Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe (2011)


Sometimes, the Korean forgets how strange he could appear in America.

My Korean Deli is a delightful story. Howe, an editor (at the time of the memoir) of the esteemed literary magazine The Paris Review, buys a convenience store in Brooklyn with his Korean American wife Gab. The memoir chronicles the many adventures of Howe in the course of running the deli as a (self-described) hilariously unqualified white-collar WASP. It is a nice setup that features two main personalities. On the side of Howe's life that involves esoteric mental work, there is Howe's boss George Plimpton -- a wealthy overgrown frat boy with his head in the clouds, cavorting in fabulous parties and supporting the arts. On the side that involves gritty manual labor, there is Howe's mother-in-law Kay -- no-nonsense immigrant with impossibly thick skin, working until she has a heart attack and coming back to work just a few weeks later.

Howe is a great story teller. If he could speak like he could write, you would love having a beer with him. His prose is smooth, at times maybe a little glib. With his deadpan and self-effacing sense of humor, the book frequently reduced the Korean to a collapsed pile of laughing rubble. Howe's eyes are keen for details, and are firmly fixated on people around him rather than himself. He selectively deploys humorous exaggerations that, if taken out of context, might be a wee bit offensive. (A reader of this blog emailed about how she was annoyed by Howe's description  of kimchi -- how it "gives the breath that can kill mice in the walls".) The portrait of Kay -- tiny Korean grandmother taking a drag of smoke while wearing a sleeveless shirt that says "Costa Rica!" -- is not necessarily flattering.

But intents are what offends, not words. Howe does not offend because he clearly approaches his subjects with love and warmth. He goes through great lengths to describe just how out of his elements he was, and just how strange people around him seemed. In fact, if I took anything away from My Korean Deli, it was that despite well-meaning people's best efforts, Korean Americans (along with a lot of other New Yorkers) can appear really strange and incomprehensible. Howe handles this quite admirably; he is honest about his frustrations, but at no point does a reader feel that he lets his frustrations slip into a cold blooded hatred. When bad things happen to Kay or Dwayne -- a large, foul-mouthed and big-hearted black man who works at the deli -- one would get choked up along with Howe.

The appeal of My Korean Deli for Korean American readers, however, goes beyond its discussion of Korean Americana. Despite Howe's profuse description of the difference between him and Korean Americans around him, Howe is actually not that different from Korean Americans of his generation:  generally in white-collar profession, little experience in the gritty parts of life, and unable to truly understand Korean Americans of our parents' generation even as we love them dearly. (After all, that is probably why Howe married his wife.) Often, the Korean found himself to be more affected by Howe's account of his life at the Paris Review -- as much as Howe has a vague sense that his work as a literary editor is somewhat BS, the Korean also has a vague sense that his work as a corporate lawyer is somewhat BS.

All in all, My Korean Deli is a fun read. The Korean recommends it.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the rec. Always looking for another good author. Have added this one to my Goodreads "to read" list & am looking forward to its turn.

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  2. The whole premise sounds like "look at me! I'm a white guy (aka one of YOU, the readers) and I'm doing what non-white people usually do! I'M SO SPECIAL. Oh by the way look at all these weird people I have to work with, aren't they hilarious?" Dwayne the big foul-mouthed black guy sounds like a stereotype too.

    Obviously I haven't read it so maybe it's totally different and the author doesn't treat minorities like zoo animals.

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  3. The OP pretty clearly said the author treats the people around him with love and warmth (and hardly like "zoo animals,") so the Korean has no idea why you would even write a comment like that.

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  4. Corporate law work is BS compared to running a Korean deli? In high school, I used to help out at my parents' store located in a bad part of town. BS ... is getting a gun drawn in your face for that benji in the cash register; BS ... is watching your parents slave away 365/24/7 while getting humiliated daily. I'll take my plush corporate law drone work over that BS any day.

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  5. Probably because "love and warmth" is not everything. I have had plenty of kindly people say some really ignorant, offensive things to me in the past.

    I have a major love-hate relationship with anthropological texts in general -- the majority of what is written is written from an outsider's perspective, because we are supposed to relate to them as outsiders. I'm sure the authors would say that they like and respect their "subjects", but they are still looking in from the outside, and will never truly know what is like to be a part of that culture. Ethnocentrism is something you can't just shake off.

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  6. "Howe is actually not that different from Korean Americans of his generation: generally in white-collar profession, little experience in the gritty parts of life, and unable to truly understand Korean Americans of our parents' generation even as we love them dearly."

    Speak for yourself TK. I toiled away for four years working full-time at my parent's One Hour Photo shop in a heavily hispanic part of town...

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