Alex Choi Part 2
“You just can’t put that in a recipe book!"
Alex is back! Because we love a good bookend in storytelling, our Season One finale guest returns to tell a different side of his story and journey...this time as a father.
You might remember Alex as being direct and honest about the reclamation of his Korean culture. In this episode, while we see the softer side of Alex; his intention to honour his culture is done with the same commitment level that we are used to from Alex - ALL IN. We also hear how he is embracing the concept of individualized cooking techniques from generations before, leaving us with the truth and aptly-named-episode-title of "You just can't put that in a recipe book!"
If you’d like to tell us your story, or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
We started the Root & Seed podcast to inspire people to see the beauty and uniqueness in their individual family stories, and to recognize that there's value in exploring one's family's heritage, even if you may have previously thought that there wasn't one worth exploring. We learned how culture is sparked through milestones and life events like immigration, the circle of friends you choose, the death of a loved one and a global pandemic. How stepping outside your culture helps you to be able to see it was there all along, and the significance of traditions and heirlooms in the lives of those rich in culture.
If Season One provided a gift, it would be that discovering that everyone does have a story and that understanding one story helps us better to understand who we are today and where we're going. We fully realize that six episodes doesn't even begin to scratch the surface and for that reason, we promised to continue the theme of claiming your culture another time.
For Season Two, we're excited to move on to honouring cultures, traditions, and family heritage. The beauty of honouring one's heritage came through very clearly in the story of our Season One finale guest, Alex. His experience in reclaiming his Korean heritage came full circle, from rejection and assimilation to full immersion, name reclamation, and the proud promise to expose all current and future dinner guests to experience his beloved kimchi fridge.
Because we love a good bookend in storytelling, we thought it would be nice to continue Alex's story in our Season Two premiere. From the last time we spoke with Alex, you may not have realized that he is a father and his young daughter has motivated him and his wife to make a conscious effort to share their cultural identities with her. Alex reflects on where he is in his journey and what type of experiences he's inviting in as a parent.
Even before she was born, when my wife was pregnant….her coming to this world forced us to have the conversation with each other about “What do we want our child to be”? “What... what sort of values do we want to instill into her?” and “How do we want her to grow up?” And I think there's a very conscious effort that we're making now... to make sure that she retains as much of our cultural identity as possible. And, what sucks is that because I had rejected so much of my identity beforehand, there's actually very little that I actually have to offer my daughter, at the outset. It's forcing me to relearn quite a bit of stuff and to actually learn quite a bit about myself...from scratch, even just things like cooking Korean food has been a really big and important part of reclaiming my identity.
I had only ever eaten my mom's cooking. And you know, I'd always associated that with Korean cooking but, there are flavor profiles and nuances on why certain dishes exist, why do we eat certain things? and how do you even cook? In Korean cuisine, there's something called “Son-Mat” which literal translation is “hand taste”. It's not as gross as it sounds. What hand tastes actually is, is the taste that's imparted through your experience and through the love that you put into the food. And so, my mother's “Son-Mat”, my aunt's or my grandmother's “Son-Mat” is how cooking this food has resulted in a very specific flavour profile that you just can't put in a recipe book. I'm trying to get to a point where I don't need to follow a recipe book, I can literally just throw shit into a bowl, and out comes delicious food and it's never measured and there's sort of this point of pride that comes with being able to do that, I think just being able to cook the right food and being able to create the right flavour profiles that my daughter can grow up with has been a very important learning experience for myself but as something that I'm making a conscious effort to do because she's around.
I mean, not to say that before she was born, that I wasn't doing this, I'd say I probably was maybe not to quite the extent that I am now, and I think of the next step in that evolution isn't just to do Korean food, but also Chinese food since my wife is Chinese...right? And so that she doesn't grow up with a really one-sided view of what family food is... but grows up eating the full gamut of what her….I guess Pan-Asian experience ultimately will be like….she is a Korean Chinese, right? Like she is….I mean….it is weird to call her a “hybrid”? She has both of those elements to her life.
She eats quite a bit of Chinese food. Whenever we visit my mother-in-law, we order noodles and she loves it. She loves Dim Sum and everything like that. I think if you were to watch how we behave, you would see those really specific efforts being made. My wife is making a very big effort to teach her Cantonese or Cantonese words. It's funny, she and I had arguments the other day saying “okay, why are you teaching our child Cantonese? Cantonese is effectively a dying language, right?” It is a very specific dialect to Southern China and Hong Kong and no one else in China speaks it. If we're going to teach her a language, let's teach her Mandarin and let's, let's force ourselves to learn Mandarin because that would actually help pertinent life, but you know, now in hindsight, like I look at that and I’m like okay, I see that my wife is doing this, not necessarily as a point of giving our daughter a tool to succeed in the future, but as a way to stay in touch with who she is...
