Nonfiction Visiting My Mom at Hmart
H Mart may be a place to delight in new foods and buy five gallon buckets of soy sauce. It’s also the place where you see that the model minority myth is just that, a myth.
Two weeks ago, I read Michelle Zauner’s poignant piece, “
Crying in H Mart,” in The New Yorker. As a Korean American, much of the story resonated with me, but many of my experiences diverge. For one, my mom, is very much alive and all up in my business like my gynecologist. The only difference is that my gyno has better bedside manners.
My mom’s fixation on the status of my womb and general curiosity to where I am and what I am doing at all times is likely fueled by her being surrounded by gossiping Korean women all day. You see, my mom works at H Mart. The way she tells it, H Mart was started by a Korean man who was so successful with his first grocery store that he expanded it and gave one to his brother and then so on until his entire family became wealthy beyond reason. Part of this included closing down smaller mom and pop stores by offering lower prices, a wider selection, and luring all their employees with primitive benefit packages.
Before H Mart, I remember my mom buying me a bottle of Chilsung cider for two dollars every time we visited the small Korean market by our apartment complex, just a few blocks from the start of Houston’s small, but quaint Koreatown. Back then it was in a glass bottle and you could return it empty for money off your next one. Nowadays, if I want Chilsung cider, I have to buy it bulk from H Mart in six-pack cans. That’s not so bad. The real disappointment in having lost local Korean grocery stores is the terrible Americanized food H Mart sells.
Mass produced kimchi has never been good, so I’ll leave that one out, but all the other side dishes like myulchi, mini fried sesame anchovies, boochingae, Korean pancakes, and japchae, clear glass noodles, are also a mess. They’re too sweet, too salty, or flavorless. The pre-marinated meat is also severely lacking. My mom has attempted multiple times to offer me the H Mart pre-marinated bulgogi that tastes like someone knocked a cup of refined white sugar in it, saying that she marinated it herself. Lies, lady! You raised me! I know what good bulgogi tastes like, and this is not it. By the way, the trick is to sweeten it with fruit.
When I’m craving Korean food and my mom’s back in the motherland, she’ll suggest I eat at H Mart. That is the last place I’ll go to satisfy my craving. The restaurant food is just as bad as the packaged ones. The boodaejjigae, or army stew, is a watery sugar sauce and sad attempt to mimic the taste of a solid dollop of red pepper paste. The daeji bulgogi, marinated pork, is a bland concoction of brown sugar and red sauce with just a few red pepper flakes. Don’t even get me started with the ddukbokki, stir-fried rice cakes. How can you mess up a dish with only five ingredients? The trouble with the food at H Mart is that there are too many options, the food is mass-produced, and it is flavored with American palates in mind.
Before H Mart reigned supreme, there were two Korean grocery stores in Houston that served food. Now these were places where you could get good, home cooked Korean meals. They didn’t have digital numbers announcing that your orders were ready. The Korean lady would just shout the order. Agashi! Joonbe dae suh yo . The menu at each stall was also five items or less, always a good sign. You didn’t need twenty-five items on the menu. You just needed a few that you could do right and people would come.
The menu at many of the booths were also written fully in hangul . This meant that the food was for Korean people who knew what authentic food tasted like and would accept nothing else. It wasn’t catered for the American taste buds that considers Panda Express acceptable Chinese food, although I do love me some orange chicken. I’m an embarrassment to my Taiwanese friends. Back then, when I ordered suhlungtang, ox bone soup, it was a given that you were provided black pepper and sea salt, a sizable clear container with chopped green onions, kakk doo gee, radish kimchi, and dadaege, chili paste.
At H Mart, if you order suhlungtang, they’ll give you the salt and scoop about a tablespoon of green onions into the bowl. That’s all. I t’s offensive, but if you’re not Korean, you don’t know any better. You’ll pay an extra two dollars for dol sot bibimbap and be so engrossed in the heat radiating from the stone bowl that’s frying your egg that you’ll overlook how most of the dish is cheap white rice and how they substituted corn for burdock. Just kidding. That would be blasphemy. We’re not Japanese. We only put corn on pizza. It’s bizarre.
I miss those days when you could get a five dollar bibimbap in an aluminum bowl with a side of seaweed soup, not miso soup. You had to pay cash and potentially sweat while you ate because the ac was out that day but it was okay because it was delicious. Now I shiver in H Mart with the air conditioning on full blast as I eat my lukewarm jjajjangmyun, black bean noodles.
At least I’m not working eleven hour shifts in the refrigerated section. First world problems for sure. My brothers and I tell my mom to work fewer hours. We pay for all of her expenses, why suffer in the arctic? She wants to buy her grandkids snacks and save money to eat out with her friends, she says, but I know it’s also because she doesn’t want to be a burden on us and though she doesn’t say it, is afraid we’ll abandon her just like my dad did.
While to most, H Mart is an excursion to Asian food and culture with cute Korean ladies with those paper hats and red aprons offering samples to rival Costco on a weekend, for me, it’s a reminder of how my mom has worked labor jobs all her life in the U.S. to support me and my brothers. Her first job was as a dishwasher at a Korean restaurant. My dad had stopped giving us money and we needed groceries. I stopped asking for the Chilsung cider.
H Mart is the place where my mom and all the other Korean workers are treated like second class citizens. It’s where women say they’re working because they don’t want to stay at home doing nothing, when in fact after their husbands died without life insurance or when they left the family for another woman, cutting costs and skimping isn’t enough anymore. It’s where my mom was accosted by a well-known columnist of a popular Houston Korean newspaper for ignoring him as he passed by. Who did she think she was compared to him, a prominent member of the Korean community? How dare she not bow and acknowledge him?
H Mart may be a place to delight in new foods and buy five gallon buckets of soy sauce. It’s also the place where you see that the model minority myth is just that, a myth. It’s the stomping grounds of the haves and have nots. So while you pile on the side dishes of daikon and onion with black bean paste, remember that there’s someone in the back putting it all together, someone like my mom. But don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t feel sorry for her. H Mart is also the place where folks support one another. Thank God we got it all on camera. How dare that lunatic speak to you like that. If I see him, I’m reporting him straight to the manager and the police , they say. Here, have some kimbap . It’s a place of community and support that brings people together the way hardship can.
I have to remind myself of this when I visit my mom at H Mart. I may have wanted to punch the Korean lady carrying the Louis Vuitton handbag who was rude to my mom, but my mom doesn’t care. It’s lunch time. I follow her to the break room where she’s greeted my a chorus of ajumas. There you are. Where were you? Hurry up. It’s getting cold. I saved you a seat. There’s an impressive array of Korean home made dishes plus random fried chicken. It’s someone’s birthday. There’s a cake from the bakery. Discounted, I’m sure.
I try to escape, but it’s too late. I’m pulled into a seat right next to my mom and a man who my mom introduces as Hector. He has an assortment of foods on his plate already. There’s mentioning of norebang, karaoke, after work and the shuffling of tupperware. Try this. I made it. Try this. So and so made it. The conversation inevitably turns to my womb and whether I plan to use it. That’s my cue. I scarf down what’s left and bow and thank everyone as I walk backwards to the beaded entryway. It was delicious. I’ll definitely be back. Thank you. My mom waves me off. She’ll be alright, she thinks, and so do I.