December 30th, 2008

In an Asian market in San Mateo, my mother, sister and I stand and get a short talk about American Ginseng from a nervous young Chinese American woman. Beside her are plastic cups full of a pale yellow broth, and a hotpot with chicken, ginseng and seaweed stewing in it.

As I wait for our turn, she speaks in quick Chinese to the woman ahead of us, and I focus on the packages on the folding table between us. “Grown In Wisconsin”, the packages say, and a bleakly colored American flag waves under the illustration of the root.

I stand there remembering being in my grandfather’s apartment in Seoul. He was insisting I have ginseng and chicken soup. I didn’t like the bitterness, I remember, but he kept at me until I finished. Is good for your health, he said. Good for men. And he laughed and slapped his leg, as I slowly understood what he meant.

This memory is why I stopped for the soup in her pot. I pause, without telling my sister and mother why, until I realize they are wondering why I was interested.

Grandfather made me eat this once, I say, and they nod as I drink the sample in the plastic cup. My sister laughs. The woman smiles and continues detailing the health benefits of ginseng, unsure of why we are laughing.

I can tell she doesn’t know how to think about us. That it might be why she’s nervous. My mom is white, a handsome blond woman aging into a silver-blond, with navy blue eyes. My sister nearly has the same face as my dad’s mother, but more angular. She has my mom’s body, though, tall and thin, a vanishingly small waist, long torso and long legs. And while she and I resemble each other, her hair is straighter and darker, her coloring darker.

I have my dad’s wide Korean thighs and short legs, his widow’s peak and broad forehead, but my mother’s nose and the hazel eyes of most of her family, the Goodwin family.

We look like we belong together, in other words, but the sorting isn’t clear.

I’m used to people and how they act when they don’t know my ethnicity. It isn’t like any other kind of nervousness. It isn’t like when you lie to someone and think you’ll get caught. It’s the opposite. You think you’ll get caught not knowing, and that it matters. I try not to be impatient with people when they are like this.

I miss him. That’s why I’m drinking the sample. My grandfather died this year and I still haven’t been back to Korea to visit his grave. We all taste the soup sample and thank her, and then we leave with the ramen take out and kimchi we came in to get and go home. And that night, there’s an email to my sister and I from our brother, who’s in Hawaii for the holiday, saying, Yesterday morning Mathilda asked about Uncle Bill when she woke up. It made me realize we hadn’t heard from him in awhile. Shall we send him our holiday greetings? Any further thoughts about a trip over there?

Mathilda is his daughter, age 4, who he tells me is asking the tough questions lately. Uncle Bill is our father’s oldest brother. Over there is Korea.


  1. Your post reminded me of a photography book, Part Asian 100% Hapa-facial portraits and essays by people with a myriad of ethnic backgrounds-most of them Asian and also anything else under the sun-and how it’s been interpreted by other people, positives and negatives. For this white euro mutt (German, English, Russian, Polish) it was like finally getting the answer to the question I’d never asked: when I was little I used to tell people I was born in other countries (Japan and Brazil were favorites for some reason) because I think I thought I was boring being just like everyone else, in a predominantly white MD suburb.

  2. I am at par with some of your thoughts. I am ethnic Korean, and he is ethnic Chinese. At times it amazes me to think how much of the vast differences of our cultures (besides that of the sexes) are meant to create the new him, I, and us, through the passing of time. It is a leap, that requires faith, of all of me. Thinking about it is a baffling, at times daunting experience; however, I think that for me, it is part of the love–my loving him, me, us, and all that is out there to love.

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