Jiwoon Yoon: Your Country Thanks You
Hello welcome to Michael’s, it’s about a thirty-minute wait.
This was certainly the first time I had ever been put on a waitlist while trying to enter an artists’ open studio, but it was also the first time I had been to Columbia University. I made my way haltingly between the rambunctious crowds in Prentis Hall and the barrage of excited introductions from my friend Iris Hu, in search of a drink. This is Ki __. I’m sorry what was your name? Oh, I want to show you my friend’s work. What was the last persons’ name? Who? Where are we? Prentis. No, what floor? This is Ca ___n. Are you Peter’s friend? No. Has it been thirty minutes yet?
It felt like I had been smelling the food cooking throughout the building for almost an hour hanging like a fog among these strangers by the time I was seated at Jiwoon Yoon’s pop up restaurant; I breathed out my exhaustion. I looked at the people already poised with their food in front of them. Two college students, replicating any typical restaurant outing experience on a Sunday night chatted incoherently. Behind them loomed tall chrome shelving units decorated with perfectly erect towers of spam, pineapple, corn beef hash, and salsa all lit with low grey light, creating a subtly scientific, yet posh, atmosphere. A long oversized black and white sash, reminiscent of those worn at a Miss America pageant, lay spread out across the table and onto the floor, it read, “YOUR COUNTRY THANKS YOU.” A woman in black gracefully stepped onto the stage that was built in-between the two dining tables to take our order. We asked for the Army Garrison Hawaii and the Don Muang Royal Thai Air force Base.
I tried not to be suspicious of the food, but the gorgeous little concoctions that I could see on peoples’ plates didn’t seem to line up with the ingredients that adorned the walls. I couldn’t help but allow some nervousness to build deep inside my stomach as I yearned for more information about why I was seated at the table, and what made up the recipe I’d be ingesting. I searched the room for traps, and hoped I wasn’t falling victim, to being on the wrong end of a ploy. It was brought to my attention that the artist Jiwoon Yoon was one of the multiple chefs working diligently in the open kitchen area. Was this to remain out of the singular spotlight, or in this case, not have to be the head of the table? As our first entrée arrived, I attempted to focus on the dish presented but my eyes strayed and fixated themselves on the massive world map on the wall behind the kitchen, while the history of the meal was shared with us by the server:
Army Garrison Hawaii, commonly called Spam Musubi, is a popular snack and lunch food in Hawaii (I followed the red strings of yarn stretching from different states to different regions of the world) composed of grilled spam on top of a block of rice, (the red strings looked like veins stretching across the ocean) wrapped together with nori dried seaweed in the tradition of Japanese omusubi (extending off the wall from the map the yarn dangles above the dining area from long hooks). Commonly found near cash registers in convenience stores all over Hawaii (stylishly, the soft lines drape down over the table). Spam became a popular food in Hawaii after World War II and was a main course for the troops during the war (colonized airspace). The large military presence in Hawaii (colonized people) led to spam’s widespread local adoption (colonized cuisine) and the Japanese created Spam Musubi as a result. Enjoy!
The anticipation of guilt that I had situated in my consciousness when first sitting down at Yoon’s installation and restaurant unfolded itself in my mind but did not seem perpetuated by the experience, I was jumping to conclusions. I was mistaken in my search for irony in the voice of the woman serving the food; she placed it before us with a sincere smile, an explanation, and asked if we had any questions. Irony is used from a position of privilege and often ignorance; what we were being served was transparency, truth is sometimes hard to stomach when often, it is hidden from you.
In Yoon’s restaurant, we are all made students inside of an institution and we are being educated; we are meant to savor it, sit as long as we want, digest and enjoy. As I stick my fork into my Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base (American Fried Rice) I am informed about its historical journey to my plate, not just the ingredients, but its infusion with War and American military occupation. I am told its invention was to serve the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force Personnel stationed in Thailand; how it wasn’t anything you could find outside of Thailand; yet after the proliferation of Thai restaurants throughout the U.S., American Fried Rice reaches cultures from around the world. Enjoy!
The cans of spam sit stacked like protective bricks, army barracks shielding the ingredients against outside infiltration; but when pulled from the shelf, their shields peeled back, exposing their innards, then turned upside down so the guts come spewing out. They sizzle upon interrogation, facts are separated from misconceptions then arranged to be understood as dietary and historical sustenance.
But my taste buds are overwhelmed with temperance; am I suppose to find delight in this? Where in a time of “post-colonial” dissection, can I find comfort? Is there even such thing as cultural exchange, and where is the line between it and appropriation or exploitation? Often we hear the term fusion in hip new restaurants, but under whose authority does this fusion take place, is there ever an agreement?
Yet, Yoon seems to be operating from a different angle, almost from a place of reverence; she denounces no part of the dish she is serving; except one key component, the name. By her pointing out the Americanization of the dish and accentuating its history she more pointedly aligns it with its beginning. She names it accordingly, accepts its role in the generation born during its existence, but disallows for illusion and misconception. By given it a name fitting of its history, she frees the dish from its colonized past whilst retaining its flavor. By praising its deliciousness she claims hold of her culture’s perseverance through occupation and entraps its colonizers. The faces of Yoon and the other chefs, as they prepared these lesson-planned meals let us know that the gloves were off. In their expression’s, there was sincere enjoyment along with a fierce agenda; the meal would satisfy my hunger for the remainder of the evening, but challenge the way I think about food from there on out.
Too see more of Jiwoon Yoon’s work visit her site http://www.jiwoonyoon.com/
Images courtesy of the artist