Jessai Flores

Yale feels like a simulation. The tour groups always block the same paths. The chicken in the dining hall is always the same amount of dry. The playlists at frat parties never change. I feel like I am in a version of “The Truman Show” sometimes, but instead of being advertised kitchen utensils or cocoa drinks, I get introduced to yet another online anonymous discussion space every few months. There is no room for deviation here: that misplaced sauce bottle in Commons is more likely the work of a frat pledge than the mistake of the staff. Everything works well, sometimes too well that it scares me. 

I found an increasing need to microdose chaos as the days pass to remain sane. I used to hop on the Metro-North to the City to escape Yale’s apple-pie order, but that hasn’t been so kind to my bank account. So I settled for the next best place that would supply my cravings: Hong Kong Grocery Market. 

The Market, which ironically offers little from Hong Kong, is more than just another Asian grocery store to me. It has a comforting sense of chaos that no Yale-affiliated establishment embraces. The boxes meant for the storage room greet me in between racks, down the aisles and at the checkout counter. The polka-dotted and crystal-studded flip-flops are found in the same section as the meat fridge. There is a stray jar of dried shrimp nestled among fruits and butter in the refrigerated section. The hipster coffee shops around campus can only aspire to reach the forms of anarchy that the store has effortlessly mastered.  

The Market feels homely to me because it does not pretend to be perfect. The canned drinks on the floor could be placed elsewhere. That hollow tile near the storage room could be fixed. But these little imperfections do not impede the Market’s operations, and quite honestly, they add some charm to the place. This is not an institution that needs flashy interiors and state-of-the-art service to divert attention away from entrenched systemic problems. This is a modest grocery store that supplies Asian goods, and I respect the great job that it does. 

But much more than that, the Market is the closest thing to the grocery stores where most of my childhood in Malaysia played out. The dried shredded squid, grass jelly drinks, rice crackers and Tom Yum pastes that the store offers are goods that no grocery store back home will be complete without. The prices are about the same too, if I pretended for a second that exchange rates were not a thing. I can almost imagine myself frantically searching for dark soy sauce and wheat noodles as the exhaust pipe of my mother’s car outside rumbles in frustration. 

Being away from home for so long, I have had to look for pockets of home in places like the Market to remedy my yearning for home. I spend too many nights — more than I’d care to admit — sobbing at stock photos of Malaysian food, and though I do not have the culinary talents to remake these recipes, I find unadulterated joy in shuffling through the aisles pretending to look for ingredients for that laksa broth I cannot boil yet. I bathe myself under the faint fluorescent strip above me while taking in the somehow familiar scent of the store. I read the labels on the packaging carefully. 

The flight to Kuala Lumpur takes at least a day, but the walk to this market takes only ten minutes. There, I still get to say: “I’m home.” And I’m happy with that.