Christmas

The Christmas Grilled Cheese That Showed Me Home in America

My search for a new kind of family, after leaving Korea.

December  6, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

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.

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Top Comment:
“My children also loved tomato soup and grilled cheese growing up; and over time our friends came to expect a gift of tomato soup on Christmas Eve from our family. 25 years later I still have friends and neighbors I deliver soup to on the 24th. FYI, I know Susie Naumann and your description of her warm smile was perfect. She truly is a lovely lady.”
— Mindy W.
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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.

I knew I was no longer a guest in a host family’s house; I was in a home.

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.


Here, Have One

How do you make grilled cheese? Share your go-to sandwich (and any holiday traditions you have!) in the comments below.

25 Comments

Angela December 9, 2018
What a beautiful story James!!! How lucky you are to have not just one but two families that love and care about you. Its lovely to get to know your back story and I’m thankful you shared it with us. Also, you are one brave mister! 13 and left home? Moved to a new country?!?! Wowwww #fighter
 
Author Comment
James P. December 10, 2018
Hi Angela! I feel incredibly lucky to have two lovely families indeed! Honestly, I didn't know what I signed up for when I decided to leave my family when I was 13. If I knew that it would be hard, I probably wouldn't have left, so I am glad that I didn't think too much about a whole American life when I was young!
 
Alice K. December 9, 2018
I thought you were going to write that they had grilled cheese sandwiches with kimchi! That is a great combination! So glad you finally met a family who made you feel welcome. It must be so hard to be a stranger in a strange land.
 
Author Comment
James P. December 10, 2018
Hi Alice! I mean kimchi grilled cheese is my weeknight go-to meals! I am glad that I have my American family too :)
 
Mindy W. December 9, 2018
What a fantastic story! My children also loved tomato soup and grilled cheese growing up; and over time our friends came to expect a gift of tomato soup on Christmas Eve from our family. 25 years later I still have friends and neighbors I deliver soup to on the 24th.<br />FYI, I know Susie Naumann and your description of her warm smile was perfect. She truly is a lovely lady.
 
Author Comment
James P. December 9, 2018
Hi Mindy! Ah, Isn't Princess just the greatest? I love her more than anything!<br /><br />I am so happy to hear that grilled cheese with tomato soup is a holiday tradition to many families besides mine!
 
RobinT December 8, 2018
Love this story so much. Made me feel happy and warm inside. This is what the holidays are about - finding family and home. So glad you found both with the wonderful Naumanns. <br />
 
Author Comment
James P. December 9, 2018
Hi Robin! Thank you! Totally agree with you about holiday spirits; they are all about family and feeling like you are a part of something. I am so happy that I have become a part of the Naumann's, and I will never feel alone thanks to them!
 
Heather H. December 8, 2018
As much as I love making fancy grilled cheeses... nothing really beats american cheese on wheat bread. I make my tomato soup with san marzano tomatoes, chicken broth, red onion, lots of oregano, heavy cream and some goat cheese.<br /><br />But on christmas eve, we usually have bierocks with homemade bread dough and homemade potato soup. Yum yum!
 
Author Comment
James P. December 9, 2018
Heather! I agree with you! I feel like fancy grilled cheese with "fancy" cheese doesn't have that nostalgic factor to me. American cheese on bread ALL THE WAY!<br /><br />Adding some goat cheese to the tomato soup sounds really great! Gotta give that a try! Hope you eat your feelings with bread dough and homemade potato soup on Christmas Eve this year :)
 
HalfPint December 7, 2018
This reminds me of the Mexican exchange student in my high school who was so quiet and reserved. I really felt for him because he obviously wasn't an extrovert and being in a strange country when he didn't seem to have a strong grasp of the language. Now I wish I had made more of an effort for him, but then I was so shy that my own peeps in school thought that I was stuck up. I hope that Hector was able to find his "family", but props to anyone who has the courage to leave home and find something similar abroad.
 
Author Comment
James P. December 9, 2018
Thanks for sharing that story! I am sure Hector really appreciated you. It doesn't take a lot to make people like me and Hector feel less alone in a strange country; just a few kind words will do it :)
 
Adelaide December 7, 2018
Tearing up reading your sweet recount of your “adoption” by the Naumann’s . Love , love, love
 
Author Comment
James P. December 9, 2018
The best "adoption" that could have ever happened to me!!
 
Anna F. December 6, 2018
Got me tearing up reading this! I love when food feels like home :)
 
Eric K. December 6, 2018
:')
 
Author Comment
James P. December 7, 2018
Food really brings a family together :) Thanks for reading my story, Anna!
 
Suzy G. December 6, 2018
Love you, James! How fun to relive it all through your writing!
 
Author Comment
James P. December 7, 2018
Love you so much! It's crazy that it happened almost 6 years ago! So happy that you fed me grilled cheese then :D
 
Mindy W. December 9, 2018
Suzy, I read this with tears in my eyes. What an awesome tribute to your family.<br />
 
Angela R. December 6, 2018
Great story! I'd be interested in knowing that tomato soup recipe. I love San Marzano tomatoes! It's what I use to make my own spaghetti sauce.
 
Suzy G. December 6, 2018
So simple... basically the tomatoes, some butter, basil simmered together and a bit of heavy cream added at the finish and warmed through. Comfort.
 
Author Comment
James P. December 7, 2018
So simple, yet so delicious and LOTS of flavors!
 
Courtney R. December 6, 2018
This was beautiful and makes me feel less silly for enjoying my holiday traditions
 
Author Comment
James P. December 7, 2018
There is nothing silly about enjoying holiday traditions! They are YOURS and celebrate YOUR traditions no matter what!