“In America, kids are supposed to antagonize their parents: they’re supposed to torture them as teenagers, abandon them in college, then write a memoir in which they blame them for their unhappiness as adults. But in Korea they serve them forever, without a second thought.” This is just one of many culture-clash observations writer Ben Ryder Howe makes in his new memoir, “My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.”
Howe tells the story of his double life as editor for the literary magazine The Paris Review and convenience store owner in Brooklyn. Howe’s revealing and self-deprecating style makes for a warm and entertaining narrative about struggles with family, business, and culture. Howe is at the same time delightfully witty and light yet serious and insightful. As a convenience store owner Howe is forced to see comparisons in his Puritan upbringing and his in-laws/co-worker’s Korean perspective.
Like most East-coast kids Howe grew up with strong American values enforced through his education and socialization. When he meets and marries his Korean-American wife, Gab, he is introduced to a new world of Korean food, language, and customs. Gab is the dutiful daughter to her Korean-immigrant parents who decides to buy a deli for her hard-working mother to manage and live off for the rest of her life. The deli is Gab’s way of repaying her parents for their sacrifices like moving to America and paying her college tuition. As a newlywed couple, Howe and Gab thought it was the perfect plan to start their nest-egg and provide for Gab’s parents at the same time. However, the story becomes more complicated when their convenience store turns out to be less than convenient; Gab and Howe work extra shifts, fret about paying distributors, and worry about making ends meet.
The memoir follows the life of the convenience store, from the decision to buy, to the day-to-day highs and lows, to its conclusion. Somehow, Howe finds inspiration and intrigue even when the newlyweds discover that owning a convenience store is not what they had expected. The journey of owning the store is a transformative experience for all characters involved; Howe, Gab, and Kay, Gab’s mother.
Howe and Gab are forced to live in Kay’s basement as a result of their choice to purchase the store instead of a new home. Howe’s home life and work life slowly become a singular Korean entity. He watches Korean television, constantly smells and eats Korean cuisine, and learns to give up personal privacy while living in close quarters with many of Gab’s relatives.
The main conflict throughout the story is between Howe and Kay. Kay, who “wants to do everything herself” and will “kill herself” trying, is a tough Korean woman and has had a challenging life, just like many Korean immigrants of her generation. Howe has a hard time figuring Kay out. Gab tells him her mother suffers from “hyperadvancement syndrome.” Korea has undergone drastic changes since the 1960s and is now considered one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. Nowadays, Korea “makes the United States look old and backward.” This kind of transformation hardened Kay, turned her into a dogmatic, self-driven, no-nonsense old woman. Howe endearingly describes Kay’s antics and broken English although they are the source of his angst.
Kay’s perspective is eye-opening for Howe, who always thought self-reliance was “a skill you acquire because you or your parents thought it would be good for character development.” However, Kay acquires it, “by being scarred, and becoming incurably suspicious that if you don’t take care of a job yourself, no one will.” Howe begins to realize his Puritan upbringing is more ingrained in his character than he previously thought. He has to almost unlearn his rigid ways. He has to unlearn his inclinations to think every situation through until it is exhausted. As the story unfolds, Howe finds himself becoming more and more “Korean” in his ways.
▲ Author Ben Ryder Howe. Phpto cpurtesy Henry Holt and Co.
“My Korean Deli” is a great read, not only enlightening about Korean immigrant culture in America and the nuances of convenience store ownership, but a thoughtful memoir of Howe and his new family’s transformation together.
“My Korean Deli” is Howe’s first book and a must read. Hard copies can be purchased from Amazon.com for less than $15 and a cheaper version is available for electronic devices like the Kindle and iPad. Howe has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Outside, and contributed to Best American Travel Writing.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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