Living In A Negative Surge

By Shinyung Oh

October 10, 2020

The highlight of my coronavirus quarantine has been the appearance of the H Mart logo on Instacart’s homepage. It showed up one day, an unassuming red and white logo, in the midst of other primary colors, with the word “Ethnic” underneath. The minute I saw it, I did a little jig at my end of the kitchen counter and announced the discovery to my husband at the other end. I hastily added a few items to the cart to claim a delivery slot and called my mom.

“Mom, we can get delivery from the Korean grocery! They are coming next Thursday!”

“Korean grocery?”

“Yes, yes, H Mart!”

I heard her gasp on the other end.

“Start making a list of everything you need. I’ll call you on Tuesday.”

For the first few weeks of the quarantine, I searched the web incessantly for a few items that I had not considered important enough to purchase before the shutdown. As the virus spread in China and the U.S. government airlifted Americans out of Wuhan, I stocked up at my local Korean grocery, driving 20 minutes from my house in North County, San Diego, to gather bags of rice, seaweed, soy sauce, red pepper paste, adzuki beans, and honey ginger tea. I foolishly bypassed the aisles with instant noodles and pre-packaged meals.

As soon as California announced social distancing, I suddenly developed a craving for Neoguri ramyun, jajangmyun, and ddukboki.

I started Googling. Sites for World Mart and Asian Mart lured me in with search results, but frustrated me with “out of stock” messages when I tried to check out. I visited the sites for Zion Market and 99 Ranch, hoping they might have gotten an overnight technological makeover, only to be left with nothing but my magical thinking. I found the Neoguri ramyun on, but I could not stomach paying $12.84 for four packets of instant noodle. No self-respecting Korean-American would pay more than a dollar and change per packet.

When Google searches proved futile, I started scouring the pitiful online “Asian aisles” at my local Von’s and Ralph’s in hopes of finding something worth purchasing. I managed to grab some soy sauce, sesame oil, and curry paste for my mom. I even bought a few packets of Sapporo Ichiban for nostalgia’s sake, but I had no luck scoring the few items that were starting to feel more essential by the day. I had all but decided that I would have to go without. I consoled myself that kimchi is now available at Costco, as is dried roasted seaweed, tofu, frozen chive dumplings, and medium-grain rice.

I could have simply driven to the local H Mart en mask, but my husband and I had decided early on that we would limit our exposure as much as possible and stay home. With my two cancer treatments in the past few years and our son’s asthma, our decision seemed sensible. Defying this decision to grab my Korean comfort food felt like a needless risk.

My near desperation to stockpile these few items came as a surprise to me. Before the quarantine, I barely opened one pack of ramyun per month. The last time I had jajangmyun was when we visited my favorite noodle shop in San Francisco a year ago. I cannot remember the last time I ate ddukboki; I skipped it when we visited Korea for three weeks last summer. Perhaps the idea of scarcity was triggering a hoarding impulse. Or I was influenced by the photos of the South Korean government quarantine care package, where Shin Ramyun was featured so prominently. Wasn’t I too worthy of a care package?

When I went back and started filling up my cart for H Mart delivery, I noticed myself selecting a lot of food we used to stockpile when my parents worked as dry cleaners in New York. While they worked 14-hour days, we kids fed ourselves a lot of pan-fried bologna, Spam fried rice, Neoguri ramyun, and other dishes I was suddenly craving.

The rhythm of our current pandemic life in many ways mirrors our life back then. As immigrants, we lived with a pervasive sense of desperation and an expectant feeling of doom. The days, stripped of all but their bare essentials, felt suffocated. My parents had no friends, as they had no time for socializing, and they spent their days with two long-term employees, a presser and a tailor. They ate the same chicken and rice for lunch every day. As a family, we ate out maybe once or twice a year, usually after a heartbreaking argument between my parents about the expense. There was limited time or money for indulgence. My mom’s singular longing was to sit in a cafe one day and sip coffee, like other people.

We lived braced against the possibility of a downfall. Every penny earned was saved for the unpredictable future. Alone in the U.S., our nuclear family had no support, whether financial or emotional, and no safety net. The bottom could fall out with a poor decision, a bad accident, or an illness. As a teenager, I lay in bed at night and listened to my parents breathing as they slept in the room next to mine. I could almost hear the chemicals coursing through their veins, plotting and scheming until they converged into cancer, ready to overtake their bodies.

On Saturdays and school holidays, my siblings and I helped out at the store, running the cash register and sorting clothes. Once in a while, our parents would allow us to purchase a roast beef sandwich from the deli next door. The footlong meal of an inch-tall mound of sliced beef nestled in perfectly crusted Italian bread came hastily wrapped in parchment paper. Perched on a stepstool, I would savor this indulgence, even as I closed my eyes to avoid looking at the blood drenched loaf. After closing the store one hour earlier on Saturdays, we would sometimes drive out to Flushing to buy Korean groceries. There, we would shop as if we were preparing for a quarantine. We would walk up and down the aisles methodically, filling the cart with several 15 pound bags of rice, a box or two of apples, bags of seaweed, mounds of soy bean sprouts, tubs of tofu, boxes of instant noodles, pounds of fresh fish and meat, and anything else needed to survive the next month.

