What the ladies cooked up for their mute Korean sister

I'm not a korean woman, though I look like one. I'm a second-generation Korean-American. For most of my life, I have felt like the proverbial all-American girl, a product of my location and language. I was raised in the Midwest, where the sight of another Asian person outside my family would startle me. And I never learned Korean. My parents spoke to us children only in English, reserving Korean for their private use, especially whenever any really interesting topic came up.

Now I'm married with kids of my own. This year, my husband took a new job, and we moved from the Midwest to a small town in Los Angeles County. Imagine my surprise, on strolling out onto our quiet residential street near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, meeting a halmoni (Korean grandma) taking her evening walk. She was so friendly, and looked amazingly like my father.

Koreans, I soon found out, are replete in our new community. While attending a PTA meeting at my older daughter's school, I was accosted by a group of Korean ladies.

"Anyang-haseo," one said.

"Hi, I don't speak Korean," I replied, smiling broadly.

This lady turned out to be the president of the Korean Mothers' Support Group at our school. She invited me to one of their meetings, where I sat smiling broadly again, only understanding words like "all right" or "hurry up."

While some might think that a support group based on ethnicity is separatist, I think this kind of organization provides a valuable service. Consider the matter of good food, for instance. The Korean mothers at our school host an annual luncheon for all the teachers and staff. Suspecting they were good cooks, I readily offered to participate.

In the Korean tradition, respect for teachers is second only to love of family. In preparation for the big day, these ladies spared no effort. One made a trip to the Los Angeles flower market and transformed the teachers' lounge with her stunning arrangements of vibrant oranges, purples, warm browns and reds, placed with ivory candles on tablecloths of intense deep blue.

Baskets of fruit adorned the tables, which were laden with delicious food - the glass noodles and delicate vegetables of chap-chae, colorful kim-bup, lightly browned mandu dumplings, and Korean honey cakes. In the corner, simmering in two large electric skillets, was the Korean beef barbecue dish: pulgoki.

WHAT did I bring? Like any good Midwesterner, I brought dessert: tiny lemon cheesecake squares with a nut-and-cocoa crust and topping. Though not remotely Korean, they were accepted by Korean speakers, English speakers, and polylglots alike.

Our guests were delighted at being treated like royalty for the lunch hour. They laughed and chatted while they ate, appreciative of all the attention. Once they went back to work, we ladies sat down to eat. Our president made a small speech in Korean, and everyone except uncomprehending me applauded.

"Let me translate for you, Debbie," the president told me later. "I said, 'It was fun, wasn't it?' "

For me, it was a wonderful time. I've decided these Korean ladies are a great group, and I'm glad they included their rather mute sister. I have to learn a little Korean now, even if just to get the recipes. I expect it will be fun.

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