I came to this country from South Korea to attend graduate school in Rhode Island School of Design in the summer of 2003. I was on my own, and it was the first time I came to the United States. At this progressive art school, I was exposed to the freedom of self expression for the first time. You see, I was living for 24 years in a conservative town, where I had never worn sleeveless shirts, nor short pants in public. I admired the American way of being, which appeared to be simple, convenient, detached, and very new to me. I started to observe American holidays, like carving pumpkins for Halloween, lining up at the mall on Black Fridays, and mounding boxes of gifts under the Christmas Tree. As my time here went on, I moved to Los Angeles, married, and started a family.
In 2017, on my second child’s 100th day of birth, a strong longing for my Korean heritage emerged. It happened on a peaceful summer morning, under the pergola in the Play Mountain Place Nursery Summer Camp. My older daughter Elle was attending camp that day, and I was sitting down with my younger son Ray sleeping on my chest. Suddenly it hit me and I started crying and shedding tears! I had realized that I had nothing planned for this very special day in my son’s life. In Korea, large groups of friends and families gather at the once-in-a-lifetime, 100th day of life celebration, that honors a child’s life in good health. That’s when I decided that my Korean culture could be special in my life, only if I made it special. So, I asked for the teachers’ support to help me celebrate his special day with the Play Mountain Place community. They said they would support the celebration.
Right away, I took a trip to Koreatown where I bought traditional Korean treats for the celebration. By the end of the same day, all the children in my daughter’s group, who were 4 and 5 years old at the time, sat around the table and sang, “Happy 100 Days to Ray.” We all enjoyed the snacks, and I was very pleased to embrace my culture with this celebration for Ray.
Later in the winter of 2022, when Elle was in the elementary school in Mountain Yard, the Cultural Studies group was about to vote for which country they would like to study in their class. I said to my daughter, “If your group chooses Korea to study, I will bring Korean treats at every session.” Sure enough, the first session to study Korean culture followed the very next week, and we were making Kimchi inside the Art Dome.
Kimchi making is a community project in Korea. All of the commotions that arose while tearing the cabbage leaves, stirring the chili pepper sauce, and massaging the mix were truly reminiscent of my Korean heritage.
In another class, we made a Korean BBQ. The grill was set on a large table, and the smoke and aroma of the marinated beef was delightful for the participants (and was probably torturous for most of the children and teachers outside the group, because it smelled so yummy).
As luck would have it, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was showing a large exhibition of Dae Sung Park’s works during that school year. Park is a Korean artist who specializes in traditional black ink paintings on rice paper. In order to learn about the artist and his works, I ended up visiting the show seven times before attending the show with the class.
I also visited Dae Sung Park’s show during the very special Korean tea ceremony that was led by a Korean Tea Master. Inspired by the ceremony, I made an urgent call to my sister in Korea. I asked her to ship us the lotus flowers for a special tea ceremony with the class. I wanted the class to get a chance to witness this special part of Korean culture and take part in the opening up of a dried and closed lotus flower, petal by petal, in a bowl of warm water. When the shipment arrived, the students and the teachers gathered around the table and took turns to open up the flower, one petal each. It was a very special ceremony, and as a surprise to all, there were just perfect numbers of petals for all of us to open one petal each.
The celebration for the Korean New Year in late January was also a big part of the children’s study. Traditionally in Korea, people would make long trips to visit family members. They made these trips to inquire about their families well-being, and to report their own well-being on New Year’s Day. During the visit, Korean’s practice the ceremony of bowing to each other. Both adults to adults and children to adults. When children practice a big bow to the elders, they say the wish, “Great fortunes in the New Year, ” at the same time. Then they get money in return. The group of students enacted the ceremony in front of the teachers. In return, they didn’t get money, but the feast of Korean Rice Cake, or Ovalettes soup, the traditional food for the New Year’s Day.
Field trips were the most beloved activities of cultural studies and we took advantage of the students’ enthusiasm to visit many related places. The first place we visited was the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard, a part of the Korean Consulate where the ground is Korean territory. Upon hearing this, the students played “long split legs” trying to put one foot on the American and the other on the Korean soil. After viewing the traditional and historical objects in the gallery, it was natural for the kids to say “Kimchi” instead of “Cheese” to pose for the picture in front of the Ondol room.
Since Los Angeles has the biggest Korean community outside of Korea, Koreatown offers a variety of Korean shops. Among many places we have visited, I was most excited to share my Korean grocery store with the group. It was a very big sharing of my identity, really who I am as a Korean mother. For me, it was an experience of sharing my own world with the class. The children marveled over the large amount of mudfish in a small container flipping and flopping over each other, and making slapping sounds. They also enjoyed the color-coded packages of the overwhelming number of ramen brands that occupy an entire aisle! They said, “It is like a candy store!” There were mounds of cabbages, and radishes neatly stacked in the store too, and that reminded us that the Kimchi making season was fast approaching.
The Kimchi made by the students’ busy and spicy hands and stored in Jangdokdae at the first session was supposed to be distributed to the group at the last session. Traditionally, Jangdokdae would stay outdoors during the harsh winter months in Korea, or be buried in the ground to regulate the temperature. This is not like the one in the warm kitchen at Play Mountain Place, where the Kimchi sat unattended and fuming a sweet fermenting aroma for over two months! I have to admit, I dreaded opening up the Jangdokdae for the fear of finding something awful, until the last minute. Although it was over-salted and over-fermented, we were glad to discover that the Kimchi was perfect to be used for Kimchi stew and Kimchi Pancake. This was one more perfect opportunity to have a feast at school! The stew was boiled on the stove for hours in the large pot. It was such a big batch, that the group decided to share a taste of their Korean Stew with students not in the class.
Other parents have asked me what I learned from supporting this study unit. Without a doubt, my first and foremost answer has been about my amazement, in how much work the teachers did to support the children and the course. Fourteen participating students had endless questions, problems, requests and needs, both while in school and on the road during this class. There were long discussions, about feelings and friendship, by the burner with the smoking Bulgogi. There was a loving care shown for a child who was hiding under a table full of noodles and kimchi. There was a discussion about the attempt to buy out a friend’s seating arrangement for the field trip at the waiting bench. It was my great honor to witness the teachers, kindly engaging with children, through many moments of discomfort and some mishaps, as well as in the joy and laughter we all shared. I am grateful to Play Mountain Place for allowing my participation in this program, for all the parents who supported the car rides for the field trips, and for the Cultural Studies Group, who participated with such genuine curiosity for my Korean culture.
A photobook for Korean Studies can be found at the Play Mountain Place library.
More photos from all the activities below