The week it opened, cars in the drive-thru curled around the building in a kind of steel embrace, and at school we asked one another, “Have you been yet?” There was no need to say the name. We knew. Taco Bell had come to Corbin, bringing with it the world, it seemed. That first Saturday, the cheerleaders held a fundraising event there, decked out in pleated skirts and red T-shirts tied into knots above their belly buttons.
We already had plenty of fast food joints. There was McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Hardee’s (where the old men took their coffee in the mornings), and, of course, Kentucky Fried Chicken, founded in my hometown. But we grew up with those; they were as much a part of the terrain of Corbin as the water tower sitting near the middle of town. I saw them too often to connect them to their larger corporate offices and outposts in other parts of the country and world.
Of course, there was a casualty. As soon as we all started “running for the border,” Taco Tico’s days were numbered. This small regional chain also offered bad tacos, but the only reason any of us went there was because it occupied prime real estate next to the movie theater. Thousands of middle school and high school students must have walked through its glass doors before and after movies. How many first kisses took place in those high-backed wooden booths? How many fistfights were started in its parking lot, how many joints rolled in the restrooms? Taco Tico was a hub of teenage angst and culture, our own American Graffiti. Taco Bell shut it down for good.
Corbin always felt isolated, even though we were right on I-75. There was this sense we had to get out of Corbin to see the real America, which was the country that existed in commercials and sitcoms and had nothing to do with our own small hometown. On a church youth trip to New Mexico during my sophomore year, some of us bought Baja sweaters and hoodies, only to feel out of place when we wore them upon our return. I was surprised two years later when those sweaters finally became popular in Corbin, proving we were always behind the national trends.
Taco Bell’s arrival in 1995 wasn’t the only change. A Walmart was coming to town—another example of the world coming to Corbin. And the internet was coming to life. During my morning study hall, I entered our library and used a dial-up connection to get online and used the now-defunct Webcrawler search engine. I don’t remember what I was looking for, but suddenly a world that had always seemed hidden to me, the unnamable and unknowable things I thought I was missing out on as a boy growing up in Corbin, were at my fingertips. I would call my brother Tim, then in graduate school, who had access to fast internet on campus, and he would tell me things I could search for, talk me through email, and teach me about the power of the web.
As a teenager I worked a series of odd jobs for spending money—often with my friend Gregg, who had gone to high school with my brother. We mowed yards together, installed insulation in attics, worked in a vinyl-siding warehouse, and hauled freight. Except for the mowing, the other men we met performing these jobs were all in their twenties, just like Gregg. They were trying to make their way into life and adulthood. Some married, some on the verge. I was an outlier and in jobs like these, particularly during the all-day mowing stints and the warehouse work, I quickly learned that our days revolved around lunch. Lunch was a forty-five-minute break with air conditioning; a way for the body to slow down and find a rhythm that wasn’t hurried, or harried, and regain some footing mentally and physically. Gregg and I began our mornings planning where we would go come lunchtime. We usually alternated between Wendy’s and Arby’s and, occasionally, we’d hit the Sonic Drive-In.
One day, in line at Wendy’s, Gregg and I ran into a friend of my brother’s from high school, a guy I often played pick-up basketball with at the rec center. He was an industrial plumber—still a young man, twenty-five at most. He had come in with his coworkers from a job site, his face dusted with grime and dirt, wearing ripped jeans and steel-toed boots. He shook my hand, and what struck me was not the roughness of it, but its thickness. He had been rangy as a teenager. A stint in the Marines made him stouter, but his hand had a meatiness to it that wasn’t so much strength as it was scar tissue. “How you doing?” I asked. And with a weariness I have never forgotten, he said, “Let me tell you something, Mikey. Don’t ever get a job where you have to use your body.” He had jackhammered a cement walkway all morning, and his ears were still ringing and his body still shaking. Whenever I saw him after that, at the gym, or someplace in town, I’d ask if he worked the jackhammer that day, fearing his answer would be yes.
One afternoon when I was seventeen, I came home from the vinyl-siding warehouse pissed off and tired. I had to get to an evening football practice. My mom was in the kitchen, up to her wrists in egg roll filling, flecks of cabbage against her skin, the house smelling of garlic and pepper. She asked what was wrong. I told her I had loaded an entire twenty-four-foot truck by myself that day because Gregg had been gone and our coworker was too lazy to help. I pulled a hundred boxes out of their racks over my head and then shouldered them twenty yards to the truck. The boxes were sixteen feet long and weighed seventy-five pounds apiece. I complained to my mother about my coworker’s poor work ethic, how tired I was, how much I still had left to do in the day, but she stopped me cold: “Some people spend their whole lives in jobs like that. You’re doing it for one summer.”
Unlike my friends, I never said aloud that I was going to get out of Corbin and never come back. Even then, I knew it was a cliché to hate the place you’re from. Plus, I didn’t want to leave. For a time, I thought I would go off for college but then I’d be back. I said as much to Mom one day in the car, and the look she gave me was so withering I thought she might run us into a guardrail to wake me up. “I moved eight thousand miles away from my family,” she said. “I think you can move away from Corbin.”
