Wednesday, May 2, 2012

who am i in North York

Like any Ottawa resident, I always pretend to hate Toronto, but I did feel a genuine sense of relief as my bus pulled into North York, with this strange feeling of arriving home, or at least one of my homes. After all, I did live in Toronto for three years, and I do have more family in Toronto than I do in Ottawa. Combine that with the fact that I'd spent the last seven months living in Namibia, where being Korean is a factual anomaly, and then the month after that in my hometown where 99% of my friends are white, and it was definitely refreshing to be spending some time in a city that has not one but TWO Koreatowns. There's something lovely about being lost in a sea of anonymity.

Also, it was sunny and 13 degrees, which is pretty good for Canada these days.

There were three Toronto Korean things that I missed the most while I was overseas in Africa. One was my grandmother's jangjorim (장조림), a shredded beef dish, which she fed me as soon as I walked through her door. The second was soondubu chigae(순두부찌개), soft tofu stew, particularly the stuff served at Buk Chang Dong.

Buk Chang Dong is by far my favourite Korean restaurant in Toronto. It's not the best place to sample an array of Korean dishes, since the menu only offers soon dubu chigae and bibimbap. It's not the best place bring a non-Korean to try Korean food for the best time, because soft sofu (which literally comes out of a tube) is a bit freaky to people who aren't accustomed to hard core ethnic food. But it is by far the most authentic Korean experience, and, in my personal opinion, the yummiest.

Buk Chang Dong has two locations, one in "South" Koreatown (Bloor and Christie)and "North" Koreatown (Yonge and Finch). I like the Yonge and Finch location better, because its distant location ensures the presence of less hipsters with Asian fetishes. The restaurant is not very big, and often there are lineups out the door. The patrons are mostly Koreans, although some open-minded white folks have started to hear about the place. Because the patrons are mostly Korean, it means they all park in the alleyway in the back, in front of the DO NOT PARK signs and blocking in other cars. The restaurant folks are used to this. The servers ask you for your licence plate number as they seat you, so that when the car you're blocking wants to leave, they can interrupt you in the middle of dinner to move your damn car.

You sit down, and order either bibimbap or soondubu chigae. I almost always order the soondubu chigae with mandu (만두), dumplings. You choose your level of spicyness. I usually choose botong mepgae which in my head means "how spicy you are supposed to get it, dammit", which tends to sit slightly above the rest of Canada's comfort level. There is, for the record, the "White" level of spice, which is no spice. I don't think they mean to be racist.

As you wait for your meal to arrive, the server gives you a bunch of banchan (반찬), side dishes. Unlike Canadian restaurants, Korean restaurants usually don't charge you extra for side dishes and give you free refills. Banchan often includes kimchi, beans, and bean sprouts. You set your own table with spoons and chopsticks.

Then the chigae arrives! Still boiling hot in its black pot. You smell it and you feel like you're in heaven. The server hands you an egg to crack and pour into your stew. While you're doing this, the server brings over a stone pot of rice and does the most curious thing. He scoops the rice out of the stone pot and puts it in another bowl. And then he pours boiling water into the stone pot which still has bits of rice in it. You think, and every first-timer does think this, "Okay, they want to soak the dish before the rice hardens and is impossible to wash off. Why do they have to do that at the table?" But then you realize that it's noorongji, the meal that comes AFTER your meal.

Like I said, it tastes heavenly. I love this place.

The third Toronto Korean thing that I missed the most was a good bowl of chajangmyun (짜장면). It's Chinese style noodles with black bean sauce. Marco Polo discovered this dish during his travels to Asia, and then brought it back to Italy, and now Italians claim they invented pasta. When I moved to Africa, I brought one packet of instant chajangmyun noodles (brand "Chappaghetti") and saved it for a special occasion - when I got robbed. I was eager now to have some of the real stuff.

For changjangmyun, I met up with my family and we went to Seoul Gwan, which is about a stone's throw from Yorkdale Mall. I am not sure if this is the best place in Toronto but my parents certainly love it and they always go there. The owner of the restaurant greets us warmly and brings out a special banchan dish of kimchi. We always get free stuff whenever we dine with my family in Korean restaurants in Toronto, due to the fact that we are related to a well-known Korean in the Korean community. I dislike fame, but I like free stuff.

