When I sat down with Moon Choe, owner and operator of Moon Cafe, a Korean restaurant and frozen yogurt shop on State Street, for a 40-minute interview, I’ll admit I expected something of a sob story: a few cliché sentiments about being down on his luck and needing students to stop by so he can pay the bills. What I got instead was a chance to gain new insights on laissez-faire parenting, the subtle racism that is a hallmark of the immigrant experience and the private joys he is able to embrace from the COVID-19 pandemic, among other topics of discussion. Choe is full of surprising wisdom, which he dishes out freely, sans condescension.
As soon as you walk in, Moon Cafe comforts you. The walls are painted yellow and purple, clashing with the black-and-white checkerboard floor. Large-framed, abstract art prints hang on the walls, and the entire stretch of a mantel piece is lined with small figurines. The eclectic interior reminds me of the yummy hole-in-the-wall eateries my friends and I frequented during our high school years back at home and immediately assuages those requisite nerves I feel as a newcomer to the journalism scene.
Choe is in his early 60s and, despite his gray hair, looks much younger than his years. On the afternoon that I walk into his shop, he wears wire glasses, a yellow University of Michigan hoodie (like the true Michigan dad he is) with a few sauce stains, comfy sweatpants and padded slides with Puma socks. He’s dressed, in other words, for a long shift at the restaurant. Choe is thoughtful and very eloquent. Though he gestures for me to take a seat at the booth in front of him, he never quite settles into the bench facing me. Instead, he hovers by it, always ready to take a call or hand a customer their order.
I’m caught off guard when Choe begins the interview by throwing me the first question: he wants to know what my position at The Michigan Daily is. I tell him I’m a Senior MiC Editor, and he nods and replies that his daughter, Gina, also used to hold a Senior Editor position at The Daily during her undergraduate years. In our brief conversation, he mentions his children’s academic achievements several times. I can tell by the way he casually namedrops “neuroscience at Princeton” that he speaks of his son and daughter fondly and often.
Much of Choe’s identity is, in many ways, tied to his role as a father and husband. Shortly into our conversation, Choe takes a phone order and calls out to the kitchen: “Yeobo? Spicy pork!” (Yeobo is a pet name, roughly translated from Korean to “darling” or “honey.”) Later, she calls him dangshin — another sweet term of endearment — when they’re working in the kitchen together. While trying to put into words what it’s like to work with his wife, he chuckles and says, “I cannot think of any bad things. Just wake up early in the morning, eat together — we always eat together … there’s no special meaning, we’re just married … and then we spend time together. That’s it.” The restaurant is a two-person operation. Last year, they employed a couple U-M students part-time, but now, since business is slower than usual, it’s just Choe and his wife, Yoon, running the cafe.
Choe and Yoon, along with their son and daughter, immigrated to America from South Korea nearly 15 years ago and eventually settled in Ann Arbor, Mich. During his career, Choe worked in the automotive industry for 32 years. (His engineering background shows in the way he tends to speak in exact figures, precise times and percentages.) When he retired a couple years back, he decided he wanted to take on “fresh and new” work. “My (children) grew up here in Ann Arbor … so it is our town,” he tells me. He decided to open a frozen yogurt shop to meet new students, and he calls this new job a different type of “good stress.”
In addition to frozen yogurt, Moon Cafe serves Korean food, which according to Choe, is simply “healthy food… It’s homemade, like Mom’s cooking.” There are, however, many other Korean restaurants in Ann Arbor. When I ask Choe what makes his restaurant different from the others, I expect him to tell me that he has some special recipe passed down from his ancestors or even that he also serves frozen yogurt — which is so delicious that it’s a valid point, in my opinion. But instead, he refuses to justify my question with an answer, out of solidarity with the other Korean spots on campus. “Korean food is Korean food. I respect the restaurants… we work all together,” he says.
During the second quarter of 2020, America recorded a 9.1% quarterly drop in economic output, the steepest ever on record. Michigan’s economy may not recover until 2023, and the restaurant industry has suffered considerable losses. Moon Cafe is no exception. Business this year, according to Choe, has depleted to about 40% to 50% of its revenue from last year. With an awkward laugh, he says, “In a regular season, we think about the profit. But after COVID-19, the profit… there (is) no meaning, no more. Just we survive, how to survive.” Choe’s goal is to pay his bills, but profit is “over-demanding (in his) current situation.”
Even in the face of this financial difficulty, Choe has dignity. “It’s not only us. All peoples, the same thing… Not only this restaurant, but also all industries, the same thing,” he says.
His daughter, Gina, believes that U-M students and the people of Ann Arbor truly care about their broader community, and their restaurant is no exception — she tells me she is awed by their eagerness to help in any way they can.
“It makes me proud to be a U of M (alumnus) and to call Ann Arbor my home,” Gina says. “Despite the tragedies of the pandemic, it brought local communities together in a way like never before, and as a small business, we feel inspired by that.”
Choe tells me he hopes that students will be smart and healthy during the pandemic, and empathize with one another. “Every student must… think (of) other person first. Not ‘me,’” he says.
When Choe describes his love of connecting with the students who eat at his restaurant, the skeptic in me thinks he might be trying to score some good press for my story. But the student testimonies I’ve heard are enough to quell any suspicions I may have had. Engineering sophomore Webber Qu says, “Korean cuisine has always been one of my favorites so Moon Cafe (doesn’t) offer just my favorite dishes, but also (provides) a sense of comfort in a new environment.” And in a GoFundMe for the restaurant, the responses are overwhelmingly positive. Kate Cao writes, “Moon is the best! I want to be able to come back and laugh at Moon’s dad jokes,” and Louis asserts, “Moon is the nicest, sweetest restaurant owner in AA,” while Leanna says, “thank u for always making me feel at home :).”
