This past weekend, I made an excursion to the M2M Asian Convenience Store located on the corner of East 11th St. and 3rd Ave. for a grocery store haul. M2M, which is open from “Morning to Midnight” (sometimes past midnight) seven days of the week, is a great one stop shop for all your Asian food needs. As it brands itself as a convenience store, it attaches this meaning to itself and communicates it to consumers through various means: its exterior print posters and digital signs touting its extended hours and the message “Asian Convenience Store”; the range of items it carries; and its fast-serve, in-store, mini food counter. To give a more detailed description, M2M carries a plethora of Asian goods (mainly Korean and Japanese) from drinks, snacks, condiments, packaged foods, dry/frozen foods, pre-made foods, and produce to kitchen tools/gadgets, and also sells Western products and basic items like toilet paper and detergent. The small food corner serves up made-to-order Japanese favorites like udon, soba, sushi, rolls, donburi, and teriyaki bowls, which can be eaten at the tables inside or ordered as takeout.

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Bourdieu posits that consumers draw from three resources to reproduce social classes: “. . . economic capital (financial resources) . . . social capital (relationships, organizational affiliations, networks), [and] cultural capital [which is] a set of socially rare and distinctive tastes, skills, knowledge, and practices” (Holt 3). I found economic capital and cultural capital to be relevant to my haul experience. The affordable prices of the items in M2M should appeal to LCC consumers (consumers with low cultural capital resources) who, according to Holt, “. . . are acculturated in materially constrained environments . . .” and prefer items that are reasonably priced (getting a freshly made six piece roll for $5 in NYC is kind of a bargain) (8,10). An LCC consumer at M2M can be, for instance, someone with constrained economic capital such as an NYU college student who wants a cheap, quick meal or snack. Likewise, M2M should appeal to HCC consumers (consumers with high cultural capital resources) who are materially frugal and spend carefully, have racially inclusive tastes and enjoy experiencing eclectic, exotic foods, and favor casual atmospheres (11,13). An HCC consumer at M2M can be, for instance, someone without constrained economic capital such as a non-Asian upper class professional who enjoys being exposed to Asian cuisines and increasing his/her cultural capital by learning about and cooking it in his/her free time.

There is another M2M on Waverly Place between Greene St. and Mercer St., but what is great about this one is that it is located two blocks from my apartment. When I cook authentic Korean food and need special, traditional Korean food items, which are not available in the more popular surrounding grocery stores (like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods), M2M is conveniently there a doorstop away at my disposal.

However, there are still other options such as: Han Ah Reum, a Korean grocery store in Koreatown which has a large selection of Korean food items and brands; Sunrise Mart, a Japanese mart on East 9th St. and 3rd Ave.; and New York Mart, a Chinese market in Chinatown which has a wide variety of Asian produce and packaged traditional Chinese food items. The prices at Han Ah Reum and M2M are around the same, and if Han Ah Reum was within closer walking distance, I would shop there for its larger selection of Korean food items. I don’t bother shopping at Sunrise Mart because it prices steeply and carries very little Korean food items. New York Mart has the widest selection of Asian produce at the lowest prices, which is where I do most of my produce shopping. However, I avoid their made in China packaged food items with the concern that they have been denatured or are of low quality. Therefore, due to proximity, available options, preferences, and varying produce prices, I rely on M2M mainly for packaged traditional Korean food items essential for my cooking (but I know I can also buy fresh produce there – at a higher price – if I ever really need it at that moment). Because there are very few stores where I can purchase the packaged traditional Korean food items I need, if M2M has it, I will buy it regardless of the price. In other words, the “bargain” factor (getting a good value for the item’s price) appreciated by LCCs does not apply to my buying practices at M2M. However, I am still careful about my spending and am materially frugal as I buy only the items I need in the right quantities if they are at the “right value”, and this, coupled with my unconstrained financial/economic capital makes me an HCC consumer at M2M and other grocery stores. And since I buy groceries from other stores, namely Trader Joe’s for its organic produce and New York Mart for its diverse and low priced Asian produce, I am an omnivorous and mestizo consumer, meaning that I have an eclectic collection of tastes and  consume from different cultural categories. I am a health-conscious grocery consumer who purchases Korean, Asian, American, and organic (when I can) food items at lower/middle and middle class markets.

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Now Eastward ho to the packaged traditional Korean food items I selected. (Note: These haul items were not purchased because I already had them at home. But do not fret that my selections are ingenuine – these are all items that I like to have in stock and would purchase if I ran out.)

