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The Korean Vegan

A Story that Didn't Make "the Cut," A Recipe for the PMS-ing Soul, and Facing Imperfection.

published4 months ago
12 min read

My maternal grandparents

This is a longer newsletter than normal.
If you don't have time to read the whole thing, you can listen instead.

The manuscript I handed into my editor many moons ago was quite a bit longer than what actually made it into the TKV Cookbook. In retrospect, I'm so glad that so many of them were "cut" from the final product, because as my editor knew at the time--they weren't ready to be shared in a way I could love. Luckily, I now have this newsletter to use as an additional vehicle for sharing bits and pieces of stories from my family.

As you may have seen, after spending a couple weeks with me in LA to help us settle into our new home, my mother finally went back home to Chicago. Seeing her car disappear beyond the curve of our road filled me with a sadness I hadn't felt since I was in college. My sister-in-law once shared with me that she begged and cried to have her own mother stay with her in Seattle for a few extra weeks when Liam (my nephew) was born, and I remember thinking then how strange it was that a grown woman would "beg and cry" for her mom to stay. But oh how the tables have turned.

Omma and Grandpa

My mother was the second oldest among her siblings. My grandparents--as was typical of that generation in Asia--were determined to have a son. My grandmother underwent life-threatening miscarriages and buried more than one baby in that attempt. Omma, seeing all of this as a little girl and terrified she might lose her mother, begged her parents to stop trying and offered to be "the son" of the family. As a result, she started as my grandfather's "apprentice" at the tender age of 8. Instead of staying at home with the rest of the family, Omma traveled with Grandfather to Seoul where he worked as as janitor and, in his spare time, built their home.

Omma's apprenticeship was not without its hiccups, particularly in the beginning. They didn't live inside a building because they didn't have one. They camped outdoors. Omma was in charge of cooking dinner for her father, even though there was no kitchen. On their first day, she was tasked with making ramyeon, but, having never cooked before, she presented her father a pot of raw noodles soaking in cold water. That summer and for the rest of the year, Omma was her father’s “little helper.” She ended up skipping school altogether, learning instead how to boil water over a campfire and lending her small hands to tasks around the house my grandfather was building.

Omma doesn't realize this, now, but she wasn't the only one who learned a thing or two during her "internship." Fast forward about three decades. My parents, having emigrated to the US, moved into a squat faded blue ranch house in Skokie, Illinois, outfitted with a burgundy crabapple tree in the front, a neglected old tool shed in the back, and a friendly screen door. My maternal grandparents lived with us from as early as I can remember until I was 4 years old, after which they moved into an apartment ("a-pah-teuh") of their own in the city and my paternal grandmother ("Cheen Hahlmuhnee") moved in with us to take care of me and my brother while my parents worked. As I got older, Cheen Hahlmuhnee occasionally left our Skokie house to visit "home" (i.e., Korea), sometimes for months at a time.

I vividly recall the first morning I woke up without my mom (who was at work), my maternal grandmother (who was at her a-pah-teuh), or my Cheen Hahlmuhnee (who was in Korea). I was eight years old. There were no clothes sitting on the end of the bed for me to wriggle into, so I picked out my favorite blue and white striped dress-shirt, along with a pair of flowered socks. There was no one to brush my hair, so I ran the pale yellow comb sitting on the bathroom vanity through the tangled black cloud around my shoulders. I wandered down to the kitchen--there was no boiled egg, no boiled hot dog, no tall glass of milk (I know, this is what passed for "healthy" back then...but I digress) waiting for me on the table. Stomach growling, I turned the latch of our screen door and padded out in my Hahlmuhnee's oversized slippers to the backyard.

There, I was met by three men: my father, my uncle ("Samchoon"), and my grandfather. Each of them was puffing his way towards the butt of a cigarette (again, it was the 80s....). Grandpa sat on a foldable yard chair beneath the shallow eaves of the toolshed, while Daddy and Samchoon hovered over him, chatting about this and that. I had never seen my gentle grandfather smoking before, but as he pulled down on his cigarette, looking aimlessly out at the yard while my father and uncle yammered on above him, it struck me, all at once, that he was still the patriarch of our family. And... I grew suddenly shy.

"Who is going to braid my hair," I asked tentatively in Korean. Daddy and Samchoon kept talking. Grandpa kept smoking. I cleared my throat and tried again:

"Who is going to braid my hair?"

All three shifted their gaze to me. They looked at me like I was an alien who had fallen from the clear blue sky right onto the unpaved cement of the toolshed.

