My Kitchen, My Mom and Me

By Hyewon Yun, Korea

I finally bought it: a 15$ zester/grater. This is not a must-have kitchen utensil, but absolutely the most expensive item in my kitchen. Considering I spent one year deciding to buy a $5 hand mixer, this should be an unthinkable extravagance. What is happening to me? The strange thing is that I have never thought about canceling the order or returning this since I first saw it on the Internet. Hmmmm…

My mother is the wife of a man who became the head of a big family at the age of 30 when his father died. She had to take care of her aging mother-in-law, her own three kids and six of her much younger brothers-in-law and sister-in-law who were then students in college, high school and elementary school. Her days started in the kitchen preparing breakfast for 12 people and packing school lunches for her husband’s brothers and sister. My mother used to find the lunch box of the youngest brother-in-law tossed into the trash can after he went to school. It was his childish way of protesting when he didn’t like the food in the box. He was too young to understand that food and other resources were in short supply with many mouths to feed in the family and his eldest brother’s business was not always booming. Her cooking was rejected and wasted that easily.

For me as a young girl, it looked pointless to be a wife and mother when it was such a thankless job. I couldn’t believe that anyone would like to become one in the first place: why would she waste her whole life cooking, cleaning and supporting someone else when she could work for herself and for a greater purpose, for example, a career. Naturally, I stayed away from the kitchen as much as possible and refused to help my mother. I worked hard at school believing that it was the only way for a girl to move on to the outside world and thrive in a country heavily influenced by traditional gender stereotypes back then. And I made it.

I went to college and become a member of Korea’s first generation who was taught feminism at college and awakened to the self-awareness that we can achieve something as a woman rather than just a housewife. As ambitious and assertive young women, our goal was never to allow our lives to become like our mothers’-what a passive and negative goal it was! We wanted not to do something rather than to do something. However, we wanted to break the vicious circle: women got married at a young age because the social norm forced them to do so and showed no other option, and they got hard training under their mothers-in-law to be proper workhorses for their husbands’ families. Thus they became the same relentless mothers-in-law for their sons’ wives.  After graduation, I got a job, worked hard to build my career and never cooked.  I was also successful in landing a husband who never cared whether I was a good cook or not.

Cooking became a daily routine, however, when my husband and I came to America. My husband was studying as a graduate student while I stayed at home and supported him. I had to cook three meals a day: both of us loved Korean food and simply our household budget was not enough to eat out all the time. Now I got very surprised at how fast the next meal came back after just finishing one meal. My husband sometimes invited his classmates or our neighbors who had helped us get settled in town. I had to become the sweet hostess who cooked and served authentic Korean food. Cooking, baking, dish-washing, cleaning and grocery shopping were endless. I didn’t even have time to hate the job because it was such a mind-emptying swim-or-drown challenge. It was an excruciating boot camp for homemaking.

I struggled for almost one year. While juggling and bumbling around in the kitchen, I slowly got used to fixing some food and started to put decent or even good food on the table. Sometimes, I had the luxury of spending some more time for presentation after already finishing the cooking process. I also found it greatly relaxing to bake cakes while listening to my favorite music, focusing on nothing but sifting, whipping or beating, and forgetting homesickness, boredom or mundane concerns as my cakes’ sweet aroma spread from the oven throughout the house. The kitchen became my meditation room, sanctuary and resting place.

Most of all, cooking and baking was sharing. It was a great way to spend happy times with good people: my husband, friends and neighbors. I suddenly realized that for the first time in my whole life, I was putting in quality time and energy and truly sharing something with others. By offering my own food, the product of my blood, sweat and tears-as I often got cuts, sweaty working with the hot oven and tearful over cooking mishaps-, I was reaching out to someone else and turning the time spent together into a fond memory. This is also what my mother has done for her whole adult life: readily sharing whatever she had with the people around her and happily working for her loving family, not sacrificing or wasting her life. I never had once considered that my life was similar to my mother’s. We are the women who have lived different lives in different worlds and different times. But when I cook and bake I transcend such differences and feel closer to her than ever. What an irony that only when we are an ocean apart I finally feel more strongly than ever that I am my mother’s daughter.

I once brought up my new love for cooking and baking while I was talking with her over the phone. She got very excited and cried, “Yes! Cooking is fun.” It was a strange experience because I had never thought that my mother enjoyed cooking. However, I had not known her very well, after all, during all those years. As this passion for cooking has been inside me all the time waiting to be found, she might have been waiting to be found, too, by her own daughter.