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The first item is fermented soybean paste (된장 – pronounced doenjang) which is a thick, salty, savory, and slightly tangy paste made from soybeans and a few other ingredients like rice, sugar, and salt. Fermented soybean paste, which ranges in color from light to dark brown, is an essential flavoring ingredient, seasoning, and dipping condiment in many Korean stews, soups, side dishes, and rice wraps. This stuff is very pungent and many non-Koreans consider it an acquired taste which I can understand. As you can see in the picture, M2M had two brands: on the left is Choripdongi (초립동이) and on the right is Haechandeul (해찬들). Without hesitation I was drawn to the Haechandeul brand, because it is a major Korean food brand and that is what my mother used to buy before buying homemade doenjang from a grandma at church, but I digress. Ideally, I would like to get my hands on this homemade doenjang if I could since I think homemade food is always higher in quality, but that is not so feasible when living on the opposite coast. Also, I have never heard of the other brand so I feel more comfortable going with a familiar brand that I have used before. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with the Choripdongi doenjang. My preference here is illustrative of branding, in which brands come to carry more weight or meaning than the products. Branding is the cultural meaning that gets attached to a product or entity by producers, for strategic ends. It is about generating meaning around a product. And it more often than not creates an exchange value (how much we are willing to pay for something) that exceeds the item’s use value (the needs the item satisfies). The Choripdongi doenjang and Haechandeul doenjang have the same use value and may in fact be almost identical, but for me, the Haechandeul brand carries a significant meaning which is why I choose and put my trust in it.  I have come to associate Haechandeul with authentic Korean cuisine and by using its food products, I am instilled with the faith that I can replicate some of my mother’s authentic Korean dishes as a college student with rare access to home cooking. The Haechandeul doenjang has a higher exchange value than the Choripdongi doenjang in my book.

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The second item is dried anchovies (멸치 pronounced myul chee), another extremely important ingredient in Korean cuisine. Like doenjang, dried anchovies can be incorporated into side dishes to be eaten with rice. However, its greater use is in making an umami rich anchovy stock which serves as the base for a countless number of stews and soups. Dried anchovies come in different sizes – small, medium, and large; the small anchovies are often used in side dishes and the medium and large (which are two to three inches long) are used to make a flavorful stock. The first step in making anchovy stock is to degut a handful of anchovies by opening their stomachs. Skipping this step will make for a slightly sour stock. Also, the heads should be left on, as they impart flavor as well. Then you put the anchovies in a large pot of water (this is just the ratio I use all the time) and leave them to soak, anywhere from half an hour to several hours. Next, you bring the pot to a boil with the lid off so as to let any fishy aromas escape. After ten minutes, the anchovies need to be strained out and the stock should be brought down to a gentle boil for twenty more minutes. These are the general steps, but people seem to have their own, slightly different way of making it. For instance, some people leave the heads out and do not presoak, but this results in a less flavorful stock. Also, a thick type of seaweed (다시마, pronounced dashima) can be added to heighten the umami flavor. People who are not familiar with Korean cooking would most likely have no idea what dried anchovies are used for if they came across it in grocery store. However, my knowledge of how to (and how not to) consume them,  skills/experience/practice cooking with them, and taste for them (knowing that they create great flavor) gives me high cultural capital in regards to Korean cuisine compared to those who are unfamiliar with dried anchovies.

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The third item is dried seaweed (미역 pronounced mee yuk). As you can see in the picture, I am holding two different brands. M2M carried only one Korean brand, Ottogi (오뚜기), on the left, and several Japanese brands (one is shown on the right). As with Haechandeul, Ottogi is a brand I am familiar with and would choose since my mother uses some of their food products. However, in the case of seaweed (and any sea algae/seafood for that matter, which includes those dried anchovies above [the left two are Korean brands and the right two are Japanese brands]), I would choose a Korean brand over a Japanese brand even if I was not familiar with the Korean brand. The logic behind my preference is due to my high cultural capital related knowledge of the Japanese tsunami a few years back which resulted in radioactive leakage into Japanese ocean waters. And as with the dried anchovies, my knowledge, skills/experience/practice, and taste surrounding dried seaweed lend me high cultural capital in the field of Korean cuisine. This high cultural capital is manifested in the form of a secondary consumption, which de Certeau describes as a production in the the act of consumption. In other words, I would not just eat the dried seaweed straight out of the package (which goes for the other items I chose), because they are not very palatable as is. They are meant to be consumed after being cooked or changed in some way. For instance, with the dried seaweed “raw material”, I would make Korean seaweed soup. Making this involves soaking the seaweed to return it to its “living” form, then combining and cooking it with other ingredients to produce a delicious soup.

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The fourth item is Korean rice cakes, which are chewy pillows of goodness made by steaming glutinous rice and/or rice flour and then pounding, shaping, and slicing them. As you can see in the picture, the oval shaped rice cakes are made from brown rice, whereas the cylindrical rice cakes are made from white rice. Both taste almost the same, but since I like to make healthy food choices, I will get the brown rice kind when I can. My knowledge regarding healthy, packaged traditional Korean food options also lends me high cultural capital in the field of Korean cuisine.

