NEW YORK, March 7, 2011 - A former senior editor at the Paris Review had his world turned upside down when his Korean American wife Gab decided to buy a Brooklyn deli for her parents, to repay them for the sacrifices they made to immigrate to America.
This was the story that unfolded as Ben Ryder Howe read from his new memoir My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store at an Asia Society lunchtime event.
Howe recounted how, in his new role as a convenience store owner, he quickly realized that he lacked the practical skills needed to perform even basic tasks, like making change. Furthermore, his New England WASP upbringing left him unprepared to navigate one of Brooklyn's most multi-ethnic neighborhoods, not to mention his Korean in-laws. Like the memoir itself, Howe was charming and honest about his experience, opening up about how the deli affected everything from his career to his personal relationships.
After his reading Howe was joined onstage by his wife, Gabrielle Howe, and Professor Haesook Kim, chair of the Asian Studies Program at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, for a Q & A session. Professor Kim and Howe discussed the "transformative odyssey" that the Howes embarked on during their deli experience, with Kim focusing on the difficulties inherent in navigating cultural differences.
As Howe explained, he and his wife found that despite many obvious differences between cultures, the store made them realize how alike those cultures can be. The author's ultimate message was one of transcending difference to find the humanity that everyone shares—as demonstrated by the close bonds he developed with both his Korean mother-in-law (whom he described as "the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers") and his African American store clerk.