Jason’s story: Embracing the hyphen in Korean-Canadian
If someone said to me 15 years ago that I would be talking publicly about my Korean cultural identity today, I’d have been the first person to say, “You must be kidding.” Until recently, despite having been born in Korea, I would not have called myself a Korean-Canadian. I didn’t speak Korean; I wasn’t close with my parents; and I wanted nothing to do with the family business.
The family business is Korean Village Restaurant in Toronto’s Korea Town—an institution in the neighbourhood since the 1970s, where Koreans and non-Koreans alike have flocked for years to sample my mother’s famous kimchi, or to try bul go ki for the first time.
I’ll start from the beginning. When I was just a baby, my parents immigrated to Canada from Seoul, South Korea. In South Korea, my father was a teacher, and my mother was an actress, but without the English language skills they needed to pursue their professions in Canada, they took a giant leap of faith: they decided to become entrepreneurs, opening one of the first Korean restaurants in Toronto in 1978.
I essentially grew up in the restaurant. I saw my parents working tirelessly to succeed in their new country—no vacations, no soccer practice, no music lessons like my classmates at school. And you better believe they put me to work too. When I was 15 and 16, I was right there with them, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, et cetera.
As I saw my parents working non-stop, 18 hours a day, I thought to myself, “I want to carve out a life where I don’t have to work so incredibly hard.” I decided I wanted to get as far as possible from the restaurant business. I wanted to make my own life, rituals, and identity, separate from my parents.
As teenagers tend to do, I also decided I wanted to get as far as possible from my family. I rejected my roots. People at school often called me Chinese. I gave up on trying to correct them—many had no idea what or where Korea even was. I just wanted to be a regular Canadian kid. I loved wrestling and hockey. I deliberately stopped using chopsticks, choosing a knife and fork instead. I tried to get out of the restaurant as much as I could and fought with my parents for independence.
When I was 17, my quest for independence went a little too far. My mother kicked me out of the house, fed up with my rebellious behaviour. For nearly 10 years, I didn’t really talk to them- I’d see them 2or 3 times a year. Our relationship was rocky. Then in 2008, my mom called me up: my father was getting ill. He could no longer do the day to day. She asked me to come back and help out at the restaurant. I wanted to repair my relationship with my parents, and I wanted to help out. I thought I’d do it for a little while. Fast-forward 7 years: I am co-managing the restaurant, and loving it.
Working side-by-side with my mother every day in the restaurant, getting to know the menu and the dishes, and hearing her speak Korean opened up something in me. I realized that if I was going to be involved in a Korean restaurant, it was important for me mentally to learn the language and learn the culture.
Every day, I get the chance to introduce people to Korean food, whether they live a block away, or whether they came in from Burlington, or from Bulgaria. Countless times, customers have told me, “I’ve never tried Korean food,” and two hours later, they’re on their way out the door wondering where they’ll get their next kal bi fix (if you’ve never tried these marinated beef short ribs, you’re missing out). Some days when I look around, I see all non-Korean people in the restaurant. For my mom it hurts a little—she’d love to see Korean people there— but I’m excited about how many people’s minds we are opening up to Korean food and Korean culture. This drive to share with others through food has been my motivation to immerse myself in Korean language and culture. I even went to the Korean Consulate and learned to speak Korean.
So, you can call me a Korean-Canadian now. I guess I’m a late bloomer.
Jason Lee is Chairman of the Korea Town BIA and manager of Korean Village Restaurant, his family’s business and a staple of Toronto’s Korea Town since the 1970s. He is a volunteer speaker with the Passages Canada storytelling program and the recent subject of one of their new videos telling the real-life immigration stories of Canadians through animation. He also leads Heritage Toronto’s Korea Town walking tours, and runs his own Uniform Distribution business.
Passages Canada is a national storytelling program of Historica Canada that invites newcomers and established Canadians to share their personal experiences of identity, heritage, and immigration with groups of all ages. More than 1,000 volunteers participate in this storytelling program that nurtures cross-cultural dialogue and strengthens our appreciation for one another in an open spirit that is genuinely Canadian. Passages Canada is generously funded by TD Bank Group and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.