They were our new friends, and we wanted to treat them to food from that had become special to us.
I am Chinese American, but the best dish I can cook is Korean American: kimchi bacon fried rice. In college, I waitressed at a Korean restaurant in Boston and learned how to make it. I made kimchi rice for friends, family, my cousin, even my own employer. You only really need three things to make it work: rice, bacon—so the rice has some nice fat to sizzle in—and kimchi, for a sharp acidic bite.
When my boyfriend, D, and I visited Cochabamba, Bolivia, and it was my turn to whip up something home-style, I wanted to make kimchi rice for him. D lived in Australia, while I lived in Iowa. We came to South America to meet in the middle. On our first day in town, we came across a Korean café on Avenida America, a long road that spanned across the “expat”-heavy north end of the city. The streets were calm, speckled with the first signs of globalization: fast fashion stores with Chinese names, TGI Fridays.
In the Korean cafe, D and I drew pictures of things to do in my notebook. D sketched bacon pieces, on a bed of little dots, with an egg on top. We asked the person manning the Asian grocery store attached to the café where we might be able to find kimchi. He told us that they had just run out. Maybe, in a few weeks, the store owner said, there’d be a shipment from Santa Cruz, a more commercial city hours away.
In my notebook, I drew a jar filled with squiggles of cabbage. I promised D not only a delectable meal, but also a grand adventure to direct our exploring. We thanked the owner and told him we’d be back.
I wondered if kimchi would be hard to find. D and I often went to the largest grocery store in town, ten minutes away from our Airbnb: Hipermaxi Supermercado, Avenida Juan de la Rosa. It was part of the largest supermarket chain in Bolivia and inside oozed ideas of new Bolivian wealth: warm cuñapes at the door, hotdog samples, a large food court with televisions screening football games around the continent.
We went there searching for kimchi, but the store’s definition of “ethnic” had more to do with the foods of Americans or the British. No combination Mexican-Thai aisle as in US supermarkets. The store’s assortment was confusing, possibly a result of random things people had requested from overseas: smile-shaped frozen french fries, cheese puffs in a can. They had watermelon Four Loko, but no kimchi.
One day, while D slept, I walked to the Supermercado for breakfast supplies. A group of men lounged on the grass near the sidewalk. Chinita, they called me, meaning “Chinese girl.” Did their words mean my presence was an anomaly?
If Korean foods did not earn a spot on the shelves of the Supermercado, I wondered if other Asian cultures had. Recent online searches told me that K-pop groups have held festivals in Bolivia and in nearby Brazil, which boasts the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan. I learned many large cities across the continent have a barrio chino—a Chinatown—and the popular Peruvian dish lomo saltado has Chinese origins.
The scholar Erika Lee explains in a journal article “The ‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Exclusion in the Americas” that many Japanese migrants settled in Latin America before World War II. More came later, as an alternative to the US or Canada, whose borders had been closed to Asian migration in the early twentieth century. When Peru and Brazil put their own restrictions on Chinese and Japanese migration in 1926 and 1934, respectively, migrant patterns shifted again, this time to Paraguay, Argentina, and here—Bolivia.
Walking past the men, I felt unsure what this history meant for me, at this time, in this place. I quickened my pace.
Cochabamba is a fertile valley. It sits below the Andean mountains, between the cities of Sucre and La Paz. In the eastern skyline is the Cristo de la Concordia, a massive one-hundred-and-eight-foot statue of Jesus with his arms in open embrace—almost exactly like the one in Rio, but intentionally taller. Small parks and gardens abound. Large, fortified houses line the outer bounds of the valley. Bustling streets sprawl from the outer edges of the city, into single-storied towns.
Every week, D and I went to Restaurant Seoul, a Korean restaurant near the center of Cochabamba. It was small and white-walled, surrounded by chain stores that had gone out of business. A Korean man owned the place and his wife cooked in the back. She never appeared to us, but always seemed to send us treats: bungeoppang, fish-shaped pastries filled with red bean on a small plate.
On Tuesdays, they served special dishes off the menu, so we always came on Tuesdays. The owner began to recognize me, the Asian American girl who couldn’t speak Spanish. Duolingo had failed me. D, almost fluent in the language, helped me respond to conversation through translation. After a while, we’d step inside and he’d give us a look that said he was expecting us.
Here at Restaurant Seoul, the Korean owner’s presence was a given. He waited on every table, gave you access to his world. His intimacy made you feel like he personally had invited you to share a dish with him, in his house.
At the restaurant where I worked in Boston, the waitresses and I invoked a similar charm. I was part of a fleet of small East Asian girls, young and about the same height, dressed in all black. We bonded over getting confused for one another, though growing our resentment that people thought all Asians looked the same.
Chinita, they called me, meaning “Chinese girl.” Did their words mean my presence was an anomaly?
