An Aisle to Asia
12,400 kilometers away, a food market brings Asian immigrants home.
At the gate of Asia Food Market on Erie Boulevard in Syracuse, the strong smell of fresh seafood may make you do a double-take. Inside the market, the refrigerators on the right stock Asian vegetables, such as bok choy, that can hardly ever be found in American groceries; dozens of shelves in the front of the store are packed with Asian sauces, snacks and even cooking utensils. Almost everything an Asian family household would use for cooking can be easily found here.
“If my parents only give me $150 per month to spend on extra foods and daily needs, Asia Food Market would be the best choice for me to shop [at for] what I need,” says Jacinta Du, a junior dual major in advertising and marketing who has now lived in Syracuse for three years.
Asia Food Market is, without a doubt, the most convenient store for Syracuse residents searching for foods and snacks from China, Korea and Japan that they might have never tasted before. Because of the market’s existence, the Asian food culture is becoming more pervasive in the Syracuse area.
After the Reform and Opening Up Policy was launched in 1978 in China, a huge wave of Chinese people immigrated to America from the 1980s to the 1990s. Li, the owner of Asia Food Market (he requested his full name not be used) was one of them; his first stop was Rochester, NY.
Originally from Fujian Province, China, Li came to the United States with his relatives in the 1990s to find a better life for himself and his future generations. Everything on this side of the world was completely new to him and he found it challenging to accommodate many aspects of American culture — especially the eating habits.
Walmart, Costco, Tops — all these markets meet American customers’ needs. “I really missed the taste of my hometown and wanted to make some Chinese dishes after I arrived in America in the 1990s, but there were no sauces available for me to do so,” says Li.
As the number of immigrants from Asian countries, especially China, grew, Li and his relatives considered opening an Asian food market here so that more of these immigrants can feel a sense of belonging and warmth in an unfamiliar land.
“We were just joking at first,” says Li. “We felt really tired of going to New York City to buy Chinese food when we first came here, so my relatives and I decided to try to open our first Asia Food Market in Rochester together in 2007.”
Surprisingly, for Li’s family, the first Asia Food Market was a great success. They then opened their second chain store in Buffalo, and their third one in Syracuse.
Li mentioned that the average Asian population in each city was only around 5 to 7 percent at the time. “We never thought about opening the market in Syracuse because it is a relatively small city and there was not a huge Asian population here,” he says.
However, many of their customers urged them to open a chain store in Syracuse to avoid driving an hour to Rochester for groceries. As a result, Asia Food Market came to Syracuse in 2014.
The market in Syracuse is like a cultural melting pot, according to Li. “We have several full-time employees from China and many part-time employees from Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and even South America.”
Though it seems like many cultures are colliding, communication between employees remains unhindered. “Because the work in a market is much easier and requires less skill, we’ve never had any arguments or problems,” Li says.
Li and his employees import Asian products every day from several Asian food agencies in New York City. All these products serve a large number of Syracuse customers, especially the Asian students on the hill.
Thanks to the market, Asian residents in Syracuse and students on campus can indulge their cravings, even when they are tens of thousands of kilometers away from home.
“We always want to do our best to welcome international students warmly because they are one of our largest customer groups,” says Li. “We can best empathize with their homesick feelings.”
*Editor’s note: The interview with Mr. Li was done bilingually, so parts of the article were translated from Mandarin.
Kaizhao (Zero) Lin, a sophomore studying international relations and newspaper at Syracuse University, wants to discover and retell the stories that he feels empathetic and grateful to.