When I was 13 years old, I left my family and friends in Korea to come to America for school. I hated the education system in Korea. Even then I knew I didn’t fit in with the culture—all of the rules and restrictions, my teachers’ expectations, the long hours. I wanted to get out of it, all of it, and the opportunity to go to school in the United States, to live a more unbridled life—the kind I had only seen in American movies—seemed like the best thing in the world to me at the time.
And in many ways it was.
The first host family I stayed with in Austin was perfectly nice. They played the role of my parents and provided me with a place to live while I went to school, learned English, and adapted to a whole new way of life in the States. They even tried to make me feel like I was a part of their family. They were perfectly nice, and I never felt uncomfortable living under their roof. But no matter how much they tried to include me in their world, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider the whole time.
If had known then everything I’d have to go through in my search for that “unbridled” American-movie kind of life, maybe I wouldn’t have left my family in Korea so quickly. That same year, my host family moved to Colorado, so I had to find another place to live.
My parents hated the idea of me living with strangers, so they moved me to Alabama, where my mother had a friend from elementary school who could take me in. This new family was Korean, and much stricter (even than my own parents back at home). They wanted me to come home right after school and study instead of joining extracurricular activities. They didn’t understand why my jeans were “fitted.” They didn’t know why I acted so differently from the other “normal” Korean boys (whatever that meant in Huntsville, Alabama). It was as difficult for them to be my guardians as it was for me to live with them.
Slowly I started to lose my sense of security being away from my real family in Korea, and jumping from host family to host family so many times. As I got tired of defending myself and feeling like an outsider to these people who never felt like family, I put up guard after guard to protect myself. It was one of the loneliest points in my life.
When I showed up at the Naumanns' with two giant suitcases, it was a little after 9 p.m., only a few hours left till Christmas. Weeks prior, my theatre teacher had reached out to her friends on Facebook about my situation to find a better host family for me, and the Naumanns were the first to respond. It all happened so fast, but I remember it was cold and drizzling on Christmas Eve when I moved into my new home. I was already friends with Paul and Foard Naumann, who went to school with me, so in many ways it felt right from the start.
Even more so when I met their parents.
“Welcome, James!” Mr. Naumann said, taking my suitcases. Mrs Naumann hugged me and led me inside. A petite woman with dirty blond hair and green eyes, she had a smile so warm you could feel it. She reminded me of the moms I had seen in the movies. You know those people who smile with their eyes? That was Mrs. Naumann. I felt an instant connection with her.
The house was just like how I imagined an American family’s house would look like during Christmas: a beautifully lit tree, antique colanders and cast-iron pans hanging on an exposed-brick wall, a shiny marble countertop with flowers in a vase, where, as I would later learn, the family gathered for meals. It was filled with the spirit of Southern hospitality. I knew I was no longer a guest in a host family’s house; I was in a home.
And of course, I was starving. Which is why I was grateful when Mrs. Naumann asked everyone, “Should we go with our usual menu?”
“Yes!” everyone resounded.
“We always eat grilled cheese and tomato soup the night before Christmas,” Mrs. Naumann explained to me. “Charles makes the grilled cheese, and I make the tomato soup. I forget the exact story, but when the boys were young one Christmas Eve, we didn’t have anything but a few slices of bread, so we just made grilled cheese and tomato soup. I guess it sort of became a Naumann family tradition. Is that okay with you?”
I nodded yes, excited. Even though I had lived in America for a few years by then, I’d never had a grilled cheese with tomato soup. But it wasn’t the grilled cheese per se that got me excited; it was the idea of getting to be a part of a family tradition at all. Leaving home at 13 years old, I never grew up with memories like eating grilled cheese on Christmas Eve with my family. For one reason or another, Christmas just wasn’t one of the holidays I’d celebrated back home in Korea, let alone decorating a tree, waking up in the morning to open presents and, years later, coming home for Christmas after being away for college—all things I’d get to do because the Naumanns took me in.
While the boys went to play video games, I followed Mr. and Mrs. Naumann to the kitchen. They pulled out each ingredient and laid them out on the counter: a whole loaf of bread, a few sticks of butter, stacks of American cheese, roasted sliced turkey breast, mayonnaise, a couple cans of San Marzano tomatoes, chicken broth, and heavy cream. Entirely different kinds of ingredients from what I was used to (kimchi, gochujang, sesame oil, etc.).
I loved watching them go; they had done this before. Mr. Naumann spread a thick layer of mayo on a few slices of bread and placed them onto a hot griddled greased with butter, then laid each with a slice of cheese and turkey. Mrs. Naumann heated up the canned tomatoes in a pot, mixed with chicken broth and some of the heavy cream, and seasoned with salt. Our chatter filled the kitchen, as they cooked and asked me questions about my life, until Mr. Naumann handed me a plate with the first finished grilled cheese. “Here you go!”
I took a bite. The outside was perfectly charred and crispy, the melty cheese warmly hugging the turkey. The tomato soup was equally comforting; I watched Mrs. Naumann finish it with a drizzle of olive oil and ladle some of it into a bowl for me. Its soft, creamy taste was far from the assertive, spicy-salty Korean soups I had grown up with. The rich soup complemented the grilled cheese. It was the perfect comfort food.
The boys hadn’t even come down yet, and I was already on my third grilled cheese. As I ate in that kitchen with my new host parents, I felt a sudden sense of belonging. Even though the Naumanns didn’t look like me, they made me feel like I was one of them. They even joked that I was now their third son.
And in many ways I was: Over the years, they’d shape how I view the world as a Korean immigrant in America. They’d expose me to iconic American movies and songs. They’d teach me not just what Southern hospitality means, but also how to provide it for others. They’d open up their home to me, and their hearts, taking me in as if I were their own and caring for me until I’d leave for college a couple years later.
On that rainy Christmas Eve, as I stepped into the Naumanns’ house and ate grilled cheeses in their kitchen, I felt relieved that I had finally found a family in America. I was, as they say, home for Christmas.
How do you make grilled cheese? Share your go-to sandwich (and any holiday traditions you have!) in the comments below.
On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.Listen Now