Back in 1981, when I was ten years old, my life had become a foreign-language film without subtitles. Everywhere I went, people spoke English, which was a problem because all I knew was Korean. My mother, my two sisters, and I had made the trek from Seoul, South Korea to reunite with my father in New Jersey, and once we got our bearings, it was time to get to work.
My dad had set up an oriental gift shop at a mall called Peddlers Village in the town of Manasquan, though calling it a “mall” was probably stretching the truth. It was closer to an upscale flea market, what with its canvas curtains for doors and questionable establishments like pawn shops and fortune tellers. Our store occupied one of the largest spaces, and it was here, as I rang the register and dealt with customers, that I became an American. Thrust into a situation where I could not hide, I was forced to embrace the language, the people, the country.
Because I was young, I learned quickly, and soon I felt comfortable enough to walk around our mall. Peddlers Village had about a hundred stores, and each of them sold something very specific. In our neighboring shop, an old man sold dolls and dollhouses. Across was a lady who arranged silk flowers in all sorts of intricate designs, and catty-corner from her was a booth where mirrors of all shapes and sizes crowded its walls. At Wicker World, everything was wicker: wicker chairs, wicker chests, wicker lamps, even animal figurines made of wicker. Here they all were, a collective of small business owners, trying to make a living by selling their wares to the public at large. Some only lasted a couple of months, but the lucky few went on for years. We were fortunate, staying afloat for more than a decade.
Thinking back, it now seems obvious that a place like Peddlers Village could form a solid basis for a novel, but until I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the idea hadn’t occurred to me. Seeing the way a town and its people could sustain a work of fiction, I thought back to the store of my youth, and the proverbial light bulb lit up in my head. All those merchants, all those dreams! Each store owner held their own unique drama, and like the way George Willard in Winesburg threads around many of the chapters, I figured I could do the same with my main character, David Kim.
In the fall of 1998, I wrote the first chapter of Everything Asian, which ultimately turned out to be somewhere in the middle of the book. It was titled “Cimmetri,” about a couple who owns the mirror shop in the mall and how their lives intertwine with the Kims in unexpected ways. I can’t remember who actually owned that store in Peddlers Village, but it doesn’t matter. Because what’s now on the page is more real than my memories could ever be.