Choe and his wife have a genuine love for Ann Arbor, which, in their eyes, is “well-mixed,” meaning that people of all different races — he rattles off a few rough percentage estimates of ethnic demographics off the top of his head — co-exist in this city and treat each other with respect. In his eyes, growing up with people of other races and cultures is good education for children, including his own, because it expands their horizons and teaches them empathy. “Our neighborhood (is) very kind,” he tells me. “That’s Ann Arbor.”
Nonetheless, Choe still acknowledges the racism and chabyeol, meaning “discrimination,” which continues to exist in this town, because he has experienced it himself, especially as a non-native English speaker with a Korean accent. When he speaks about these encounters, his mood is noticeably more somber, and he has to concentrate harder on his English words, to ensure I don’t misconstrue his intentions. “It’s a feeling. Feeling is just a feeling. That’s it… But their attitude… their eyes…” He leans back where he’s standing, crosses his arms and gives me a faux, judgmental stare. “I can feel that. But… that’s my duty.” Choe feels it’s incumbent on him to rise above their ignorance, because he believes their attitudes are rooted in their ignorance of other cultures. He walks me through his response to these kinds of people: “Just I (am) thinking, ‘Oh my God, poor guy,’ that’s it. I just worry about their life. I’m okay,” he says with a shrug. “Their life is poor, that’s my thinking… (But) that’s not my business, buh-bye.”
Choe goes on to acknowledge that “racism is everywhere,” pointing specifically to the bigotry that exists in his home country South Korea, against other East Asian people and Black people. On the bright side, Choe believes that with each generation, racism is becoming a less widespread issue. “But still, there,” he acknowledges.
We converse primarily in English, but Choe is much more easygoing when we slip into his native Korean. Prior to our interview, he requested that I speak a little slower for him, and when we’re finished, he tells me in his first language that communication is much harder for him in English, especially now, through people’s masks. In many ways, Choe’s experiences resonate with me, the daughter of a Korean immigrant, albeit more as a witness than someone who shares a similar background. My dad also holds a degree in mechanical engineering and settled in Michigan a couple decades ago to work in the auto industry. He, too, found difficulty attaining the respect of his colleagues with a Korean accent; my mom once told me that I’ll never understand the severe prejudice she and my dad face, because they lack the advantage of a fluent tongue. My dad shares Choe’s self-consciousness towards speaking in English, when really, his meaning is very clear. (And he, too, brags about his children to complete strangers in ways I find endearing and somewhat embarrassing.) But at the same time, Choe’s musings are, in many ways, different from my parents’. Despite being the father of two successful, now-adult children, Choe lets me in on the biggest value he wanted to instill in his son and daughter: “Be free. Me and my wife, we (do) not touch anything. It’s (their) life.”
If I had to describe Choe in a couple words, I would say that he is selflessly sanguine. Before I go, he makes an off-hand remark lamenting that students have lost “a good season” of their lives, and when I conjecture that the pandemic has taken a greater toll on him, an elder restaurant owner, he laughs. “Some point of view is better, I have a lot of time with my family, with my wife (now).”
Choe’s home is in Ann Arbor, near Pioneer High School. Before the pandemic, he never had time to meet his neighbors, but after COVID-19 hit and everyone had to stay home last summer, he finally had the time.
“As always, social distanced, (but) right now, I have (a) chance to meet so many of our neighbors,” he says. “Finally, I know … who is living over there, who is living over there.” He makes pointing gestures in different directions, and waves.
“I say hello in the morning … My meaning is think differently.” As he draws a circle in his palm, Choe tells me that it’s easy to bemoan the pandemic and see yourself in “the black, (but) watch, there (is) still white there.” He points outside of the circle with his index finger. “Right there. Focus on there… So I’m very happy. No problem. Less money, it’s okay.” His focus is not on money right now, but on what’s important: the people in his life, like his family (whose health he is thankful for) and the city of Ann Arbor. “Just… smile, say hello… That’s it,” he says.
I realize, before I go, that I can’t even recall the last time I ate soft-serve — it was probably in the South Quad dining hall, as a freshman with no foreboding of the crazy year to come. The ice cream machines were among the first features to go in March and soon after, it became difficult to recall a time when the cafeteria was an exciting, brimming community, before the days of styrofoam-packaged meals and rapid assembly lines. I tell Choe somewhat sheepishly that I really want to try one of his frozen yogurts, and he smiles. Then, when he sees me reach for my wallet, he shakes his head profusely and insists that I take one on the house. This back-and-forth game about who pays is one I’ve played too often with Korean elders to think I’ll emerge victorious; I relent, and Choe hands me a vanilla-chocolate swirl in a sealed, lidded cup with a plastic spoon. After I return to my apartment and wash my hands, I let that first bite of rich soft-serve melt on my tongue. The serving is huge, and it doesn’t have that tart or artificially sweet flavor that I usually hate in frozen yogurt. I give my roommate a spoonful to taste, and she smiles and pauses: “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s — it’s so nostalgic.” That’s the word I’ve been reaching for. Moon Cafe, to me, is nostalgic. The kitchen, stocked with Oreos, pretzels and bunches of fresh bananas on hooks for soft-serve, and soy sauce, sesame oil and beef for Korean meals, marries two cultures beautifully in this “well-mixed” town. It is reminiscent of the well-stocked cabinets my mom used to keep to appease my “American” sweet tooth and our cravings for the cuisine of her homeland. Choe’s food, by the way, is delicious, and, given this week’s beautiful weather forecast, I’ll definitely be going back with a couple friends for more.
You can support Moon Cafe by donating to its Go Fund Me page or visiting the restaurant at 812 S State Street. (Choe recommends the bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi fried rice and curry udon.)
Senior MiC Editor Jessica Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.