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Poetry

Injeolmi Rice Cakes

By Kim Sa-in
Translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé & Susan Hwang
South Korea's Kim Sa-in looks back at his childhood and remembers his grandmother in this poem, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang.

Once Maternal Grandmother set off, a basin of injeolmi rice-cakes on her head,
to sell in this neighborhood and that,
I would pull out scraps of glass, bottle tops, a broken pocketknife,
medicine bottles, a handle-less fruit knife, burst beanbags,
all hidden on the sunny side of the old wattle fence behind the privy,
and play with them.
Bored of even that after half a day,
I would chase the innocent chickens from the house behind,
then end up being scolded by my youngest aunt
for scuffling my shoes along.
I would eat, blowing hoo hoo, a bowl of sujaebi dough flakes soup, more kimchi than dough,
mingled with tears and snot.
Humming a line or two of “Yellow Shirt” that I’d learned from the radio,
I would collapse on the warm floor and sleep like a cat.
Then seeing the door was dim, unsure if it was morning or evening,
frightened, with one cheek bright red, I would cry out
and my aunt putting wood on the fire would pretend it was morning.
When Grandmother came home at sunset,
if her business had been good, I would be so disappointed.
I would lick my fingertips and dip them again and again
into the fine bean-powder remaining at the bottom of the basin
until my fingers pruned.

Ah, those injeolmi Grandmother
used to stuff into my mouth that gaped
with longing for Mother,
passing Yongsan Market, I meet them again, laid out on a shabby stall.
I meet Grandmother, huddled dozing.


인절미
© Kim Sa-in. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

Once Maternal Grandmother set off, a basin of injeolmi rice-cakes on her head,
to sell in this neighborhood and that,
I would pull out scraps of glass, bottle tops, a broken pocketknife,
medicine bottles, a handle-less fruit knife, burst beanbags,
all hidden on the sunny side of the old wattle fence behind the privy,
and play with them.
Bored of even that after half a day,
I would chase the innocent chickens from the house behind,
then end up being scolded by my youngest aunt
for scuffling my shoes along.
I would eat, blowing hoo hoo, a bowl of sujaebi dough flakes soup, more kimchi than dough,
mingled with tears and snot.
Humming a line or two of “Yellow Shirt” that I’d learned from the radio,
I would collapse on the warm floor and sleep like a cat.
Then seeing the door was dim, unsure if it was morning or evening,
frightened, with one cheek bright red, I would cry out
and my aunt putting wood on the fire would pretend it was morning.
When Grandmother came home at sunset,
if her business had been good, I would be so disappointed.
I would lick my fingertips and dip them again and again
into the fine bean-powder remaining at the bottom of the basin
until my fingers pruned.

Ah, those injeolmi Grandmother
used to stuff into my mouth that gaped
with longing for Mother,
passing Yongsan Market, I meet them again, laid out on a shabby stall.
I meet Grandmother, huddled dozing.


인절미
© Kim Sa-in. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

Definitions

Injeolmi: Rice cakes made from sweet (glutinous) rice, resulting in a chewy texture. 

privy: An outhouse or small shed containing a toilet.

sujaebi: A traditional Korean soup made with dough flakes and vegetables. Poorer families, like the one in this poem, sometimes would not have much flour for the dough flakes.

kimchi: A popular Korean food made of fermented vegetables (often cabbage) and various seasonings.

Yongsan Market: A large market area in Seoul, South Korea, home to thousands of electronics stores.  

Meet the Author

“There is this dynamic in almost every Korean work . . . ” Listen to Kim Sa-in, who is also the president of the Literary Translation Institute of Korea, describe that dynamic in a video from Korea.net.

Then, find the poet’s birthplace, Chungcheon Province, on this detailed map of Korea. (Hint: it’s in the north.)

Map of South Korea

Map of South Korea. Kokiri, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Meet the Translators

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Brother Anthony of Taizé was born in the U.K. but later became a naturalized citizen of Korea and adopted a Korean name, An Sonjae. Find out how he answers the question “Who Am I?” on his website.

Then, find out why Brother Anthony believes that when it comes to translation, “one person’s faithful is many other people’s junk” in this interview in Asymptote. Finally, read his introduction to our collection of Korean literature on this site.

Then, find out about Susan Hwang‘s particular areas of interest in her academic profile on the University of Indiana’s website.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson.


(Listen on Soundcloud.)

Brother Anthony on Food and Poetry in Korea

Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented cabbage. Nagyman, a flickr user / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Read what translator Brother Anthony of Taizé writes about food in Korea and about this poem in his introduction to Korean literature:

[U]ntil quite recently, an average Korean’s daily meals—if he or she were lucky enough to have sufficient food—consisted mainly of a heaping bowl of rice, a serving of spicy kimchi made using cabbage or radish, and soup made with soy bean paste. . . . For sweet treats, people made rice cakes at home . . . .

Two of the texts in the “Food” section look back, evoking traditional Korean food, with the poet Kim Sa-in recalling the tasty, homemade “Injeolmi Rice Cakes” of his rural childhood . . .