"I don't know how--" I faltered. "I need to to go to school, soon," I finished.

"Here, here, come to me," my grandfather motioned with one hand, as he smushed down the butt of his cigarette with the other. He pulled out a couple rubber-bands from his pocket, and I sat down, cross-legged right in front of him. I could smell the residue of tobacco ashes on his hands, as he deftly pulled my hair into two even braids on either side of my head. It was a smell I grew to love, even after learning all about how cigarettes are bad for you, even after my grandfather died of emphysema. I went to school that day knowing I didn't look as "perfect" as I normally would, but armed with an understanding of the men in my life that emboldened me, toughened me, completed me.

Grandpa and me

Growing up, I knew that my mother and grandfather had a special relationship, that "Sunbee" was my grandfather's favorite, even though my grandparents eventually had their "golden son." Oddly enough, my mother and my uncle take after my grandfather--they are both lean and sinewy, where my aunts all resemble my grandmother--stocky and lovably round. To me, the fact that Omma looked so much like my grandfather was just another sign of how they were like "peas in a pod."

Grandpa had been living in Chicago for a handful of years before my mother had to drive him to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. He was admitted to the intensive care unit and diagnosed with Acute Pulmonary Failure. He was connected to a breathing machine and sedated for two days. When he woke up, startled, he tried to remove all the tubes coming in and out of his body. They told him he had to wait 10 full days before he would be allowed to breathe on his own again. He had my mother bring photos of his American grandchildren so he could look on them as he counted down the days until he could fill his lungs without a machine.

On the 10th day, he passed a note to my mother, “Sunbee, you promised to remove this tube today!” The tube was removed and for a few glorious hours, my grandfather was able to taste the air. Inevitably, though, his lungs began to fail again. My mother sat at his bedside watching her father’s labored breath steal across his face like a thistle of clouds.

“I wished I could breathe for him,” she wrote to me many years later.

Grandpa died the following day. He left behind a series of cassette tapes—recordings of his voice when he had been stronger. He called them “Prayers for my family,” each one labeled for each person, even one for me: “Eldest Daughter of Lee Family, Joanne.”

Spinach Doenjang Soup for the PMS-ing Soul.

As many of you saw, I recently worked with Rael, a Korean owned holistic period and beauty brand, to bring you a video and story on spinach doenjang soup. That was definitely one that I had to consult with my mother on: "Omma, what's good for women to eat during that time of the month?" It turns out that spinach (or any leafy greens) and soy are among a short list of things you can eat to help mitigate the effects of PMS. I'll be adding the recipe for this soup to the TKV Meal Planner, but I'll also jot it down here for newsletter subscribers (though, seriously, you should also do the meal planner, since it comes with all the macros, 2,000+ recipes, and free monthly cooking demos and LIVES!):

Ingredients

1 tablespoon neutral oil
1/4 cup mushrooms (I used oyster but you can use whichever you like)
2 scallion white parts (chopped)
2 cups adult spinach (steps removed if you prefer)
1 tablespoon doenjang (fermented soybean paste)
1/2 cup tofu (any firmness)
2 scallion green parts (chopped)

Add the oil to a medium ddukkbaegi (Korean clay pot) or Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer (about 2 minutes), add the mushrooms and scallion whites. Sauté the mushrooms and scallion whites for about 3 minutes, until the scallion whites start to grow translucent. Pour 2 cups of water into the pot. When the water begins to boil (about 5 minutes), add the spinach and dissolve the doenjang in the water. Add tofu (I spooned tofu into the soup, but you can also chop the tofu in advance). Sprinkle scallion greens and serve.

*Note: this soup is designed to really highlight the natural sweetness of the spinach, so other ingredients (onion, soy sauce, garlic, etc.) are deliberately minimal.

Ask Joanne.

Hi Joanne! I’ve struggled with a variety of addictions for a long time and even though I am celebrating sobriety, I still find myself having a very hard time breaking bad habits. How can I get better at stopping unhealthy coping mechanisms? -Paige

Paige,

First, congratulations on achieving sobriety. As I'm sure you know, I cannot overstate the amount of work, commitment, and, in some cases, outright pain you had to undergo in order to reach this particularly summit. Every single day of sobriety is another opportunity to celebrate you and your journey, and I hope you never forget that. And I'm not just saying that in the "touchy feely" sort of way--it is also strategic. The best way to kick ineffective habits is to replace them with productive ones. And a big part of creating new habits is rewarding them.

