By Sophia Whittemore
My mom and I hang back in the insert-corporate-name supermarket’s checkout line, chatting happily about nasi goreng recipes in Bahasa. When we get to the front of the line, the cashier pauses and scrunches up her face.
“Uh… what’s this?” She asks, panic on her face as she holds up a bundle of greenish-yellow spices.
“Lemongrass.” My mother replies with an awkward grin.
The rest of the checkout goes smoothly. Then a jerky pause. The poor cashier holds up another bundle of brown roots.
“And…this?” She’s sweating at this point.
My mother smiles patiently at her, putting her hand over the young woman. “That’s ginger. Makes wonderful tea.” My mother further informs her. The cashier’s eyes widen a bit, and she nods sheepishly. The cashier compares the vegetables to a plastic-laminated comparison chart just to double check. We wait patiently, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with the poor young girl, her manager glowering over her.
When my mother leaves the market with her plastic bags in hand (the bags that will be reused as soon as we get home until they fall apart from wear-and-tear). She looks over at me and sighs. I can see it in her eyes.
Now, rewind that scenario and go to a different setting. A smaller supermarket, a little grungy but still mostly clean, in the corner of the city. People of all colors of the rainbow mill about and pick out dragon-fruit, lychee, rambutan, or fine-grained rice. We go to the cashier, who smiles knowingly at my mom.
“Turmeric?” My mom nods, smiling.
“Ah,” the cashier’s eyebrows raise a bit. “Ginger. Planning to make tea?”
My mother’s grin widens. I smile back. She’s home. This is comfort for her. Not corporate perfection. Not too-strict guidelines and sparkling tile floors. This is familiar. This is comfort at its finest.
At their hearts, ethnic supermarkets are homes for all those who go to them. And that’s beautiful.
Now, Pacific Standard Magazine recently published an article stating that the ethnic supermarket is dying out in favor of corporation giants. It’s not that hard to wonder why. People like sanitary. They like convenient. And in that convenience, smaller mom-and-pop shops get lost. The article suggests it’s the same reason that there are so few Jewish delis left. After WWII, Jewish delis allowed the struggling Jewish community to find new opportunity for themselves. And now, most of them have been absorbed into the supermarket “ethnic food” aisle.
A different article published in The Washington Post gives a rousing argument for why one should shop in ethnic supermarkets, citing many of the same reasons my mom would’ve in the above examples. For some ethnic supermarkets, imported produce can be cheaper due to a smaller amount of independent employees than in chain giants.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with convenience. I love running into a gas station when I need gum. I love fast food. I love clothes with the tags on them. But there are other things you can’t buy from a large-chain supermarket. You can’t buy the family-secret-recipes you share with the store owners. You can’t build generational-family relationships as the smaller, ethnic store gets passed down from line to line within the same family. You can’t hear about the rags-to-riches stories. I understand it’s a moral gray area when it comes to balancing markets and economies and crunching numbers and who gets employed where.
But remember. Sometimes, you need a touch of home when you’re far away from it. And you shouldn’t let that minority supermarket down the street from you die out in favor of a larger chain. Plus, who knows what sorts of treasures you’ll find? Imported fruits. Special brands of spices that you never even knew existed. Music and foreign movies and a special bond between customer and owner that you can’t get anywhere else.
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