Food & Drink

How Shopping at Costco Taught Me About Love and My Korean Mom

Jason Hoffman illustration of Costco story
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

"Mi Hye!"

I look up and see my mom waving tall and beckoning me toward her with big, clownish hand movements that make 14-year-old me want to sprint in the opposite direction and change my name.

She embarrasses me like this every day when she picks me up from school, but at least at Costco, her favorite store and my favorite place to come to with her, tall ceilings and an overabundance of mega-sized Tampax Pearl boxes mute her voice. 

In fact, all of Costco's most offensive, headache-inducing qualities -- the lazy crashing of carts, the obnoxious shouting of floor personnel, the noisy chatter of the food court -- work together to harmoniously blend my mother's accented voice into the club's unintelligible white noise. It's the one public space I can talk to my mom without feeling the immigrant shame of conversing in my Asian Parseltongue. 

I love this place. 

"Mi Hye!"

She calls out my Korean name again, as if I could have missed her tribal call the first time around.

"Do you want some granola bars?" she yells at me, and to the greater shopping populace, the question echoing into the cavernous, Hot Pocket-lined abyss. "I know you get hungry after your track-and-field workouts, and you don't like the leftovers your brother eats."

I huff and puff a "yes" and roll my eyes, though I am secretly touched by her thoughtfulness. 

She scans the price banner, purses her lips in approval, then decidedly tosses a box into our mega cart. 

I'm still six years away from telling my mom I love her out loud.

It's here, under Costco's fluorescent lights, that my culturally disparate, non-verbally affectionate relationship with my mother flourishes. We share neither fluency in the same language, nor an ease with physical displays of affection, but we do share an affinity for food. 

My mom might hug me just once a year, but her regular, hearty preparations of seafood risottos and kimchi bibimbap offer me a comparable rush of serotonin. The complex layering of ingredients and hours-long prep times replace most families' verbal showcases of love. 

Costco -- a warehouse packed full of mutually comprehensible stand-ins for common interests -- supplies props and a stage to the theater that is this deeply felt, albeit seemingly cold, exchange of familial love between my mother and me.

We tag team our first sample station of the day: pizza bites. We take turns grabbing two samples each. I'm still six years away from telling my mom I love her out loud, but I sneak her enough appetizers today that she must know. 

My mom is on the same page. I know this because the next item that Tetrises into our cart is a 36-count box of Haagen-Dazs. "I love you too, Michelle," the freezer whispers into the air before the suction doors close. She probably finds it hard to keep track of my fickle taste in clothes, music, and friends, and much easier to remember my penchant for dessert. Other kids get bags of carrot sticks, my mom loads up on ice cream, happy for the rare opportunity to demonstrate her keen understanding of my preferences. 

I watch her push the cart around at a snail's pace; she stops at every aisle, and I can't make out the limp that Polio left her with when she was a child. One leg is shorter than the other -- the reason for which I'll only learn later in my early 20s, when I start to live on my own and become curious about the pre-Michelle lives my parents once lived -- but here, on this day, in the camouflage of Costco, no one has to know. 

She's momentarily normalized, which is a shameful relief. 

I plead for those bottles.

At the beverage aisle, I waste her money on brand-name bottled water because I'm a teenager trying to blend into my upper-middle-class high school, and the brands stamped on lunch beverages mean as much to me as the brands emblazoned on my sweaters. It's not so much that tap drinkers are shamed in my social circles, rather, it's more that I am so reserved in my pre-college years that I rely on consumer aids to convey some kind of story about myself: like, I'm the kind of carefree cool girl who drinks expensive luxury-brand water. Talk to me.

I plead for those bottles. Enough that I can tell she's disappointed in herself for not understanding why they're so important to me. And that's how a case of French mineral water ends up on the bottom rack of our cart. 

That my penny-pinching mom appeases my irrational screams for prettily bottled tap water can only be described as an act of unconditional love.

I'm not all self-serving, though. After we load our purchases into the car trunk, I put our shopping cart back in the queue. It's the only way my adolescent egocentrism will allow me to show my mom I can take care of her too, and that I serve some purpose as her errand-running plus-one. I hope it makes her proud on some microscopic scale. 

There are a lot of things about my mom I don't understand.

It is weird, my relationship with my mom, even now as an adult who's all but outgrown unfounded teenage discomfort. I was often self-conscious of her oblivious, un-American social habits -- like trying to haggle for cheaper contact lenses at our optometrist's office, or having thunderous phone conversations with her Korean friends in public spaces. But more frequently than I was embarrassed, I craved small validations. Because I really love my mom. Probably more than anyone else currently shopping at Costco right now loves their mom. 

I love her shameless gait, her loud Korean and unfortunate Italian, a vestige of another life, when she was in her 20s and 30s living and studying in Rome. I love that she knows how to make a bright and saucy lasagna from scratch, as well as her own sesame oil-slicked seaweed. I love that on her birthday, she saves a slab of her own birthday meal, vacuum packs it, and next-day ships it to me in NYC from my childhood home in California because she feels bad that I couldn't be there.  

There are a lot of things about my mom I don't understand. And there are just as many things my mom didn't and still doesn't understand about me. But that loss in translation is nothing that a coded frolic through America's largest food warehouse -- and a day spent bickering in our understood language of food -- couldn't make up for. 

These days, she calls me in New York and asks me if I'd like some energy bars (read: a 60-pack) or trail mix sent over. "I know you're working really hard out there," she says, though she has no idea how my job works.

"I've been cooking these days," I lie to her. "You don't have to send me anything." I secretly do want her to send me something. And luckily, she's still a mom. 

I definitely wouldn't have finished writing this piece without the support of a stack of Fruit & Nut Delight KIND bars. 

(Thanks mom! … And Costco!)

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Michelle No is a production assistant at Thrillist and she loves her mom more than she loves KBBQ. Send her embarrassing mom stories @michelle_no and follow her NSFM Instagram @michellenope.