The rows of hoisin sauce, stacks of instant ramen, and arrays of teaware at Yoon-ock’s grocery store, Oriental Pantry, rival the inventory of an H Mart. The mismatched wooden shelves and cluttered kitchen, though, make the Orange Street storefront feel more like my grandma’s apartment in Xi’an.
When I walk in on a lazy autumn Friday, four graduate students sit near the entrance. They are speaking in Mandarin. Yoon-ock Kim scrubs dishes behind the counter. She is vibrant and lively, rifling through cardboard boxes while punching in my order for one plain bibimbap.
Kim’s easy grace is the product of thirty-seven years of business ownership. She’s been running the Pantry since shortly after her immigration from South Korea in 1977. When Kim arrived in New Haven and began working as a teacher, the city had only one Asian grocery store, a tiny Chinese market catering to the small population of East Asian Yale students, including four Korean couples who, like Kim and her husband, had come to New Haven for graduate school.
“But four became eight the next year, and sixteen the year after that,” Kim explains from behind the counter, where she flattens and arranges lettuce leaves.
She and another Korean-born classmate shared the desire to start their own grocery store to serve the growing Asian population. Her friend established the business under her name, and in 1985, the Oriental Pantry opened its doors. For two and a half years, Kim helped her friend co-manage the store while she held a job at the Yale School of Medicine. Then, when her friend moved back to Korea, Kim quit her job and took over the store full-time.
Kim explains this career shift matter-of-factly, as if it requires no justification. She glides from the cash register, to a customer searching for ingredients, to the sizzling beef on the stovetop. Back at the counter, she takes an occasional break to lean over and address me directly.
Located a mile north of central campus, Oriental Pantry is a universe away from The Shops at Yale. There are no price barcodes, only colored index cards that mark the products and their prices in neon highlighter. Some of them have been re-marked, taped over, crossed out. Kim’s handwriting covers everything in soft, even curves. Time crawls.
“SOBA is good for the Summer. It cool down your heat,” reads one cloud-shaped, lime-green label. A price card for Tonkatsu sauce is accompanied by hand-written cooking instructions for pork katsu (“Deep Fry & Serve with sauce & finely sliced cabbage.”) Kim tells me she wrote the labels to educate customers about how to use different products. She even used to hold cooking lessons on Korean and Japanese cuisines for international students.
I can picture Kim ten years ago writing these note cards—tracing out the Hangul for international visitors, writing English messages for American students, a paper trail of her history across every wall.
While we talk, a Muslim man sifts through the shelves, interrupting every once in a while to ask Kim about her inventory. He wants to know if she carries udon noodles (she does), and if she can help him translate the Hangul characters on a different product (she can). After he checks out, Kim explains to me that she never intended Oriental Pantry to be exclusively for Korean students, or for students of Asian heritage. She loves teaching non-Asian guests about different foods and cultures.
Still it’s Yale’s international students for whom Oriental Pantry means the most.
The restaurant’s student regulars sometimes forget to pay after finishing their meal, Kim tells me. A few moments later, they always run back into the store, apologizing. Kim laughs when she describes this, and I wonder if she sees her younger self reflected in them—displaced from home, and seeking something that resembles it.
Earlier, Kim had said teaching and shopkeeping were vastly different roles. As I think about the notecards, her cooking lessons, the graduate students chatting at the entrance, I’m not so sure. Everyone who comes to Oriental Pantry, it seems, takes away more than their weekly groceries.
When I ask her about retirement, she entertains it briefly. “I’ll probably have to retire soon,” she says, “but not until I find someone who can run this place like me.”
What does she mean by “like me”? Well, the Oriental Pantry leans into its mismatched inventory: shelves of Japanese snacks beside Korean skincare, kids toys beside kitchen utensils. She doesn’t care about image curation or marketing—in fact, she doesn’t even take heed of the argument that “Oriental” is an offensive term because it exoticizes and generalizes all of East Asia. Like a remnant of a time when Yale had fewer than twenty East Asian graduate students, the store is colored by its intercultural customer base. It caters to anyone who comes craving a taste of Asia, and it welcomes them with indiscriminate warmth.
On the last day of classes in the fall semester, a friend and I passed in and out of Asian-owned shops on Chapel Street. We sipped lavender lattes and split a cheesecake at the French-Korean bakery Tous les Jours, picked out gifts at the Asian homegoods store UniLife. And as we walked through fluorescent-lit aisles of shoeboxes, she said what we were both thinking: “It’s so… sterile.”
I thought of an Eric Yip poem that ends with him eating rice at an American dim sum restaurant: “Steamed, perfect, white,” he wrote. To me that line captures it perfectly—the too-clean, too-perfect branding of Asian businesses at Yale and across the United States. The eco-conscious, minimalist, Marie Kondo-esque Muji store in Midtown. The trendy, millennial, matcha-with-oat-milk-half-sugar boba shop, complete with the glow of LED lights and notes of 88rising. If these enterprises are meant to remind America’s Asian diaspora of home, that home has been thoroughly commodified, westernized, and sterilized.
When Kim told me she quit her job to run the store, I couldn’t understand what it meant to love a place enough that you’d give up a career to hold onto it. But some time later, I realize that her love pours into every nook of Oriental Pantry, from the fortune cats promising good grades to plastic boxes of hand-rolled kimbap.
Tomorrow is Saturday. The store will fill with students buying groceries, sharing bits and pieces of their lives with Kim in conversation over the counter. As she replies, she’ll sometimes cross over the counter to shelve new goods or run to the register to get the bill. Oriental Pantry’s website claims that the store comprises three sections: gifts, grocery, and cafe. From the inside, where Korean face masks are crammed next to strawberry Pocky boxes and the footprints of all of its guests past linger in the aisles, I don’t think those divisions really exist. Everything just feels like home.