Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation
Written by Hae Yeon Choo
“This was a huge mistake.” Frustrated, I murmured, walking into an airport hotel in Tokyo. Back in 2005, I was barely making $1000 a month as a teaching assistant in the US, and it seemed natural to go with the cheapest flight when visiting home in South Korea. One time, on the return trip to Wisconsin, A Japan Airline ticket with multiple transfers fit the bill — which oddly included a free overnight hotel stay at the Tokyo airport. What seemed like a perfectly good idea began to fade as the journey began: the flight from Seoul to Tokyo, a long line for the immigration control, an endless wait to retrieve the luggage, and then finally the one-hour shuttle ride to the hotel, all before the rest of the trip to Wisconsin the next morning.
The next morning, I woke up alone in a hotel room and made my way to the breakfast buffet. I grabbed an assortment of dishes and sat down in a corner, next to a table filled with loud chatters from a group of Japanese businessmen. Almost disoriented, I took a spoonful of miso soup, with a small chunk of soft tofu and seaweed. The salty broth down my throat warmed me up, and I was startled how much comfort it brought to me. It was a taste of home, which made me feel uneasy.
Growing up in South Korea, I didn’t imagine that the food we ate at home was any different from that of my friends. Why wouldn’t everyone else have miso soup for breakfast, umeboshi (pickled plums) as condiments, and sukiyaki (hot pot) for special family dinners? It was only after my grandmother passed away when I was thirteen, that I learned that she was Japanese, and the food she cooked in my childhood were standard Japanese, not Korean food. It’s part of family history that we rarely talked about.
Originally from Nagoya, my grandmother’s family moved to Korea, then a Japanese colony, as part of colonial settler migration in the early 20th century. Working as an “office girl” at a trading company, she fell in love with a young Korean man in the office—my grandfather, a self-made orphan who loved photography. I remember seeing her picture, taken by my grandfather and hung in his room, a young woman of remarkable beauty that neither my mother nor I inherited. She must have been a romantic to marry him, in a time that love marriage was uncommon. I was told that her family was adamantly opposed to their union, yet came around after she gave birth to a son.
When my uncle was born in 1943, Korea was Japanese colony, but the liberation of Korea at the end of the WWII brought her life an unexpected turn. While all her natal family members left Korea, she stayed. By the time my mother was born, Korea was an independent, postcolonial nation. It was at the height of anti-Japanese sentiments, and she had to hide the fact that she was Japanese. She hid this so well that even her own children didn’t know until they were teenagers. According to my uncle, it was only two decades later when the Japan-Korea relations were normalized and she visited her natal family in Tokyo. By then, she almost forgot how to speak Japanese. But it was in the privacy of home, in the kitchen, that she was able to cook the food that was familiar to her, and feed all of us: a hot bowl of miso soup, and donkatsu (pork cutlet) curry for my birthday, recipes that my mom inherited.
When I had the first sip of miso soup, in that unremarkable hotel restaurant, it brought me undeniable comfort due to feeling at home. With that came a deep sense of discomfort, however, and even guilt. Coming of age in the 1990s in South Korea I grew up deeply steeped in anti-Japanese nationalism. My school textbook taught me that Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, a statement that was only recently taken out because of a recent wave of inter-Asian migration to South Korea (this became a research topic I pursued as a sociologist). It took me years to accept that although I like kimchi stews as much as any Korean does, it doesn’t bring me comfort when I am sick or miss home, like a bowl of miso soup does.
How ironic that I was critical of assimilation as a migration researcher, yet my personal life was a living example of assimilation. As a 100% Korean, with only a few words of Japanese phrases I can muster (although I am told my accent is flawless) and no ties to Japan, how can I feel conflicted about feeling a very personal comfort from a bowl of soup? Could the nation be this unstable? What does it mean that someone is Korean, then? It was the hidden family history in the shadow of the national narratives, entangled in that salty taste of miso soup, that made me begin the journey that continues today—to find answers to that question, and to ask what it means to belong to the nation.
Hae Yeon Choo is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is the author of Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea (2016, Stanford University Press).
The author recommends a Japanese restaurant in Toronto, the casual hapa izakaya.
And for those interested in Japanese settler colonialism in Korea, see the following book: