The pineapple was so ripe I could smell it from the TV room. Lunch was only an hour ago and I wasn’t hungry, but the lingering fruit in my nostrils made me want to eat — badly. I lay on the couch with my tan, thick legs propped on the armrest. My older teenage cousins chatted heatedly about wrestling, their wiry arms flailing around in the air. Where they were lanky, I was heavy and stocky. Their bare feet smelled slightly sour when the breeze came through the open window, but I only saw them twice a year for summer vacations like this one, so I didn’t mind it all that much.
Seconds later, my mother carried a neatly arranged platter of fruit to the dining table and set it down next to the jug of water and plastic cups. She walked back into the kitchen. She came in again, this time bringing a tray of leftover Japchae, a Korean noodle dish, Doenjang jigae, a Korean soybean soup, and freshly fried zucchini. I knew this food was being put out for my father and uncle, who had been away fishing since the early morning, yet I found myself inching toward the table, lusting after it all.
I picked up a chunk of pineapple and tossed it into my mouth. It was the only thing on the table I could eat discreetly and quickly. I ate another piece. And another. Another.
“Stop eating so much,” someone said over my left shoulder. I turned abruptly to see my eldest cousin Paul staring at me. “Why do you eat so much?” he insisted. “You’re going to turn into one of those . . . American girls.” He crudely yanked the piece of fruit out of my hand and stormed off. I was only 12, but I was smart enough to know that by “American girls,” he meant someone who was fat.
Any time my Korean family gathers in one place, food is the main event. We greet each other and then immediately crowd around a long table. We eat quickly and loudly. My uncles slurp down scalding hot noodle soups in record-breaking time, the women pass around small plates of deliciously stinky kimchi, and there’s always an endless amount of mackerel fish, which is supposed to help the children get good grades. Our electric rice cooker is so large that it lives on the corner of the kitchen floor, where most people put their dog’s water dish.
Eating is more than an antidote to hunger, though. We re-anchor ourselves in our culture by diving headfirst into our native dishes. They comfort us. Nourish us. They remind us of who we are and where we come from.
“We re-anchor ourselves in our culture by diving headfirst into our native dishes. They comfort us. Nourish us. They remind us of who we are and where we come from.”
But my Korean heritage is only part of who I am and where I come from. I’m Korean, but I’m also Italian. I’m Korean, but I was the first in my Korean family to be born and raised in the U.S., which arguably makes me American. I’m Korean, but I suffer from binge eating disorder (BED). While these warm dishes strike a poignant chord of home to my mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, they remind me of all the ways I’m most disconnected from my Asian relatives.
As a biracial woman, I often experience a fractured sense of self. I exist between two worlds, suspended between two meaningful lineages, both of which can feel irrelevant at times. That summer, when my cousin demanded I set down the pineapple in my hand, I was already struggling to understand how my American-born, half-Korean self would find a place in this family, and his disgust only reassured me that the shape of my body and my relationship with food were the two primary factors that made me an outcast from my bloodline.
All the Korean women in my family are slim, dainty even. My chunky figure, on the other hand, prompted my parents and aunts and uncles to grant me the nickname “Thunder Thighs” when I was only 5. More importantly, though, for years I’d watched these petite women enjoy small portions of the decadent food they’d just spent hours preparing. They put their chopsticks down between bites and left behind scraps on their plate if their belly was full. They chewed slowly. They were able to truly savor the food of our heritage, while I sat at the end of the table, staring at what was in front of me but not really seeing it, anxiously peeling the skin off my big toe under the table, feeling far too embarrassed to eat to my heart’s desire for fear that I would be branded an overeating, undisciplined American.
As a result, I developed a secret habit of binge eating at a young age. When my parents went to sleep, I would sneak into the kitchen and skim the top off of everything in the pantry that wasn’t sealed shut. Overeating was the only way I could elicit a sense of control in my life, and food became my most reliable, non-judgmental companion.
“Overeating was the only way I could elicit a sense of control in my life, and food became my most reliable, non-judgmental companion.”
