KUNG PAO REFRIED BEANS, ANYONE?
After spending almost four years arriving at the conclusion that an unprincipled, ignorant, narcissist should lead the world’s most spectacular ailing democracy, Americans will have to move on to other stuff because it is immediately apparent that the ailing democracy will continue to ail and isn't all that spectacular. While it is tempting to prattle on about America’s political and social shortcomings, I want to turn the page for a moment to some recent observations that have had to take a back seat to my efforts to save America from itself.
I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, just to the north and west of Washington, DC. The total county population is a little over one million people, of whom about 15% or 150,000 are Asian.** While this may seem like a fairly good percentage of Asians, we are not talking “Chinatown” here. So why in the world does Montgomery County have what seems like 150 Asian supermarkets or about one Asian supermarket for every 1000 Asians living in the County, including children too young to eat entrails and other specialty items available at these markets?
Now don’t get me wrong, I love going to these places with colorful and evocative names like “Great Wall” and “Hung Phat.” How can you not love a place that sells 300 varieties of soya sauce, a product with only four ingredients, two of which are water and salt.*** Or a place that sells live frogs and turtles for your dining pleasure, and somehow manages to stay under the PETA radar.
You have to see these places to believe them. Unless Montgomery County, Maryland is the epicenter of Asian supermarkets, these markets must be sprouting up in suburban America kind of like bean sprouts. While the Asian clientele is obvious, who else goes to the Asian supermarkets and what are they seeking while there?
For one segment of the customer base, Hispanics, there is a curious anomaly in the Asian supermarkets. Almost all of the folks who work in the seafood sections of the stores are Hispanics themselves, while almost all other employees seem to be of Asian descent. I can’t figure this one out. As far as I know, Asians have no aversion to touching fish before eating it, so that can’t be it. But if you speak Spanish and like seafood, you are at a huge advantage at an Asian supermarket.
In addition to the seafood anomaly, there seems to be some considerable overlap, particularly in the produce section, between Asian offerings and Latino offerings, further adding to the attraction for Hispanic clientele.
White, non-Hispanic, folks make up around 45% of the population of Montgomery County,** but are not nearly as well represented in Asian supermarkets. As best I can tell, there is a lot of curiosity but not much shopping, kind of like non-drinkers visiting a vineyard.
On a recent visit to a large Asian supermarket, I saw one white father walking purposefully with his two toddler children. None of the three had a shopping cart or bag, and all three headed directly to the seafood section, home of the live turtles and frogs. To this threesome, the Asian supermarket was a free and readily available petting zoo. For actual shoppers, this threesome was a source of cultural amusement.
As a representative white non-Hispanic, I can at least offer up why I go as often as I do. First of all, I go because the fresh seafood is plentiful and reasonably priced. (It is a bonus that I speak Spanish.) But I also go to watch those from other cultures do what they do naturally even though living half way around the world. To me, these supermarkets feel like Asia, where I have both traveled and lived. They are enclosed bazaars full of new and potentially exciting options.
But more than my curiosity is at play here. I really think the Asian supermarkets are bustling symbols of ethnic cohesion in a landscape that seeks to homogenize. Montgomery County, Maryland is as suburban as it gets, a relatively affluent place that has seen an incredible influx of ethnic diversity in the last fifty years.** While this place is no model for much of anything, it may be instructive of some things.
It is apparent that many Americans are struggling with the assimilation of immigrants into our communities, whether they arrive legally or illegally. Yet it may be the notion of “assimilation” itself that is the source of the struggle. If the proliferation of Asian supermarkets in suburban Maryland is instructive of anything, it speaks of the immigrant’s longing for home and culture, a longing that is antithetical to cultural and ethnic assimilation.
Perhaps, then, as we try to move forward from a most divisive time in our nation’s history, Americans should all spend a little time in Asian supermarkets and revel in cultural and ethnic diversity. While there, think back to the Italian markets that dotted the northeast, the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco, and the German culture that spread across Texas. Then try to acknowledge that there is no need to desire to be “American” to want to live and work in America.
There is much of me that would prefer living in Spain to living in America. There are those who surely would usher me out the proverbial door as somehow un-American. But were I to live in Spain, I would always be an American living in Spain, hoping that my local “bodega” of choice carried Jack Daniels.
I do not have to hate America to love Spain, just as my Asian neighbors here in Montgomery County do not have to hate their homelands to love America. If we begin to look at it that way, assimilation becomes unnecessary. Rather, Chinese who come to America to live and Americans who go to Spain to live are making political, economic, and/or geographic choices with some profound cultural implications for them and almost no cultural implications for those who stay behind in either country.
So if you aren’t Asian or of Asian descent, check out the turtles and frogs at an Asian supermarket, and remember to buy something for dinner that night that you have never tried before. The experience just might make you glad that there are Asians in your community who aren’t trying to assimilate at all.