My first solo excursion into Chinatown was in San Francisco. It was a dizzying adventure marked by sidewalk stalls hawking everything from velvet slippers and porcelain tea sets to dim sum and plucked chickens hung up by their feet. At that point, my only trips “abroad” had been to Canada, but I knew without a doubt that Chinatown was, indeed, another world. All the signs were written in indecipherable (to me) foreign characters; the newsstands carried no English-language publications; and the people were, well, Chinese. Of course, once I’d had my fill of lo mein and white-rabbit candies, I hopped a bus back to America.
I’m a big fan of import stores. I love being able to slip into a tiny corner of, say, India without the bother and expense of buying a plane ticket and enduring jet lag. I enjoy the luxury of picking up authentic Mexican or Thai or Korean foods when I’m out running errands. Sometimes I even pride myself on my keen multiethnic shopping prowess … as if snacking on sushi counted as cultural understanding.
The real treasures in import shops, however, are often the proprietors who, unlike their curious customers, can’t catch a bus back to their homelands. A Saturday jaunt around Asheville will turn up retailers (as well as goods) from Europe, the British Isles, Africa and Asia — and that’s just for starters.
From the Himalayas to the Appalachians
“I’ve always been interested in meeting people from other countries,” says Sushila Lama, who owns Himalayas Import with her husband, Manoj. The couple imported their entire business from their home in Katmandu, Nepal, where Sushila’s family still runs the parent company. In fact, for Sushila, running an import store is second nature — she began working in her father’s shop at age 12.
“That store sells mostly antiques, regional items and ritual items,” Manoj explains. “It’s only visited by tourists.”
A lifetime of dealing with foreign travelers helps explain Sushila’s excellent English, as does her openness to folks from other cultures. “I like to talk to different people and make friends,” she says sweetly.
In their Battery Park store, the Lamas sell items similar to what the Katmandu shop offers. Along with Nepalese and Tibetan handicrafts, they feature Buddhist ritual objects such as bells and dorji sets and antique, hand-carved wooden stupas. “People who don’t know the meaning of these things don’t buy the ritual and cultural items,” says Manoj. “We sell to people we feel good about. We’re sharing our culture; some of what we sell is for the peace of mind, so we’re helping to heal people.”
Sushila adds: “And we educate people how to use healing items. Some people have never seen them before. They see the singing bowls and are amazed.”
For the Lamas, the shop is a labor of love. “Since this has been a family business for so long, [Sushila is] really interested in finding the real things, the quality things, and passing them on to the people,” Manoj explains. They buy much of their stock directly from Nepalese artists (including family members), and from Tibetan refugees living in Nepal.
“The shop increases people’s awareness of Tibet,” Sushila maintains. “They ask, ‘What’s “Free Tibet”?’ [the bumper stickers displayed on the counter], and they have so much sympathy.”
The Lamas, still practically newlyweds, manage to keep their seven-days-a-week business afloat while weathering their own adjustment to American culture. They first met in Colorado, where Manoj was living, but not by chance — their parents had arranged Manoj and Sushila’s marriage. The two returned to Nepal for the wedding and then jetted back to the U.S. to begin a life together in Minneapolis. Sushila had a friend in Asheville who invited the couple for a visit, and it was love at first sight.
“Our first impression was of a small town in the mountains, and the people were so friendly,” Manoj recalls. “We’re from the mountains, so we like the mountains.”
They opened their shop two years ago in a corner of the Haywood Park Hotel. “In the beginning, no business is easy to start,” muses Manoj. “But people are so open-minded here. We’ve had good feedback and encouragement.”
The Lamas are happy in their new home and would like to stay in the United States long-term, but family ties to Nepal complicate matters. So for now, says Manoj, they take things a day at a time. Still, their busy schedule leaves little room for life outside the store. “We’re trying to get used to the culture here,” Manoj reports. “We two are usually together, so we’re not often exposed to others. We respect the values of others, and we find that they respect ours.”
“When people learn where we’re from, they’re very interested,” Sushila adds.
The Korean connection
Myung Kim stands in front of the wall of videos at Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts, his parents” Asian-oriented shop. Korean videos play nonstop on the TV/VCR behind the counter.
“These are predominantly broadcasts of TV shows aired in Korea,” Myung explains. “They’re television series or dramas, like American soaps. They have different themes — some are set in the old days, some are modern. We get them from broadcasting companies that make videos for Korean people living in the States.”
Myung came to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, with his family when he was 4 years old. “I went through the public-school system here, so I’ve lost a lot of the Korean language, especially since there weren’t many Korean people here for a while,” he maintains. For his parents, however, it’s a different story. Mr. and Mrs. Kim moved to Asheville 25 years ago, but the cultural adjustment has been a slow one. “The transition is still hard,” says Myung. “Their English isn’t so good.”
