Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lost and Hungry Under the Shadow of Chicago's Koreatown

Koreatown, Chicago
Here is my destination: Chicago's Koreatown. Or what's left of it.

It's not that Chicago has a shortage of Asians. On the Brownline to Kimball I'm counting five of various ages and temperaments (and, of course, nationalities), observe: a young woman in black business attire staring plaintively out the window; an old man sitting directly in front of me, legs outstretched, one earbud in his left ear, sunglasses hiding his exhaustion; a young girl in Ugg boats sipping an Orange Julius; an ancient lady, groves etched into her skin; and me. Ha. Look at that. I counted me.

So what's happened to Chicago's Koreatown? According to the 2010 census, there are about 60,000 Koreans living in Chicago. Seattle, a much smaller city, has a population of nearly 52,000 Koreans. There's been talk of a great Korean migration, of waves of Koreans leaving the mean city streets for quiet, serene Chicago suburbs. Koreatown, **Honory** Seoul Drive, is a reminder of what once was.

Where do the Korean-American Seniors go now? 
At the bookstore, the first thing the old owner says to me is, "We don't sell books in English." He is not being rude, just informative. He probably has gotten that question 1,000 times since he's opened.

I smile amiably and ask, "How did you know that I didn't know Korean?" He shrugs. I don't look even half Korean, so I'm not surprised by his reaction. And even if I did look Korean, I'm sure he could read my mannerisms as purely American. Or maybe I'm over thinking things.

Only in Korean
The bookstore has rows of Korean graphic novels grouped in complete series of fifteen to twenty. The bookstore is dimly lit, as are all the Korean shops I will enter. I have chosen this to be my first destination and I want to make the most out of it, holding the determination to make a purchase in order to sneak in another interaction. I pick two graphic novels! One is about a scantily clad secret agent/murderer with a thin blade that she revenges with (I assume). The other is absolutely beautiful and was hiding in it's own separate box on the floor (the whole series). The cover has a young boy with a spear and loincloth facing off against a ferocious tiger. There is expressive blue and and green water coloring on this cover that would look more at home at a modern art museum than on a comic book.

When I try to purchase these two, the old man shakes his head, no. He says, "I cannot sale these to you."

A part of me thinks: This is the moment.

This is where I confront Asian hypocrisy. Years of being told that I'm not Asian enough or not Asian at all by other Asians. This is where I get to say to him, to all of them, that though I may not know the language, my blood and my flesh is Korean. I can say to this man: I am of value, no matter what my background. I can say: you have no idea what I hold in my heart and you should be ashamed at refusing my money.

But before I can he explains what he's probably explained 1,000,000 times. These books are in a series and can only be bought in a series. The water colored series alone is $400.

I ask him to find me something cheaper. He pulls out a two-part series about secret agents pursuing a serial killer who travels by trailer (I believe). It is called, "Trailer". It is one of the most gruesome comics I have ever seen but I buy them for ten dollars. I ask him how long he's been in business. Over twenty years he tells me. I say, "That's awesome." He shrugs.

I ask him what happened to Koreatown. "Very small," is all that he'll say. "Not much here."

What will take the place of Koreatown? 
For a long stretch, I'm not finding anything Korean and I wonder if somehow I'm lost or if I've missed something in my earlier excitement. I'm hungry. My plan was to eat at a Korean restaurant but I'm not finding any, except one that opens only for dinner (it's 2:30). I'm so far down Lawrence that I'm finding more shops empty and abandoned, waiting for future occupations, a new wave of immigrants to fill in the shoes of the escaping Koreans.

I'm trying to think big picture but I'm unfocused because I'm so hungry and I'm imagining the bulgogi, the kimchee, the galbi that I have promised my stomach. I'm remembering the spicy fish soup that my mother makes when I come and visit her in Washington, which I don't know the name of but constantly crave.

New Chicago Kimchee is actually pretty old
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. There is still kimchee in Chicago. New Chicago Kimchee, a small, unremarkable shop with stacks of boxes and one refrigerator housing the spicy fermented dish in jars. I still remember my mother's paranoia over kimchee's smell and shudder at the idea of bringing a jar home to my unsuspecting roommates. This is despite my belief that the smell of kimchee is not only pleasant but all together desirable and that someday someone really smart will make a spicy kimchee air freshener that you can take on your person and breathe in during moments of intense anxiety. I've read stories of people hating the cabbage smell and comparing it to feet. This is completely strange to me as I can only describe kimchee as smelling like kimchee.

I buy the smallest plastic container, about the size of my fist, and the Korean man there, in his mid-forties reading a newspaper, tells me that it is really fermented squid. Which I love. Yes, sir, I will buy this from you.

I want to talk to him but he's not very interested, though polite. I ask him how long the store has been here and he mishears me and says they'll close at five.

"How many years have you been opened?" I ask.

"Almost thirty," he says, and he goes back to his newspaper, our transaction complete.

YES.
And then I find it.

I already passed it once, didn't even notice it, and I know why. It's so clean. So new. It doesn't fit into my idea of this dying Koreatown so it didn't register in my mind the first time.

But I see it on the way back. SSyal. Bless you.

Ssyal is a Korean ginseng house that sits on the corner of Lawrence and N. Keeler Ave, more a part of Mayfair then Koreatown. This restaurant is immaculate, full of clean, minimalist whites and grays. Besides the food there is nothing here that screams "Korean", which seems intentional, an effort in inclusion. Ssyal looks like it was opened yesterday not twenty years ago (it opened in 1993). There's an old lady with curly white hair that greets me with a "How are you" when I enter, and a young man a little younger than me who brings me tea, and then, finally my food.  

A Korean woman with two young kids is eating to the left of me, but besides that we are the only customers. I note that they are speaking English at the table, though the mother talks at length with the old lady in Korean, who turns out to be the owner. The old lady asks the kids about their food, "Do you like? Is it good?" 

This picture shows how hungry I was
I'm so hungry when I finally arrive here that no picture I take does the place any justice. The picture above is what I order, a spicy fish soup served in a clay plot (but not the one my mother makes, just as good though, and yes, I've forgotten its name too). I devour it. This isn't a food review but let me tell you that it's fucking perfect.

Empty side dishes, or "Banchan"
The side dishes that accompany it I eat in their entirety (a mix of vegetables, including perfectly sour kimchee). Though the picture above is also horrible; my stomach is sated.

Ssyal, I love you.

When I've finished, the old lady talks with me. She asks me how the meal was and beams with pride when I tell her that I loved everything. I tell her how clean her restaurant is. She tells me that they have remodeled.

I don't ask her about what happened to Koreatown. By now I've realized that isn't the story here. The story here is that these businesses have survived for decades in an ever-evolving city. And maybe not even that. Maybe the real story here is that there is not one story that can encapsulate any community.

I want to hug the old lady on the way out. Even though she is at least twenty years older then my own mother, she reminds me of her because of her warmth and pride and probably because she has fed me Korean food. I settle for a bow, the warmest affection I will receive today.

I want to know what her individual story is. The individual stories and struggles of the Korean bookstore, and of New Chicago Kimchee. But they are little islands here in Chicago, difficult to enter. I think now is the time to try.

I left Koreatown with the realization that I hadn't just been hungry for quite some time. I had been starving.