A Taste of Japan in North Carolina

I’m in tiny Hope Mills, North Carolina, visiting my mom this week. Yesterday I went to Youn’s Oriental Food Store, where my mom shops for Japanese ingredients.

Tae Im Williams, the spunky shop owner who opened the store more than 30 years ago, greeted me warmly and gave me a bag filled with snacks. (You can see the photos on the JapanCulture•NYC Tumblr page.)

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about Tae Im for Examiner.com, which I’m re-posting below. Reading this makes me wonder if bodega owners in New York City have stories similar to Tae Im’s.

Japanese cuisine, Korean cuisine, North Carolina

Youn's Oriental Food Store

The New York Japanese Culture Examiner is spending the week in Hope Mills, North Carolina. Although the small town outside of Fayetteville and near the military posts of Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base may seem an unlikely place for Japanese cultural activity, there is a fairly large Asian population due to military marriages. I am a product of one of those military marriages, so I decided I could examine Japanese culture with my Okinawan mother in North Carolina while I’m away from New York.

Food is the most obvious starting point, so my mother and I paid a visit to Youn’s Oriental Food Store, a place my mother has shopped for decades. Tae Im Williams has run the Asian market out of a small hut on Hope Mills Road in Fayetteville for thirty-one years. The shelves are lined with dried noodles, seaweed, and rice. The freezers are filled with entire squids, octopus legs, and kamaboko (fish cake). You can find anything you need to create the perfect Japanese, Korean, or even Thai meal. Shipments of these seemingly exotic foodstuffs arrive once a week from overseas.

Vegetables sold at Youn’s come from a distributor in Maryland, which delivers Asian vegetables such as daikon from all over the country, namely California. Whenever possible, Tae Im sells vegetables from local farmers. People in the community also bring in items, primarily spring onions, from their personal gardens, and Tae Im pickles shiso leaf and makes kimchee herself.

Tae Im’s daughter, Esther (yes, her name is Esther Williams), a graduate of the University of Georgia with a Masters in Social Work, grew up watching her mother interact with customers and build strong relationships through a shared interest in and love for Asian cuisine. Obviously Koreans and Japanese natives frequent the store, and Tae Im’s fluency in both Korean and Japanese is a plus. As the popularity of Asian cuisine has grown in the area, Youn’s has attracted many American customers, including Southerners who aren’t prepared for Tae Im’s personality.

After spending the first ten years of her life in Japan, Tae Im relocated to Busan, South Korea. South Korea’s second largest metropolis, Busan (formerly spelled Pusan) is a port city that Esther likens to Osaka, Japan.

“The people in Busan are like the people in Osaka,” Esther explains, meaning that people from those regions speak in straightforward language. At first, her mother’s direct disposition may seem a little gruff to some of Tae Im’s syrupy-sweet Southern customers. (“What do you want?” is a popular greeting of Tae Im’s.)

Tae Im even had an argument with an American customer, a colonel as well as a graduate of Seoul University, who complained that Tae Im’s kimchee didn’t have enough garlic. “What does he know?” Tae Im says with a laugh as she recalls the incident. “I’m the one who’s Korean. What [does] he know about making kimchee?” Tae Im and the customer later mended fences, and he even brought her presents on his subsequent visits to the store.

Despite her abruptness and the occasional confrontation, Tae Im has a wonderful sense of humor and loves to chat. She cares deeply for her large group of loyal customers, some of whom she’s helped to feed in times of need. “I’m not greedy. I’m a good Christian,” says Tae Im, a charter member of the Ireland Drive Korean Presbyterian Church.

To repay her for her advice and impromptu cooking lessons, Tae Im’s customers shower her with gifts: Corn and other products from their gardens, big catches from their fishing trips, tokens of appreciation at Christmastime.

“We believe food brings people together,” says Esther, whose goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in neuropsychology. And through food culture – a little bit Korean, a little bit Japanese – Tae Im Williams has managed to build a community in which everyone can be a member.

To read more stories about Japan on Examiner.com, check out NY Japanese Culture Examiner Justin Tedaldi.