401 book translation project: Becker’s Store Kang Taegong
This next article is about a Korean immigrant family running a convenience store. The father in this story, is called Kang Tae Gong. In Korea, this is what you would call someone who loves to go fishing.
Kang Tae Gong was a figure in Chinese history from 11th century B.C. (also romanized as Jiang Taigong, and also known as Lu Shang or Jiang Ziya.) Aside from fishing he is remembered as a brilliant military strategist credited with writing The Six Secret Strategic Teachings. He was a person who found success late in life in his eighties and his story is one of sincere effort, equanimity and patience.
When I think of fishing, I imagine a lot of waiting, nothing too strenuous. But in the article, the fishing in North America is described as too active to be enjoyable by my dad. I’m not sure what type of fishing he was referring to. Maybe fly fishing?
Here is a video featuring both a Korean fishing rod and in contrast a boy with North American rod and reel that requires casting and recasting to move the lure through the water. Both seem pretty low key, although for sure, you are free to take a nap, or as shown in this video, grill some pork belly with a Korean fishing rod set up.
The life of a Korean family running a convenience store is also the basis for the CBC television comedy series called Kim’s Convenience. (You can watch the whole first season online.) It is based on a stage play by Ins Choi, which I got to see when it came to Calgary a few years ago. It was the first time I had seen a story of a Korean Canadian family on stage or on television as the main characters. It was moving and very funny. My kids watched it and every time they would ask, “Is that how it was when you were growing up?” followed by a Mr. Kim imitation. My mom watched a few episodes too and thought it was a realistic portrayal of a Korean family.
Also from CBC, here are a few other stories from Canadian Corner stores.
Becker’s Store Kang Tae Gong
Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, 1970’s, Korean Journal, Toronto
Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak
There was a time when this man, like Kang Tae-Gong, would drop his 10,000 responsibilities and go fishing whenever he could, but now he is living the life of Becker’s Store owner and calls himself Mr. Kang-Becker. In and around Toronto, hundreds of convenience stores, like Becker’s, Mac’s Milk and privately owned corner stores are run by Korean people. Working 16 hour days, 7 days a week in a Canadian convenience store? “Becker’s life …What life?”, the owner says jokingly. It’s very hard work.
Sleep is not sleep, but putting the eyelids together. Eating is not eating but feeding yourself as you keep working. Working is our life, they say. It’s not really making money, but since there is no time to spend it, some money is saved. For the hourly wage and the number of hours a week, it is commerce at it’s most basic, a front line selling job that is not taken up by average Canadians.
“Even so, to be with your spouse, isn’t that a good thing?” one could say, but he adds with a laugh, “It’s not good to be together and quarrel all the time.” If there is laughter in the family business then we can take on any challenges of this hard work, they say.
“Is this a life or is it prison life?” Housework is a mess and you have to leave behind cooking healthy food for the children and being there to look after them.
You feel like quitting the business right away. That is the honest feeling that many wives share. Making money to live is not easy anywhere. But after one year they can have ten thousand to twenty thousand in the bank. For a working couple, it is quite a good income.
Would that not be thirty to fifty thousand in one year? That’s why Canadian people say Korean people are hard workers, I don’t know if some might say the Oriental Jews. It is true that Korean business owners have high credit ratings and are favourably regarded by the Canadian financial sector.
The stereotype of the Italian or Portuguese construction worker, the Greek or Chinese restauranteur, the Korean milk store owner is not by chance. I am sure that in 10 or 20 years Korean people operating these primary businesses will establish themselves financially and be leaders in the Korean community. For a comparative example, Greeks and Chinese have been in the US for 50 years and it is not by chance that the second generation have made great progress economically and academically. Behind their success is always strong will and tears of blood. We all know that our hard work today is not only for us, but rather to lay the foundation for the next generation so they can have a better life.
Let’s return to Mr Kang’s life. He has been managing a Becker’s store for four years now and he has three sons including one who has graduated high school. He has moved twice and now they work at a downtown Becker’s location with weekly sales of $9000. Perhaps due to their honest work ethic, the head office gave them a prime downtown location. They never say “It’s a hard life.” or “It’s killing me.” They just say, “It’s the usual.” and smile. His goal in life is to send his three children to a good school and if he has time, he enjoys going fishing.
His eldest son graduated from U of T and he is sending him to Boston to do a master’s degree. He wants to send his other two children to Boston too. Before starting a milk store, his family was in Boston and he dreamed of buying a condo in Boston in three years time, not a condo in Florida like many people might dream. It just takes a day to travel to Boston, so it’s like a family from the countryside sending their children to Seoul University.
Now they are living in a 4 bedroom semidetached house. Although they could live in a larger house, it is close to school so they live there. This may be a common situation among Korean people.
Every other weekend, he goes fishing at Jackson Point on the shore of Lake Simcoe, close to Toronto. Catching fish is not as important as sitting by the water with a fishing rod waiting for a bite, relaxing in the shade of a tree, on the edge of falling asleep. That is sweet weekend bliss. To spend just half a day that way is wonderful. In another life in Korea, his wife says she was a fishing widow.
I have two Korean fishing rods, though I have not used them very much. The style of fishing I have seen here is not as satisfying because the pleasure of putting bait on the hook and waiting for the fish to bite is missing. A style of fishing that requires speed is not my style of fishing. For my taste, true fishing involves dropping a line into the water and laying on the grass. Even so, the Kang family is fortunate to have sons who are old enough to work at the counter and once or twice a month making it possible to get away for a short while on a weekend.
Store owners regularly get together for a late meal, or “midnight party”. This may be hard to adapt to if you don’t own a store. A midnight party does not have to be on a weekend. It could be a birthday party or a money pool group dinner, a dozen families get together for a party once or twice a month. The store closes at 11 pm and by 12 or 12:30 people have gathered and with no time to lose they make the most of their time together and have fun. When they gather, there will be stories, gambling with Korean cards or poker. It’s not about winning or losing money, but a place to talk shop with other store owners and exchange ideas about business management and talk about successes and challenges. Perhaps it’s the only time to vent frustrations and air grievances.
On the other hand, being prepared for armed robbery and the problem of shoplifting are serious topics that are discussed. In Toronto alone, one or two incidents a month take place in Korean shops. It is said that the best thing to do in case of a robbery is to open the cash register quietly. For the store owners, their greatest desire is to manage to work full time with one full day off a week.
In a free market, large businesses are able to give employees a day off on the weekend or hire staff to work on the weekend, but this is very difficult for these small businesses. With some experience, you can buy a store and manage it, but to expand the business or operate it long term is a bigger challenge. One thing you can be assured of is that the hard work of those store owners will be rewarded in the future, not only financially, but they will become prominent leaders in Korean immigrant society.
Every day with swollen legs operating the cash register, a penny or two more, like collecting dust, they cannot go to see the autumn leaves. They just remark that another year has gone by already. Out the window, they see the leaves of the trees beside the road and perhaps it will take Mr. and Mrs. Kang back to seeing the yellow gingko leaves at Deoksugung palace.
How is everything? “Well, it’s the usual.” the owner says busy working the till.