Re-Creating Our Mothers' Dishes: Asian and Asian North American Women's Pedagogy

February 18, 2009

Boyung Lee is Professor of Educational Ministries at PSR. This is a chapter from the recently-published Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women's Religion and Theology, edited by Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Seung Ai Yang. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, reprinted by permission). In this essay, Dr. Lee discusses strategies of Asian and Asian American women for educating women and passing down wisdom despite the restrictions of traditionally patriarchal societies.


Searching for Recipes

Many Korean women of my generation went to a local college and stayed at their parents’ home until their marriage or other significant circumstances of life. I, in contrast, left home right after high school to go to a university in Seoul, the capital city, far from my hometown. Therefore, I hardly had any chance to learn from my mother how to cook. Cookbooks were widely available, but traditional Korean culinary art rarely specifies amounts as measured with cups and spoons, so as a beginner, I found cooking difficult and frustrating. The cookbook instructions left me clueless about the exact procedures and proportions; for instance, “Soak it in salty water until it looks to be ready”; “2 fistfuls of salt”; “1 big spoonful of red pepper powder”; “a little bit of sesame oil”. As I read these recipes, I was asking myself questions like, “Is it 2 hours or 3 hours?” “Whose fist size?” “How big is a big spoon?”

Expressing my frustration, I asked my mother how someone like me could ever learn to cook. My mother told me to (1) start with a dish that I had eaten many times before; (2) try to remember the taste; (3) try to create the taste by using ingredients suggested by cookbooks. “Then as I re-create the dish from [my] memory,” she continued, “I will create something of my own.” Later, when I became a more confident and experienced cook, my mother added one more lesson for cooking which I consider the most significant part of creating a good dish: she said that good food is created by the cook’s sonmat, which literally means the taste of one’s hands. As most Korean dishes are supposed to be made by hands, mixing all the ingredients in an appropriate way during an appropriate time, a cook’s hands (more specifically, her or his fingertips) decide the flavor of food. This is the reason that sonmat is the key for good food.

My mother also said, “Even though you use the best materials to make good food, if your hands do not have right condition, the food will not turn out good. No matter what is going on in your life and the world, don’t let the world define who you are, and who you should be. When your mind and heart are in peace, your body will be in a calm and peaceful condition, and therefore your hands will have [the] perfect temperature and strength for cooking.”

As a more experienced cook now, I find her teaching so true and wise, and I stand and cook in awe of her because the advice comes as it is from a woman who has not had an easy life. My mother lost her parents early in life and was raised by her grandmother, who had been abandoned by her rich and educated husband. As one can imagine, it was extremely challenging for two women to make ends meet and to live safely in patriarchal Confucian Korea without a male protector. Notwithstanding this, she persevered and learned one of the most important recipes for life: “Do not let the world define who you are and what you can be.” Today she gives her recipes to her daughter and others so that they can create their own recipes through re-creating their foremothers’ recipes. This pedagogy of sonmat reflects some of the core features of pedagogy as practiced by many Asian and Asian North American women; it is holistic, communal, ontological, and political. It also provides helpful pedagogical strategies for the
theological education of Asian and Asian North American women.

Re-Creating Our Mothers’ Dishes:
The Features of Asian North American Women’s Pedagogy

For a long time, the world of written texts and formal education was the domain of Asian men. Although contemporary Asian and Asian North American communities are known for their esteem of education for sons and daughters, the latter population was largely neglected.(i) For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I served as a minister for youth and young adult women at a church located in urban Seoul. The group was composed of young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who worked at transnational textile companies during the day, and they were simultaneously students in evening high schools provided by their employers. Most of these young women had to give up regular high school educations to support their brothers’ education. Although Korean society, like many other Asian societies, puts a high emphasis on children’s education, when resources are limited, educational opportunities are primarily limited to sons. In recent years as many Asian countries have developed, they now provide more opportunities for women; however the primacy of male education continues.

