When I arrived in South Korea in 1998, I would wander through the grocery store, baffled. What is this? What is that? Even food that should have been familiar felt unfoodlike. The whole experience was otherworldly. The man standing in the produce aisle shouting out a string of numbers, the kimchi bar with its blood red cabbage, the console of nuts, shrimp, fish, dried bananas, dried mushrooms--all waiting to be chosen and then blended into a breakfast powder. (I would become addicted to a vegetarian version, including: sesame seeds, dried carrots, coconut, nuts, grains, dried mushrooms, and dried fruit.) But that first month, I was always hungry.
Now in California, I come to the Farmers Market. Outside in folding chairs, three ajashis sit and sell Korean newspapers. I nod deeply, throwing my shoulders into the motion. I want to say "anyanghaseyo," but sense it would mark me as the earnest pretender, which I, in fact, am. The store looks a bit like Lotte, a bit like Krogers. The produce section has the global staples: tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, garlic. The prices though are cheap. Grapefruits: 2 pound for 50 cents. There are also Korean staples: sesame leaves, lotus root, bokchoy. Normally, I am the only whitey, and this pleases me. I like to sink into the Korean announcements, the cutie packaging of choco pies and pepero. I buy fruit (grapefruit and tangerines and Asian pears) and I also buy ginger, red pepper paste, green tea. I toss the tea in my cart, three boxes at a time. I would drive here strictly for the green tea, which tastes so different from the American version that one can hardly believe they share the same name. It's like the difference between a giraffe and a moose.
But here is my confession, my guilty, guilty confession. The other items I can justify, but the Maeil coffee is an SUV purchase heavy and pointless. I think of the environmental footprints of these drinks, packaged in Seoul and then flown to LAX and then driven here, and I know that I should keep on wheeling my cart. And yet, and yet. In Korea, after a hard day of teaching, I would dart into a convenience store and purchase a Maeil coffee and know my day was going to be okay. When I first saw them here, lined up beside the milk, I wanted to cry. I stood holding one for a long time and finally decided to sell my environmental soul for the Cinnamon Latte.
The last time I visited Korean Market, there were other whiteys in the store. What are they doing here? was my general attitude. They were probably thinking the same about me. A friend recently pointed out this website: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/page/2/. I am guilty of # 71, among others.