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book review: non-fiction

Ben Ryder Howe

Admit it. Who hasn't dreamed of walking away from his or her day job to try something completely different? Trading a white-collar throne to see the real impact of his labour inspired Paul Newman's forays into steak sauce and salad dressing, and enticed Francis Ford Coppola away from directing blockbusters into the less rarefied world of hotel management. Even Antonio Banderas, a.k.a Zorro, is now making olive oil.

So why don't the rest of us try it? For an object lesson in sticking to what you know, read the latest memoir from the under-35 set, My Korean Deli, in which preppy literary editor Ben Ryder Howe relates what happens when he trades sipping cocktails with George Plimpton at the lofty Paris Review for selling Slim Jims and lottery tickets at a convenience store he's just bought with his Korean American wife in Brooklyn. Well, that's one way to find out all the things you don't know.

In Howe's case, that trough includes a vocabulary not inculcated by his New England family's operating manual, Strunk and White's The Element's of Style. "You're not supposed to talk about Wasp values. You're just supposed to have them," said Howe's grandmother, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower.

Juxtapose that historical emphasis on understatement and self-control with the communal mayhem of Howe's in-laws' Korean household on Staten Island - into whose basement Howe has just moved with his lawyer wife, Gab - and you have a comic send-up of everything privileged North Americans take for granted: privacy, individualism and a smug aversion to talking about money. Whereas Wasps, with a long tradition of wealth and class, are risk- and flavour-averse, according to Howe, Korean Americans are a rising group of immigrants with moxie and forward motion. "Wasps cling to the past, and Koreans say, 'How much for your summer house? I need a place to store all my children's diplomas,' " he writes.

Such are the little gems of self-awareness that stud this reverse immigrant narrative. Meanwhile, the daily grind of running the corner store that Howe and Gab buy for Gab's mother (as a way of repaying her sacrifice to the family) nearly strips Howe of his self-respect. When a glowering guy enters the deli and announces that he's just been sprung from jail and wants to see a certain Lucy, Howe tells himself to "play it cool" and tells the ex-con that "Lucy's not here, man." That's when he learns from wiseacre Dwayne - the shop assistant who somehow came with the store - that "Lucy ain't a person. It's a loose cigarette."

It's not the first time Howe's university education is eclipsed by the street smarts of the endearing, fast-talking Dwayne (my favourite of the book's cast, which is as large and varied as Sesame Street's). When another customer sidles up to the hated lottery machine, jiggling loose change she seems to have scraped from the inside of her couch, our hapless hero confesses he doesn't know a daily double from a 50-50 split. "Every time I step up to the machine, I have this terrible feeling that I'm going to give myself away, and the regulars are going to start calling me Dead Poets Society or Silver Spoon," Howe confesses.

The sophisticate who becomes the rube when suddenly plonked into a new environment is always good for a laugh, but this book is not just a gloss on the Prince and the Pauper theme, a hipster update of Eddie Albert in Green Acres, or Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.

Behind the self-deprecation is a serious theme. The anglo-Asian cultural gap, brought to the surface by the meritocracy, highlights the communal and filial obligations customary to immigrant Asian families that can be easier for many of us to dream about - as this delightful year of living dangerously tells us - than to fulfill.

Susan Pinker is a Globe and Mail columnist and author of the The Sexual Paradox, who still has the penny-candy jar from the corner store her immigrant grandmother owned on the corner of Coloniale and Villeneuve in Montreal.

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