The Footaction in Los Cerritos was my first real job. It paid a biweekly wage and tax deductions. I sold Nike Air Max 95s in gradient and neon colorways, Iversons with honeycomb air pods (thick white soles), Adidas shell toes, and classic shower slips (black, white, navy, baby pink) for $5.75 per hour. The store was in the same wing of the mall as the food court, and on my 30-minute lunch break, I had a choice of “international” cuisines: franchises like Sbarro (Italian), Hot Dog on a Stick (American) and Panda Express (Chinese), plus a Mongolian beef stir-fry place, a Japanese counter with teriyaki chicken bentos and California rolls, and a gyro shop, with the requisite poster of a smiling (presumably Greek) woman holding up the pita-wrapped treat. And for dessert, Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzel bites (um … German?); caramel dip was extra (definitely not German).
I’ll admit, the food court didn’t exactly offer any good, healthy meal options. Vegetables were an afterthought — if they were included at all in any of the combo specials. How many times has the enjoyment of eating been about nutritional value? Wearing my tidy sales associate uniform — a dark green collared shirt tucked into freshly ironed khakis (our store manager insisted on crease lines down the front of the pants), and a pair of supremely clean kicks, of course — I circled the food court like I owned the place. There was a sense of camaraderie among both the food service and retail workers in the mall. I was given courtesy nods, sometimes with an extra egg roll, or a side of fries, with every order. After spending hours on my feet, hustling between the sales floor and the stock room, the food court was a welcome oasis. I could finally relax and let go the performative smile I developed as soon as my shift began.
This was in the late ’90s, and I was back home after freshman year at Cal, living at my parents’ house for the summer. The soundtrack that played from the store speakers on mind-melting repeat featured Destiny’s Child (before Michelle joined up) and Naughty by Nature. I didn’t have a cellphone yet, but I wanted one, envious of friends who already had their very own Nokias attached to a family mobile plan. My tuition was paid by my parents, but a luxury item such as a cellphone was a gift from my parents. I didn’t know better than to ask. Footaction was the result. To start my second year, I had a plan: to be able to play Snake on a small screen.
I didn’t expect it to be so hard to save up my paycheck, though. The majority of the money I earned went back into the Footaction cash registers. To meet the uniform standards, I only needed one pair sneakers from the store. My collection of running, basketball, and skate shoes grew because I was able to take advantage of the employee discount and get early access to the newest drops. I was a minimum-wage worker and was trapped in a cycle o consumption. This iniquitous system included the food court. Sure I could’ve packed a sandwich — there was a mini-fridge in the back — but it was simply more convenient to buy lunch at the mall once I got to work.
I also enjoyed eating at the food courts. I loved watching people. I loved the conversation and the sound of chairs hitting the linoleum floor, as people got up to stack their trays and toss their trash. The food court was a place where you could relax and forget about the world. Back home in my high school bedroom again, I felt not so different than I had a year ago, despite all that I’d seen and experienced in my first year of college, living in the dorms. I was still undeclared and unsure of my future scholastic path. At the end of August, I’d move into my first apartment, shared with two friends. I’d learn to make Ichiban ramen and beef stroganoff Hamburger Helper. For the summer, I ate only what my mom made at home. I went to work and ate at the food courts.
The food court was my gateway to exotic possibilities in high school. It was far beyond my suburban Taiwanese American life in Southern California. I’d always found friends easily; but as a teenager, I still sometimes felt an existential loneliness. Maybe it had to do with being an only child, or the fact that I was an introvert who devoured library books I didn’t always fully understand. Or maybe it was that I’d spent the first eight years of life in a bustling urban environment surrounded by lots of family in Taipei, to then move to the U.S. with only my parents, who fought constantly. First to an extremely white, rural college town in Missouri, then to a wildly disparate Southern California suburb three years later, where I met kids who lived in gated communities with pools — pools! — in their backyards. I was acutely aware of the fact that my family seemed to have less than the new friends I made at Cerritos.
Or maybe it didn’t have anything to do with any of that. I don’t know. My family never ate out growing up. If we did, it was at Chinese restaurants, one of those places that had a fish tank in front. The mall food court was where my friends and I often went on weekends. This was where we first felt that we had choices about what we could eat. Despite the inauthenticity of its supposed global fare, the “international” aspect of the mall food court felt to me like an important distinction, setting it apart from what was offered at the school cafeteria.
