Overseas, ‘ordinary’ becomes true gemsOne of the most exciting things about traveling and living abroad is the way they heightens one’s sensitivity to and awareness of things that seem so ordinary at home. Part of the thrill of adjusting to a foreign environment is the pleasant surprise of finding things that are actually familiar, and the sense of wonder over finding them in otherwise unfamiliar surroundings.
Nowhere is this more readily apparent than at the Korean supermarket.
I remember the first time I discovered Top Store, a market in the small city of Gyeongju, where I used to live. At the grocer in my neighborhood, about the only things I recognized were Coca-Cola and carrots. The chicken there came in one form: featherless and whole.
So when I saw a jar of Skippy peanut butter, a popular American brand that my family had bought for decades, on the shelf at Top Store, I couldn’t help staring at it as lovingly as though it were my first-born child. I grinned from ear to ear and cradled the jar with both hands as I carried it to the checkout counter.
Even now that I live in Seoul, where foreign goods are more accessible, few things give me greater joy than to come across imported food items, never knowing what I’ll find or where I’ll find it.
I’m sure I sound ridiculous when I am moved to actually comment on the contents of a friend’s refrigerator: stocked with Pilsbury biscuit mix, Tropicana orange juice and Welch’s grape jelly from the commissary at the Yongsan Garrison. But it really gives me such a kick.
I can go “window shopping” at Hannam Supermarket, a store that specializes in imported foods, and entertain myself by just imagining the Western-style meals I could whip up. A package of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies or a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese might as well be made of solid gold for the joy they bring me while in Korea.
The best part is that it works both ways. After my initial excitement of returning to the States last summer, I found myself drawn to a not-so-local Korean market (It was a 30-minute drive from my house.).
I salivated over the boxes of Peppero, jars of doenjjang, trays of tteok and little yogurt drinks. Peeling back the green seal on one of the tiny yogurt bottles, I regarded the drink like a rare gem, savored the flavor with raptuous attention, and felt right at home.
by Kirsten Jerch