June Sohn is my full name. Like many cultures, children always follow their fathers’ last names, so I was automatically named Sohn after my father. A patriarchal society, Korea always emphasizes the importance of people’s ability to connect with their paternal ancestors. As a result, it was often easy to forget the importance of my maternal relatives. It is ultimately both my mother and father who created and raised me. The more aware I grew about this societal bias, the more I became interested in my maternal ancestry. I want to flip this notion of patriarchy and call attention to my mother and her family. To delve more into my mother’s life, I decided to use participant observation to watch my mother’s direct kinswoman: my maternal grandmother. Initially, the plan was to interview my grandmother and participate in her cooking, but because my grandmother refuses to make her grandchildren do any work at her house, I was forced to sit on the massage chair to simply observe her. It is important in studies to honor the participants’ opinions and desires, so I complied without hesitation. Though limited in direct experience, participant observation allows for objective watching of details that might be missed when actually involved in the cooking process. I was able to observe everyday tasks, the key element of participation observation as mentioned in Eating Culture by Gillian Crowther. This allowed for not only visual observations, but also the “feel, smell, and taste, of food that is essential” (Crowther, 21). Through this practice, I was able to truly understand the culture of my mother, and ultimately myself.
There’s a table that I’ve grown up with at my grandmother’s house. It is dark-chocolate brown with hints of light bread-like color intertwined throughout. The four legs that hold the table up stand tall, curved like a windy day’s wave. The tabletop is shiny with not a fingerprint to be seen, and the surface is icy cold. It’s large enough to sit six people, one seat more than the number of people in my mother’s family. I have eaten at this table since I was born, and I have always seen it in pictures of my mother when she was a child. It seems too clean to be an antique, but this table has an extensive history that can perhaps teach me about my maternal family. In fact, this table was the first piece of furniture that my grandmother purchased after building her own house in the 70’s, even before my mother was born. It has endured through the happiest days and through the darkest moments. It’s also quite unique in how it’s used. It is not solely used for eating; it’s a place to organize medicine and vitamins, a spot for spontaneous study sessions, and even an area for cooking.
When I asked my grandmother to cook for me so I could observe her, she happened to be using this table to cook. She was planning to make me some Songpyeon, a rice cake dish that closely resembles a dumpling but is made of glutinous rice instead of flour and sugar and sesame instead of meat fillings. All the objects that were placed atop the table, including medicine, vitamins, and even bags, were put on the ground to make room for the dough. A handful of flour was spread across the glossy table as my grandmother began rolling out the dough. She rolled and cut the dough so quickly that it was difficult to locate her hands. She then immediately put some sesame-sugar mixture into the center of the dough, swiftly closed it up, and tightly sealed the Songpyeon. The same process was repeated for around 50 minutes and around 100 little Songpyeons were made. My grandma then placed them into a steamer, where she cooked the Songpyeon with a hint of pine leaves. As the rice cake was cooking, my grandmother busily began to dust all flour off the table and wiped it down with a tablecloth. She placed two green table mats on top of the newly cleaned table. After 30 minutes, she took the Songpyeon out, placed them into pretty bowls, and gathered all my relatives around the table. The 12 of us congregated around the table, with some standing and others sitting. Everyone devoured the Songpyeon, feeding those sitting next to us. Our grandma constantly brought more Songpyeon out, until everyone complained of full stomach. The complaint did not stop her; she insisted on “one more bite” until everyone screamed, “STOP!”
This experience made it clear where my mother’s sacrificial love sprouted from. This love was what nurtured me and shaped me into who I am today. It arose from the concept of “jung” that developed around the kitchen table. “Jung” is a word that has no direct translation in English. It is a notion of love, sacrifice, warmth, and friendship all mixed into one feeling. When someone feeds you too much, it’s often out of “jung.” When someone gives you all they have, it is also because of “jung.” This day when everyone crowded around an old but important table is when I saw more deeply into my mom’s, and therefore my grandmother’s, heart. There was a reason the table was kept for so long. It’s like a fuel that kindles a sense of “jung” like no other. It’s what shaped my mom. It’s what shaped me.