My girls and I would always find our way to the mall on a Saturday. We performed a version of what Virginia Woolf describes so beautifully in “Street Haunting” (an essay I wouldn’t discover until many years later): the subversive joy of strolling aimlessly. “With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances,” Woolf writes. My friends and I would allow our imaginations to run wild, stopping at the right place or the wrong one to appreciate something that appealed to our teenage sensibilities. We sprayed the insides of our wrists with Issey Miyake perfume at the department store makeup counter, ran our fingers over the plush piles of cashmere sweaters on display near the door, then made our way to Judy’s or Contempo Casuals to try on baby tees and slip dresses. No intention to purchase a single item.
Woolf’s essay, published in the interwar years of the early 20th century, was an ode to walking outdoors on a brisk winter evening in London. We were Asian American young adults in California on the cusp of the new millennium, swanning around the corridors of a temperature-controlled indoor shopping center, though no less susceptible to the “champagne brightness of the air” in our particular environment, in our specific time. Woolf eventually ends up in a stationery shop at the Strand where she buys a single pencil before heading home. We sprinted towards the food court with my teenage girl flaneurs.
Though originally designed as a place for shoppers to rest and refuel between purchasing sprees, the mall food court took on a wholly different meaning for people like me, who came of age at the cusp of the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was our public square. It was a place to meet new people, check out cute guys and compare our performance with other girls. It was where we lingered — when does lingering pass into loitering? — hoping for something exciting and spontaneous to happen to us. Wasn’t it possible that one of us might be discovered by a talent scout who was looking for the next Jenny Shimizu or … well, that was the only famous Asian model we knew of, but still. Couldn’t it happen?
We settled down at one of the matching plastic tables and chairs. I ordered and ate what I wanted, along with a 22-ounce fountain beverage. It was delicious. Over our Styrofoam containers we talked with friends. We discussed our plans for the upcoming winter formal, or some flier party a friend’s older cousin was DJing at next weekend. We lamented about our parents, which is a favorite pastime for beleaguered teenagers all over the world. We daydreamed out loud about who we wanted to become, how we’d get there, and what we’d be wearing when we arrived. I should clarify that it was mostly my friends who spoke; I listened. These stories stayed with me for a long time.
These memories came unbidden to me many years later when I started writing fiction. I was in my 30s and was pursuing a MFA in creative writing at Las Vegas. I would walk through the casino floors downtown or on the Strip at night, without any intention to gamble or spend money. Whatever stories I may have heard or helped to make up in the mall food court as a lonely teenager — about the shoppers and fellow mall employees there, about my friends and myself — found an echoing resonance under the brilliant lights of the casino compound, those uniquely windowless arenas in Vegas that feature buffets, luxury retail shops, bars and nightclubs, resort pools and spas, movie theaters, bowling alleys and live performance venues, all of it a never-ending hedonistic spectacle. Eventually I came to see many of these surreal, consumer-centered spaces the way I saw the mall food court in my youth: a place to disappear into the crowd, to quietly observe people interacting in a place with a highly specific aim — spend money and have the most fun doing it — and to notice those who were having some other experience, moving in a counter-direction. Perhaps someone like me who went there to disappear.
Somewhere in the last decade, the familiar and comforting food courts of my ’90s youth seem to have disappeared from the cultural imagination, if not entirely from the actual retail landscape. The enclosed multilevel mall evokes a sense nostalgic nostalgia and is a reminder of a bygone era. These days, outdoor shopping centers featuring open-air walkways mimicking a stylized version urban thoroughfares is a popular trend. These outdoor malls have tripled across the U.S. since 2004, while no enclosed malls were opened since 2007. Andres Sevtsuk, an urban planning associate professor at MIT, emphasizes, however, that while these “lifestyle centers” borrow from urban retail aesthetics, they occupy a vastly different socioeconomic space, with an exclusive focus on wealthy clientele. “While most Main Streets tend to offer genuinely diverse shops and eateries for different income levels, lifestyle centers are packed with upscale establishments, with little offered for low-income households,” he writes in “Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks.” Within these shiny new malls, the humble food court of yore has been made over as the “food hall.”
