Buying into Belonging
Asian supermarkets have become a one-stop shop for cultural identity. Katia Lo Innes wonders if consumerism comes at the cost of community.
Supermarkets were my favorite American thing.
—Ling Ma, Severance
I wanted to find God but I couldn’t go to church, so instead I went grocery shopping. Stopping by the T&T, I perused the packages of expensive instant noodles as another wave of illness swept through Toronto. I told myself that grocery shopping could be meditative, that it was good I was buying Chinese food, that food was supposed to have an inherently generative power. I had been reminded, time and again, that food could bring me closer to my family, to my people, and to myself. But really I just needed something to eat.
The Asian supermarket has become a quasi-religious site for many Asians in North America, one that is often framed as a space of connectivity and belonging. One T&T ad ominously states: “Miss home? We’re here for you.” Chain stores like T&T and H Mart set themselves apart from the average Asian grocery store through their sheer size, nationwide reach, and abundance of imported Asian goods. Where else can you find everything you’ve ever craved under one roof? But this uncritical idolatry of grocery stores as a one-stop shop for cultural identity has started to unsettle me.
After centuries of racist rhetoric decrying Asian businesses as “unhygienic,” among other lazy insults, there’s been a noticeable shift in how we speak about Asian supermarkets in the West. This is thanks both to the meteoric rise of T&T and H Mart, as well as the mass proliferation of Asian American media, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat. A quick search of “grocery store” or “supermarket” in the popular Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group yields hundreds of fanatic posts, some claiming that shopping at Asian supermarkets is better than therapy. There has been at least one marriage proposal under a glowing H Mart sign, and other loyal shoppers stage graduation photos in produce aisles.
In her critically acclaimed essay-turned-memoir Crying in H Mart, Korean American author Michelle Zauner writes about how the store became a place to mediate her grief after her mother died. From Zauner’s perspective, H Mart is no longer just a grocery store but a pan-Asian mecca: “It’s a beautiful, holy place,” she writes. “A cafeteria full of people from all over the world who have been displaced in a foreign country, each with a different history. Where did they come from and how far did they travel? Why are they all here?”
When you’re feeling culturally isolated, it’s easy to crave the tastes you associate with family or home. I understand the impulse to find comfort in something as universal and accessible as the aisles of a grocery store. But the very genuine desire to access belonging through food can also create some friction when one’s sense of connection depends upon consumerist impulses. The reverence for Asian supermarkets is one of many manifestations of “boba liberalism,” a term coined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red to connote the shallow, consumer-capitalist behaviour prevalent in middle-class East and Southeast Asian communities. Simply put, boba liberalism suggests that if you buy more Asian commodities, like boba or instant ramen, you’ll fully actualize as an Asian person.
To be Asian is no longer solely based in racial or cultural traits, but rather a consumer demographic where your identity is validated through your purchases. As this trend continues, we see ourselves as shoppers first and foremost, separated from our ancestors and our personal histories.
I used to believe that food was a direct avenue to love. When I moved to Montreal and couldn’t find any Asian friends, I started going to G&D Supermarket in Chinatown, in search of some cultural revelation. If I couldn’t find a community, I figured I would become my own community, manifesting love and future friendships through cooking. I can’t remember what foods I bought in those early years. I wasn’t a very good cook, so it was probably limited to lap cheong and black vinegar. Mostly I tapped on the glass of the fish tanks, watching bubbles trickle up from the mouths of the sea bass. I didn’t really talk to many people. My interactions with the staff and other customers were always short and cordial. When I was lonely, sometimes just standing in a store with other Asian people felt close enough to home. The bar was low.
A few years later and one year into the pandemic, I was standing a block away from the store, in Chinatown, at a vigil for those who died in the Atlanta spa shootings. Earlier that week, eight people had been killed in a man’s misogynistic fit, including six Asian women who worked in the spas he had targeted. I was hit by the realization that—besides my trips to the supermarket—I had not been surrounded by this many Asian people in months. There had been no Chinese New Year festivities, no Mid-Autumn dinners. I hadn’t seen my family all together in over a year. In this moment of collective grief, the stark difference between the grocery store and the vigil was not lost on me. How had supermarkets, essentially places of commerce and commodities, come to take up so much space in my life? They’d become a central theatre, a place where I performed a commodified, mock-cultural identity.
While food can heal us, it can just as easily isolate and trap us by directing our cultural loneliness into capitalist systems of exploitation. While shopping, I’ve felt a strange kinship with the vacuum-sealed packs of Yakult and Chapagetti. I’ve often felt numb and hollowed out living in Montreal, like I too am caught behind a pane of plastic, my ethnicity up for sale. It can feel simpler to carry on in this state of alienation than to break out and seek comfort in true community.
The history of Asian migration and settlement in Canada is defined by exclusion. From Japanese internment camps to the Komogata Maru to the Chinese Exclusion act, the Canadian government has never welcomed Asians. Still, Asian people live in Canada. We create our own networks in Gam Saan, or Gold Mountain, the early nickname Chinese immigrants gave to North America in the nineteenth century. Our own ways of living.
Asian grocery stores fall into this national lineage of exclusion. As grocery stores, malls and other places of Asian commerce have been dubbed the “New Chinatowns” of the modern era by the New York Times, remember that Chinatowns—alongside Koreatowns, Little Tokyos, and other ethnic enclaves—are a direct result of housing and zoning discrimination. During the first wave of migration in the nineteenth century, many landlords would not rent to Asians, nor would business owners hire Asians. Employment laws in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan forbade Asian men from hiring white women, motivated by fears of racial assimilation and mixing. This fear of Asian assimilation into white culture meant that these laws were not repealed until 1968, effectively segregating Asian commerce.