It's incredible to hear how Alex is honouring his Korean culture, which he reclaimed as an adult whilst also respecting the unique cultural aspects of his wife's Chinese culture. And while the idea of learning Mandarin makes sense on paper and intellectually, we love that they have decided that Cantonese is their language of choice for more sentimental and traditional reasons. Their approaches are further evidenced by Alex's reflection on “hand taste” in Korean cooking. The idea of cooking techniques that are individualized and personalized is a theme that we hear from our community that extends beyond Korean culture. It's super prevalent, despite your cultural influences and underscores the intersection of love and food and tradition and cooking that is not easily replicated without some effort and practice.
Actor and writer, Stanley Tucci speaks of family recipes as the ultimate family heirloom saying. And I quote “Like a physical heirloom, they remind us from whom and where we came from and in one bite, the story of another people from another place from another time but unlike a physical heirloom recipes are part of our history that could be recreated over and over and over again” end of quote.
Speaking of heirlooms, when I asked Alex about an heirloom he may have to pass onto his daughter. Alex answered that there weren't many heirlooms that have come from older generations, a common observation from immigrant families because often they came to North America with so little. Instead Alex shared two traditions that he is exposing his daughter to, with his full heart and full intention.
We are trying to form new traditions and we're trying to form new rituals that are born from who we are. So, we try to do Dim Sum as regularly as possible and not simply because its a restaurant outing, but it is Southern Chinese and Hong Kong ritual that families do, grandparents do, and they..., they sit and drink tea and, they'll sit for three hours and family will come in and out and it's a big part of who they are. And so we try to do that and we want to do that and we want that to be something she grows up enjoying and remembering very fondly and these memories with her family and something, she sort of takes into her future life. Other traditions that we do is, there's something called a “Doljanchi“ which is a Korean tradition, where at the child's one-year birthday, you set out a variety of items and you get them to pick one or two of them. I think it depends on who does it, but that item ultimately is a prediction of what your child's profession or passion might be. And so you'll set out stuff like a stethoscope and a gavel, a calculator. Much to our delight, she picked a stethoscope and a gavel, so she is going to be the first JD/MD in our family. It's doing things like that. I spent the time to research “How has it been done traditionally?” “What is the contemporary version?” and “What is the version that we want to do?” It’s a little thing and it's traditions like this, where we're trying to do them, even though we know little about it and just try to sort of own it as our own. I think in replacement of a physical item that she can hold on to, these are the things that we're trying to do.
We ended with asking Alex a question from our newly launched conversation tool web app and asked him, what is something you learned growing up that you wish the next generation continues doing?
I think a lot of the things that I find myself teaching my daughter… there’s language, there's food, but I think there’s this sort of underlying set of values that my parents taught me. Things I didn't necessarily like growing up….I didn't necessarily understand what those values were, what they meant and what I was even being taught. But, you know, I think for a lot of Korean families, like if we get very specific... a lot of Korean families grow up with a household that's governed by, sort of, a pretty broad set of Confuscious values and beliefs and understandings. So things like filial piety are such an important part of the family dynamic. You respect your elders and you treat your elders with a very specific level of reverence, right? Things like you wait for the eldest at the table to take their first bite before you think about eating your food. And, I find myself trying to impart a lot of these things or wanting to at least….I mean, I can't necessarily teach an 18-month old to not eat until I've eaten. Right now it's very much like the table on the food as quickly as possible before she freaks out but that's not the game plan right now. But these are things that I catalog to the back of my head, they are the “To-Dos”. Like, these are values that I have ultimately grown up with and they shape who I am and I feel like they are actually a big part of the Korean identity and one that I value. So therefore these are things that we will teach our daughter.
Understanding one's heritage can really increase self-awareness and self-confidence, knowing your history and what makes you who you are in an honest and authentic way brings forth so much clarity. Alex definitely has embraced who he is and his confidence shines through. His daughter is one lucky girl to have a dad like him, who not only recognizes his roots, but genuinely honours them too.
This season, we'll be exploring more stories from some amazing people who are honouring their roots in many different ways. Some are using it as their creative outlet. Some have made careers out of it, and others are exploring ways of honouring their culture past the obvious.
Next episode, we meet two busy working parents who have realized the value in their extended family and extended experiences and bringing culture to themselves and to their children. And most importantly, that in our super busy lives, that some culture is better than none.
If you feel inspired to explore your own family story, visit rootandseed.com to access our conversation tool web app, that will help you ask the questions you've always wanted to know, capture precious stories and share with loved ones near and far.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU
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