On a lazy Saturday afternoon, we arrive at 3236 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the northeastern end of Chicago. Plastered end to end with pictures of Korean food, the only English we make out on the front windows is “Korean Noodle Restaurant”, and the name of the restaurant itself, “Dal Paeng Yi”, Korean for “snail”. We trudge inside to find a restaurant mostly empty, yet it is only slightly past noon. The restaurant walls are painted green, and pots of large flowers line the entire restaurant, giving it a more lively feeling. Two men sit at a booth to the right, talking loudly in Korean, two large cups glasses sitting in front of them. They notice us come in and hush themselves. Behind the two men sits a small television set, with a Tottenham soccer game playing on it. Heung-min Son, Korea’s beloved soccer star, comes on the screen, but neither of the two men pay attention; they’re engaged in conversation with themselves.
A petite Korean woman draped with an apron comes out of the kitchen and greets us in Korean, and asks us if we are here by ourselves. She guides us to a small table on the opposite side of the restaurant as the two men. She leaves us to review the menus, which are nearly entirely in Korean. The only English on the menus are the Romanized pronunciations of the menu items, with descriptions absent. As I wait to order, I look around and notice that the walls are plastered with menu items, all in Korean, along
with a number of traditional Korean art pieces. The woman returns and takes our orders; she communicates in Korean to us the entire time. Our food arrives, and immediately the woman serving us walks over to the two men and join in on their conversations. I assume that they are regulars to the restaurant. The woman never returns to our table to ask us how we are doing. We finish our food, pay for the food, and the woman kindly walks us out of the restaurant.
The entire experience itself was a suspension of disbelief. From the moment I saw the front of the restaurant, with its loud, almost annoyingly packed windows, to the eating experience itself, to how the Korean woman interacted with us from beginning to end, if felt as if for about an hour, I was back in Korea.
Korean streets are lined with the same loud advertisements and signs. The majority of restaurants that I would frequent when I lived in Korea were the same small, hole-in-the-wall type. These restaurants often were run by a single middle-aged lady, whom Koreans call “Auntie”, regardless of actual relation. Loud, middle-aged or older Korean men could often be seen gathering in small groups in these restaurants, talking about everything and nothing, drinking and eating large quantities of food. And although Dal Paeng Yi could not reproduce these aspects quite perfectly, it succeeded in making it feel as though I was in a world completely separate from American culture. In a sense, Dal Paeng Yi is a sampling of Korean culture and Korean life, effortlessly produced because of the people that run and frequent it. For many Korean immigrants to America, this might be a haven in which they find people, attitudes, and a culture that serve as a reprieve to the unfamiliar world in which they live.
It is interesting that as I look back on this experience, perhaps one of the least relevant aspects of the entire experience for me was the food itself. The idea of the food being “authentic” or not never entered my frame of thinking the entire time I was there. I never had to concern myself with whether the restaurant did a good enough job in reproducing “authentic” food I had back in Korea because I had nearly convinced myself that I was back in Korea. The only thing I judged the food on was whether it tasted good or not.
This experience helped me conclude that the Asian American’s fight for authenticity in their food uniquely arises in situations where Asian food is juxtaposed upon a foreign or American social context. The quality of the food is not the issue at hand; the issue is the separation of the food from the social situation. Take an Asian American and put them in a restaurant like Dal Paeng Yi, and regardless of the quality of the food, the Asian American is unlikely to complain about authenticity. Take the same Asian American and give them “authentic” Chinese food, but tell them it is from Panda Express, and
regardless of its quality they are likely to criticize it as “Americanized” or “unauthentic”. It is not the food itself that creates one’s perception of the social context, but it is the social context that shapes the perception of the food.
What Asian Americans really want is not for the Asian food they eat to necessarily be the most exquisite. Instead, they want the Asian food to be preserved and maintained by those whose cultural identity has been shaped by it. Asian Americans see so much of their identity stripped away in the form of media and societal pressures that they cannot control, and when they see their food being changed or hybridized by non-Asian Americans, they feel as though they are forfeiting another part of their identity. Asian Americans don’t want better tasting food; they want food that is made with the understanding of the larger social and cultural context behind it.