My husband and I just returned from attending his aunt’s 74th birthday party. In Korean culture, the older a person gets, the bigger a deal is made out of their birthday. (And rightfully so, don't you think?) Nineteen people and one very small white dog were in attendance at this party. When my husband and I arrived, his father, uncle, and male cousins had already emptied several green bottles of soju liquor at the dining room table, and the women were laying out Thanksgiving-size quantities of food in the kitchen. This included two rice makers full of rice, several types of spicy cold seafood salads, sliced acorn jelly seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil, a pot of yook gae jang (a spicy beef soup with fiddlehead fern shoots, garlic, green onion, and other delicious stuff), a plate full of brightly colored rice cakes (each one filled with sweet red bean paste), a huge platter of fresh fruit, a bowl of malted rice punch (this stuff is AWESOME. In Korean, it’s called “sheek hae”), and...a bowl containing...the most fascinating...eh...fruit salad I have EVER seen in my life. At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure of its contents, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I would get to examine it more thoroughly.
One of my husband’s aunts motioned me over to her. She and I have a special bond, probably because she is the only one of my husband’s older relatives who is fluent in English. Well, it’s more than that, actually. We bond over other things, too. We both are obsessed with reading. We both prefer to let our husbands do the cooking. Those kinds of things.
When I walked over to her, she started looking at all of the buttons on my purse (most of which come from two sources: San Francisco’s Tanya Madoff Designs and local Seattle artist, Heidi Estey, whose work is sold at Gargoyles Statuary in Seattle’s University District). One of the buttons (from Tanya Madoff Designs) features one of those classic Catholic Mary images. Now, my husband’s aunt happens to be a pretty strong Presbyterian, and she was curious about why I had a Catholic button on my purse. I told her that such images have become a pop culture thing in America, so lots of non-Christians can be seen sporting Mary accessories. “In Korea, that image is Catholic, not Christian,” she said. “But Catholics ARE Christian,” I said. She took my answer to mean that I was totally ignorant to the history of the Protestant Reformation, so she told me the story. “Yeah, but Catholics are still Christian,” I said when she finished, thinking to myself how funny it was that I, an agnostic, was sitting here defending Catholicism. She didn’t say anything, just stared at me, so I continued. “They believe in Jesus and The Bible, so in English, we call them Christian.”
I think my stubbornness kind of annoyed her. “Whatever!” she said, and started looking at some of my other buttons. The next one she asked me about was one that came from Planned Parenthood. It features a coat hanger inside a red circle with a big red line crossing it out. “What does that mean?” she asked. Oh GOD, I thought. This is NOT going anywhere simple, is it? So I answered her in the only way a person like me knows how. “Well, coat hangers are what women used to give themselves abortions back when abortion was illegal, and a lot of them died because of it.” Her eyes got big, and I thought it was because she was probably opposed to abortion, but then she said, “I had never heard that before. That is really sad.” Then she pointed at a button (from Tanya Madoff Designs) that reads “I love public transportation”. “You take the bus?” she asked. I told her that I do, and she said, “The world needs more people like you.” At that point, my husband walked passed us and said to her with a grin, “No it doesn’t. She’s crazy!” She laughed and kept looking at the buttons. “Why do you have so many with pictures of black animals?” she asked. She was talking about the buttons (from Heidi Estey and Gargoyles) showing winged cat silhouettes, black cats on bicycles, bats, spiders in webs, and crows. “In Korea, we don’t like gamagi,” she said. (Gamagi=crow) Thankfully she didn’t ask me about two other pins (both from Tanya Madoff Designs), one of which reads “Petite Salope”, the other of which reads “I love porn”, with the word “porn” spelled out in sign language alphabet hands! And though I am sad about the recent loss of another Tanya Madoff button that read “Chronic Masturbator” (it got snagged on something and was ripped off my purse), I think that in this moment I was actually thankful! I can just IMAGINE excessively honest me explaining my masturbation habits to my husband’s aunt. (But I will be buying a new one of those buttons from Tanya while I’m visiting San Francisco this week.)
By the time she had finished scrutinizing my buttons, dinner was ready, and one of my husband’s family members (the pastor who officiated our wedding three years ago) said a very, very long Korean prayer. Then we all formed a line and started dishing up our food, buffet style, which is not the usual Korean way. Most Korean meals have all the food in the center of the table, and everyone takes from the food communally with chopsticks. But with so many people, that is not feasible.
At the back of the line, I waited eagerly, half because I was, as always, super hungry, and half because I could not WAIT to find out what was in that fruit salad. When I at last sat down with my loaded plate and gave the fruit salad a proper dissection, here is what I found: perfect half moons of thin-sliced apple (no one can cut fruit and vegetables more beautifully than Koreans), cubes of mango, raisins, chopped cucumber, whole raw chestnuts, pieces of imitation crab meat, and spiral pasta—all held together with a generous coating of mayonnaise.
And you know what? It was one of the best fruit salads I’ve ever eaten!
On the left, art by Heidi Estey, on the right, one of Tanya Madoff's button designs.