Read more in the introduction.

To learn more about Korean poetry, read Brother Anthony’s essay on “How to Understand Korean Poetry,” published in the British Council magazine Voices.

Try the Rice Cakes

Why is injeolmi traditionally served on wedding days? Visit this Korean cooking site to find out, and to learn more about the history of these treats.

Learn to make injeolmi yourself with this video from the same site.

"The Boy in the Yellow Shirt"?

Listen to “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt,” the popular 1961 love song the narrator mentions hearing on the radio:

The first Korean hit in the American country-and-western style, this song “encouraged dancing, with lyrics about the delights of love” (Source.) Watch a modern line-dance video set to a recent cover of “The Boy…” here.

Read more about this song’s place in Korea’s history, and about “trot,” the genre of Korean music to which this song belongs, in an article from USC. The section on “trot” begins about a third down the page, next to the small video of “A Flower in the Mist.”

From the Countryside to the Electronics Market

This poem begins in the Korean countryside and ends at Yongsan, a huge electronics market in Seoul. This change of scenery echoes larger transformations that took place in Korea between the poet’s youth to today.

First, watch this short video from the travel blog Seoul Guide to get a sense of the Yongsan Electronics Market.

Then, read what translator Brother Anthony of Taizé wrote about Korea’s rapid urbanization in his introduction to this literature:

At the end of the Korean War [in 1953], both halves of the peninsula were disaster areas, with cities ruined, populations displaced, industry virtually defunct, and people living in utter poverty. Yet, in the course of only a few decades, South Korea was able to become a vibrant, developed country with advanced technology, and some of the highest Internet connectivity in the world. How did this happen?

From the 1960s to the 1990s, South Korea was controlled by military dictators, former generals who used force to control the population. . . . These dictators also supported the growth of large business conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. Needing workers, the conglomerates brought hundreds of thousands of young families into the cities . . .

Laboring long hours in factories and sweatshops, six or seven days a week, workers received low wages and no overtime pay. They managed to eke out an existence only because the government controlled the price of rice, which was their main food. Koreans were proud of their nation’s progress and were for a long time prepared to make such sacrifices. In return, living standards rose, and absolute poverty was slowly eliminated.

Gradually, this economic growth began to spur social change . . .

To see these changes as they took place, look through the photo essay “After the War” from photographer Han Youngsoo.

A recent photo of downtown Seoul, South Korea. Emile-Victor Portenart, CC0.

Finally, find out why the market currently “struggle[s] to stay afloat” and might soon be obsolete in this article from the Korea Herald.

Background on Korea

Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

New to learning about Korea? Read a short profile of modern Korea from the BBC, or a more detailed, historical profile from the Asia Society.

For a quick trip through 2,000 years of Korean history, watch the video “All Korean kingdoms explained in less than 5 minutes.”

More from the Author

Kim Sa-in. Photo Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

Check out Kim Sa-in’s short poetry collection “Liking in Silence” in Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature. 

Then, read more of his poetry in a PDF from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was a visiting fellow.

Know Korean? Watch a talk Kim Sa-in gave at the Nam Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan.

More from a Translator

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Read more of Brother Anthony’s translations in World Literature Today and Words Without Borders.

More Korean and Korean-American Literature

Learn about the interplay between Korean history and literature in this article by Brother Anthony of Taizé, who also wrote the introduction to the collection of Korean literature on this site.

Then, watch an interview with poet Kim Hyesoon in which she warns: “Beware when poets and poetry disappear,” courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

And read:

  • The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam,” about a different kind of food (and longing), also published on this site. By Lee Hyemi, transl. by Soje. 
  • Korean-American poet Jihyun Yun’s “War Soup,” which looks like a recipe! See how it compares to a recipe for the same kind of soup, also known as “army base stew.”
  • Finally, read Jimin Kang’s article about the surprising spots where you might find poetry in Korea.

Also, check out the Poetry Foundation’s “Asian American Voices in Poetry” collection.

Cooking in Korean

Watch a Korean cooking blogger make sujaebi, the soup the narrator remembers from his childhood, in the video below.

Then, find out how to make traditional kimchi on the Korean cooking site maangchi.com.  

More Writing About Food

On WWB:

  • Wizard Bakery: Also from Korea, this chapter from a YA novel explains how the narrator became the webmaster of a shop selling magical desserts
  • When My Wife Was A Shiitake: A Japanese story about a recently widowed man who learns to cook, eventually sharing his creations with a granddaughter; this story, too, begins with a discussion of food
  • Sharing: Chinese graphic fiction about a city where gifts of cake stand in for love.

Elsewhere:

More Life (and Death) in the Korean Countryside

For another glimpse of rural life, take a look at this film version of the popular short story “The Shower,” by Hwang Sun-won, about a friendship between a country boy and a girl from Seoul.

The video is from the Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea.)

“The Shower” was translated in English by Brother Anthony of Taizé (who also translated “Injeolmi Rice Cakes” and wrote the introduction to this unit.) 

A Quickly Urbanizing World

“Injeolmi Rice Cakes” takes readers from the postwar Korean countryside to the giant contemporary city of Seoul. 