A similar preference for men is also seen in Asian diasporic communities in North America. For example, on June 20 of 2003, under the title “Like a Virgin, Young Women Undergo Surgery to ‘Restore’ Virginity,” 20/20 of the ABC News network reported that every year, hundreds of young scared Asian- North American women visit plastic surgeons for hymen restoration before their marriage.(ii) Under Asia’s (especially under its Confucian patriarchal value) system, women’s bodies are the property of the family, especially of male members in each household. As the owner of property, the male family members teach women and girls proper behaviors such as notions about purity and the body. Under this system, women have to live under severe sexual suppression because losing one’s virginity brings shame and humiliation to one’s family, and thus it hurts the social advancement of male members of one’s family.(iii) Although Asian North American communities are physically far removed from their homelands, that young North American women of Asian heritage seek hymen restoration surgery, straightforwardly suggests patriarchy’s hegemony.

This dovetails back to sonmat. In socio-cultural contexts where patriarchy is a norm and formal education belongs to men, women have cultivated their own stealth pedagogy. The irony here is that from a perspective of educational theory, their creative pedagogy is more holistic conceptually and pragmatically. As stated above, when I started learning to cook, my mother advised me to remember the taste of the food in my memory and to re-create the taste by using whatever ingredients were available to me. As I followed her advice, I found that remembering the taste of a particular dish not only helped me to be able to make the food, but also brought me back to the occasion of eating itself— to people around the table, to the atmosphere of the room and its shared stories, and to other events conjured from memory by the dish. In other words, the teaching that I experienced was much broader and deeper than that which I could have learned from a classroom or textbook alone. It was a holistic lesson that involved the stories and experiences of the past, coupled with the present needs and creativity for the future.
Moreover, while I was re-creating the dish, I cultivated my own ways of making the same dish, and accordingly created my own recipes.

This holistic way of teaching and learning as Asian and Asian-North American Asian women practice it is faithful to the true meaning of education. The English word “education” comes from the Latin e(out)-ducare(to lead), “to lead out.”(iv) The root word for education tells us that education is to help people find a truth that is already within them. It is not just a teacher transmitting knowledge to learners, but it is helping learners to remember what they know and to critically reflect on this in their present life contexts. It is to develop something new for the future. In other words, a good education that integrates the past, the present, and the future together, helps learners develop their own pedagogy. This holistic integration is exactly what my mother and other Asian and Asian North American women try to teach through their embodied sonmat pedagogy.

Many Asian North American women who teach in academic contexts also practice this holistic pedagogy. For example, in 1999 several of the faculty advisors of the Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM), a grassroots movement of Asian, and Pacific North American women in theological education and ministry, developed a communal project that provides materials and strategies for teaching Asian and Asian North American women’s theologies in North America.(v) Through critical reflections on their own teaching philosophy and practices and through sharing of teaching materials and syllabi, they identified five characteristics of Asian North American ways of teaching and learning: (1) teaching by example; (2) the importance of dialogue in teaching; (3) teaching without distinction of [socio-economic] class; (4) teaching according to the potential of the student; and (5) teaching morals and wisdom, not just “knowledge.” As number five makes plain, these perspectives on and approaches to education are much more than knowledge transmission in school settings, for they involve the teachers’ life stories and contexts, coupled with critical reflection and praxis, and respect for human dignity and ability.

In this sense, the curriculum of Asian and Asian North American women’s pedagogy is broad in scope. This is a pedagogy that brings together the past, the present, and the future. Asian and Asian North American women’s pedagogy is based on and utilizes a multidimensional concept of curriculum, one that is esteemed by several educational theorists as a way to achieve holistic education. For example, Eliott W.Eisner, noted curriculum theorist, says that each school offers students three different curricula: the explicit curriculum, one that is the actual content, consciously and intentionally presented as the teachings of the school; the implicit curriculum, one that, through its environment, includes the way teachers teach and interact with students; and the null curriculum, those ideas and subjects in educational programs that are sidestepped. By leaving out options and alternatives, the school narrows students’ perspectives and the range of their thoughts and action. Thus the explicit curriculum, which is often regarded as the entire curriculum, is only one facet of teaching. In fact, Eisner points out that the implicit and the null curricula might have more influence over students than does the explicit curriculum.(vi)

