“No, I don’t want kimbap for lunch! I just want a plain Vegemite sandwich like all the other kids!” These may not have been my words verbatim when I was around five years old, but I vaguely remember having an argument of this nature with my Korean mother growing up in Australia, just wanting to fit in. I also recall being incredibly stubborn about no longer conversing with her in Korean. “Aniyo! Only speak to me in English!” I quickly went from being fluently bilingual to linguistically bland. When my omma (mum) finally had the opportunity to flaunt her culinary prowess at “International Cuisine Day” at my school, the only one being schooled was me. It was then that my once infallible concept—that Aussie kids don’t have a palate for Korean dishes—was spectacularly debunked. My peers started asking if my mum would be bringing more of those yummy rice rolls anytime soon, so I started requesting for her to pack the seaweed staples in my lunchbox to trade for sweets we didn’t have at home. You could also say I was highly chuffed and proud as a result. My mother’s cookery was not only embraced, but in high demand.
Jung Ran Han left Seoul for Sydney to seek opportunities and master another language from her mother tongue. Ironic then that her very own daughter would do her best to abandon being multilinguistic. In my defence, I was only very little when I made this big life decision and it’s been my biggest regret to date. Anyway, at 19 years of age, my mum took a leap of faith and came to a foreign land without speaking a lick of English. Fortuitously, this practical necessity of being able to converse led her to my father—her English tutor. A few years later my parents eloped, much to the disdain of some members of the Korean clique. On the flip side, my Anglo-Saxon, white, Australian father’s family were ecstatic with the unusual interracial union of those times. In fact, my grandfather was enraptured with Asian food—he regularly cooked Chinese meals himself, the family used chopsticks and he counted Asians as his close friends.
Then one Spring in the 80s, well after my father was accepted by my mother’s family, I was born. Many a Korean halmoni (grandmother) fussing around my mother’s swollen belly were convinced I was a boy. Some miscellaneous blue items were collected and ready, then to her surprise, I arrived. “While I was expecting, we were always told about how beautiful mixed-race children were, but with your first appearance—I was a bit underwhelmed [laughs]. You struggled to come out, so your head was pear-shaped.” Ah yes, my mum’s infamous knack for being blunt. For the first 30 days after giving birth, my mum was nursed back to health with the support of my halmoni. She moved in with her and was given assistance with nursing, bathing and feeding me, while also being catered with a daily supply of miyeok guk (seaweed soup), something of a healing elixir. This is a traditional Korean dish that you typically have on your birthday and I never really understood why, until the penny dropped when I had my own children. You consume it on your natal day because your own mother ate it that day too!
“We wanted you to feel proud of yourselves and where you came from.”
Not so much as three years later, my brother was born in the summer. Despite one incident whereby my mother was mistaken for the nanny at a playground accompanying my blonde-haired baby brother, our early childhood was relatively drama free when it came to any cross-cultural conflict. We harmoniously grew up in Australia with exposure to both sides of our heritage—playing cricket in the backyard by day and eating sundubu-jjigae and bulgogi by night. That is, until we went to school. “When you were picked on and targeted because of my race, that really deeply affected me. It was terribly hurtful and we couldn’t do much about it other than ensuring you and your brother were okay. It’s like watching your children suffer. We wanted you to feel proud of yourselves and where you came from,” says my mother.
Today, times have shifted. My mother no longer has the same concerns regarding her grandchildren (with my twins and my brother’s two daughters), who are all a-quarter Korean. She adds: “It is a much more multicultural society nowadays—it’s so diverse. In a way, I think they will be much more accepted than when you guys were born in Australia, only a decade or so after White Australia Policy was renounced. Back then some people would turn around in the street and look at you and us as a blended family, but now it is more conventional and celebrated. I really enjoy giving them a bit of Koreanness in their lives—like having them wear the traditional hanbok on special occasions, for them to remember when they grow up.”
As for myself, becoming a mother has made me incredibly cognisant of my own upbringing, cultural background and genetic heritage. It’s almost as soon as I came of age, I shed those hangups of trying to assimilate and completely went the other way, leaning into my Asian roots even more. So I’ve spent my formative years, which was the past decade, residing in Asia. I couldn’t be more proud of my mum and the fact that she is Korean. I wear it as a badge of honour. As I’ve grown older and am now raising two little ones myself, it finally felt like the dichotomy of my two identities were no longer getting lost in translation with one another. But as for the squandering of my bilingual abilities, both omma and I are on the same frequency. “That’s regretful. I wish I really pursued you in maintaining that, but I really didn’t want you to have the stress of speaking two languages. You were expressing yourself fluently, but when you went to daycare you didn’t want to be different from other kids, so I thought I would let it go for a while. But then you lost your Korean.” This is something that I hope to come back to when I have the bandwidth to study—I would love nothing more than to have a conversation with my mum in her native language.
The lasting advice my mother has for me? “You should always remind your girls of who they are and their ethnicity. I think they should see that it’s something special.” And I absolutely do.