For an in-depth look at urbanization in Korea, see this article from the Asia Society.

Seoul at night. Joon Kyu Park, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Then see how Korea’s urbanization is part of larger global changes and plans on this page about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #11.

Educators and librarians, for more writing about cities, see this WWB Campus blog post: 11 Poems and Stories of Global Cities.
You can find resources on SDG #11 at “The World’s Largest Lesson.”

More Poems about Solitude

For more poetry about loneliness and solitude, check out this collection from the Poetry Foundation.

More Literature Featuring Children's vs. Adults' Perspectives**

Salar Abdoh, author of “Hunger,” at age 15 and today.

On WWB:

Elsewhere:

  • Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (the adult narrator is ashamed of his younger self’s snobbishness)
  • Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (see the reconciliation with the aunt; also, Ms. Temple)
  • John Knowles’s A Separate Peace

**For Teaching Idea 1

Another Poem on the Value of Broken Things**

In Russian poet Regina Derieva’s “Unity of Form,” the narrator celebrates her collection of broken objects.

A broken television

Photo by Tina Rataj-Berard on Unsplash.

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Stories of Childhood Memories**

Poems on WWB:

  • Riverwilt—this poem explores themes of childhood vs. adulthood, rural vs. urban (Yongsan Market), natural vs. manmade
  • Two or Three Things from the Past—about a very different childhood in Cultural Revolution-era China

Poems elsewhere

Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. York College ISLGP, CC BY 2.0.

Literature elsewhere:

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Literature of Longing**

Literature on WWB:

  • Riverwilt: A Japanese poem that contrasts a childhood spent in nature with an adulthood in a modernized world
  • An Uncoincidence, A Noncoincidence: A Russian poem that depicts a longing for the past and other impossibilities
  • Hunger, an essay about immigrating from Iran as a teenager, in which food also takes on a metaphorical meaning
  • Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut’s “Phone Call,” in which a woman “kisses the voice” of a caller who may or may not be real

Poems Elsewhere:

From the Poetry Foundation’s “Love Poems” collection:

**For Teaching Idea 2

More Writing that Longs for Lost Worlds**

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (a trailer for the 1980s television series loosely based on the books is below) 

**For Teaching Idea 2

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English Korean

Once Maternal Grandmother set off, a basin of injeolmi rice-cakes on her head,
to sell in this neighborhood and that,
I would pull out scraps of glass, bottle tops, a broken pocketknife,
medicine bottles, a handle-less fruit knife, burst beanbags,
all hidden on the sunny side of the old wattle fence behind the privy,
and play with them.
Bored of even that after half a day,
I would chase the innocent chickens from the house behind,
then end up being scolded by my youngest aunt
for scuffling my shoes along.
I would eat, blowing hoo hoo, a bowl of sujaebi dough flakes soup, more kimchi than dough,
mingled with tears and snot.
Humming a line or two of “Yellow Shirt” that I’d learned from the radio,
I would collapse on the warm floor and sleep like a cat.
Then seeing the door was dim, unsure if it was morning or evening,
frightened, with one cheek bright red, I would cry out
and my aunt putting wood on the fire would pretend it was morning.
When Grandmother came home at sunset,
if her business had been good, I would be so disappointed.
I would lick my fingertips and dip them again and again
into the fine bean-powder remaining at the bottom of the basin
until my fingers pruned.

Ah, those injeolmi Grandmother
used to stuff into my mouth that gaped
with longing for Mother,
passing Yongsan Market, I meet them again, laid out on a shabby stall.
I meet Grandmother, huddled dozing.


인절미
© Kim Sa-in. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

인절미

외할머니 떡함지 이고

이 동네 저 동네로 팔러 가시면

나는 잿간 뒤 헌 바자 양지 쪽에 숨겨둔

유릿조각 병뚜껑 부러진 주머니칼 쌍화탕병 손잡이빠진 과도 터진 오자미 꺼내놓고

쪼물거렸다

한나절이 지나면 그도 심심해

뒷집 암탉이나 애꿎게 쫓다가

신발을 직직 끈다고

막내 이모한테 그예 날벼락을 맞고

김치가 더 많은 수제비 한 사발

눈물 콧물 섞어서 후후 먹었다

스피커에서 따라 배운 ‘노란 샤쓰’ 한 구절을 혼자 흥얼거리다

아랫목에 엎어져 고양이잠을 자고 나면

아침인지 저녁인지 문만 부예

빨개진 한쪽 볼로 무서워 소리치면

군불 때던 이모는 아침이라고 놀리곤 했다

저물어 할머니 돌아오시면

잘 팔린 날은 어찌나 서운턴지

함지에 묻어 남은 콩고물

손가락 끝 쪼글토록

침을 발라 찍어먹고 또 찍어먹고

 

 

아아 엄마가 보고 싶어 비어지는 내 입에

쓴 듯 단 듯 물려주던

외할머니 그 인절미

용산시장 지나다가 초라한 좌판 위에서 만나네

웅크려 졸고 있는 외할머니 만나네

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