In 1967, my mom emigrated to Canada and was working as a nurse in Ottawa. A year later in March of 1968, my dad arrived at the end of an Ottawa winter. In Korea, he had been working as a journalist and was not fluent in English when he arrived in Canada, neither was my mom. They were already engaged and they had their wedding days after he arrived in Canada. They lived in Ottawa for a year and a half before moving to London, Ontario and a few years later to Toronto, along the way, my dad earned a Master of Arts degree in Library Science at University of Western Ontario. There is so much that I appreciate now about my parents that I was unaware of when I was younger. This story made me think of comfort food and starting a new life in a land where you don’t speak the language fluently and most people have never heard of your comfort food. Kimchi is more than a comfort food, it is a given on a Korean table.
Kimchi has definitely gone mainstream, but it was not always so well known or easy to find the ingredients needed to make it in Canada.
This story begins in 1968 in Ottawa, when it was much more difficult to find kimchi ingredients like napa cabbage, also called Chinese cabbage, or baechu (배추) in Korean.
Here is my kimchi recipe. There are many different kinds of kimchi. The type of kimchi in this story is one that you may not be familiar with. It is mul kimchi or water kimchi. ‘Mul‘ is water. Here is a mul kimchi recipe (with some great photos) with just a little red chili pepper in the brine, but when I think of mul kimchi, I think of a clear colourless brine. It’s the first type of kimchi that my mom made in Canada. It’s not a recipe I have made myself yet.
“Sister” is expressed more particularly in Korean than in English and among close friends, you may call someone older than you ‘older sister’ or ‘older brother’ instead of their name or along with their name. Two words for older sister are, “noona” and “unnie“. If you have an older female friend, you could call her “noona” if you are a guy and “unnie” if you are a girl.
Kimchi Noona is a friend my dad met in Canada.
- Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, 1976, Korean Journal, Toronto
- Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak
The sky over Ottawa is clear and cold. It is not like Montreal where various winds blow and it lacks the hustle and bustle of Toronto. Located in the Ottawa valley, the land and the city is clean, clear and cold and it is difficult for immigrants to become established.
There are few jobs for labourers and it is difficult to work overtime or moonlight. Among Koreans in Toronto, there is an free and easy sense of comradery that is lacking in Ottawa. Most Koreans who have settled in Ottawa hold professional positions in hospitals, schools, universities, government agencies or the Korean Embassy, but for a newcomer just starting out, it is hard to find a job or a room in the capital city.
The next spring, she wasn’t at the usual gathering and I found out she had moved to Toronto. She never invited anyone to her house and she didn’t let people know she was leaving. Before I left Ottawa, I heard she was driving a new red Mustang in Toronto. People knew her as someone
who never once complained about others or engaged in gossip and she was described as quiet and hardworking.
Five years later I ran into her on the street in Toronto and we talked for a long time. I clearly remember her saying, “Mr. Kwak, I am still driving this car. What marriage …? If I had started a family, the first thing to do would be to change cars.” That was the first story that I heard her tell about herself. Later I heard she had bought an old house downtown with twenty rooms, and had built a five car garage behind it and renovated the basement where she lived. The old house contained five apartments. I imagined that she would be living in a new modern high rise apartment building, but I was wrong in my imagining. At that time in Toronto many new high rise apartments buildings were being built and as renter, that is what I was interested in. I was wondering then why she bought an old house rather than a new apartment.
I heard news about her a few months ago, from a person who was at the airport and saw her dressed beautifully in a hanbok (a formal Korean traditional dress) to meet her mother-in-law. It had been only 2 months since having her first son and she appeared shy.
Maybe now there is no red Mustang… but a station wagon or an Impala driving through Toronto. I imagine her now seated beside the driver. I wonder about her husband and what kind of person he is. I never met him and could not find their address in the Korean directory.