And yet, what I liked about going to Restaurant Seoul was that the owner was Asian. I watched the owner and saw how people interacted with him. He was my observable subject; the restaurant, my testing ground. All because his face looked like mine.
In the midst of being one of the few, things like this mattered.
I remember in Boston we bonded over making fun of clueless white people trying to pronounce the dishes, even though most of us didn’t speak any Korean. After a long shift, the cook would fry up food for the staff. If it had been a bad night, everyone would grab to-go boxes and walk in silence to the train stop. If it had been a good night, the manager would slip us ice cream mochi. I was far from my home in Iowa while at school, but here, I was fed.
In the street markets in Cochabamba, you can find fresh chicken heads across from superb knockoff soccer jerseys. You can get lost in a labyrinth of fireworks and jewelry booths. Hundreds of people set up shop every day, selling their wares in a hybrid of Quechua and Spanish. When the market closes, the streets become alarmingly empty, almost normal if not for the trails of plastic and dark spots on the sidewalk.
On our way back from the market one day, D and I came across a complex with an open atrium, three stories-tall with a two-floor restaurant. Plants wound up the stairs, leading to various Asian goods shops above. One displayed anime gear, CDs, and comics gathering a dusty sheen inside their plastic sleeves. In another store, the faces of BTS lined the walls, forever memorialized as pillows and backpacks.
Bolivian high schoolers spilled out the door. One shouted from the balcony to a friend sitting at a table a floor below. In a back room, twenty of them crowded around a projector screening an episode of a Japanese TV show. They invited us to join their fan club meeting, but we declined, not wanting to add to the crowded room.
Another small store sold very little, perhaps existing to occupy an extra space; there was a shelf with a few varieties of Asian dry goods, including Shin ramen, Sac Sac grape juice, and sake. The walls were covered with Sharpie doodles.
Their kimchi was out of stock. When it does arrive, the Bolivian cashier said, you can call this number and we’ll deliver your kimchi by bicycle. He pointed to a poster on the well.
That was the beautiful thing about a space like this. The stores could be closed, the hallways empty, but a sign alone could convey that someone looked out for you and your comfort food.
Here, you might hope to recognize yourself, reflected in artifacts. Though if you were to feel lost, however, you would not be alone. Lily Cho in “The Turn to Diaspora” writes: “One way of attacking racism’s tendency to generalization has been to insist on specificity.” Being “generally Asian” led me towards kinship with Asians in public and at the restaurant; it brought me closer to other waitresses—the patrons’ inability to distinguish between us, inextricably intertwining the stories of our diasporas. But it didn’t give me a sense of self.
Outside of classrooms teaching Korean to Spanish-speakers on the third floor of the atrium, a man greeted me with “annyeonghaseyo,” meaning hello in Korean. He asked in Spanish if I was Korean. No, I told him. I am not. He smiled, nodded, and went on his way.
A month later, D and I met up with two locals, a sister and a brother. The brother was once the roommate of D’s friend. We went to an outdoor club with a tree in the middle of the bar, and downed chuflays made of singani and ginger ale, which they insisted we must have, as a classic Bolivian drink. In another amber-lit backyard bar, we met their friends who took us flouncing through dives and dance floors that stayed open past official bar closing hours.
The next week, we brought them to Restaurant Seoul. It was their first time trying Korean food. They tried the Korean fried chicken and beef bulgogi on rice, the usual entry-level dishes. Japchae noodles were the favorite of the sister, even though she hadn’t seen clear noodles before.
These were new friends, and we wanted to treat them to food from the café that had become special to us.
These were new friends, and we wanted to treat them to food from the café that had become special to us.
A few days before the end of our time in Cochabamba, D and I finally found kimchi. We had mostly given up, but we came across the Korean café on Avenida America and decided to ask. Inside, cardboard boxes were stacked high to the ceiling. Kimchi had arrived. The owner only sold it by the kilo. We said we’d try our best to eat it all.
I told D, who usually cooked for me, this time, I’ll be treating you.
At home, I cooked the rice and left it to dry out—the best rice for any fried rice is a little stale. We stopped by the Supermercado Hipermaxi for slices of pork and fresh green onions. D bested me and gathered ingredients to make a large, glorious pan of tiramisu. We’d have a feast tonight.
Before I started cooking, I told D I’d take a nap around six in the evening. D shook me to wake up; it was midnight. His just-finished tiramisu was beautiful. He had chopped the kimchi and bacon, the only steps to making kimchi bacon fried rice. All that was left was to throw it in a pan and fry it all up.
Shirley, wake up, he said. You promised.
It took all but ten minutes to make. It tasted like something close to home.
Shirley Wang is a freelance writer and radio journalist who grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. Her writing has been noted in Best American Sports Writing.