The turn of Asian food from marginalized to mainstream predicates itself on the model minority myth, and mistakes the emulation of capitalist values as acceptance. These days there is a tinge of spiteful pride when Asian people talk about our modern supermarkets. They aren’t grimy and smelly anymore, but rather celebrated for their sterile cleanliness. Blocks of tofu are sealed in Tetra Paks. Pomelos are pre-wrapped in pink chiffon-like paper. Kimbap is individually wrapped in sheaths of plastic to prevent the seaweed from becoming soggy. The pungency that gives so many Asian cuisines their strength and restorative power is dulled, smothered by plastic so that it is palatable even to the non-Asian consumer. Everything is packaged for the individual. Everything is tidy. Everything is antithetical to how I’ve always understood food.
Food, especially the Chinese food I grew up eating, was not made for individual consumption. It has always been shared by many. It is from the earth, from the rivers that run deep from the Pearl River Delta to the South China Sea. It did not exist in a world of plastic. You could tell where your food was coming from by how the produce was still flecked with dirt, how the fish eyes stared back at you. Sharing this food makes sense. To share is to indulge, and to eschew any convenience and practicality imposed onto mealtime. Rather than rushing through a microwaved plate of food to get back to work or school, sitting down and sharing a meal becomes one of the rare ways we can connect and care for each other.
Yet lately, Asian Heritage Month has been more about shopping at Asian businesses and buying difficult-to-find imported snacks than it has been about actually caring for your community or focusing on the rituals and experiences that define Asian food. We celebrate how we are now affluent and well-educated, and no longer have to shop in crowded aisles with other poor people. In one bizarre Globe and Mail essay about T&T, Jan Wong writes: “I love bok choy, but hate Chinese supermarkets. They stink. They have icky, wet floors. The staff is rude. The customers are worse. They push, shove and cut in line .... Now, many Asians are educated and affluent. T&T sells mangosteens and dragon fruit in a pristine environment.” At what cost is this “pristine environment” maintained? And who exactly is benefitting from this presentation?
Walking through a T&T, these patterns of division and exploitation become visible, reminding us that there are “good Asians” and “bad Asians.” The bad Asians are almost always lower-class, darker-skinned South and Southeast Asian, their food less proudly featured in supermarket aisles. Merchandising skews toward the palettes of a largely middle-class East Asian audience. You can find dozens of iterations of Japanese curry roux or Korean jangs, but have no luck finding kroeung paste, a staple herb blend in Khmer cooking. Granted, T&T is a Taiwanese-Canadian company, yet its slogan, “Your Favourite Asian Grocery Store,” makes a bold claim for pan-Asian acceptance.
Now, many Asian supermarkets and grocery stores seem to be pricing out the very communities that created them, raising prices and collecting profit from their underpaid and mainly immigrant workers. The clean, neatly stocked shelves with expensive instant self-heating hot pot meals, which come completely assembled in the package, offer a kind of reassurance: You are not dirty. Your suffering justifies your excess and elitism. You, as a shopper, belong.
It’s worth noting that T&T is quite literally built on the backs of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Infamous for their union-busting tactics, T&T also continues to face allegations of unsafe working conditions on Glassdoor. While the company was under different ownsership, it was investigated by the Tyee for allegedly exploiting migrant workers from mainland China at one of its Vancouver locations, withholding a worker’s passport, social security card, and work permit, as well as underpaying employees.
These questions about domestic labour practices do not even begin to take into consideration the network of global trade that leads international produce to North America. Over half of fresh fruit and a third of fresh vegetables in the United States are imported, a practice that requires a disturbing amount of natural resources to manufacture and ship. Crop farming and mass consumerism tie these stores to an international network of exploitation. Knowing this, why do we allow chain grocery stores to take up such prominent space in our diasporas?
Food is an undeniable conduit of culture—it’s how we nourish ourselves physically and spiritually. But food is not inherently transformative and eating is not a radical act in and of itself. When we talk about foodways as paths for Asian liberation, we must ask ourselves: who gets to sit at the table? The supermarket’s position as a central locus of Asian foodways in North America has become even more troublesome as we hurtle towards greater food insecurity and climate catastrophe. The divide between those who are privileged enough to shop at T&T and those who cannot—those who are working the menial labour jobs that allow international chains to flourish—becomes wider and wider. How, then, can we nourish each other at the end times?
I cook a lot now. I cook for my roommates almost daily, and when I’m home, I make dumplings by the hundreds to give to my siblings in freezer-safe Ziploc bags. I am a firm believer that good food, especially access to ethnically specific food, is crucial to your health and wellbeing. Rather than seeing food as a magic vector to bring myself into an enlightened condition, I now place it neatly in my broader vocabulary of trust and care. As it turns out, there is no fixed recipe to follow for belonging.
There is a Chinese saying that when inviting friends for dinner, it’s just “one more pair of chopsticks.” It’s a form of pride to be able to feed your friends. The best way to put this mantra into practice is hot pot, a sort of perpetual stew to dump meats, vegetables, noodles—whatever strikes your fancy, really—into a bubbling broth. The beauty of hot pot lies in its communalism and adaptability: individual packages of ramen are dumped into the broth to make one mega-soup for all to share.
I take great joy in shopping for hot pot. Thankfully, since the vigil, I’ve been fortunate to have gained some wonderful Asian friends to share these meals with. To prepare, I wander through my favourite Asian grocery store, Marché Fu Tai, fielding everyone’s requests via text. What type of meat are we feeling tonight? How many bags of fish balls will be sufficient for our appetites? It’s a joy to prepare because it isn’t solitary. Usually, I panic-buy too much food and invite too many people. But in the end it’s no hassle. It’s just another pair of chopsticks at the table. ⁂
Katia Lo Innes is a writer based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine. Recently, her writing was selected for the ECW Press BIPOC Writers Mentorship Program.