our cuisine.
Fine, I thought. I’ll eat this soup to show my aunt how much I appreciate everything she’s trying to do for me. I took a small taste. It was pungent, fishy, spicy, and it bubbled fiercely in its hot stone bowl. I took a bit of rice, dunked it in the soup as I had seen my parents do a thousand times and thought, “I can do this.” Then I stirred the bowl and a lone fish eye bobbed to the surface. It spun slowly; the milky, boiled pupil stared at me.
Fiction helps us order our lives. So, in this moment, presented with a fish eye floating in broth, I could only think of two things: Star Trek and Indiana Jones.
There’s a repeated trope in Star Trek of the mostly human crew of the Enterprise facing off against the dining traditions of alien species. It’s a scene played for laughs but often one rich in discomfort and horror: the crew faced with the strangeness of encountering the Other.
Star Trek is a story that focuses on a bunch of imperialist types trying to spread the doctrine of the Federation—yes, through pacifism and non-involvement, but they’re still proselytizing and that pacifism involves a whole lot of phasers and photon torpedos. (Don’t @ me.) We, the audience, are asked to identify with the imperialist encountering foreign cultures and recoiling in horror at their uncivilized practices.
In Star Trek, Klingons are presented as brutal savages for their taste in eating live foods—wriggling worms, called gragh—and their thirst for blood is rendered literal in their predilection for something called blood wine. Walking the streets of Seoul and watching my people snack on silkworm larvae simmered in a mysterious black liquid, or being confronted with sundae jigae, a blood sausage stew, it was hard not to feel a kind of alienation made literal.
Or, another famous example: the dinner scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s a film I truly enjoy, but it requires a great deal of mental gymnastics on my part to get past all the cheap shots at Asian cultures and peoples. At a dinner hosted by some form of Indian royalty—honestly the explanation is so muddled that I have no idea if they’re referencing an actual political structure in India or if it’s all just made up—Indiana, Short Round, and erstwhile lounge singer Willie are served a meal of escalating horrors. Each course is presented as an opportunity for Indy to get more information while Short Round mugs at the food. Willie’s over-the-top reactions serve as comic punchlines to every beat.
The eyeball soup is presented for laughs, a way the silly white woman confronted with the barbaric East can be excused for her refusal to recognize the subalterns she dines with as worthy of her regard. The chilled monkey brains only serves to reinforce this by leaning on tired urban legends and underscore the supposed hilarity of this pampered white lady’s reaction to the incomprehensible lack of civilization in this dark continent. It’s tempting to say that Willie is the object of ridicule here, but it always feels like the simpering servers and the delighted diners are viewed with more disdain.
Science fiction and fantasy failed me. They failed me at that lunch with my aunt and they failed to give me a roadmap to find my own self as a teen in search of an identity. The stories I read were stuffed with feast scenes replete with boiled potatoes and roast fowl. Starship replicators spat out Earl Grey, hot. (Or failed to understand the concept of leaves in hot water.) Space food was freeze-dried ice cream and mushy peas extruded from a tube.
Nowhere were chewy rice cakes drowned in sweet and spicy red sauce, or the crunchy flash fried anchovies I snacked on as a kid, or pickled radish rolled in rice and dried kelp. Nowhere even were the most innocuous of the offerings of my culture: the mandoo, the potsticker. A dumpling was asking too much.
The message was clear. There was no room for people like me in the future or the past. Assimilate. Resistance is futile.
I stopped reading science fiction for a long time. My college years were dedicated to discovering the depths of the western canon. I fell down a hole that was a years-long obsession with everything from Faulkner to Milton to Woolf, especially Woolf. I learned a lot and treasure my hard-won understanding of literature, of critical theory, and it’s a skillset that serves me well today. But I stopped reading the things that truly brought me joy. It’s only as an adult that I’ve been able to find my way back, bit by bit, into the genre that nurtured my love of fiction.