After my parents retired almost 15 years ago, the rhythm of their day-to-day life did not change much, even though they moved out to San Diego a few years ago to be closer to me, my husband, and our two children. They still have no friends, and they do not socialize. They eat out with us only when we cajole them. They spend the days by themselves, watching TV, eating their meals. My mom tends to her plants, and they take daily walks. The quarantine has not changed their routine at all, except that I now order their groceries for them.

Growing up, I used to rue the days spent in the store, for me and my parents. The time felt precious and wasted. As teenagers, we rummaged through pockets of our customers, like scavengers, searching for forgotten items like receipts, bunched-up cocktail napkins, and torn theater stubs. Here, we got a whiff of life’s offerings. Our parents’ job was to remove the stains from their clothes, press them, and package them in films of plastic to reset them for another outing.

Such outings were not for us. We lived behind the window underneath the neon sign. The world existed outside, and we watched it pass by without us. On Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, after we had handed out the last evening gown or tuxedo, we wiped down the counters, emptied the cash register, packed up our empty lunch containers, and arranged the hangers for the next day. By the time we stepped out to head home, others had already taken their celebrations inside.

My parents spent more than 20 years of their lives in this little box of a store, and I ached for them to have a social existence, a public life, even after I escaped to the West Coast to build my own. I never anticipated that we would live through a time when public life recedes for all of us. Strangely, for the first time in forty-one years since our family moved to the U.S., my parents live in sync with other Americans.

This convergence is as surprising as the appearance of H Mart on Instacart. As immigrants, our family understood that the question of whether we survived was ours alone, and we never imagined that the matter of how we survived would concern anyone else. Who would notice us and consider our needs? Who could be bothered to cater to our context, our preferences, our palate?

I usually shop for Korean food by myself. I never send my non-Korean husband, as I sometimes do for milk or flour at our local grocery. It would be too complicated to explain all the distinctions to translate my preferences, like the difference between radish and cabbage kimchi, sold cut or whole, seasoned in salt water or with ground red pepper. The fresh noodles alone come in various sizes, like thin cuts for bibimguksu, slightly thicker cut for jajangmyun, yet another for knife cut noodles, and thickest for udon. The array of rice and instant noodles can be dizzying for the newcomer. The cuts of meat follow a different system of categories, depending on the type of soup, stew, or barbecue. These details are not a part of the American mainstream lexicon, at least not past what’s shared on Korean restaurant menus. Until now, I maintained a partition between my Korean shopping and my American life.

I think of the people who will shop for us. If not fellow Korean-Americans, how will they know to choose the right variety of chive, the right kind of sprouts? Will they be able to identify the burdock and lotus roots for my mom? Will they have the patience to scour the foreign or unfamiliar labels at H Mart, unlike at Costco where bulk items are recognizable from down the aisle? Will it be worth their time to drive out to my suburb?

In this pandemic, feeding my family has become an intimate, public exchange. Strangers take the risk of contagion to bring us our food, risks we can forego because they do not. To feed my cravings, they venture into a space I do not share even with my husband. I worry about the health of these strangers. Do they have decent masks? Am I asking them to shop when there are too many people in the store? I wonder what they think as they pull up the driveway of our house in our coastal town. Will they judge me for my privilege, just as I used to judge our dry cleaning customers?

When the shopping day arrives, I sit in front of my computer, fielding texts. As many items are out of stock, he sends photo after photo of possible substitutes for rice cakes, anchovies, panko bread crumb, perilla leaves, and roasted chestnuts. I respond with “Yeah, that’s great. Thanks so much!” and “That’s ok, we can skip. Thanks again!” As the number of missing items increase, his tip decreases. I reassure him that I’ll give him the original amount. It takes him more than two hours to find the 30 items on our list.

When my delivery appears, I watch from behind my glass front door. A masked Filipino man, in the age group urged to exercise extra caution by the State of California, drops off my six bags of H Mart groceries before scurrying back to his Toyota. I wonder about his need to feed his family, his financial state, his proximity to desperation. In him, I see my father.

As immigrants, it was our job to bend to the ways of this country: to learn to perform its customs; eat its food; and follow its social conventions. We made decisions about what to forego, even as our bodies yearned otherwise. We struggled to make our home in this new country. Even as we witnessed the emergence and rise of Korean fried chicken, Bong Joon-Ho, and BTS, I never expected anyone, especially during a pandemic, to cater to my Korean cravings. On the one hand, it feels like an antidote to the anti-Asian xenophobia on the rise, a mask for the ugly slurs. On the other, it feels like receiving a fastpass I never asked for on a sweltering day at Disneyland under the glare of 2000 other sweaty parents and their whining children.

This quarantine is a clearing, like the receding of the ocean before the coming of a storm or a tsunami. The negative surge reveals the life teeming underneath, and what could not be seen before becomes visible. As most of America retreats, public spaces open up for those who cannot — the delivery workers, the lawn keepers, the sanitation engineers. They have been there all along, susceptible to risks others can afford to forego. In this space and time, the different Americas I have known converge, and briefly, life feels more expansive, even as we face the threat of a possible devastation.