During the summers, when I visit Korea, the first place we go to is my grandmother’s house. This is on my mom’s side of the family as both my dad’s parents passed away before I was even born. My grandma is kind of hard to read. She grew up in an environment where showing any emotion resulted in harsh repercussions, and she still embodies that aloofness. I remember going to her house after preschool, because my parents both worked and couldn’t always afford a babysitter. She and I gardened together, which I hated. She taught me how to properly pick peppers; she told me to never touch my eyes when handling her hot chilies, but I never listened to her. Coming back from my grandma’s house, my eyes were always bloodshot from the spicy pepper juices.
My grandma’s house is not located in Seoul like most of my friends’ grandparents. In fact, it is inconveniently located in the very northern part of South Korea, close to the wired wall that separates the south from its northern counterpart. If I drive 20 minutes from her house, I reach the north. We breathe the same air; if I kick a rock down the northern part of the Geum-gang Mountain (only mountain that lies halfway between South and North Korea), it would inevitably reach the north. People always jokingly ask me if I’m from North Korea and are taken back when I respond with a “kinda.” I am 1/4th North Korean; my grandmother is a North Korean refugee.
While I have never asked her about the escape down south, my mom recalls all the stories and tells me.
My grandma ran away from the north when the communist party grew. She told her kids (my mom, my aunt, and my two uncles) of the trails of dead bodies leading her to Seoul, of the countless nights she had to go without food, of the days when she wished she were reunited with her friends and family at her house in Pyongyang. She escaped with no money in her pockets, wearing only sandals, a shirt, and a loose pair of pants. She escaped when she was only 16 years old with her sisters.
Whenever I visit my grandma’s house right after arriving in Korea, she always prepares a big feast for us, no matter how late it is. She cooks all day: seasoned mackerel, pickled spicy cucumbers, fried tofu, and, my favorite, mandu. Mandu is sometimes misnamed as a dumpling. Yes, it resembles a dumpling and is steamed in a bamboo pot like a dumpling, but it is not a dumpling. Especially not my grandma’s mandu. Her recipe is from her mom and from her mom, spanning across generations and passed down with minimal tweaks, remaining consistent for almost 70 years. Using fermented kimchee (spicy, pickled cabbage), tofu, egg, and giant fistfuls of garlic, her mandu is slightly pungent, a bit spicy, and comforting. The first bite is always the best, especially if it’s fresh mandu. Mandus are deceiving in that they may not be hot at touch, but the first bite releases a long trail of scorching steam and juices that linger in your mouth even after swallowing. My grandma doesn’t add meat, which is the main difference between North Korean and South Korean style mandus. She thinks the meat is too overpowering and spoils the already rich flavors. I agree.
My grandma, with her constant gardening even at her age and her stoic expressions, is like a mandu. She never reveals who she really is, and underneath that façade, she hides so many details about her life. She hopes that her grandchildren will live in an era where there is no North and South Korea, but there is just Korea. I know she remains close to the north, because one day, she hopes the north and south will reconcile their petty behaviors and open the gates so she can reunite with her family who still reside in the north. When this day happens, she wants to be the first one at the 38th Parallel, going back the place she forever will call her home.