I first met the owners of Corner Grocery—located in Everett, Washington—a little over three years ago. They came to me through that magic Korean network that never fails to astound me. The first Korean family I tutored for introduced me to a family who introduced me to a family who introduced me to THIS family… And how lucky I was to have met them. Tutoring their children is always one of the high points of my week. Their sons are brilliant. Tutoring them really isn’t work. It’s an honor. And the parents are probably one of the most adorable couples I’ve ever met. I don’t think I’ve ever met such warm and generous people.
Their family first moved here from Seoul at the end of 2006, for three reasons: One, air quality. (The father has some respiratory health problems, and needed to get out of Seoul’s pollution.) Two, educational opportunities for their sons. (The Korean university entrance exam system is ridiculously competitive. Most Korean teenagers get five hours of sleep a night because they spend so much time studying and attending after school and weekend academies.) Three, they have a family member who was already living in the Seattle area. Just a few months after they arrived, they took over the ownership of their family member’s convenience store in Everett. This is how they’ve made their living in this country ever since.
The store is much bigger than it looks from the outside, and it is packed with the usual American convenience store merchandise. Baseball caps are for sale near the register, embroidered with things like “Cowboy Up” and “Air Force”. Behind the register is a backroom with a concrete floor and a portable cooking burner where food can be heated. I don’t know how they would ever have a free moment to take a meal break, though. A customer seems to come in the door every two minutes, even on the rainiest days. Despite the impression I got from the bustling activity, the bad economy has hurt Corner Grocery’s business. But they’re getting by, at least.
A store like this is much easier to run in America than it would be in Korea. In Korea, things are too competitive. Here, running a business is not so intimidating. Most of their customers are Americans and Hispanic immigrants. Having a store in this part of Everett is nice, because the customers are warm and friendly…not cold and arrogant like “downtown people”, they told me. Also, the store is just a short drive from their home, which allows them to balance parenthood with running a business. Sometimes their sons help them out with tasks on the weekends. I remember seeing the boys’ arms splattered with white paint one evening when I came to tutor them over the summer. They had spent the day helping their father paint the store’s roof. Their father laughed and told me he had to pay them to come help! I think the store gives the boys more than just a source of allowance, though. One year, the youngest boy used the store’s walk in freezer to test a theory about light for a science fair project, so there are some unexpected educational benefits. And being ravenous teenage boys who seem to have grow two more inches every time I see them, I’m sure they take advantage of the store’s snack foods when they can get away with it!
I have learned one very important thing about immigrants in America. Their education levels often exceed what Americans might assume from looking at the jobs they end up taking in this country. When I was a student at Shoreline Community College, I met a Ukrainian doctor who couldn’t work in her field in Seattle because America is so stingy about giving certifications to qualified foreign doctors. (I've heard it’s because American doctors don’t want their high wages threatened.) I once dated a Chilean man who had been an art teacher in Santiago, but who was working as a tree cutter in America, simply because he lacked fluency in English. Americans treated him like a flunky, not like an intelligent man with a master’s degree in art. The owners of Corner Grocery also have career backgrounds that I suspect Americans might not guess. The mother is brilliant at math, and worked as a math tutor in Korea. The father was an engineer for the French plastics company Rhodia.
Because I want to bring more awareness about the actual experiences of immigrants who are running small businesses in America, I will start posting stories every now and then about some of the business owners I’ve met in the Puget Sound region. Stay tuned!