Taste of Han: Mothers, Daughters, & Theology Part II

14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” (Ruth 4.14-15)

When I was learning Hebrew in seminary, we had to translate the whole book of Ruth. As a daughter of immigrant parents, I like this story – a story of how outsiders become a part of Christ’s lineage. As immigrants, there are daily reminders of feeling like an outsider and being different – whether it is not being familiar with the culture and language, hearing racially-motivated comments, or struggling to make a living and provide for one’s family. My dad’s friend once told me a story about when he first came to America, he was nervous about eating American food. So much of it was foreign to him. At that time, Korean food wasn’t popular and Asian markets weren’t prevalent like they are today. Everyday, he would go to a local restaurant and order the only American food that he knew – hamburgers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner – all he would eat was hamburgers. So much so, that the waitress stopped asking him what he would like to order and would just serve him a hamburger. One day, a colleague took him to a buffet. This made him extremely nervous because he was unfamiliar with all the choices of food UNTIL he spotted what looked like rice. Could it be? Rice? It had been so long since he had eaten it that he forgot how much his body longed for it. He piled a plate full of what seemed to be rice and couldn’t wait to dig in. He put one heaping spoonful into his mouth only to realize that it wasn’t rice. It was cottage cheese. Let’s just say, he went back to eating hamburgers after that. Although stories like this are somewhat humorous now, they are stories still rooted in pain, humiliation, embarrassment, and loneliness. Stories my mother tells me about her first coming to America are still painful to tell and to listen to. It’s a miracle that my mother hasn’t let the bitterness of those experiences completely consume her.

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is returning from Moab with her two daughters-in-law. She has not only lost her husband, but also her sons. So she is returning back to the land of her people. However she doesn’t return alone. She is traveling with her two daughters-in-law – who are both not from Judah. She manages to turn one away, but Ruth insists on staying with Naomi.  When they return, she is greeted by her old friends who ask, “Is this Naomi?”  And she replies to them, “Call me no longer Naomi (pleasant one), call me Mara (bitter one), for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1.19-21) For Naomi is left with nothing.  She has a lot to be bitter about.  She never expected her life to turn out this way.  She is a widow, which means she has no power and has no rights, especially without a male heir to take care of her.  There seems to be no hope and it is hard to know what the future will bring.   Basically, her life is left in the hands of a Moabite woman, her daughter-in-law, an outsider. The story of Ruth and Naomi is about a relationship of two different women trying to find the same thing — redemption (go’el), love (hesed), and wholeness. It is through the love and spirit of Ruth, an outsider, that brings wholeness and redemption to Naomi.

I’m struck by this relationship between Ruth and Naomi and the lengths Ruth goes to bring redemption to Naomi’s life. Although Boaz is considered the “kinsmen-redeemer,” let’s face it . . . it is the actions of Ruth that brings redemption. What did Ruth have to gain with sticking with her mother-in-law? Although she lost a husband, she still had a home to return to unlike Naomi. Plus, Naomi seems so consumed in bitterness, I’m sure she wasn’t the greatest travel companion. I imagine their relationship a little like the one I described with my mother in a previous post – having to hear the stories of struggle and pain like a broken record. When I hear the story of Naomi, I hear the story of many Korean women my mother’s generation. In fact, Naomi’s story is the story of many Korean women.  They are considered the most oppressed because their future is guided by a patriarchal society.  Many years of oppression, pain, and suffering build up inside them.  They learn to bury it deep within them, locking it in their heart.  It is never shared or dealt with, which can lead to illness. Koreans call this kind of bitterness and suffering ‘han’. All Koreans have han. It comes from a history of oppression at the hands of other countries. For many Korean women, all they have are their children to pass on their ‘han,’ to share their stories of struggle, and to live their dreams through them hoping their life will be redeemed by the accomplishments of their children.

Naomi has a lot of ‘han,’ but Ruth has a lot of ‘han’ as well – her own stories of pain and struggle. Therefore, it amazes me that she shows tremendous love (hesed) to Naomi. It is difficult to find an English word that encompasses all the traits of ‘hesed.’ The English translation, “love,” just doesn’t seem to convey a kind of love rooted in covenant, commitment, and promise. In Korean, there are many words for “love” depending on its usage. One translation that carries some of the characteristics of love that Ruth expressed to Naomi is ‘cheong.’ ‘Cheong’ is a deep love, not outwardly expressed, but secretly held within one’s heart.  It is a secret emotion that can lead to a powerful action.  ‘Cheong’ is a covenant love, a steadfast love. Ruth has ‘cheong’ and it is this ‘cheong’ that leads this Moabite woman, her daughter-in-law, to do an act of ‘hesed’ to Naomi.  She gives birth to a redeemer, Obed, where it says that ”he shall be to you a restorer of life and nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4.15) Ruth shows God’s love to Naomi and is the vehicle for God’s redemption through the birth of Obed.  These two women know love because they share in each other’s suffering.  In a way, they taste each other’s suffering. For Korean-American women today, that is why they can understand Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves” who knows the taste of the suffering of Korean-American women more than those Korean women who taste it everyday?

Now, the idea of tasting one’s suffering may seem like a strange way to describe sharing one’s stories, but for me, I feel as if it was the best way for me to understand the stories of my mother. It’s one thing to hear it, but to taste it seemed to penetrate my senses more. I am more of a baker than I am a cook. I love the science of it and the exact measurements of ingredients. It is probably the only evidence that I ever majored in Chemistry in college. I mostly love baking for my family – birthday cakes, frosted cookies, breads, etc. However, I did want to learn how to cook Korean food. I wanted to learn from my mom because I wanted her recipes to pass down to me. One day, we had bought the ingredients for pul-go-gi (marinated beef); and under her guidance, she would instruct me on what to put in, how to do it, and how much.  However, I became frustrated because she did not teach me in an organized manner.  Everything was based on how she felt or what she tasted.  However, I wanted exact measurements and steps.  After I mixed in all the ingredients and re-mixed in more ingredients, she told me to dip my finger in the marinade and tell her how it tasted.  I could not tell the difference.  It just tasted like soy sauce to me.  She dipped her finger in it and made me taste it from her finger.  It tasted full of flavor.  From my finger, it tasted plain, but from my mom’s finger, it tasted perfect.  I realized that I wasn’t cooking out of love, ‘cheong.’  Even more so, I was not cooking out of struggle.  It is through my mom’s ‘han’ that ‘cheong’ pours out of her.  She gives everything that defines herself to her family – to me.  My mom’s ‘han’ comes from her father who abandoned his family; from leaving her mother and sisters to join her husband’s family; from 27 years of marriage to a man who was ambition-oriented; from leaving her first-born daughter in Korea, while she moved to America with my dad so that he could study; and from working many days and nights to support her family.  Making pul-go-gi was more than passing down her recipe to me; it was passing down her ‘han’.  However, I did not get it.  Her ‘han’ tasted plain to me when I dipped my finger into the marinade.  However, from her finger, I could taste it.  I never recognized the taste before that day.

Every dinner time, my mom would make a dish that she knew I would not like, but she always made me try it saying, “Taste it, it tastes different this time.”  How could the same dish with the same ingredients taste different?  I refused to taste it whenever she asked me.  Essentially, I was refusing to taste her love that came from her pain and struggles.  After that day, I realized what she meant.  It does taste different every time.  The food is always delicious, but the taste does change.  I still can not cook Korean food, but I have learned to eat it.  My mom says that eating is the first step to learning how to cook.  I think I’ll stay at this step for a while.

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