Science demonstrates that it takes about three months to create a new habit (good or bad). Three months can seem like an insurmountably long time to repeat any behavior (or avoid one). But here are a few tips that might make that process a little more manageable:

  • Start simple--identify the "bad habit" you'd like to replace and then replace it with a "good habit" that's fairly easy. For example, when I'm working on cutting out refined sugar in my diet, I replace all the donuts, cakes, and cookies in the pantry with fresh fruit--not sugar free baked goods. Baking sugar free is NOT simple or easy. It's the opposite! There is nothing simpler than reaching over and picking out a banana or peach or apple or cherries, and, after awhile, it becomes like second nature for me and I stop craving chocolate cake.
  • Be consistent--this should be a no brainer: repetition is the single most important factor to creating habits. But it's funny how we can trick ourselves into thinking we are repeating a certain behavior over and over when, in actuality, we're really only doing it a few times sporadically here and there. This is where I think keeping a journal can be immensely helpful. Not only will it keep you accountable (e.g., "Oh, it looks like I only did the fruit thing 2 times this week instead of every day even though it really felt like every day, lol."), but it may reveal hidden roadblocks and hindrances that are making it unnecessarily harder for you to keep consistent (e.g., "Oh it seems I tend to go for cake when I'm with friends or out to dinner--maybe I can plan around that next time").
  • Incentivize the desired behavior--in other words, reward yourself! I don't mean any disrespect, but we are like Pavlov's creatures and respond to conditioning in the same way. When you consistently reward yourself, your body's "muscle memory" will remember that this particular act = "good feelings." For me, I always "rewarded" my choice of fruit over donuts by watching a little TV with my "dessert." It was my time to "zone out" after a long day of work and cooking.

A couple final thoughts. First, please please please know that there is literally no shame in seeking help, especially from addiction professionals and support groups. These individuals have the expertise or lived experiences that perhaps family members or friends do not, and therefore, can be an invaluable tool in maintaining your sobriety. And that's the second piece, Paige: "maintenance." Sometimes, we're led to believe that once we reach the summit, the hard work is done. It's true that you should be able to jump up and down, do that Tiger fist pump into the air, lie flat on the ground and gaze up at the sky above you as you let your limbs recover from all the work they've done getting you up there. But, then, you have to collect yourself as you prepare to take that next step. Whether it's down the other side, or up the next mountain, it'll never be "easy."

You see, addiction leaves a mark. Depending on the severity of your addiction, that mark can be shallow, barely visible or, in some cases, it can be deep and cause permanent damage. A couple weeks ago, I talked about Jacob "wrestling with God," and how he walked away from that fight with a permanent limp. However high you climb, Paige, there may always be a small part of the wound that led you to your addiction that remains unhealed. But the good news is this: whether you allow that wound to weigh you down or propel you to even greater heights is entirely up to you.

Wishing you all the best,

Joanne.

Signed TKV Cookbooks!

I spent a few days in Boston last week for the WBUR event, and during our stay, we visited with a few of the local bookstores. If you're in the hunt for some signed books that will ship all over the United States, you can find them here:

IN PESON PICKUP: If you're in the SoCal area and want some delicious vegan eats while picking up a signed copy, you can always find them at my favorite local hang, Joi Cafe! (If you get there early in the morning, there's a good chance you can also say "hi"!)

Announcements.

Parting Thoughts.

Yesterday, Anthony and I discussed how to cope when someone you look up to disappoints you in a really hurtful way. I know we say to each other all the time, "no one's perfect," but sometimes, it's easier for us to hold onto the belief that some people in our lives are. And, when they make a mistake--and by mistake, I'm not talking about forgetting to add the salt or misspelling your name; I'm talking about the kind of mistake that can end friendships or, at the very least, radically change the level of trust--we might instinctively look inwards: "maybe they're not the ones who made the mistake. Maybe I did something to deserve this hurt." We do this, even when we know in our hearts that the other person is in the wrong, because we can't control how they act. We can only control how we act. If it's something we did ("it's me, not you"), it's fixable.

Sometimes, even the person you look up to the most in the whole world--your parents, your favorite aunt, your favorite movie star, your favorite activist, your favorite writer, your favorite politician, your favorite mentor--will do something that is completely out of line with who you thought they were, and you may even be the target of their behavior. It's ok to sit and mourn the loss of the person you thought they were because however "unreal" that person now seems, for awhile, they were as real as you and I. But, don't make the mistake of internalizing that loss, transforming your grief into some failing on your part as an attempt to manage the pain. Take heart. Be brave. Say goodbye.

And surge ahead.

Joanne.

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