A New Year with a bowl of Tteokguk

Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation
3 min readJan 4, 2022

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I was watching Padma Lakshmi’s “Taste the Nation (Holiday Edition),” and was so moved by the last episode that celebrates Korean American culture and traditions around the New Year holiday. It motivated me to make the traditional Korean New Year soup tteokguk (rice cake soup) from scratch — mostly because I’d been feeling homesick but also because the episode reminded me of how far Koreans have progressed in the American mainstream diaspora. The episode touched upon many nuances — tensions between first and second generation Koreans, creating a brand new third culture for Koreans born in the United States, navigating han in American culture. Being perceived as enough to be seen.

I hadn’t taken too much time off in the last several years, as I’ve changed jobs, cities, sectors — and I’ve used the last two weeks to take a breath, meditate, rest and get back in touch with my big picture perspective when it comes to work and identity. What does it mean to have an authentic leadership identity at work? What does it mean in a new pandemic reality when a growing number of people are challenging outdated, oppressive paradigms?

I recently met with an Asian-American woman long-time colleague and friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since pre-pandemic. She is about my age (Generation X) and has had an amazing career trajectory in a tough industry. She is way more patient than I am, including her tolerance with “playing the game” to succeed by staying pragmatic. We were catching each other up, and I started to notice my friend getting irritated with me as I was outlining some of my own frustrations and disappointments — as I am wont to do as I know my expectations especially around justice and fairness are often unrealistically high.

I panicked a bit, thinking that perhaps the pandemic had created so much distance between us that we’d lost each other’s context when I then told my friend, “Remember, I’m Korean — I’m angsty. Just because I’m critical doesn’t mean I’m negative. I’m just being honest with you. I have so much hope for the world. I’m just being Korean.” My friend immediately softened, and her countenance towards me immediately shifted back to that of familiarity with a friend she had known for almost ten years. She saw me right away and remembered me. She said, “Ah, I remember han.” And she revisited her own studies and fascination with the Korean experience and culture, including Cathy Park Hong’s “Minority Feelings.” I didn’t have to explain myself anymore beyond that moment for her to engage with me as my friend again in a more generous and understanding way.

This is where I’d like to start with 2022. Context matters. Taking the time to nurture relationships (including in these times, reminding folks of the connections y’all shared) matters, even if it sometimes hurts at first. I hope in sharing my pain, I can frame sharing my pain with new growth and hope, because as I watched Taste of the Nation’s K-Town episode I was filled with validation, inspiration and happiness for anyone trying to forge for themselves a place in America and its future.

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Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.