My mother met my father when he was stationed in Korea. He’d offered himself up to fight in the Vietnam War, but the government sent him to Korea. When they came to the States together, they lived in Phoenix, then Toledo, then Harlan County, then the countryside of Whitley County where my father had grown up, and then they finally settled in Corbin. For a long time, I was both sensitive and insecure about where I had grown up. I was wary of the headlines we made as a punchline for The Tonight Show, the way we were characterized in movies as dumb, backward, and incestuous. I knew that my accent, much thicker when I was a boy, marked me as different, even within Kentucky. To speak in my voice meant I often lost IQ points with strangers. To grow up half-Korean in Corbin, often fending off racial slurs and teasing, meant to feel uncomfortable in the place I called home. I was torn between defending where I grew up, honoring the folks I knew and loved there, and feeling resentful and hurt by their provocations.
I had thought Taco Bell was the world coming to us, but in the very house I grew up in, the very foods my mother fed me were part of a culinary tradition that went back to at least the thirteenth century. Korea’s first cookbooks and texts on agriculture were written during the Joseon Dynasty in 1429. Our family ate hot pungent kimchi and chewy, jerky-like dried squid. My mother made special trips to the Korean grocery store in Lexington, an hour and a half away, to buy fifty-pound bags of rice and jars of gochujang sauce that weren’t in vogue as they are now. She’d come home and cook the rice and put it steaming hot into a leaf of romaine lettuce and then put a dab of the sauce on top for us, the heat of the sauce mixing with the steaming rice and cool, crisp lettuce. Often my brother and I would come home from school, open the packages of ramen she’d bought at the Korean market, and eat the hard discs of noodles raw, like an oversized cracker, sprinkling the seasoning powder over each bite. Neither of us knew until we were in college that many Americans considered ramen cheap, mass-quantity food, because we had grown up with it as part of our daily diet.
To entice us to eat kimbap—rice rolled in seaweed—our mother cooked hot dogs and cut up slices to put in the rice. Her egg rolls strayed from purely vegetarian to contain pork, veal, and beef. They were as much an event for us as any Thanksgiving Day turkey or Christmas ham. One of my most vivid food memories is of going to my aunt and uncle’s house for a catfish fry, to which my mother brought a large platter of bulgogi and steaming white rice. It wasn’t strange to see it there among the spread of Appalachian food—potato salad, green beans cooked in pork fat, black-eyed peas. No one batted an eye; they just took their portion.
The summer before I turned sixteen, we went to Korea to visit our family there. I was determined to not be an ugly American and refuse the food put in front of me. The first morning at my aunt’s house, a hot fish soup was brought out, along with rice and kimchi. The fish had been cooked whole, no filleting, and it was a dark-colored fish that looked like something that might be found floating on the surface of the creek out in the woods near home. I flinched. I might have fought a gag reflex. I ate the rice and kimchi. At lunch, and then dinner, nearly the same meal was brought out again.
Two days of this, and I was jonesing so bad for a hamburger I couldn’t stand it. By day five, my mother had gotten some peanut butter and jelly for Tim and me that lasted us four days. On a trip through the Korean countryside, we stopped at a roadside travel plaza and rather than go for a steaming bowl of bibimbap, my mother bought two hamburgers for us, worried that we weren’t eating enough. We had tried hard to be good sons, to be cultured, but we were losing. I still can’t explain the texture or taste of those sorry hamburgers our mother bought us, or the pained look on her face when she saw us fight to swallow. Her heart must have broken a little, but we told her it was fine. We bought another jar of peanut butter.
I wouldn’t return to Korea again until I was thirty-two. It was just my mother and me this time. I ate everything set before me, though seven days in I went to a supermarket—the US model had finally made its way to Korea—and bought a sack of potatoes to make home fries each morning. Seoul, we found, had become more Americanized in the intervening years, flooded with Starbucks knockoffs, Dunkin’ Donuts, and more KFCs than I had ever seen. The world had talked and traded. Korean food, which for centuries was peasant food, is now haute.
Sometimes we need our most important questions and observations to marinate and ferment before they turn into the ideas that shape and drive us toward whatever it is we are to become. I see now that in southeastern Kentucky, where I grew up, we were polyglots of Eastern and Western cuisine. If food is culture—and I think it is—then in this regard, and this one only, we were fluent in both. My mother taught herself to fry chicken in a cast-iron skillet and picked blackberries from the vine behind our house to make blackberry dumplings for dessert. At home, my brother and I ate the food from her youth and the food from our father’s, and these became braided in our palates.
For my mother, she assimilated out of necessity—there were not many Koreans in southeastern Kentucky—as well as out of admiration. She took in the language through soap operas, saying the melodrama helped her understand the meaning of the words. She eventually found her way to college and into the workforce. When we talk about immigration in this country, often we only talk about what the immigrant gains or, as is the case these days, what they “take.” We don’t consider what they have left behind; how there comes a day when they have lost their old ways, when they have blended so much that the beginning and the end of each separate culture are like train tracks in the distant horizon.
My mother once said to me, “I’ll never really be an American, and I’m not really Korean anymore.” I was in ninth grade at the time, and she had just returned from a three-year memorial service for her father in Korea. All sense of Korea being a home seemed to have disappeared for her. It’s taken all the years from then until now for me to see that to grow up split, as I did, was to grow up not fully comprehending either of my cultures or the gnarly web of roots that tied them together.
In a way, now, I feel as homeless as my mother. As a boy, I longed for the world outside the landscape of Corbin, represented in Baja sweaters and Taco Bell and the brand-new internet at my fingertips; as a man, I still long to understand the place where I grew up, the place I have never returned to. It has left me, at times, driftless—wandering—wondering where I have come from, and where I will roam.