The oval shaped rice cakes are associated with Korean Lunar New Year (설날, pronounced Seollal) because rice cake soup (떡국, pronounced ddukguk) is traditionally eaten on that day. The cylindrical shaped rice cakes are used to make one of my most favorite Korean dishes, 떡볶이 (pronounced ddukkboki), which consists of rice cakes simmered in a thick, spicy, and slightly sweet, red pepper paste sauce. It is a very popular street food in South Korea and is a comfort food that is enjoyed by children and adults alike. I chose these two items because they recall fond memories of the ritualistic practice of eating rice cake soup with my family on Korean New Year’s and growing up with ddukboki as a special after school snack prepared lovingly by my mother. These sentimental meanings do not intrinsically reside in the rice cakes themselves, but have been created by me. Those who do not partake in traditional Korean holidays or Korean culture most likely would not attach nostalgic meanings to Korean rice cakes, but maybe rather simple meanings such as “tasty Korean food”. For me, Korean rice cakes, do not just undergo a secondary production into rice cake soup or ddukkboki, but they also result in a secondary      (re)production of my Korean (American) identity. Because the memories and meanings I have attached to Korean rice cakes are powerful, the dishes they appear in remind me strongly of my Korean roots.

The majority of Asian goods that M2M carries have been deterritorialized, meaning that they have been taken out of their Asian countries (mainly Korea and Japan) transplanted in an American context. I think that there are two general groups of regular M2M customers. One group consists of LCCs who are not familiar with Asian foods and cuisines and also HCCs who practice combinatorial inventiveness (mixing and matching objects in eclectic and unique ways). This group would most likely appropriate M2M’s products, or add their own meanings to them. For instance, an LCC consumer might unknowingly (due to a lack of knowledge about Asian foods) consume foods items “incorrectly” while thinking that they are consuming it correclty. And an HCC consumer with a good knowledge of Asian foods and cuisines might purposefully create multi-cultural fusion dishes. The second group of regular consumers includes HCCs who have a knowledge of a specific or several Asian cuisine(s)/Asian foods, and are interested in creating authentic dishes. This group would most likely assimilate to M2M’s products, or adapt to their existing meanings (which are made by their producers and communities and cultures that use them). I fit into this latter group, because I consciously buy these traditional Korean food items and use/assimilate to them in their traditional, intended ways to create authentic Korean dishes. This consumption practice is one means by which I connect with and reaffirm my Korean (American) identity.

My reasons for shopping at M2M and the items I typically buy there relate to my habitus, tastes, and lifestyle. According to Bourdieu, habitus is defined as our dispositions or natural inclinations. It is the set of tastes, knowledges, and habits we possess. Though it seems to come from within us, it is in fact shaped during childhood by external factors such as the family (Lury 91). My habitus is what structures my affinity for Korean cuisine and drives me to buy these packaged traditional Korean food items. My taste for, knowledge about, and habit of eating Korean food was shaped during childhood through my continual exposure to Korean food while living under my parents. Although Bourdieu would argue that habitus operates unconsciously, Featherstone would argue in a more updated line of thought that it is consciously shaped through consumption. As I have mentioned, I consciously consume traditional Korean foods because doing so is a way for me to maintain my Korean (American) identity, which I value. And this consumption shapes and reproduces my habitus in a cyclical cycle. Bourdieu also argues that habitus is importantly linked to class position (92). Class position or social class is defined by Weber as “. . . groupings based not only on economic position, but also on noneconomic criteria such as morals, culture, and lifestyle . . .” (Holt 2).  Our tastes, or partialities, are dictated by social class position; they are socially patterned (Lury 90). This means that my habitus and taste for Korean foods such as the items in my haul are derived from social classes such as Korean culture and Korean-American culture. Lifestyle is defined as the set of choices we make to establish cultural identity. Holt writes: “The manifestation of the structuring capabilities of the habitus as tastes and consumption practices across many categories of goods and activities results in the construction of a distinctive set of consumption patterns, a lifestyle (“manifested preferences”) that both expresses and serves to reproduce the habitus” (Holt 4). My habitus structures my taste for and consumption of Korean foods, which give rise to a lifestyle in which I consume and cook traditional Korean foods as one way to connect with my Korean roots; and this lifestyle in turn reproduces my habitus.

My consumption of these haul items would not be a form of conspicuous consumption, which is defined as spending or consuming in a way other people can see in order to improve status. I go grocery shopping by myself and cook inside my apartment. I cook Korean foods more for personal reasons like connecting with my Korean roots and do not feel the need to showcase my “skills” to others. My habitus, social class, taste, and lifestyle in regards to Korean foods and my Korean (American) identity align me within an imagined community of non-Korean and Korean people who have a knowledge of, taste for, and skills/experience/practice cooking with Korean foods. As Korean cuisine increasingly becomes popular, this imagined community will grow, and though the members will never meet or come into contact with everyone in the community, they will remain united through their common appreciation.

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