Field Trip to Asia

Back when I lived in Madison, I drove past several Asian grocery stores on my way home from work each day, and thanks to friends in the know, I got hooked on certain products from their mysterious and inviting shelves. I thought I’d be fine when I moved back to PA, but no. Inevitably, I began feeling the need for sweet red bean paste, citron tea, and glutinous rice flour, none of which are available in my little town.


Enter Penn State University. Thanks to the international student body, the town of State College can sustain several Asian grocery stores, and on Monday, I took a field trip to stock up on supplies.

At first I thought I wanted to go by myself, and then I started to picture my grandma in these stores and invited her to come along. At 90 years old, my grandma loves grocery shopping, and she was thrilled to join me and my mom for an all-new grocery store experience.

I beelined for certain items—brown rice green tea, check—while Mom and Oma browsed more leisurely. Each aisle, each shelf, my grandma took it all in. Oh look, a dead eel. This is neat, dried shiitake. Becky, are these rice krispie treats in stick form?

I got all my tea at the first shop (and my mom picked up a pair of children’s chopsticks for my nephew), and Mom found my sought-for aniseed powder at the second store. At the third, we met a cheerful and chatty owner who told us about her father, an acupuncturist in Osaka, who really knows his chi, while we bought probiotic drinks and lychee candies.

Oma was already beside herself. And then we stopped at Trader Joe’s.

So it’s not an Asian store. Still, this is the first one I’ve seen in PA and I like the price of their almond butter, so we dropped by. Up and down every aisle, tasting every sample. Today on the phone she said the bananas she bought were amazing. “Is it possible for them to taste better than normal bananas?”

Probably, Oma. That’s the magic of TJ’s.

When we got home, each of us feeling utterly spoiled and pleased with the day, I got to thinking how inconvenient it is to drive all the way to State College for lychees and Trader Joe’s, especially compared to the ease of finding all these things and more in Madison. But what if I never even knew these treasures existed? I’m so thankful I can still access these stores, even if it’s a bit of a drive.

And I wonder what new treasures await the next time I explore unknown shores.


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