Mr. Kim was an electrician in his native Korea. “There, he was an expert in his field,” Myung notes. “He did well for himself, but he wanted more for his kids.” The family set their sights on Asheville because Myung’s aunt had already made the move to Western North Carolina after marrying a man in the U.S. military. The Kims took jobs working in a greenhouse, a profession Mr. Kim stayed in for more than two decades.
Mrs. Kim was employed by a family friend who had established Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts (no relation — Kim is a common name among Korean people), and when he decided to get out of the business, Mrs. Kim took it over. For 15 years, she kept shop on Merrimon Avenue.
“We’re pretty much one of the only places people can have access to these kinds of goods,” Myung asserts. “Since the city doesn’t have a Chinatown or a Koreatown, access to these goods isn’t easy.”
And though Asheville’s Asian population is a far cry from what you’d find in, say, Atlanta, Myung has seen significant growth in the quarter-century he’s lived here. “There are now three Korean churches in the general area,” he notes, not to mention pockets of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai immigrants, all of whom may be in the market for such Asian specialty items as dried mushrooms, black-bean paste and lemon grass.
“A little bit of everybody comes in the store,” reports Myung. That accounts for the business’s move to its current location behind Denny’s on Patton Avenue.
“We moved because we needed more room and we needed to upgrade,” he reveals. “We were outgrowing the old store. It was a really big move.”
Even with more space, the new Kim’s is packed with everything from jumbo bags of rice and Asian pears to exotic spices and specialty dishware. The store’s clientele is itself a smorgasbord of nationalities. “People nowadays are trying to eat healthier,” Myung explains. “Some people are looking for alternatives. If they’re trying to avoid wheat, for example, we carry rice noodles and potato-starch noodles to help them adjust their diets yet still have variety.”
Another big factor fueling interest in international cuisines is the Internet. Food fanatics now have a wealth of cooking information at their fingertips. “People are experimenting with different kinds of cooking,” Myung confirms. “Some people bring in recipes they’ve downloaded from a Web page, and they’re trying to track down some of the ingredients. We can help them with that.
“It’s always good to help people,” he adds, smiling.
South of the border
Similar in some ways, yet worlds apart from Kim’s, are the tiny mercados and tiendas cropping up around town. These Mexican corner stores carry the basics — flour, tortillas, dried chilies, candies and candles — in Mexican brands. The Mercado Mexicano on Haywood Road, owned by Jose Robles, is one of the more established markets, having been around for seven years.
Pilar Galindo works behind the counter of the one-stop shop, which includes a carniceria (meat counter), a panaderia (bakery), and a taqueria. Pilar moved to Asheville seven years ago to work at the store. She’s very shy, covering her mouth as she speaks through Juan Cruz, a customer who agrees to translate. Pilar says she still has family living in Mexico and that the money she earns also helps them.
Juan, too, is living far away from his wife and young son. He hopes they’ll move to Asheville someday, but for now, his son is in school. In Mexico, Juan worked as a driver. Here, he’s employed as a janitor.
“When we just get here, we have to work at anything we get paid for,” he notes. But stores like the Mercado Mexicano help ease the homesickness while providing a much-needed service for people like Pilar and Juan.
“About 99 percent of the people who come in here are Mexican,” says Juan.
Not far away, on Patton Avenue, Jesus Varela mans his new business, Herradura (Spanish for “horseshoe”). Located in a strip mall, the narrow store is a Western-wear haven, displaying Stetsons, cowboy boots, wallets, belts and big, flashy belt buckles. The place smells expensive. Alligator and ostrich skin aren’t just for boots, either — you can buy a leather-trimmed sportcoat or a pair of stylized sandals. Really cool stuff if you’re into that sort of thing.
“We like to be fancy,” Jesus says, referring to the Mexican men who buy his wares. “We like to show off; we like the best of everything. If we go to the restaurant, we order the steak, not the soup of the day. The same with the store: Exotic leather is the best.”
Besides the high-end leather goods, Jesus also runs a money-wiring service from his store. “It works like Western Union,” he explains, “but Western Union is so expensive. Our fees are 20 percent of what Western Union charges, and we can wire money directly to Mexican banks, or all over the world.” On a Friday evening, the store is crowded with men who’ve just been paid and want to send money to their families back in Mexico. Jesus is quick to point out, though, that this time of year can be especially hard for Mexican immigrants, because many of them work as laborers and tobacco season is over.
