HERITAGE: Mr Dixon
Mr Dixon shares his love/hate relationship with his Korean identity (and Kim Chi).
Mum and Kim Chi
As I’m sure most of you are aware, I’m half Korean. Today, as a grown adult, as your teacher, I couldn’t be prouder of this half of my heritage. Korea seems to be everywhere in the twenty-first century: Samsung phones, Kia cars, K-pop bands, Korean dramas, and the once highest viewed video on YouTube (‘Wampum Gangnam-style!’). Even Kim Chi, our national food of fermented cabbage pickled in garlic and chilli, has become a staple side dish, popping up on menus all over the world, even pizza!
ABOVE: Kim Chi. See Mama Dixon's recipe at the bottom...
When I was around your age, though, way back in the late nineties, I’m afraid to say that I was very much ashamed of the Korean half of my identity.
I felt embarrassed every time my country’s name popped up. Most of this embarrassment about my Koreanness could be traced directly to the single most crazed, flamboyant and exuberant example of Korea in my life: my mum.
I feel like we all get a little embarrassed by our parents at some stage. Believe me, though, yours is nothing compared to mine. My mum was (and still is) Kim-Chi-raving-mad. She was known by most of the parents and students at my primary school as ‘that mad Korean lady’, a title that was so devastatingly accurate there was nothing I could do or say to defend her against it. In Korea, family is the most important thing in the world. For my mum, this means one thing: children! She loves children to a worrying degree, and when I was eight, my worst nightmare occurred: Mum came into school to teach my class how to make Korean dumplings.
It was horrifying.
Mum couldn’t care less about teaching us how to make dumplings. When she came into my classroom, she saw only one thing: CHILDREN! Instead of teaching us how to make food, she spent the whole of her allotted time picking my friends up, whirling them in the air, pinching their cheeks, tickling their armpits, blowing raspberries on their bellies... Mrs Buckley, my sweet yet slightly frail Year 3 teacher, looked on in horror, unaware of how to react to a grown woman dancing around her room and making strange noises with her mouth. I curled under a desk, closed my eyes, and pretended nothing was happening.
The main thing I noticed in Mrs Buckley’s class, and really all the way through to me leaving for university, was how different my mum was from everyone else. How different I was. You see, I grew up in a county called Surrey. Unlike London, Surrey has one dominant ethnicity: white. And unlike London, Surrey has one dominant class: middle. All my friends were white. All my friends were middle class. When I went to their large detached houses and had lunch in their giant green gardens, their lovely, mild, polite mums served us food like chicken and fish fingers and mashed potato. You know: ‘normal’ English food. They left us alone when we ate. They didn’t try and tickle us between every single mouthful.
But what food did my mum serve for lunch? You guessed it: Kim Chi. And how did she act as we ate? That’s right: tickling! And where had Mum chosen to live, in this leafy, middle class hamlet? Dear lord: a mobile home!
Secretly, of course, I loved our cosy mobile home, and mum’s outpouring of love, and the Kim Chi on my plate. But looking across at my friends’ untouched meals when they came round for lunch, I found myself lying about the food, calling it disgusting, and refusing to eat it. That’s when the embarrassment started, and the shame.
ABOVE: The mobile home where I lived for the first 18 years of my life. The door frames were a bit small when I got to six foot...
I refused to speak Korean. Mum spent hours and hours a week calling her sisters and brothers on other side of the world, yabbering away in this funny garbled language and racking up giant phone bills that made my dad explode, but I never spoke to them. I couldn’t. Whenever Mum used Korean with me, I demanded she switch to English. I sat myself in front of BBC One at 6pm and listened to the cadence of the news reporters to try and mimic their voices. I restricted all that I naturally was – a mixed-race working class boy – and built up this false shell around me which sounded more British and more middle class than all of my white, middle-class British friends.
Now that I’m older and (a little bit) wiser, I view my embarrassment of my culture as a young boy as – funnily enough – deeply embarrassing. I’m ashamed of the way I behaved around Mum. I’m filled with remorse that I still have this accent that sounds to me so forced, unnatural and artificial. And, more than anything, I mourn the fact that I can’t speak with the dozens of relatives I have in Korea in their language. (What's more embarrassing is that many of my Korean cousins can speak fluent English!)
Having said that, there’s also a lot I am now thankful for as an adult. Those friends that used to shun Mum’s food are still my closest friends. And guess what? They now LOVE Kim Chi. Maybe even more than I do! And if you were to ask any of them which of our mums they would like to spend an afternoon with, I guarantee nearly all of them would choose mine. The same overwhelming outpouring of love and affection and warmth that embarrassed me so much as a child, is now the reason why so many of my friends – and not just school friends, but friends from university, from travels, from working abroad, from living in London – always remember my ‘Mad Korean Mum.’ Whenever I see them, they always eagerly ask after her health with giant smiles on their faces.
Having been through the highs and lows of a mixed race heritage, there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, Bolingbroke: be proud of who you are! Whatever it is that makes you different, that makes you unique, exaggerate it. Celebrate it.
And if there’s one more piece of advice I can give you, it’s this: try Mama Dixon’s Kim Chi! The recipe is below.
Mama Dixon’s Kim Chi:
- Two Chinese Cabbages
- A tonne of salt
- Korean Chili Powder (super coarse)
- 6 Cloves of garlic
- Anchovy Extract
- Sugar to season
- Chop the Chinese cabbage up into the size you desire to eat. Some like long, thin strips, others prefer small, bite-sized mouthfuls. Cut up and down the cabbage leaves, not across.
- Make sure the cabbage is washed and dripping wet. In a large container, create alternative layers of cabbage leaves and a healthy sprinkling of salt (you can’t have too much salt. Don’t worry; this will be washed off later). You might have 4-6 layers of cabbage/salt depending on the size of your container. Leave for four hours. This is drawing all the water from the cabbage.
- Meanwhile, add 3 heaped tbsp of Korean Chili powder, 6 cloves of garlic (pureed), one heaped tbsp of anchovy extract, a tsp of sugar, a tsp of salt and a little water into a large, sealable tub. Mix together and leave for as long as possible whilst the cabbage leaves are salting.
- After four hours, wash the salt away THOROUGHLY from the cabbage and leave them to dry for at least an hour, preferably longer. You don’t want any moisture left in those leaves!
- When the cabbage leaves are fully dried out, add to the mix in the sealable tub, stir it all together, put in the fridge for 24 hours, then enjoy! It will last for months and months in the fridge (though I don’t recommend this, since everything else in your fridge will begin to smell and taste of Kim Chi).