Saturday, June 03, 2006

Our Daily Rice

Another essay from Arirang...

Our Daily Rice

My husband KC tells me that, as a young boy in Seoul, he ran around in the streets playing soccer with his friends, blissfully ignorant of time and responsibility. But at dinner time, the smell of cooking rice from all the houses along the street would call him home.

But in my childhood, rice was fodder for small daily rebellion against my parents' careful control. Inherited from my parents, rice has always been in my life. My parents immigrated from China in their teens. Although Americanized in many ways, in other aspects, such as their rabid thirst for educational achievement and their culinary habits, they remained very Chinese. As a teenager whose friends ate only Wonder bread, pasta, and Uncle Ben's, the rice was just one in a long line of idiosyncrasies that marked my parents' difference.

My brothers and I were required to have a minimum number of daily fruit and vegetable servings. The best method I devised for avoiding greens was hiding them underneath my rice. Of course, I was supposed to eat the rice too, but as the meal wore on and my mother's patience grew thin she was willing to compromise -- not on the veggies, but on the rice. Infinitely stubborn, I always won this game of attrition. Eventually she got up to wash dishes or pull out the educational workbooks. I seized that moment to bury my veggies beneath the leftover rice.

As years passed and my teenage self-consciousness waned, I learned that rice took on new meaning. In the process of dating and marrying a Korean man, rice became, not an instrument of rebellion, but a symbol of compromise and adaptation.

I was shocked to find out how particular my husband KC was about rice. I slowly learned about the many varieties of rice. Most Koreans don't like the long grained rice that the Chinese eat but rather prefer the shorter, stickier rice that is eaten here and in Japan. Koreans add to their rice -- beans, peas, sweet rice, barley and other grains-- in order to increase the rice’s nutritional content. Particular combinations of these ingredients are eaten at certain times (for instance, at the first full moon of the lunar year). The texture and smell of the rice is very important; any restaurant that doesn't serve good rice will not do well in Korea.

And then, there are the elaborate principles governing how one politely and appropriately cooks and eats rice. First, what is the best method of cooking: rice or pressure cooker? Some rice requires a bit more water to achieve the desired stickiness. When the rice is done, let it sit for 5 minutes, then stir it up to separate it from the walls of the cooker. Chinese people eat rice with chopsticks, lifting up the bowl and "shoveling it into the mouth" (as my mom says). Koreans, in contrast, eat rice with a spoon and leave the bowl on the table. It is considered rude to lift the bowl or to leave random grains of rice behind when you are through. Chopsticks should never be stuck upright into the rice, as that is only done for the dead.

I learned all this by trial and error as KC and I negotiated our cultural differences. I took to eating the short grained Japanese rice that he preferred because it was so important to him. But it was only after moving to Korea that I began to understand that rice is not simply about brand and preparation and consumption. In Korea I came to understand that rice is about home and the love of family.

I come from a family where the men do the cooking. So it was a shock, upon moving to Korea, to be relegated to the kitchen with my identity as a wife and mother suddenly tied to cooking. Luckily, my in-laws are wonderfully but hypocritically liberal -- they lecture me on my role, but they let me get away with only the gesture of food preparation. At my in-law's house, I hover around my mother-in-law as she prepares the food, carry the finished dishes to the table, and diligently do the dishes afterward. I am more ornament than sous-chef. Even so, my mother-in-law offers running commentaries on rice in an effort to transfuse me with lessons on the role of wife and mother in Korea.

My mother-in-law always tells me that when we throw away rice, "God gets angry." Although perhaps the cheapest part of the meal (especially considering the cost of meat and produce here), rice somehow represents the preciousness of food and of life itself.

Rice also represents the emotional relationships between family members. When serving rice you're always supposed to serve at least two scoops or you have no chong (affection, emotion, love). I suppose the serving of rice--not a stingy amount, but a plentiful one-- demonstrates a plentiful amount of affection. Mothers and wives must cook fresh rice for each meal to serve to their husbands and children and should eat the leftover rice themselves. My mother-in-law would never serve leftover rice to her grandkids or to me when I was pregnant.

While people in the States may reminisce about the smells of bread and cookies in their childhood homes, here people grow nostalgic for the smell of cooking rice in the morning. In both worlds these are the smells of comfort, home, love, safety and warmth. There are so many ways to lose oneself, especially in a different country. But it is the little things, the daily routines, foods, and textures, that cement relationships, make us feel at home and allow us to adapt.

My kids have now inherited rice as well; more than hamburgers, more than pizza or apples, they love rice. At their first birthdays, when Korean tradition has them pick something from a table of objects, they both picked rice. How rice will run through their lives and what significance they will attach to it I don't know. But for my in-laws, surrounded by a a rapidly changing Korea and left almost without family members since the Korean War, seeing their only grandchildren wolf down a bowl of rice brings them some measure of satisfaction and reassurance. Despite their Chinese-American mother and globe-hopping lifestyle, these boys will retain a connection to their father's country and culture and past. We may move across the world, put down new roots surrounded by confusion and misunderstanding, but some things will go on, some things will last, some things will call us home.

1 comment:

Nicki said...

Jennifer, you are my hero. I can barely blog once every other week. I look forward to finding out about your days even if it involves pooping and penises. Kind of like a day with my husband. Catch me on the flip side: Miss you. --Nicki