From the perspective of Eisner’s definition of curriculum, it can be said that, whereas Asian and Asian North American cultures have been focused on the explicit curriculum, highlighting patriarchal values and the education of men, their women have been teaching and learning through implicit and null curricula. Women have been using implicit and null curricula as major resources for their education, thereby transforming kitchens, cooking, and other daily life contexts and activities into holistic classroom and teaching moments. When written texts were only available for men’s education, Asian and Asian North American women used their own lived-world experience, e.g., Asian women’s religio-cultural and socio-political traditions, Asian myth, folktales, songs, poems, proverbs, and teachings from different Asian religions for their own and their daughters’ education.(vii) In short, Maria Harris, feminist Christian religious educator, ventures that everything that a church does—fellowship meetings, informal gatherings, small group meetings, and so on—should be understood as curricula.(viii)

The pedagogy of sonmat of Asian and Asian North American women is also communal in both its purpose and process. As I said above, while I was remembering the taste of the food, the entire community related to the food came to my mind and heart. In other words, even though I was cooking by myself in my kitchen, I was in communion with many people to whom I was indebted for who I am, and to whom I am accountable. For example, whenever I make a certain Korean pork dish or whenever I see big pots, I ask myself whether my current theological work is contributing to the lessening of the suffering of the marginalized of our society. While I was a graduate student in Korea, I worked with poor Korean women living in huts illegally built on government land in Seoul. On every Sunday between morning and evening services, these women took me to their homes so that I could rest, and they fed me with the most delicious food imaginable. Often the table was set with a big pot of pork and a bowl of rice, which meant that we all ate from the same pot and rice bowl. To me, that was the most meaningful experience of communion and theology. Even though I am now physically far removed from that community, I still meet many similar people who provide a community for me, and they challenge me about whether my theological research has much to do with their own daily struggles against racism, sexism, and other oppressions. Therefore, for me, that particular pork dish and its big pot are constant reminders, memories that call me to reflect critically on my accountability to the communities that I serve.

The involvement and presence of community is one of the most integral parts of the pedagogical formation of women of Asian heritages. As explicitly and implicitly reflected in several of the other chapters in this volume, such as those of Rita Nakashima Brock and Anne Joh, Asian and Asian North American women have developed communal personhood. Unlike individualism, which values each person’s individuality and independence, the value of the individual in communal Asian societies depends on how well a person adopts communal norms and functions to promote social harmony. Attachments, relatedness, connectedness, unity, and dependency among people are much more important than are independence and individuality. For example, anyone who has paid attention to Korean linguistics can easily find that Koreans rarely use the I-ness words such as “I,” “my,” and “mine.” They instead like to use the word uri meaning We. Almost everything is called “our [something],” instead of “my [something].” For example, when one refers to one’s wife, one does not say “my wife”; rather one says, “OUR wife.” We-ness language is a source of comfort for Koreans. They are uncomfortable with I-ness language.(ix)

Although the use of what I call we linguistics is a unique Korean practice, the importance of community is true for most Asian and Asian North American cultures. (x) In their family-centered communities, Asian and Asian North Americans venture that “our family” means all of the I’s melted into one “we.” Here, “we” does not mean the coexistence of “I” and “you” as independent individual units; rather it indicates that “you” and “you,” and “you” and “I” are the same reality: “I and you exist not as separate units but as a unified one. At the moment when two individuals abandon their own perspective and put themselves in their partner’s shoes, they become one, not a separate two.”(xi) A good example of such communal selfhood is found in Japanese linguistics. The English word “self” is usually translated by the Japanese word jibun, and vice versa. However and unlike the English word for self, jibun connotes “one’s share of the shared life space;”(xii) that is, oneself is an inseparable part of ourselves. When two Japanese people exchange greetings by asking how the other party is, the customary way of saying it is “How is jibun?” which literally means, “How is ourselves?”(xiii)

