Celebrate your heritage and understand others

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kwang Woong Kim
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I was seven years old, wearing my favorite t-shirt, shorts and sneakers when I left my homeland of South Korea. I was headed to a country where all I knew about it was Disney World and the home of the Statue of Liberty.

Excited and nervous about going to a different country, I couldn't sit still in those cramped coach seats. I was especially excited for my first "American" meal. Instead of flying Korean Airlines to get to the United States, my mom decided on Delta Airlines from Seoul to Boston. It was a pre-cooked airline cuisine of Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, dinner roll and pound cake served with butter and a soda.

All my English skills caught from the stewardess were "steak" and "cake." That was far from the truth.

My first American steak was really a square cardboard food imposter. Having never seen mashed potatoes, I thought it was vanilla ice cream, since it looked like it was served with an up from ice cream scoop. The butter looked like a hard, white square candy. My favorite candy in Korea, white chocolate!

My taste buds were expecting cold, sweet ice cream, but got lukewarm mush. I remember taking a large bite of the "white chocolate", regretted my decision, and spewed the butter out on the tray.

If I was judging my new home by my first meal, it was a bad impression.

Thirteen hours later with a bad taste in my mouth and a gurgling pit in my stomach, we got our luggage from the baggage claim and started the ground journey to Chelmsford, Mass.

On American soil in Boston, I felt like I embraced the American culture. I do not remember the name, but I will never forget my first cheeseburger with fries.

A thick beef patty covered with cheese, pickles, ketchup and mustard encased in a sesame seed bun that came with a mound of hot, crunchy French fries. This was nothing compared to the hamburgers that I had in Korea. This was an American burger.

I devoured it like a competitive eater. My mom had this shocked expression as she watched me scarf down my meal.

Almost 18 years later, I still believe cuisine is the best way to experience a foreign country.

When I went back to Korea at age 19 to visit family, I didn't want for any particular foods. My mom was a phenomenal cook. My favorites growing up were grilled meats such as Bulgogi, Korean stews, fish dishes and of course, Kimchi.

With Airmen deploying to locations all over the world, including many parts of Asia such as Korea, Japan, Guam and other Asian-Pacific Island nations, it is critical to understand cultures to ensure our positive image and maintain relations.

When I travel now, be it in different regions of the United States or around the world, I try to immerse myself in the local foods.

Now for those that don't have the "Andrew Zimmerman" mentality and trying the delicacies of what other cultures have to offer, I would suggest dishes that will seem familiar to you. Almost all cultures have their own version of noodles, rice and grilled meats.

Airmen are given the luxury of this opportunity by nature of their profession. For those of you who make it to Korea or other foreign countries; don't hesitate to try something new. Who knows, it could be your cheeseburger with fries.