By Charlotte Price
I found her through Craigslist. The line, “2 bedroom apartment, Carroll Gardens, sub-lease, $750 a month,” was all I knew about her. Well, her place at least, and it suited me just fine. By some lucky whim comprising both hope and reckless abandon, I wrote her a response, met with her the next day, and moved in on September 1 2008. That’s when I found out who my new roommate was. Her name is Nancy Kwon. And her favorite food is seaweed soup.
Kwon greeted me at the front of my first Brooklyn residence and helped me carry my stuff up two flights of slanted wooden stairs of an old house. I glanced around my new home and for the first time got to look my new roommate in the eyes. She had thick raven hair that fell just below her shoulders with bangs that cut across her inquisitive eyes. She was Asian. I didn’t even try to guess what country she was from fearing that if I guessed wrong it would be offensive to her.
“Well, I gotta run but tonight my friends and I are cooking dinner in Bushwick if you would like to come?” I agreed and with that she smiled and was out the door.
Nancy Kwon’s apartment was both familiar and unknown.
I perused the living room, nodding approvingly at our exact same taste in literature and music. Dostoyevsky, Bukowski, Wilde, Hesse, and Shakespeare filled the bookshelves and below it were albums of The Beatles, Al Green, Greatest Banjo Hits, and David Bowie.
I laughed at her funny pictures with her sister on the fridge and moved my eyes further towards to countertops. I loved the way she decorated the place. She even used glass jars as glasses.
Then, I came across something completely foreign to me: her food cabinet. Bags of rice, dried noodles, odd spices and oils with Asian characters on them overflowed in the tiny space. I eyed them curiously. I had never seen anything like them. I ran to the fridge and opened it to find jars of pickled vegetables, sauces, and fish products, all described in a language unknown to me. It was then that I noticed we didn’t have a microwave or a toaster. We had a rice cooker. Suddenly, “dinner” seemed to mean something very different.
In Bushwick I met some of Kwon’s friends and began to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle I had started in our kitchen that day. I walked into a large loft and the smell of delicious spices tickled my nose. They were speaking in a different language and when I came in they introduced themselves and smiled. “I hope you like Korean food,” Kwon said.
Boom. My roommate is Korean.
I jumped up and down with excitement and had so many questions I wanted to ask my new friend. We began to talk about our families and friends and everything that came out of Kwon’s mouth made me like her more and more. We were very much alike, and yet so different. We both were extremely close to our siblings. Her sister, Jennifer Kwon, 23, works at the Korean Embassy in Wadshington, D.C. “She comes up to visit a lot,” Kwon said smiling.
When it came time to eat I was dazzled by what was put in front of me. Pickled cabbages, sliced carrot salads with sesame dressings, onion pastries, fish patties, and a dozen more tiny colorful dishes that to this day remain a mystery to me.
Kwon handed me a pair of chopsticks and I hesitantly dug in trying to use the same grace she did while manipulating the tiny sticks in her hands. I watched her friends in awe as they passed the plates and danced the chopsticks from one item to the next speaking in a musical language. It was very surreal.
Jennifer and Nancy Kwon eating in unison.
At this point, I asked Kwon to give me the entire background story of her parents. She summed it up nicely. “When my dad was 25, he came to the U.S, to work and send money back to his family in Korea. Around 26, I think, his great aunt introduced him to my mother. They went back to Korea to get married and then moved to California. That’s where Jen and I were born, in Monterey Park.” Her parents’ names were Connie Kwon and Young Kwon.
I winced a little during her story when I took a bite of a pickled fish. Kwon laughed and I asked her if she ever felt odd growing up as an American with her parents and the rest of her family being full Korean. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” she said.
Kwon’s parents felt it important, however, that she and Jen grew up with Korean customs. They celebrated the Korean New Year by bowing to their elders, went to Saturday Korean language school and spoke Korean at home, and of course, grew up eating traditional Korean food.
“It was easy growing up in California because it was so diverse,” said Kwon. “The only time I ever felt self-conscious about being Korean was in middle school. I never spoke Korean at school. I suppose everyone goes through that phase of just wanting to fit in and be like everybody else,” she said as she passed me a glass of what appeared to be milky water. I gazed into the cloudy mixture. “It’s coconut milk, kind of like a yogurt drink,” Kwon reassured me. It tasted bizarre, but not in a bad way.
“I’m going to raise my kids the exact same way. I want them to speak Korean and be a part of both cultures as I have been,” Kwon said. “I’m American and Korean. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The past couple of months of living with Kwon has been one of the most amazing learning experiences. We are great roommates and even better friends. Every time I open our silverware drawer and find that little stash of chopsticks I smile. And when we sit down to drink tea together to catch up on our days I can’t help but be thankful for such a unique roommate.
Kwon doesn’t live a wild or fancy life, and to the outside eye, she is just any other college student in New York City. But as her roommate, I have been lucky enough to experience a part of her culture that is so completely different from my own and it has opened my eyes in more ways than one. I have been introduced to a culture I had never experienced before and I now take the time to learn and appreciate the subtle and unique differences among all my friends. “There is always something more than meets the eye,” Kwon says.
She’s right; I would’ve never guessed such a wonderful girl could love seaweed soup.