There’s a store here, hidden on the side of a busy two-way boulevard. It’s lonely, ugly, out of place – like a prop on a movie set. Like someone hastily glued cardboard pieces of faded Walmarts together to fill an American emptiness. A second thought, a memory drawn from memory. The front sign says “Asian Food Market Jung Ha” in big letters. It’s painted an awful shade of yellow and green, but it feels familiar. Welcoming and nostalgic and strange. You step inside to musty air-conditioning, to stopped time and a stagnant space, to writing you recognize and a language you know. To look for traces of home. Soul searching, Seoul searching.
The cashier looks up at the sound of the door opening and smiles.
“Welcome to Jung Ha!” he greets, bowing as your parents duck their heads in hello. You bow deeply and kick your sister to make her do the same.
"Annyeonghaseyo!” you chorus, loud and clear. It means hello but it feels like “I’m home!” There is home hidden here. You’ve gotten good at scrounging for it.
Inside, the lights are dim. Christmas decorations hang from the ceiling during all times of the year. The fan whirrs but nothing moves. An old Korean show plays on the TV. It’s a different show every time. Sometimes, you can recognize the features of an actor you don’t know the name of – but mostly, you just stare at the screen and wonder what they’re arguing about this time. Twelve years ago, 6,500 miles away, you sat in front of the TV and wondered the same thing.
Your parents tell you to pick out whatever you like and disappear to grab vegetables and jokbal (pig’s feet). You wander over to the junk food and crouch down to search for traces of home in aisle 2.
They sell those chips here. You know the ones – they look like cones and they come in a purple bag. They’re sweet (or maybe not, you don’t really remember). Your friend used to stick those chips on her fingers, one on each, calling them her claws. She used to run after you, claws out and head thrown back in a perpetual laugh. You chased her back once, but you can’t remember if you managed to catch her.
You put honey twist snacks, onion rings, and shrimp chips into the cart. You hesitate, then add one more of each. The bags are only half-filled, anyway. Half-chip, half-air. Half-chip, half-memory.
In the back of the store, your mom’s picking out green onions and yams (the special kind, the Korean kind, the better kind). Your dad grabs a pack of Yakult yogurt drinks. You remember begging him to pick them up on his way home from work. He used to come up the steel stairs at seven pm sharp – you could hear him from the heavy stomp-stomp-stomp. Then, as he opened the door, you’d crush him in the biggest hug your little arms could muster, yogurt forgotten. You used to buy those drinks on crosswalks with your grandma, hand in hand. She would’ve given you everything if she could: the tiny city of Seoul, the entire Korean peninsula, the world. But now, you’re 6,500 miles away and sometimes it’s too far for even her love to reach.
The laminate creaks as you make your way across the store – the cheap, sticky, Korean kind that used to line your apartment. You remember sneaking across the living room and jumping onto the frayed couch, feet sticking and unsticking to the plastic. Now, the floor leads to a sterile supermarket section.
You’re elbow-deep in the freezer, searching for Seolleim ice cream. The same one you always get, the same one you’ve always gotten. The ice cream from kindergarten field trips, late Saturday evenings, freezing cold in your hands and sugar sweet in your mouth. It’s packaged in blue and it’s frosted over and you hold up two triumphantly in the air.
You call your sister over. “Remember these?”
She shakes her head no. She doesn’t remember much at all, really. Just shapes that used to be family, sounds that used to be words, and a home she doesn’t know.
So, in a small, faded Asian Food Market on the side of the road, you teach your sister what you learned on cracked sidewalks in Seoul, South Korea. Stick the ice cream in your armpit, or it’ll take forever to soften. Squeeze the wrapping every once in a while to break up the ice. Twist the cap quick, otherwise you’ll only end up hurting your fingers. Eat it slowly, because it’s too good not to savor.
You leave the same way you came in: with a bow, a clear “Annyeonghi gyeseyo!”, and a final look up at the TV. Only now, you’re carrying home in plastic bags.
America flashes by outside the window as you drive. Korea melts on your tongue.
- Yunseo Chung
Cover photo source: Philippe Teuwen https://www.flickr.com/photos/doegox/478469027/