I look at the genre fiction being produced today and see a completely different relationship to other cultures. It’s not without complication and not without turmoil external to the text. But, in particular, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books destabilize earlier portrayals of imperialist encounters with The Other. Throughout the series, Leckie works Asian-style tea ceremonies directly into Radchaii society in a clever inversion of colonialist tropes. With this intense focus on this one product, this one ceremony, she renders visible how the Radch forcefully use tea as a weapon to destabilize local custom, local religion, and the heritage of the subjugated peoples. Written into the negative spaces of Leckie’s work are dozens of colonized cultures, crushed under the sheer weight of the Radch’s military and economic might. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of the power of empire that presents even something as foreign as a penis festival (of which there are many in cultures around the world) as something no more or less weird than any other human obsession.
Ten years ago now, we visited my halabogee, my paternal grandfather. He was the only grandparent I had ever really gotten to know. The others were taken from me by time or distance or disease. We took my grandfather from the flat in Seoul he shared with my cousin and his wife to Cheju-do, a volcanic island dotted with beachside resorts and a towering caldera. There, we walked him through the rocky coasts and lava tunnels, amid throngs of honeymooning couples, the impeccably made up women teetering on their needle-like heels even more unsteadily than my ninety-five-year-old grandfather.
My halabogee wanted to do something special for us and took us to a restaurant he knew somehow, a drive out along the coast from town. He ordered for us, in Korean, and when the first course arrived we discovered, to our shock, that the restaurant specialized in live sushi. The tray was full of sea life, still writhing, wriggling, and squirming on the plate. Diced baby octopus coated in sesame oil to make the nerve endings fire continuously, butchered mere moments before serving. Oysters and mussels quivering in their shells. Feathery green fronds that curled on the plate. Strange tubular green and red segments that opened and closed slowly in the air. My brother held one up in his chopsticks, trying to make his peace with the meal in front of us, but hesitated too long and it escaped his grasp.
“What is it?” I asked. My halabogee harrumphed for a moment, searching for the words. His English was excellent—a lifetime as a statesman and a diplomat meant he had perfect diction and grammar, but the vocabulary escaped him at times. Finally he found the words he was searching for. “This,” he pointed with his chopsticks, “is sea worm.”
I thought of gragh. I thought of that fish eye soup. I reached out and popped one in my mouth. It was crunchy and cool and tasted of salt and brine. The octopus tentacles grabbed at my lips, my palate, my tongue, and fought me on the way down. The oysters were thick, chewy, and tasted of tidal pools left too long in the sun. The fish they brought out was cleverly butchered so its flesh was placed back in its body cavity without slicing the nerve endings. The fins twitched, its eye, even more baleful than that years-ago-soup, darted around, the pupil finding my face and focusing like a camera lens. I reached into its stomach and pulled a slice of its soft white flesh and ate it whole.
Stories can decolonize. They can give power back to the marginalized. But we have to be open to new stories from new cultures, in the way that sometimes at dim sum you just need to try the thing and decide if you like it before you ask what it is. The delight of a new thing that you would never have thought to ask for is a rare thing to find in this world and we only get it if we make the spaces for those voices to thrive.
I fixate on food because to me food is culture. The moment when we sit down at the same table and share each other’s food is when we learn about each other. To break bread (or naan or bao or injera or tortillas) with someone different from us is to build a bridge of understanding. The history of our peoples are in our foods. The type of soil of our homelands. The seasons. The heat of the sun. The icy winters. The remnants of conquests gone by. The traces conquerors left behind.
Fiction has played a role in finding a comfort and a grace with my own identity. Writers like Alyssa Wong, Ken Liu, JY Yang, Alice Sola Kim, Isabel Yap, John Chu, and so many others have blazed a path forward that I followed back to myself. These stories taught me to embrace the strange, the different, and the uncanny inherent in all of our experiences. In finding pieces of my own story reflected back to me, I found a strength and a clarity of vision that helps me seek out new work to celebrate and help find its way into the world.
We talk a lot about “diversity” in fiction, but I find that term misleading. It’s not about getting some token brown people in an anthology or publishing one black author each season. Science fiction isn’t for any one reader. It’s about showing every reader that there’s room for their stories, their cultures, their selves. Fiction is a shared space where we can all sit down together and find common ground and try new things and dream of a new future, a better past.
We can all share at this table.
© 2017 by DongWon Song