Afterwards, we stopped by a Korean butchery, where I found myself talking to a huge goat's leg hanging on a hook, while my parents bought obscene amounts of meat. Then, in case we didn't have enough food, we headed over to the Galleria Supermarket, which is probably one of the largest Korean grocery stores in Canada. It's kind of like the T&T, which already amazes Ottawa residents, but instead of being pan-Asian, it's all Korean stuff, with brands like "Bu Bee" and all the kimchi you could ever hope for. It's the main reason why my parents go to Toronto every month.
Korean grocery stores are the reason why I stopped eating seafood for ten years. I'm not sure why the sight of various sea animals bother me so much when clearly pushing lambs through bandsaws and hanging goats on hooks do not faze me at all. There was a bucket of mudfish at the back of the store, under a sign that said "LET'S EAT MUDFISH STEW" and for some reason it grossed me out again and I thought maybe I was going to give up eating fish for another decade.

Going to Galleria Supermarket, which seems like a little Korea inside Canada, always inevitably leaves me with a mini-identity crisis, as staying in North York inevitably always does. There are many ways to describe myself: Korean-Canadian, second gen or "ee-seh", banana, or if you're feeling mean, whitewashed. But none of them really address the core of who I am. One one hand, despite being raised in Canada all my life, there are very definite Korean aspects to my identity. My deep respect for hierarchy and deference to elders. My ability to sing karaoke while stone cold sober. My inability to call my friends' parents by their first name. My genuine love for tofu squeezed out of a tube. The way I pronounce "salmon" phonetically as "sal-mon" (why the heck not?). My tendency to fight to pay for the bill, and correspondingly, my sense of feeling slightly put out when my white friends take out calculators to split the bill.

On the other hand, there are other aspects of me that are very un-Korean. It comes out when Korean store clerks speak to me in English, because they somehow know. My piercings and tattoos. The way I do certain things that really put off Koreans, like speaking too loudly or not covering my mouth when I laugh. It comes out especially when I am in Korea or with Koreans from Korea. Koreans are much more forgiving about these social faux-pas when it comes to white foreigners; with someone like me, however, they consider it bizarre and socially embarrassing.

My Korean-Canadian identity is even different from other Korean-Canadians in Toronto. With so many other Korean-Canadians around (and TWO Koreatowns), it seems easier for other kids to be in touch with their culture, to maintain their language and to know the latest tv shows and musicians coming out of Korea. I, on the other hand, grew up as the only person of colour in a small American town with a population of 5000 people, and then moved to Ottawa, which has no Koreatown and at the time had only two small Korean grocery stores, two Korean restaurants, and two Korean churches. I grew up with the odd feeling of being different from all my white friends, only to find that when I was actually in Korean society, they also thought that I was really weird too. I am, arguably, "whiter" than the average Korean-Canadian in Toronto. On the other hand, I did grow up in the Korean church. My grandmother lived with us throughout my teenage years, and when I moved to Toronto, I did my best to immerse myself in my lost culture.

My parents, who arrived in Canada when they were teens and therefore have the label of being 1.5 generation, tell me that the result of having a hybrid identity is not that you feel at home in both cultures, but rather a sense of slight alienation no matter where you go. You feel a bit out of place in either social circle. What I find interesting is that Canada is made up of people with these hybrid identities and existential confusion, and I wonder how it shapes the way we interact with each other as a society.

In the evening, I met up with some of my Korean-Canadian friends from law school and we headed over to a noraebang, a Korean-style Karaoke place, called Y.K. in the same Yonge-Finch area. As politically incorrect as it may sound, I think Korean karaoke places are far superior than the North American style karaoke that everyone's used to. The latter involves signing up for songs that you will sing, maybe two or three times in the whole evening, in front of a bar full of strangers. The Korean version involves renting a small private room with your friends and, while sipping soju (Korean liquor) and bar snacks (anju), belting out all of your favourite songs all night long. With lots of reverb. And tambourines. That night, I discovered that I can't read Korean fast enough to rap in Korean, but that Radiohead does actually sound pretty awesome in karaoke. And there is never an inappropriate time to sing "O Holy Night." It's a fun night.

As a "banana", I used to feel frustrated with what I perceived as a limited range of personality within Korean Canadians, who I believed tended to be overly politically conservative, socially introverted, predominantly Christian, and preoccupied with pop culture. I've begun to accept now that there are infinite variations within the hybrid identity of "Korean Canadians". Some are "more Canadian", and some are "more Korean". More interestingly though, it's not a one dimensional spectrum. I hold on to certain Korean values more than some of my "more Korean" friends. Also, some aspects of me that are "weird" (like hanging out at the edge of waterfalls) have nothing to do with the fact that I'm Korean or Canadian, but more because I just am weird. Hybrid identities are complex, fluid, and dynamic. At some point, I like to think that I'll speak better Korean. Also, at some point I'll be able to rap in Korean. One day.