While I appreciate the organic ingredients and vegetarian-friendly options — culinary elements that rarely existed in older, traditional food courts — food halls don’t seem to allow for the pleasure of serendipity that Woolf took such delight in on her rambling walks through town, similarly enacted by the teen version of my friends and me years ago. Gourmet food halls, with their attendant specialty markets, aren’t a communal space for young people to test out their desires for independence. Instead, they offer a fixed menu for wealthy adults to eat. The food hall has become a destination in itself, almost like a mall within a mall. Designed with a familiar aesthetic that signals a chic, cosmopolitan urbanity (subway tiles and exposed brick walls, marble countertops and oak wood tables, Mexican coke in glass bottles and artisanal kombucha), today’s food hall lacks the democratic chaos of the food courts I used to frequent. But I guess that’s the point, right? Food halls are not like the quotidian food court that allowed us to use its space however we wanted, but they are now designed to attract a very narrow group of customers.
It’s possible I’m romanticizing things; my sense of nostalgia coloring the way things were back then. Like the rest of the mall’s food court, it was still under surveillance and set up mostly for consumption. It was managed by a corporate entity and supervised by private security. Perhaps teenagers and young adults don’t need places like the food courts anymore, as they have many other avenues to meet their friends. I know a woman who has a 14-year old son. I asked her recently if he went to the mall to meet his friends. She laughed and said no: “He stays home and plays videos games with them online.”
A few months ago, I went to Koreatown to have my hair cut. My hairstylist had moved to a space inside Koreatown Plaza, a mall that’s been around since the late ’80s and looks like it has never been renovated. I hadn’t stepped foot inside here since high school — a friend’s mother used owned a clothing store on the second level. On all three levels of the mall, bold geometric patterns are created by bright pink and mint green tiles. The balconies are protected by polished brass guardrails. The atrium is filled large beige planters. A cylindrical glass elevator descends dramatically into a bubbling fountain lit by globe bulbs. I hadn’t stepped foot inside here since high school — a friend’s mother used to own a clothing store on the second level.
On one end of the ground floor hallway, a bright red neon sign announced the entrance to the mall’s International Food Court. I didn’t realize I’d been missing it until I was standing there, knocked over by nostalgia. This was no high-concept “food hall.” It was a simple food court — a clean, welcoming place. There were about a dozen food stalls there, mostly Korean (soy garlic wings, other fried treats on sticks), a dumpling station and blood sausage, and other Asian offerings as well: pho, sushi and tonkatsu. The smell in the air was a mix of soybean paste, fish sauce and sesame oil. As I walked around the food court, I was able to hear English, Korean and Tagalog. The only “American” food was the Philly cheesesteak stand in the corner.
Here before me was the kind of food court I’d slowly lost sight of in the last twenty years. The mural was located next to the glass door entry. It could be found in an elementary school classroom. A bullfrog and a puppy corgi in a field full of daffodils look towards the painted boy acrobat, who hangs upside-down from his rings. He is surrounded by butterflies as well as bumblebees. The center section of the food court’s ceiling was lit up by panels of soft white light that mimicked the sun in midday, creating a sense of perpetual morning. The neon signs at each vendor stall gave off a feeling of night, reminiscent of Asian street food markets that open late into the night. Flat panel TV screens with flat panels were mounted on pillars to show the local news and a hockey match. I felt at ease with the chaotic juxtaposition of the mural, the contrast lighting scheme, and the giant TVs. The Koreantown Plaza food court’s style was definitely not traditional; there was something for everyone.
I ordered my meal and sat down to wait for the buzzer to alert me it’s ready to be picked up. I glanced around to see families dining together, with children in highchairs and strollers. A group of teenagers huddled around a nearby table, occasionally reaching for their phones to share a story. A group of four women in their 60s sat together over their metal soup noodles bowls, chatting. Three men in orange vests and work uniforms ate their KBBQ and rice plates.
It hit me then: I had just found a new space to write in, with great food options, and plenty of parking. I wasn’t the harried, stressed retail worker looking for a moment of peace during her lunch break or the teenager who spent hours in the food court with her friends, learning about how to make space in the world. As a writer who lives alone and works mostly from home, I’d been considering the appeal of joining a co-working space lately, after the last couple years of increased social isolation. Why not come to this place to write? Ah, the food court still offers.
Jean Chen Ho is a Los Angeles writer and a doctoral student in creative writing and literature at USC. She is also a Dornsife fellow for fiction. She holds a master of fine art degree from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. She was born in Taiwan, and grew up in Southern California. Her first book, “Fiona and Jane,” a collection of linked stories, is out from Viking. @jeanho66
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