Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: A significant memoir from the Korean-American celebrity chef David Chang, for his fans and critics alike.
Mood: One tough badass turned savvy survivor
Pair with: Bean sprout soup, or whatever broth that melts those knots deep inside your gut
I wasn’t supposed to read this book. I don’t even like David Chang. But under the spell of post-COVID19-restrictions euphoria Melbourne, I walked into my local bookshop and made an impulse purchase of his memoir. The book sat on my shelf until a debilitating anxiety-induced stomach pain took hold and made me reach for something relatable – a Korean talking about mental health.
If you’ve ever watched him on Netflix or Masterchef, you’ll hear his voice in the printed words of these pages. The authentic narrative in Eat a Peach is vulnerable and undecorated, especially when he consistently ‘bares all’ regarding his bouts with depression and contemplations of suicide. But don’t feel too sorry for him – an unapologetically ambitious (and arrogant) American also lives in him, coloured by plenty of Asian/Korean-boy swag. There is also lots of swearing, which I rather enjoyed – as a release of my own sense of nakedness against the world as a minority and an underdog (cue anxiety).
If you learned about kimchi via his rise in the culinary world, here’s a good entree into the community he is from:
Korean immigrants tend to fall into one of two very different and mostly incompatible camps. They’re either doctors and lawyers, or they run laundromats and convenience stores. But no matter what they do for a living, they go hard at church (p.7).
But I cannot agree with Chang (and many Koreans) who claim ‘han’ is a uniquely Korean characteristic:
There’s no perfect English-language equivalent for this Korean emotion, but it’s some combination of strife or unease, sadness, and resentment, born from the many historical injustices and indignities endured by our people (p.72).
The deep grief and rancour felt by colonised peoples are not experienced via a ‘Korean emotion’. Because I saw ‘han’ in the eyes of the East Timorese grandmothers who lost their children as the country fought for freedom against centuries of Portugese, Indonesian and Japanese rule. I heard ‘han’ in the voice of Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa whose songs brought hope and healing after dictatorships and economic imperialism poisoned her people. ‘Han’ is only unique to ‘us’ in our imagination, because Koreans cannot fathom ourselves as a ‘broken people’. Koreans are unique only in the way we deal with that universally unbearable pain of colonisation (being broken as a people), because we keep the pain fresh by giving it a name. We keep calling upon that pain, because we dare not forget it, for we dare not be broken again.
This book can be many things for many people. As Chang wanted, this could serve as a self help book for entrepreneurs (and according to my analysis, the business model here is a copy and paste from Silicon Valley start-ups but applied to the food industry). But I will remember Eat a Peach for what lies at the heart but is much left unsaid (yet conveyed): the father-son story. He says ‘Back then, Dad was the archetype of a certain Korean man who remains completely foreign to non-Asian Americans…it’s not just tough love. It is love that feels distinctly conditional’ (p.5). Fear of his father was destructive for him (and perhaps still is) and yet, David turned to his father when standing at the edge of the cliff (more than once). From my reading of his memoir, Chang Sr is the secret weapon behind David Chang’s success – for sharpening his bestial survival instinct (which Chang calls luck) as well as fronting up the cash to back him when no one else would.
The making of David Chang is the story of how two Korean men helped each other make peace with the idea of ‘being a good man’. For me, that is the most honest and honourable way to read the intention behind this book, particularly in light of Chang dedicating the book to his late father, who died just as the book went to the publishers.
Coming to the end of the book, I am still not a ‘fan’ of Chang. In my hipster local cafe, the menu reads: organic sourdough toastie with cheddar, free range ham, and mustard – w an optional filling of kimchi. “Wow – this is what David Chang has done to the world and I can see my grandmother turning in her grave!”, I said to the server – but apparently it’s very popular. Just as it used to drive him crazy to see a white chef making kimchi (p.210), it does not sit comfortably with me that Chang has commercialised Korean food for his personal profit rather than for cultural good. Off the page, I suspect that I’d find his values and manners ‘inappropriate’ and he would find mine conservative or, worse, boring (apparently I think Chang would hang out with me for the honour of me judging him!). I doubt I’d fork out hundreds of dollars in Sydney or wait in line for hours in New York for a meal at one of his digs. But for sure, I am grateful to him for his memoir.
Read it and you’ll share my faith that Chang has run the gauntlet of stark self-reflection: the universal prerequisite to a compelling memoir.
Buy this book as a gift to: a) good boys behaving badly: their anger could be a symptom of ill health; b) adult children trying to make sense of their relationship with their fathers; and c) start-up founders and the ‘makers’ who strive to create something new in our world.
Here’s to happy reading,
This Korean woman reads
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Header Image via Maine Edge and other images via NY Times and provided