Q and A with Kimchi Chronicles Chef Marja Vongerichten
By: Jenny Chen
Above: photo by: Andre Baranowski
Born in Korea and raised in Falls Church, Va., by adoptive parents, chef and host of the wildly popular Kimchi Chronicles, Marja Vongerichtenís journey is a surprising spin on the minority experience. Vongerichten talked to Asian Fortune over the phone about how her TV show came about, finding her Korean birth mother, and what food means to her.
AF: So tell me about your ethnic background Ė I understand youíre part Korean, part African American?
Marja: I was born in the 70s to an unwed teenage mother. My father was African American. He was a United States serviceman in Korea and was sent back home to America.
AF: But you grew up in the United States.
Marja: Biracial children werenít looked upon favorably in Korea at the time. Also, I wasnít issued a birth certificate. You couldnít have documentation unless you had the fatherís lineage. If you didnít have the fatherís lineage then you donít exist on paper. My mother was forced by society to put me up for adoption. I grew up in Falls Church, Va., in the typical middle-class family. I played soccer, took dance lessons, all that stuff. But I still grew up with memories of my birth mother and when I went to college I wanted to look for her.
AF: How did you go about looking for her?
Marja: I called the Korean embassy. They gave me the number of two of the nuns who had made it their mission to reunite adopted children with their biological families. My [adoptive] father had a picture of my biological mother and knew what town she was in. A lot of adoptees donít have any correct information about their biological parents at all, but [my dad] had this amazing file for me. I finally got a call one day, and they said, ďWe found your birth motherÖsheís in Brooklyn.Ē
Before I went to go see her, they told me to be prepared for rejection. They said she might have her own life, you know, all that stuff. I finally worked up the nerve to call and an American-sounding guy picked up. I asked, ďDoes there happen to be a Korean woman living there?Ē The phone went silent and I thought he had hung up on me. And then I heard him say, ďI think itís your daughter on the phone.Ē My mother was really happy. A couple months later we met in person.
AF: So when did you rediscover Korean food?
Marja: My birth mother cooked all my favorite foods that I loved as a baby. They didnít look familiar to me. But as soon as I tasted them, a flood of memories came back. Having that memory in my taste buds validated the fact that I was Korean.
AF: What has it been like, as a Korean-African American embarking on this personal journey on national TV?
Marja: All these years Iíve felt like an invisible Korean. I used to get upset when I go to a restaurant and order and they talk to me in English. Now I know that my lack of identity was more a lack of information. My mother speaks English but itís more like Konglish. She was never able to speak to me that much about my language, my culture, my food. I never realized that I missed it until we went to Korea. Whatever I was feeling in terms of not having the knowledge, changed. It was really quite a journey. I am now considered an ambassador for Korean culture, which is kind of ironic because this is the country that had originally rejected me.
AF: What did you want to achieve with The Kimchi Chronicles?
Marja: We wanted to show the gritty Korea [on our show] as well as the modern, forward-moving Korea. In order to have people embrace our culture, they have to understand our culture. Many people donít know that Korea was occupied for many years by the Japanese. The beauty of it is this amazing food culture came out of it. For example, Korea is known for its bubbly, hot spicy things. What most people donít know is that those peppers come from Mexico when the Japanese occupied Korea.
AF: Would you say that you bring a different perspective to the table than an average Korean American?
Marja: I definitely have a different perspective. My perspective is that everything Iím learning is new and exciting. A lot of Koreansóitís almost as if they didnít know [their food culture] was interesting because itís like old news. They live it every day. I have a perspective on Asian culture as an American but Iíll always have that Korean ďhanĒ Ė what they call the soul and connection to the land.
AF: Your husband is a world famous chef and youíve said that you have been cooking since you were 12 years old. What does food mean to you?
Marja: I grew up in an African-American household and African Americans are a lot like Koreansó whenever we have someone visit, we always ask, ďDid you eat?Ē We always have food around. Thatís how we show our love. I think itís part of the two cultures having so little for such a long time. Having a chef husband like mine, mealtimes are always important at our house. Our family is very diverse [Ö] so we always have kimchi and something from whatever culture we decide to cook that night.
AF: What is your advice to other Asian Americans struggling to discover their identity in the United States?
Marja: Stay true to who you are. Thereís a lot of insecurity about being Asian American. A lot of first generation kids are pushed subconsciously to assimilate. I just wanted to be accepted. Having pride and information about your culture helps you embrace your culture. Even if you havenít had great experiences with your culture, find the food in it. Celebrate your culture.
Go to www.kimchichronicles.tv/show-schedule to find out when the TV show will air in your area.
For recipes from The Kimchi Chronicles go to: http://www.kimchichronicles.tv/blog/