Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teaspoons From Korea

I have eight teaspoons from Korea.

They are about a quarter of the size of a regular teaspoon each. Along the silver handle,  a pale rose grace the surface of porcelain, and a rose colored crystal tops it all.

They don't fit in with the rest of my chunky stoneware kitchen collections. This reminds me of my first day at school.

I had not anticipated attention.  But as soon as I walked in, eyes fell onto me and stayed there. One chubby boy ran up to me and pointed to my face, exclaiming:

"Look, her face is so weird!"

Several other children walked up and looked from above, below, sideways and behind to examine the shape of my head, the texture of my hair and the strange shape of my cheek bones.

"Stop. Stop it. There, there is nothing wrong with my face..."

I tried to tell them. But they talked fast. Eventually the teacher stepped in and class began. I heard them whisper behind me, as I sat in the front row. Then finally when the teacher turned, the boy behind me told me he had saw my file earlier in the teacher's office and knew that I was not a "Han" like the rest of them.

No, I am Korean.

It was a dreaded word for me. I knew no one outside of my family who had to walk around wearing that label, looking and feeling different, and having it constantly pointed out to you.  My parents didn't seem to mind, but they spoke Korean only to each other and never in front of outsiders. 

So I stumbled into a new world hoping to hide yet made a big reveal of my identity on, what else but the first day, and it stuck with me since.  I did not complain.  I knew better.  They ran off without me at recess and then after school, though I called behind them and told them I too would have loved to join in their rope jumping or ball tossing.  I watched their brand new skirts fly as they leaped, filling the playground with songs and colors.  I walked away in my too big green army pants (my brother) Lou had worn down to the last shreds two years ago but mom had patched up nonetheless for me to wear just another year.

I wanted to ask mom what did it mean to be Korean.  For example, did they also pickle six large stone jars of cabbages with oceans of garlic, ginger and spicy pepper flakes?  Did they eat nothing else with their rice all winter unless their relatives from the north brought fluffy white potatoes that melted in your mouth?

I didn't ask because I knew the answer.  I remembered how Yan from two doors down from us taunted me with her cakes. Fluffy, white, thick with sculpted layers of cream that touched her nose when she bit into it.  I had not even seen a cake like that let alone tasted it so I watched her carefully, deciphering the faint variation in colors between layers.  As I licked my lips, I tried to taste and feel the way those brand new words "vanilla and cream" rolled in my mouth.  My favorite past time until then was melting sugar into hot water and sipping the concoction slowly but it all ended that day.

So when I first arrived in Seoul, pocket flush with cash and friends in tow, twenty somewhat years later, I could hardly contain my excitement.  Rumors about this whole country (or two) that bared the same label as I did had been flooding my ears since I first arrived in America ten years ago.   I had met people.  They looked like me, with the same pale round faces, high cheek bones and strange hairlines that baffled the Chinese.  I almost believed in the legends of a proud country existed full of Koreans then but I still had doubts.  I wanted to see it all for myself.

Naturally I headed to a department store.  Shopaholic tendencies aside, I had to spend some time there alone while my friends, whose family lived in town, took care of errands.  Amongst eighty billion things, I spotted the spoons and fell in love.

They had belonged to a whole kitchen set, pots, pans, dishes, bowls. Each bore the elegant silver and porcelain design, with the signature dusty rose, so faint it's barely there, tying the one hundred and eight pieces of utensils together. 

As it would be impossible otherwise, I picked the tiniest ones out of the sets and decided to take them home with me.  But I couldn't, as the clerk didn't speak English, and I no Korean beyond restaurant lingo.  She stood shaking her head, then her hand, bowing intermittently in between, smiling, yet not budging.  I stood nodding, trying to speak, failing, repeat for an hour.  Then I burst into tears, crying.

Naturally she turned and left.

So I stood holding my first authentic piece of Korean memory, watching it come so close yet stayed so far away, like those childhood jump ropes, flying close, then looping away, never quite reaching me.  I looked around the crowded shopping arcade, pressed amongst my own people for the first time, utterly alone.

"Are you okay?"

My head buried between my arms, I had nearly drifted into an exhausted nap.  The voice jolted me back down to earth. I opened my eyes to find a strange face, staring down into me.  He wasn't tall, but had a reassuring build.  His face was kind, almost familiar, but not quite recognizable.  It occurred to me he looked rather Chinese, then I realized he was speaking Chinese.

