A bowl of freshly made kimchi, a staple dish of Korea. [Image: USAG Humphreys / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

Virginia Establishes “Kimchi Day” State Holiday, Entering Sino-Korean Kimchi Debate

Korea Asia

On February 10, 2022, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 147, designating November 22 “Kimchi Day” in Virginia. Virginia is the second state to do so after California, which passed a similar resolution on August 23, 2021. The holiday celebrates the main staple food of Korea, kimchi, and the date represents the 11 major ingredients of kimchi and the 22 health benefits of the food. Although the bill might seem like a straightforward celebration of these states’ Korean communities, they are also a diplomatic tool for diaspora communities to weigh in on Sino-Korean relations, which have been worsening recently, in part due to feuds over kimchi’s origin.

Virginia’s 86th district Representative Irene Shin led the “Kimchi caucus” who spearheaded the bill’s passage. Representative Shin was the first Korean American to occupy a seat in the Virginia House of Representatives, making the bill especially meaningful to her. In an interview with DCist, Representative Shin said, "I think it's fantastic that we're starting to celebrate the cultural diversity and the heritage that makes our society and our Commonwealth so great today."

Representative Shin went on to add, “we are home to one of the largest Korean populations in the country. The communities of Annandale and Centerville in Northern Virginia are vibrant and bustling population centers and hubs.” In fact, as of 2019, there are approximately 89,400 Korean Americans living in Virginia, and in 2020, there were over 630,000 Asian Americans in the state. The D.C. metropolitan area is the third largest Korean population center in the United States, and in Virginia, Korean is the third most spoken language after Spanish.

Both Virginia and California’s bills follow the South Korean government establishing November 22, "Kimchi Day," as a federal holiday in 2020 to promote consumption of the dish. The practice of kimjang (김장), or making and sharing kimchi, was designated an intangible cultural heritage of Korea by UNESCO in 2013. But the creation of “Kimchi Day” in South Korea and in these states comes amid some claims by Chinese state media that kimchi is Chinese in origin, sparking intense backlash within South Korea.

Thus, while this bill is a reminder of the presence and importance of Asian Americans to Virginia, it also represents a way diaspora communities can help preserve their cultural heritage and weigh in on international geopolitical disputes. Both California and Virginia’s bills specify that kimchi originates from Korea’s historical Three Kingdoms period, directly countering Chinese media claims. California Assemblyman Steven Choi stated that he proposed the bill to correct China’s false assertion that kimchi is a traditional Chinese food, explaining that California backs the South Korean government as the state with the largest Korean American population.

While this bill is certainly a celebration and recognition of the diversity of these states’ populations, it is also a way for the diaspora to influence Sino-Korean tensions. In this case, the local is influencing the international, and is a notable example of how Korea matters to America and America matters to Korea.

Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.