Graduating with honours from the corner grocery store

It takes a village to raise a neighborhood grocery store, I’ve always figured. So I went to hear Mary Choi deliver the valedictory address to her graduating class of naturopathic doctors, thinking I would share the joy of her mom and dad, Suzie and Charlie Choi, who run the mom and pop grocery in our area, the Beach Food Mart, commonly known as Suzie’s.

I was also intrigued by the poetic irony of a grocer’s daughter becoming a naturopathic physician, honoring food’s humble healing powers at the highest level of professional responsibility, and a testimony to the food sector’s humble role in the Canadian Dream, a common stepping stone for socially mobile immigrants.

The irony, it turns out, was on me, because my sense of intrigue was obsolete, based on the Canadian Dream as lived before the 1970s. Like Suzie Choi, who trained as a nurse in Korea, and Charlie Choi, who came as an engineer, most immigrants to Canada since the 1970s, unlike those who came before, experience downward mobility. The rebound upwards happens with the kids, which is why child-oriented social policies are so crucial to a multicultural country.

The peculiarities of such positive policies triumphed with Mary Choi’s graduating honors. Those traditions are barely understood, largely because universal medicare gets all the limelight whenever Canada’s unique (relative to the U.S.) social policies are discussed. We miss all the other things that make for improved lives.

I tested Mary Choi on her knowledge of these subtle social policies favoring social equality and mobility over a long Sunday afternoon coffee at a patio near Kew Beach Park, kitty corner from her parents’ store. Do you know where Bart and Homer Simpson shop for food, I ask. At a Kwik-E-Mart, she answers immediately.

Exactly. Ontario still has full-service mom and pop grocery stores, commonly owned and managed by immigrants, providing pedestrian access to healthy and affordable foods on most main streets – something, as anyone who watches the Simpsons knows, very few American cities enjoy. We have these stepping stones of social mobility and outlets for healthy and affordable food in both affluent and less affluent neighborhoods, thanks to a little known publicly-owned institution, the Ontario Food Terminal. For a fee of $200, a local grocer who has no warehouse, no storage space, no contacts or large-order contracts with growers in California or Florida, can go down early in the morning and buy a day’s worth of fresh, top quality produce at wholesale prices for about the lowest price on the continent. If it weren’t for the Ontario Food Terminal, giant supermarkets would monopolize all grocery retail, and there would only be convenience stores on main streets.

Choi knew this firsthand. “I drank my first coffee at 12, sitting in the truck with my dad when he went for a pick-up at the food terminal,” Choi said.

If the kids wanted casual time with the parents, they had to join them at work because long hours and low margins was the other side of how main street grocers survived. “I am so proud of my parents,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who works as hard as they do,” 16 hour days, open 365 days a year, for some 25 years.

The Beach neighborhood, like most in Ontario, also had under-recognized institutions that gave children of hardworking parents a leg up. The library right across the street from her parent’s store “was my favorite place to be,” she says, where she and her younger sister went to hear librarians read aloud from children’s books, tell stories, play games, or just to read in a safe, bright and spacious place that offered the world’s best books for free.

When not at the library, the Choi sisters could also be found at the Beaches Recreation Centre, sometimes lining up to register for programs alongside white parents of other kids. Swimming lessons, first aid lessons, babysitting lessons, all were available for free in a safe and friendly environment. They had fun, but also gained some tools for social advancement. “That’s where I first learned the skill set for emergency paramedic aid,” she says.

Those who would understand the superior public safety of Canadian cities and why Toronto is “the city that works” should appreciate the hidden social role libraries and recreation centres perform. Despite what’s widely thought about the division of powers at local, provincial and federal levels, distinctive social policy needs to be close to home.

Like most people of Asian ancestry, Choi did not come to appreciate the herbal traditions of naturopathic medicine through the counter-culture. This is the dominant tradition throughout most of Asia, often taught side by side with pharmaceutically-based “western” medicine.

The turning point in Choi’s life came at age 22, when she was treated with radiation for thyroid cancer, and got a full dose of treatment methods where “you feel lost and out of control and want to know what you can do.” She celebrated her return to health with a year’s volunteering for a sports program in Africa, where the everyday combination of fresh air, exercize and organic food convinced her to train as a naturopath. Her graduation speech reflected these life-changing experiences, emphasizing the centrality of “authentic” treatment strategies that offer more than diagnoses and prescriptions. “People want to understand what is physically happening to them, and equally important, what they can do. They want the empowerment of feeling they can control something themselves, and not be in the hands of someone else,” she says.

Mary Choi learned these lessons as an adult, on her own and in far away neighborhoods, perfect counterpoints to what can be learned by a child in a community close to home.

The rite of spring known as convocation, when we celebrate a new crop of tens of thousands of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youth setting out to make their own way, is a time to mark both points on the learning spectrum, and to learn about traditions of renewal that need to be protected .

(adapted from NOW Magazine, May 29-June 4, 2008)

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