Korean Restaurants: Spreading Asian-ness or Succumbing to American-ness?
I have been studying English since age 2 but it wasn’t until the final three months of age 20 when I finally set my foot on American territory. Through all those years studying English in South Korea, I was so certain that I would adjust to American life style perfectly since I was the most “American” kid throughout my school life. Even when I was getting ready for Northwestern after my acceptance, I refused to take any Korean groceries/food because I was very confident that I would be “American” enough and never feel nostalgic. However, the first thing I realized the moment I arrived at O’Hare International Airport, was that I am as Asian as one can ever be and the expectations I had about myself were all pretty wrong.
I think that realization sparked my interest in dichotomizing literally everything for its “Asian-ness” and evaluating if certain things are “Asian” enough. My first impression of the United States and Northwestern – a traditionally “white school” – was far from pleasant and the feeling of being a minority was not that great, so I desperately longed to find something genuinely Asian if not Korean. I tried joining Korean communities on campus, but they never really felt Korean to me since over 90 percent of them were 2nd or 3rd generation Korean Americans who have never been to Korea and doesn’t speak Korean language. I tried hanging out with other friends from Korea and tried going to parties hosted by Asian communities but to be honest, I couldn’t find comfort from anyone or anything.
My feeling of isolation and confusion started to wane as I went to Korean restaurants and ordered Korean food. This is a very odd way of relieving stress for me considering that I was never a foodie in my entire life and never considered food as one of the essential components of a healthy lifestyle. This was actually the moment I realized the importance and influence of food in a cultural sense.
I’ve been to several Korean restaurants near campus and honestly speaking, none of them tasted authentically Korean to me – and trust me, I have all the authority and qualifications to decide if a certain Korean cuisine is authentic. This lack of authenticity, or “fakeness” as I like to call it, seems to come from the restaurants’ effort to be pleasing to a broader scope of customers. For example, one Korean restaurant called “Rice n Bread” located near the Cubs Stadium serves so many modifications of the Korean cuisine “Bulgogi” and toned down the spiciness of almost all the dishes, which makes food taste nothing like real Korean food, to meet the taste of non-Koreans. Another great example is Kimchi fried rice served at “Koco Table,” which is located right across the Northwestern music administration building. Its Kimchi fried rice is more like common stir fry mixed with rice with bits of cabbage; it doesn’t contain the taste of Kimchi, and all the ingredients used to make the dish are those commonly used in other American fried dishes, which means that it doesn’t taste any different from other food that can be found basically anywhere.
Based on my experiences and encounters of Korean restaurants near campus, overall, I feel like they are not really globalizing or branding Korean cuisines but rather succumbing to the dominant American food culture. It is true that there should be some sort of modifications to the original version to make it more accessible to a broader range of people, but so far, it feels like the only non-modified part of most if not all the food served at the restaurants is the names.
Now, I don’t want to be that person who claims and complains that every food found here is fake. I also do not want to undervalue the effort of Koreans and Korean Americans of establishing Korean restaurants and marketing strategies. I actually very much respect their hard work and feel grateful for them to have popularized Korea and Korean cuisine. Surviving in this field of culinary business with a relatively foreign subject matter is tough, I understand that. I also understand that all of these changes were essential for their existence in this market of fierce competition. All I want to say here, is that I get this feeling that they have traded their “Asian-ness” with their success, which makes me feel like the American culture has yet again, dominated over Asian culture.