Jesus knows firsthand about struggling with low-end jobs. Originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, he was studying industrial engineering in college when the ’95 economic crisis caused his family to lose their home. Jesus had to leave school, and the family emigrated to the U.S. His first job was janitorial. “It was hard, but I was glad to have a job,” Jesus reveals, and he credits the experience with helping him learn English. “At first it was hard even to get food,” he recalls. “All we knew was “coffee and donuts,” so that was pretty much all we ate.”
For about seven years, Jesus and his family moved around a lot, covering New Mexico, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Georgia while Jesus worked a string of jobs in restaurants and on construction crews. “I was working my way, saving money to do this,” he says, indicating his new store.
Jesus sees his business and other such enterprises as a way for Hispanic people to support one another. His long-term plan is to open a commercial center with a variety of businesses that will bring Mexican people together.
“Maybe there aren’t enough people here to do that,” he muses. Jesus is very much aware that his young daughter, Ana, is growing up away from Mexican customs, and the lack of a cohesive Hispanic community in Asheville amplifies that feeling of loss. “Of course we miss Mexico — it’s our home,” says Jesus. “But it’s OK, we’re surviving.” He adds: “I love this area; it’s peaceful. I love the mountains — I was born in the desert.”
All in the family
The Three Brothers Restaurant is a local landmark. The Greek eatery has been serving meals in its current location since 1959. Back in the day, it was a 24/7 drive-in run by George, Gus and Demo Zourzoukis. It was George who got things started as co-owner of what was then the Montford Cafe. He and his brothers bought out George’s partner and began building a reputation for serving great food at good prices.
When the youngest brother, Chris, came on board as an additional partner, the foursome lacked the cash to spring for a new sign, so the place remained the Three Brothers. It was supposed to be temporary, but somehow the name just stuck.
“My Dad came over from Greece in ’51,” says George’s son Dino Zourzoukis, a current partner in the restaurant. “They all came to the U.S after World War II because Europe was so devastated and, back then, everyone believed the U.S. was the land of opportunity. They believed if you worked hard, you could make something for yourself.”
What the Zourzoukis brothers made for themselves was a restaurant that could support their families in the New World. “They came here with very little education and no English,” Dino points out. The language barrier, he notes, “is why so many Greeks are in the restaurant business. They start out as dishwashers and move up.”
As one person is promoted, they “sponsor” another family member’s immigration from Greece. Bringing over one person at a time, a Greek family can eventually fully staff a restaurant.
“Only one sister stayed behind in Greece to take care of their father, who wouldn’t make the trip,” notes Dino. “To the Zourzoukis brothers, family was the most important thing, so they brought everyone over.”
During the 1950s, Asheville’s Greek community swelled. In 1958, the Greek Orthodox Church on Cumberland Avenue was completed, giving Greek families a place to worship and maintain their heritage. “Both of my parents are from Greece,” says Dino. “Mom finished high school here, but still, the only family they had here was the Greek community. Growing up, that was a key part of my life.”
As the Zourzoukis family grew, they held onto that closeness and sense of community. “Our four families are considered one family,” Dino reports. “For as long as I can remember, we’ve always closed the restaurant on the Fourth of July for a week’s vacation. Once we went to Disney World together — all 20 of us would have to wait to be able to get on a ride at the same time.” These days, counting grandkids, the Zourzoukis clan totals nearly 40. “The brothers’ main objective was to stay together and work together as a family,” Dino explains.
Beyond providing for the family, the Three Brothers helped bring Greek culture to the mountains. In fact, a majority of the local Greek population hails from the mountains of Greece. For these immigrants, Asheville was a reminder of home.
Originally, the Three Brothers concentrated on diner fare, but as their clientele grew worldlier, they’ve been able to expand the menu, adding classic Greek cuisine. “As more people from other areas who’ve experienced the Greek culture move to Asheville, they ask for “truer” Greek foods,” says Dino. “That’s great for us.”
These days, all four original brothers have retired and Dino, his brother Jimmy, and their cousin Chris (Demo’s son) run the restaurant.
“As a kid, Dad had me work for other people, not just the restaurant. I worked for someone else for 10 years before coming to the restaurant.” Now that he’s part of the Three Brothers operation, Dino wouldn’t trade it for anything. “Being part of a family business is a really special experience,” he says.
In the market for a cross-cultural experience? You can find them at:
• Himalayas Import, 6 Battery Park Ave. (225-0506)
• Kim’s Oriental Food & Gifts, 5 Regent Park Blvd. (254-7235)
• Mercado Mexicano, 747 Haywood Road (285-0266)
• Herradura, 891-M Patton Ave. (225-5931)
• Three Brothers Restaurant, 183 Haywood St. (253-4971)