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  • The Korean Woman
  • Helena Rho (bio)

It is a Saturday in March, but snow flurries swirl as my daughter and I step out of her ballet school. She asks to go to Sam Bok for lunch. Again. I am reluctant to go to the small Korean grocery store in the middle of the Strip, but I agree. It is one of the infrequent ways my daughter, who is half-Korean because of me, eats Korean food. Since September, we have established a routine: after ballet, we go to Sam Bok for lunch, then Klavon's for ice cream.

We drive to the center of the Strip District in Pittsburgh. Even with snow and below-freezing temperatures, parking in the Strip is impossible. I drive past the fresh-flower stands, T-shirt vendors, sidewalk carts loaded with pad thai, meatball Parmesan subs, and sweet potato pies. Past the Italian specialty market, the antiques warehouse, the costume shop, and the largest vendor of seafood in the city. Throngs of people squeezed on the sidewalks, spilling into the streets. Many restaurants in Pittsburgh buy their fresh produce, meat, and fish in the Strip District. On weekends, everybody else comes to the Strip to buy any number of unusual things not found anywhere else in the city. When we moved here a year earlier, I was surprised to find, in the midst of what is considered a Midwestern city of mostly Eastern European descendants, a Korean grocery store. How this oddity called Sam Bok exists in the heart of the Strip remains a mystery to me. How many Koreans could there be in Pittsburgh?

We drive in circles for what seems like an interminable time.

"Erin, if we don't find a spot soon, we're going home." I blow out my breath. In the rearview mirror, I spy my daughter lounging back in her booster seat, staring out the window, her eyes glazed over. I can see her dark hair [End Page 61] pulled back in a ballet bun with pink hair netting to match her pink leotard and pink tights. Her eyes are not as wide-set as mine, without the epicanthal folds. And her nose is more prominent, more Caucasian. But she looks like me; everyone says so.

She turns her head lazily toward me. "Come on, Mommy; we'll find one."

I raise my voice. "Erin, there are no spots! Don't you see the cars double-parked all over the place? We should go home."

Abruptly she sits up, presses her nose to the window. "Please, Mommy, please. I'll help you look. I really want to go to Sam Bok."

I am not immune to her pleading. She is seven years old. "One more time around the block. But then, that's it, okay?"

"Okay," she answers quietly, so uncharacteristic of her exuberant nature.

A spot opens up, and we don't even have to pay. I gloat and my daughter laughs. When we walk past the accordion player in front of Wholey's Fish Market, she asks for a dollar to put in his cup. A Polish polka fills the air. Laughter, snatches of conversation, and shouts of "kettle corn, two dollars a bag!" ebb and flow around us. I wait while she runs in to pet the tomato-loving dachshund in Balcony Cookware. The wind gusts up.

We run into Sam Bok and exhale with relief. The Korean grocery store has a small sushi bar, to the left of the entrance, but serves no sushi. Instead, they have a limited selection of Korean food. We sit on black vinyl barstools, only six at the counter. We are the only customers. There are long lines outside for Korean barbeque chicken and mung-bean pancakes, but not inside. Maybe the peeling linoleum floor deters people. Maybe it is the counter devoid of sushi. The same Korean woman stands behind the empty glass case, waiting for our order. She greets us in Korean. We answer, "Hello," in English.

Even though my daughter and I have come almost every Saturday for lunch since September, the Korean woman and I have exchanged only a few words. Once, she asked me if...


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pp. 61-69
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