Ryan and the Technicolor Wardrobe
Short Stories and Essays

There was a brief time in high school where I would wake up early every Saturday morning and go to soccer practice, which is odd since I never had more than a casual interest in the sport.  The only times I could remember playing soccer were during recess during elementary school, and even then, it was just because it was the thing to do.  I played Little League baseball as a kid, I would play in a roller hockey league for a summer as an adult, and in the time between, I played badminton.  This practice wasn’t part of an organized league, it would be a group of mostly older guys from a few different Korean churches in the area.  In fact, there was only one guy at these practices that was my age, we’ll call him Walter.  We would carpool to practice together with a couple of the older men.

Walter went to a different church but he seemed to be quite at home in anyone’s car.  Walter was one of those kids who demanded that he always sit shotgun and he always had to be in charge of what music was playing in the car.  He would blast nothing but K-Pop to my chagrin. When he found out I didn’t care for it, he decided he would get on my case about how I liked “white music” (perhaps he didn’t know I listened to hip hop since he probably didn’t know who The Roots were).  It apparently became his calling in life to be an ambassador on the behalf of the Korean music industry and that he should educate me on K-Pop on how I could be a better Korean.  He definitely looked the part with his bleached (more like orange) hair  and über long bangs.  This “education” caused a lot of tension between us, since I never agreed to it, and since he was so condescending about it.  I never took to his teachings, and since we didn’t go to the same school or the same church, I thought that I wouldn’t have to deal with him after soccer was over, but that wasn’t the case.

Little did I know that Walter and I would end up enrolling at the same college.  Even though we went to a really big school, I kept on running into him.  I tried to avoid him, but we had friends that lived in the same dorm, so it was unavoidable.  He thought we were friends, so while I tried to avoid him, he kept on trying to get through to me.  He wasn’t the only Korean person on campus trying to show me the error of my ways, so I just started trying to tune any person out who started any introduction to me with “Are you Korean?  Do you speak Korean?”  While these questions seem innocent enough, they were usually followed by “Are you parents ashamed of you?  Why do you hate being Korean?” and hearing those questions definitely got under my skin.  My parents weren’t ashamed of me, I wasn’t ashamed of being Korean, but there was an assumption made that since I didn’t grow up speaking Korean, that there was some sort of negative story behind it.  I would explain that I grew up in the Midwest with very few Korean kids to talk to in my neighborhood, but my words would just fall on deaf ears.

It seemed like this stuff mattered more with Koreans than other Asian ethnicities (I could be wrong), which frustrated me even more.  It would take me a couple of years, but eventually I got over it, and surprisingly, one day, Walter got over it too.  After we moved out of the dorms after freshmen year, I didn’t see him for a while, and when I did, he was a lot more pleasant to be around.  He still had the bleached bangs, but he was no longer getting on my case about my lack of Koreaness.  In fact, there was an instance where one of his non-Korean friends asked why there were so many adopted Korean children.  Walter gave a predictable answer: “Because Korean babies are the best looking.”  I gave a more self-deprecating and cynical answer: “I guess Koreans don’t know how to use birth control.”  At a younger age, my response would’ve caused a lot of animosity between us, but Walter actually laughed at my comment.  I’m not sure what had happened to make him change his Korean pride way of life, but I’m glad that something did.  Maybe he finally became more comfortable in his skin, which allowed him to accept me for who I was, or perhaps he realized that being a Korean pride zealot wasn’t fun for him anymore and that he didn’t want to make being Korean a career.

As much as it’s documented that I’ve always hated going to mall with my mom, I always enjoyed going to the grocery store with her.  There are many reasons for this: being able to get a sneak peak on what my mom was going to make for dinner for the upcoming week, getting candy and toys from the coin slotted vending machines, and  I also remember killing a lot of time by talking to the guy who worked in the back, behind the milk section of the store.  He would push the cartons forward and refill the empty spaces (Does this job still exist?).  I would never see what he looked like, I never asked him for his name, but I would ask him questions about his job, sports, and what college he went to.  I wasn’t trying to insult the guy by asking him about college.  As a young kid, I assumed everyone went to college. (or jail was the alternative, I guess).  Talking to that guy, along with being able to press the pedal that moved the conveyor belt in the checkout lane gave me plenty to do on our trips to the market, and even as an adult, I’ve still managed to find it entertaining, even though Southern California grocery stores have taken away the ability for customers to control the conveyor belt.

As an adult, I’ve found that the most entertaining thing to do at a grocery store is to see what the people ahead of you in line are buying.  In a strange way, their shopping carts give you a small window into their lives.  Perhaps, they’re just buying food for just their upcoming meal, perhaps they’re buying their groceries for their week, or maybe they’re just buying a case of beer for a party they’re going to, but it’s uncanny how much information the contents of a person’s cart can give you.  I could come up with more than a handful of categories for my fellow shopping brethren – the single bachelor and his microwave dinners, the bitter divorcee and her cheap wine, the college student and their top ramen, and so on.  The aforementioned shoppers tend to carry an air of melancholy since this is their everyday lifestyle.  It may not necessarily be permanent, but for the time being, this is how they live their lives.  As I look back, I can say that I’ve been no different.

In college, my roommates and I lived down the street from a grocery store.  We often did our grocery shopping during the twilight hours.  Whether we did this to avoid crowds, or whether we shopped late at night just because that’s what college kids did, I can’t be for certain (I’m pretty certain that we were pillaging candy from the bulk candy containers).  We were definitely stereotypically poor college students.  During our twilight grocery excursions, we would be regularly seen with a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of balsamic vinegar, and a baguette of french bread.  While these three items might not scream “college students”, the fact that we would buy these items in the middle of the night clearly does.  There were no proteins, no fruits and vegetables, just bread and “sauce” for dipping.  This was definitely a reflection of who I was then: poor and I ate to live opposed to living to eat.

I’m obviously in a different stage of my life now, and my grocery cart reflects that.  While I still might pick up the occasional baguette of bread, my cart is now balanced with proteins (steak, chicken, pork, fish), vegetables, and fruits.  I learned how to cook after college so I found that a little bit of money can go a long way if you are okay with preparing meals by yourself.  You would be able to easily discern that if you had a snapshot of my college cart and my present cart side by side.  I would probably be a little embarrassed by hypothetical snapshots and I would probably implore you “not to judge me”, but you would anyways, and you should do so.  I still judge the people ahead of me in line to pass the time, and I gain a lot of amusement from it.  So to the couple who bought store made fried chicken, two packs of Klondike Bars, a handle of the cheapest grocery store brand Vodka, and a pack of Marlboro Reds, I thank you (I also can tell what you guys were up to that night… gross).  In a super voyeuristic and twisted way, you’ve brought the youthful joy of hanging out at the grocery store back to me, whether you knew it or not.