When I shop at my friendly local Super H-Mart, as is my wont on lazy Sunday afternoons, I always notice the non-Asian patrons. Not all, but the ones that sloooowly wander the aisles with an expression of absolute bewilderment. Like they are in a dream world of some sort, or mirrored fun-house. They innocently look for ice cream, only to be met with something called mochi and red bean popsicles, or instant noodles and are awash in a red sea of shiny Shin-ramyun packages. "Oh honey ... this box says it's chicken cal-GUCK-sue? Is that like alfredo or something?" And you might hear a child's voice off in the distance, by the deli: "EWWWWWWW!!! These are OCTOPUS LEGS!!!!"
If H-Mart hasn't hit your neck of the woods yet, it's a Korean grocery chain, prevalent on the coasts and starting to emerge in middle America. It's much bigger in size and selection than the smaller mom-and-pop operations I've grown up with - the one near me took over what used to be a Jewel (that's Albertson's in other parts of the country), so it's pretty sizable. On an economic side-note - I wonder how H-Mart's arrival will impact said mom-and-pops ...
I can sympathize with this fish out of water feeling in this country, but at least I'm fluent in the language! I can imagine the conversation, five minutes prior in the car, perhaps driving back from a long weekend in Wisconsin. "Oh look, Herb, there's a grocery over there. That big 'H-Mart'. We're out of eggs, and Capri-Suns for the kids ' lunches tomorrow, let's run in before everything closes." And so they park their Dodge Caravan and go in. And they silently notice (picture thought bubbles over their heads), "All the cashiers are Asian. Hm. Interesting. So is customer service. And so are ... all ... the ... customers. Uh oh." But, they stay and shop, maybe because they feel it would be rude to just leave, and out of their sincere need for groceries. There are plenty of "typical" grocery items, right alongside the frozen fish cakes and baskets of kong-namul, so it's not like you can't do your usual grocery shopping. Perhaps they stay out of pure curiosity, too. There is some cool stuff in there.
I can't help but feel mildly amused - but not with maliciousness, more in an "oh, poor unwitting people" kind of way. This is less likely to happen in the smaller Korean groceries, since it's more obvious on the outside that they are Korean stores, or the sign actually says "KOREAN GROCERY." So the only people who would bother to go in know what the heck is going on. (That reminds me, does anyone remember the Korean restaurant in Chicago that was actually called "Korean Restaurant"? Too bad it closed down, it was open 24 hours!)
Hopefully this scene is less common on the coasts, where (I hope) Korean and Asian groceries and stores are more part of the mainstream tapestry of everyday life. But, out where I live, I would say that we're not so integrated, even though it seems like I see more and more Koreans and Asians every time I'm out and about. I personally love going to the Korean grocery, not just to buy my K-supplies and fixin's and check out what's new in Korean food storage technology, but just to see other Korean people. It feels good to be greeted with a bright and smiley "ahn-yunghasaeyooooh!", and reciprocate a quick head bow and pretend like I know what the cashier is saying when she relays the total in Korean. They figure out pretty quickly that I don't speak Korean. I know it's so superficial, but it's nice to be acknowledged simply on the merit of being Korean. Just walking in and being me. My face, the genes my parents passed down to me, are my lifetime membership card. And, where the hell else am I going to find bulk boxes of Chapaghetti and cans of yummy Bon Bon?? Grape, please.
I hope by the time my son is able to notice the difference between himself and others, and some kid says incredulously, "Ewwww! SHRIMP-flavored chips???", the mom or dad will just say, "What, haven't you seen those before? They're good. Come on, if you sit still for five more minutes, I'll buy you some Botan rice candy." And just keep on shopping.