"Oh, I am fine. I just, tried to buy something..., but I couldn't."

Saying it out loud reminded me of my failures, so tears came up again, salty and sore. I blinked hard and took a deep breath so I could stuff everything back down again.

"Maybe I can help you.  What did you want to buy?"

I told him my story, a condensed version of how I fell for the unobtainable spoons, minus the childhood trauma.  He smiled easily and walked with me to the counter, uttered phrases in Korean I could not hope to catch, except for a few (overly redundant to my Chinese part of the brain) "please", "honored", "thank you, thank you and thank you"s. 

My spoons in hand, I thanked the stranger for his help. He smiled and shook his hands as if saying "it's nothing" before walking away into the crowd.  Or was he waving me goodbye? He reminded me of someone, but I couldn't think of whom.  Later I reckoned he was one of the increasing number of Chinese immigrant who worked in Korea while sending money back home to their families.  I so reckoned because it had become a new and popular trend then,  given the economic and job market disparities. But I didn't have time to ask.

My spoons now sit between my chunky coffee mugs and even chunkier dishes. They are far too delicate for their American set mates, frail and breakable, so overtly decorative and not microwave or dishwasher or the other thousand appliances for which they should be safe but are not, but that's OK.  They fit, as they sit in my mornings stirring up sugar in hot water, making memories old and new, sweeter.


  1. Wonderful story!

    I have a friend teaching in Korea...she loves it there.

  2. They are beautiful spoons. It's nice to have little treasures that are good for no use other than to make us happy : )

  3. What a mystical idea you had of foreign lands! Enchanting, though I'm sorry you felt uncomfortable in that place.

    Why are Korean teaspoons so much smaller? Is it based on a different measurement system?

    Minor typo in para12: "did they ate" for "did they eat"

  4. This is a lovely story. I was really worried for a while that you wouldn't get your spoons! Thank God for the kindness of strangers.
    The spoons are beautiful! I love their delicacy.

  5. Wow, such a beautiful piece! And that kind stranger's sudden appearance...God motivates us to help one another if we're seeking him - like chess pieces on the board. Though, of course, he could have indeed been merely a kind person.

    Special articles like your spoons are so important to all of us. They impart memory and joy in simple tasks.

  6. Wonderfully written. I could see it my mind as I read. And the spoons are beautiful.

  7. What a beautiful, well written story. I loved it. The last paragraph is simply perfect and the spoons are lovely.

  8. Loree - I adored Korea. All the more reason I wanted to explore and communicated better with the locals.

    Leonora - Yeah I love them as they always remind me of that day in Korea.

    John - Well spotted again, thanks! I wonder now if it is clear that I was born and raised in Beijing China.

    Melee - Me too! Korea is such a lovely country and I felt so at home there I totally didn't realize I'd have this little problem with communication.

    Hillary - You mentioned the stranger but I had a feeling I've seen him before. He looked rather familiar. Thanks, I thought so!

    Barbra L - Thanks. It came rather naturally but I am still poor at polishing and editing but I guess I will live. ;)

    Starlight - Thanks you found my favorite paragraph. :)

  9. Hit the wrong comment section below..haha....anyway just wanted to say great story, glad you got your spoons.

  10. A poignant, lovely story. And, a lovely blog.

  11. Great story. Spoons are allowed to be beautiful and different and so are people. I really enjoyed the tale.

  12. I love your writing and the way you bring stories to life. Just beautiful.

  13. What a beautiful story. You have a gift of bringing your stories full circle. I've always loved visiting your blog.

  14. The parts of us as children that make us feel awkward and out of place are the most intersting parts of us.

    As we grow into adulthood, we are ideally honed from those differences and the connections to those parts of us are the most precious of all.

    What a beautiful and honest reflection.

  15. Nice story, and if you wish to connect to Korea on a daily basis, then head to YouTube. They have nice Korean songs there, like "Korean Kiss" with the picture of a woman in a white t-shirt. I don't understand the lyrics, supposedly very sad, but the melody is very nice.
    Anyo ..:)

  16. Your beautiful and moving story had me captivated from start to finish. Excellent, honest, and engaging. Thank you.

  17. Wonderful story from beginning to end!
    The spoons are beautiful. It's so interesting to hear the story behind something cherished... :)

  18. I love the way you capture that feeling of being different and the resolution to your shopping trip. Beautiful images.




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