In sum, persons in Asian and Asian North American communal societies can be fully understood only in connection with the larger social whole: “Others are included within the boundaries of the self.”(xiv) Accordingly, attachments, relatedness, connectedness, oneness and dependency among people are much more important than independence or individual autonomy. Those who pursue only their own benefit are easily expelled from a community’s psyche. In order to create harmony in community life, each member is expected to suppress her or his own desires and emotions and to give heed to others’ desires and emotions. An individual who attempts to do things in an idiosyncratic way, or who is too ambitious risks being alienated from the community. Therefore, even though a community member experiences pride, this emotion should not be displayed, and only moderate expressions about one’s abilities or accomplishments are tolerated.

In communal cultural contexts, Asian and Asian North American women are not full members because the value of harmony and community that Asian communal societies emphasize is based on a hierarchical and patriarchal philosophical anthropology.

i. Wenh-In Ng, “Asian Sociocultural Values: Oppressive and Liberating Aspects from a
Woman’s Perspective,” in People on the Way: Asian North Americans Discovering
Christ, Culture, and Community, ed. David Ng (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1996),

ii. Lynn Sherr, “Like a Virgin, Young Women Undergo Surgery to ‘Restore’ Virginity,”
20/20, ABC News on June 20, 2003. Transcripts available online at For a detailed theological reflection on this
phenomenon and Asian-American sexuality, see my article, “Teaching Justice and Living
Peace: Body, Sexuality and Religious Education in Asian American Communities,”
Religious Education 101, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 402-19.

iii. Chung Hyun Kyung, “‘Han-pu-ri’: Doing Theology from Korean Women’s
Perspective,” in We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women, ed. Virginia
Fabella and Sun Ai Lee Park (Hong Kong: Asian Women’s Resource Center for Culture
and Theology, 1988), 140.

iv. Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (New
York: Harper and Row, 1980), 5.

v. Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-lan, Nantawan Boonprasat Lewis,
Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng, Seung Ai Yang, and Gale A. Yee, “Developing Teaching
Materials And Instructional Strategies For Teaching Asian And Asian
American/Canadian Women’s Theologies In North America,". The Final Report for a
Teaching and Learning in Theological Education Project under the Teaching and
Learning Small Grants Program of the Association of Theological Schools and a
Teaching Theology and Religion Grant Project of the Wabash Center for Teaching and
Learning in Theology and Religion (November, 1999),

vi. Elliott Eisner, The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School
Program (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985), 97.

vii. Kwok Pui Lan, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press,
2000), 38-50.

viii. Maria Harris, Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church (Louisville, Ky.:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 63.

ix. Sang Chin Choi and Soo Hyang Choi, “Cheong: The Socio-emotional Grammar of
Koreans” (unpublished manuscript, Seoul: Chung Ang University, 1993).

x. According to Geert Hofsteade, who measured the extent of individualism and
communalism in 66 countries, most Asian countries like Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan,
and Singapore, are some of the most communal societies. Geert Hofstede, Cultures and
Organizations: Software of the Mind (London: McGraw Hill, 1991).

xi. Soo-Won Lee, “The Cheong Space: A Zone of Non-Exchange in Korean Human
Relationships,” in Psychology of the Korean People: Individualism and Collectivism, ed
Gene Yoon and Sang-Chin Choi (Seoul: Donga Publishing Corporation, 1991), 92-94.

xii. Hazel R. Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for
Cognitions, Emotion, and Motivations,” Psychological Review 98 (1991): 228.

xiii. I thank the Rev. Mitsuho Okado, a Japanese D.Min graduate at Pacific school of
Religion, for helping me understand the meaning of Jibun.

xiv. Markus and Kitayama, “Culture and the Self,” 224-253.