A few years later during the Christmas holidays, when I was 15, my uncle held and examined my wrist and asked if I like Korean food. I told him that I did, very much.
“Good,” he said to me in English. Since primary school, my Korean was no longer strong enough to carry a conversation with my relatives. He continued, “Korean food make you strong, not like white people food.”
I nodded. I pictured the bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos I had secretly eaten in my closet just days before, right after Katie, a girl at school, pulled back the corners of her eyes and called me a “chink.”
“You little bit fat, so be careful with American food,” he urged.
He walked away as quickly as the conversation started. I shut myself in the bathroom and cried under the shower to muffle the sounds. I spent the rest of the holidays with my family feeling like an unsuccessful transplant, like a donated kidney that was failing to do its job to keep the body healthy.
So I dieted. I counted calories. I worked out twice a day, before and after school. I was determined to change my habits and my appearance, to be petite. Yet every period of deprivation led to a severe binge, the kind that left me in the fetal position on the floor of my bathroom in the wee hours of the morning, clutching my aching, nauseous stomach while the tears rolled down my face. Each time I endured yet another binge episode, I could feel myself becoming more severed from my Korean roots. I told no one about my struggles, not even my mother, a wise woman in whom I confided nearly everything. As my high school years went on I could see the worry in my cousins’ and uncles’ eyes when I saw them for holidays. But not because I was wrestling with an eating disorder. Rather, because I was still chubby.
To them, there was no such thing as an eating disorder or a mental illness. Even my aunt, who had obviously suffered from clinical depression for years, was spoken of behind closed doors as someone who was lazy. Someone who essentially couldn’t get her shit together. It wasn’t that they were in denial of my BED. They simply didn’t have the capacity to observe my BED-related behaviors as anything more than inexcusable, inexplicable behaviors, when they were actually reflections of a debilitating disease.
In the battle between mental illness and heritage, the former always wins. By the time I reached my late teens, I knew I had to choose between my health and this exhausting attempt to transform myself into the Korean woman I thought my family wanted me to be. As soon as I started my freshman year of college, I started seeing a therapist, who helped me understand the frayed edges of my mental illness. I immersed myself in the university environment, finding sustainable ways to keep myself busy.
“In the battle between mental illness and heritage, the former always wins.”
The next several years of my life brought much healing, but it also put distance between my Korean family and me. Recovery wasn’t possible if I continued to place myself in liminal spaces where my identity was shaken up. They think this detachment has everything to do with how busy I am pursuing my ambitions. They think I’m busy becoming successful in order to make the family proud. My relatives know neither that I live with BED nor how much their body policing shaped my adolescent years. They have no idea how devastated I was when my cousin pointed to my soft midsection and suggested that I skip out on dessert for a while. They don’t get how hurtful it was when my uncle patted my leg and said, “It’s okay that you’re big. You’re strong girl!” So I’ve been convinced for a long time that they don’t know me, and that they have no desire to.
But recently, I’ve started to think that perhaps my efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. A few months ago, my mother told me about a conversation she had with my grandmother on the phone.
“She’s so proud of you,” she said.
“Thanks, Mom,” I replied halfheartedly, not understanding the weight of her message.
“She also told me that she thinks there’s a special kind of strength in you that the women in our family never had,” she continued. “Your courage to follow your own path without answering to anyone . . . she thinks that says a lot about your character.”
My chest ached. I quickly hung up the phone and collapsed on my couch, filtering through all the emotions that had been backed up for the last 10 years. I was angry (too little too late, I told myself). I was elated. I was embarrassed.
I don’t know what my grandmother really meant by those words, and I don’t know if I ever will. But it was the first time I’d ever felt the slightest bit of hope that maybe, just maybe after all these years, my kin understand at least a small part of who I am. And that was a good enough start for me to want to show them the rest of me.
So far, this has led me to discuss my eating disorder with only my mother, but there will come a time when everyone in my family knows about the ways BED has intertwined itself into my life. And I can’t help but feel like that will be the moment when I’m finally, truly a part of my family.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.