Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Ghosts of the Tiger Father

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
- James Baldwin (African-American Writer), Notes of a Native Son (1955)

In Korea, like across East and Southeast Asia, New Year’s Day is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s all rolled into a food, firework and gift free for all.  While many Koreans have adopted celebrating New Year’s Day with the Western Gregorian Calendar, many Korean families also celebrate the Chinese New Year, which is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
            Much in the same tradition as Chinese New Year, Koreans traditionally visit parents and relatives during the 3-day celebration.  Beyond eating (if you know any Koreans, you know what I mean) part of the celebration consists of an ancestral ritual. This consists of bowing to all older relatives (parents, grandparents, etc. – basically any adult who can yell at you) and saying the traditional greeting saehae bok manhi badeuseyo, or please have many blessings for the New Year. 
            As a kid, I never quite knew how handle this.  The punk-ass-punk American in me thought that bowing was a sign of subservience – and god knows, I was not a subservient kid.  My sister and brother were easier – they were corruptible.   As part of the ritual, one usually receives money (in the form of crisp Benjamins).  I was not to be bribed.  While I was willing to wish my grandmothers in Korea a Happy New Year, there was no way I was going to let my parents, especially my dad, know that I actually respected them for who they were.
            My dad was a total hard-ass.  If you think Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother was a horrific, my dad beat her in spades.  Vacation?  What vacation?  Vacations were for sissies – my vacations consisted of working on algebra – as an 8 year old.  My sister broke her collarbone and cried like a baby.  My dad told her to stop crying because she didn’t have end stage cancer.  And my favorite Tiger Dad moment? Forcing me to watch a Holocaust documentary as a 6 year old – because I should know the pain and suffering of history (I cried my guts out and had nightmares for months).
            At the time, I really thought my Dad was nuts.  Clinically insane.  I mean who does that to their kids?  But it wasn’t until I did some digging into my father’s own past did I realize why he was the person that he was.  And how remarkable of a person he is, in spite of or because of his own history.
            My dad was born on the island of Cheju in what is now South Korea.[1]  At the time of his birth, the island was occupied by Imperial Japan, during World War II.[2]  By the time my Dad was 2, my paternal grandmother was working in Japan and my paternal grandfather, a radically independent fisherman with Communist leanings, had left to join the Kim Il-sung’s Workers Party of North Korea. My grandfather was never to be seen again.
            By April 1948, my father was four years old and was taken care of by his older sister and a kinship network across the island.  Even though it was nearly 3 years after the official end of World War II, my paternal grandmother was still working in Japan.  And even though the Japanese had left, the tensions and questions that were fostered by their occupation still remained: Who had sovereignty over Korea? These were only exacerbated by the division of the Korea peninsula by the US and the Soviet Union at the 38th parallel, with US and Soviet troops occupying their respective regions. Various guerilla armies, all in the name of Korean nationalism or unification, had sprouted over the peninsula, supported by US, Soviet and Chinese military supplies and training.  Cheju Island was considered a hotbed of Communist sympathies by the US-backed South Korean government,[3] and was declared an “enemy zone” by the right wing backed government of Syngman Rhee.  As a show of force, Rhee sent policemen, militias and troops to an otherwise “a truly communal area peacefully controlled by the [local] people's committee.”[4]
            On April 3, 1948, what started as a peaceful demonstration commemorating the Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation (as well as a statement against non-reunification plans dictated by US policy) prompted a bloody massacre that killed 30,000 residents and burned countless villages to the ground – all in the name of anti-communism.
            I never learned of this history until 10 years ago.  And my father never spoke of it.  During the 2002 World Cup, Die Zeit, the German weekly, did a series of articles about South Korea (to read the article, click here). My boyfriend sent me the article about the Cheju massacre and asked if I knew anything about it. I did not. I checked the dates and then called my mother.  She confirmed it. My dad remembered every detail. He ran night after night with his sister to small hiding places across the island, moving constantly to avoid detection by the police and soldiers.  There was no food, no shelter and no security.  He had no idea if his extended family was alive.  Rumors talked of gang rapes, torture and firing squads. And all the fires, there were so many fires. The smoke that permeated the entire island smelled of burning flesh and destroyed homes. The gunshots never ended.
            History is written by the victors.  For years, the South Korean government, still at war with its own history, did not acknowledge the massacre and the sufferings of an entire population.  The Korean War, military dictatorships, and a fragile peace with North Korea silenced their stories. Starting in 2000, the South Korean government started to accept wrongful death claims from the island’s residents. But still, as of today, only a fraction of those claims have been settled.  A paltry compensation for the greater injustices of history – but they will not be forgotten on New Year’s Day.

Dduk Gook

            Koreans traditionally eat this soup for New Year’s Day.  Made with rice cakes called Dduk, the soup was traditionally considered a luxury only to be eaten once a year.  Now, it is a fairly cheap staple in most Korean homes as well as a popular street food when make into dduck-bokgi, a chili stir-fried snack.  Dduk can usually be found frozen in Korean grocery stores. Just look for heavy white ovals that look like surfboards.  And one more thing – there are two types of dduk: savory sweet (used for desserts).  For this recipe, use the savory dduk.  If you are not sure, just look at the ingredient list.  There should be no sugar in the savory dduk.

1/3 pd. of beef short rib, chopped into 1 in chunks
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
11/2 tbs. soy sauce (Kikkoman Memi Sauce is great for this)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. neutral flavored vegetable oil
1 bunch of scallions, finely chopped
3 sheets of ggim or sushi nori
1 pd. of dduk in ovals, fresh or frozen

1.     In a small bowl, season beef with garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce.  Set aside.
2.     If using frozen dduck, place in a large bowl and cover with cold water.  Soak for 30 minutes until soft. 
3.     Heat a Dutch oven or heavy stockpot over medium high heat.  Saute meat until browned and cooked through, about 3-4 minutes.  Add 8 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil.  Turn heat down to a simmer and cook for about 25 minutes.
4.     While broth is cooking, using scissors, julienne ggim into about 2 in. strips.
5.     Season broth to taste.  Add more soy sauce if necessary.
6.     Drain dduck and add to broth, bring back to a boil and cook until soft, about 4-5 minutes. 
7.     Add beaten eggs to broth and stir soup around to make egg ribbons.
Serve immediately with chopped scallions and julienned ggim on top.

[1] Cheju Island, now a giant tourist destination for much of East Asia, was a small underdeveloped island, mainly populated by fishermen/women and small farmers in the early 20th century.
[2] Korea was annexed in 1910 by Imperial Japan. Much like the colonial empires of 19th and 20th century Europe, Japan sought to dominate the Korean peninsula for strategic purposes.
[3] Technically speaking, by this time the Republic of Korea (“ROK” or South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK” or North Korea) were not declared countries. At the Cairo Conference in November of 1943, Nationalist China, the UK and the US agreed to a “free and independent” Korea.  Later, at Potsdam in July of 1945, agreement became void as the allies agreed to separate Korea into 2 spheres of influence, without any Korean input. (Historians suggest that Korea was a bargaining chip to push the Soviets into declaring war on Japan).
[4] Gen. John R. Hodge, quoted in “Ghosts of Cheju” in Newsweek, June 18, 2000.