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How a rude encounter outside a Korean grocery store turned my life around

Little did I know that kimchi was the answer to my prayers.
Author Africa Yoon Promotes "The Korean"
When Africa Yoon began eating kimchi as a a regular part of her diet, her health improved. Then, so did everything else in her life. Marco Garcia / Getty Images

I moved to America from Cameroon when I was 6 years old as the daughter of a diplomat and a global activist. When we got to the United States, we ate a lot. My mother told me, “If you want to know America, eat.” And so we did. She took us to eat all over New York and even the world. I am so fortunate to have had pizza in Italy’s Piazza Di Spagna and also Brooklyn, New York. She was keen on me not feeling other from African-American culture so we ate soul food a lot, too.

My father was the new ambassador to the United Nations from Cameroon. He said that he learned the most about people from meeting them and listening to their stories, especially over a good meal.

Yoon’s parents, Paul Bamela Engo, a Cameroonian diplomat, and Ruth Bamela Engo, an activist. Yoon recalled her father’s advice to always be kind to strangers, even when they are not kind to you, during an awkward exchange many years ago outside of a Korean grocery store.Courtesy Africa Yoon

When he had time and was home from missions, my father and I watched movies and TV shows together. Once I asked him what he did if someone said something he disagreed with while he was working. He told me that before speaking, he plays a short movie of who the person is in his mind, and then addresses that person with respect. He said to me, “What if I told you that I’m about to walk out of this room and bring in to meet you a person who has escaped war, been raped and survived? What if, when I brought them in, they didn’t greet you with a smile? Then you would know that it may not be about you, but their experience, that wrinkles their tone.”

I followed in my parents’ footsteps when I grew older and became an activist. I worked mostly on the HIV/AIDS crisis. Influenced by my father’s love of movies, I used film to educate people. I started a film festival at the United Nations. But while I was equipped for public relations, I made a muck of private ones. I was too sensitive. I didn’t have thick skin. The stories of death and injustice I was exposed to were hard on me.

I began to drink a bottle of wine each night to fall asleep. I stopped eating properly and began binging — at one point, I was eating three or four cheeseburgers in a single sitting. Then six or seven cheeseburgers became normal. I was out of control and in terrible spiritual and physical condition. I was depressed. I knew it had to stop. One day I began to write a list of what I wanted: family, children, good health. My desires poured out and just the thought of these things made me happy.

At one point, I was eating three or four cheeseburgers in a single sitting. Then six or seven cheeseburgers became normal.

Change started that afternoon. I went to a therapy session and then headed for a drive in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a town with a mostly Asian population, many of them Korean Americans. I pulled into a small mall that housed many Korean businesses. I was looking for a shop that sold healing items like jade stone beds, which my mother and I had visited before. The shop had shut down, but as I was walking down the hallway to leave the mall, a Korean bakery worker offered me a bread sample, which I accepted. The delicious cream swam across my face and dripped down my chin. Suddenly, I heard a voice: "You are too fat, don't eat this bread.” I turned to find an elderly Korean woman, standing in front of a grocery store, hurling her words at me with dart-like precision. Then my father’s advice returned to me: Press play before a response. I envisioned her story, then responded.

Yoon at a music venue in New York City, at the beginning of her weight loss journey. Before then, “I was always hiding behind someone or avoiding photos,” she said.Courtesy Africa Yoon

"Well, if you think I am fat, what should I eat then?" I asked her. She softened, not much, but perhaps she was considering my respect.

“Korean food,” she said, ending the word food with a soft “uh” sound. Her words rang in my soul. Food had been my guide to Americana.

“Can you please show me?” I asked. “Can you help me?”

We walked into a grocery store named Han Ah Reum (now known as H Mart, the largest Asian grocer in the U.S.) that was right across from the bakery. I left with more than an armful of groceries: raw greens, pre-made Korean side dishes called banchan and kimchi.

At home, I opened a jar of kimchi and as the white plastic top slipped off, here came the smell. Heaven. The most awakening, delicious smell. I could almost taste all the ingredients already. I ran to my kitchen drawer, searching for chopsticks from a food delivery in my drawer full of menus and random plastic forks. I began to eat the kimchi and felt what it was like to eat electric, alive food for the first time.

I felt what it was like to eat electric, alive food for the first time.

I met with the Korean elder, who told me to call her halmoni (the Korean word for grandmother), many times after that day. My taste for kimchi grew and I began to eat it with everything. It made me feel full, and it satisfied my taste buds. I began to lose weight. In a year, I was 110 pounds lighter. Korean cuisine became a regular part of my diet and I was healthier. I was eating such a large amount of fermented, raw and steamed vegetables that I even became vegan, with the exception of kimchi. (Traditional kimchi is not vegan because it usually includes fish sauce and/or shrimp paste.)

Yoon with her husband and their three children on May 13, 2021. Marco Garcia / Getty Images for Blackyoonicorn

The way the grandmother showed me love is now part of my movie — the sequence of scenes that I like to imagine one sees when they meet me. This exploration of other cultures and cuisines and the magic that can come of it is why I love America. I am now an American woman and the mother of three biracial Cameroonian Korean American children.

I hope my story inspires you to embrace another culture, whether it is Korean, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Italian, Indian or something else. Reach across the table for a serving of our magnificent American dream, for it may lead to your transformation, too.

Read more about Yoon’s story in her new book, “The Korean,” out Nov. 17.