Dim Sum and Applause

We took my parents out for dim sum last week. It was an impromptu affair, as we suddenly found ourselves near the International District around lunchtime with time to kill. I’m not too familiar with the Seattle restaurant scene (in my defense, I’ve never really been an adult in this town) and phone calls to my go-to Canto-friend went unanswered (rant for a future post: why NO ONE picks up their cell phone in the States anymore) so we kinda just parked the car around 6th and Dearborn and decided to wing it.

We almost went into the promisingly named Ocean City Restaurant & Night Club when I spotted a gaggle of Canto-grandfolk chattering away animatedly on a street corner. We passed them and stopped for the light to change (this IS Seattle, after all…best not to jaywalk here). This gave me the moment’s pause I needed to muster up boldness, double back, approach the group, smile and, in my best gutteral slur greet them with a: “M’ho yisee, ngomen yiu yumcha. Bindoh ho?”

And then the heavens opened and angels sang because they didn’t give me I-Don’t-Speak-English Face. We did have to carry out the rest of the conversation in Mandarin, but they understood my opening line and directed us down the street to a place called Honey Court Seafood. The light changed, our little party of Westerners moved off down the street with many a goodbye smile and head-bob, and the Canto-grandfolk burst into a spontaneous round of applause. Really. They did!

I love Canto-grandfolk.

Honey Court doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the hubs speculated (in typical Southern China Expert Expat style) was probably owned by one of our newfound friends’ family members. He may well have been right, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to spoil this glorious linguistic exchange by letting my new friends see us walk into any other establishment. They might’ve thought I didn’t understand them.

The dim sum wasn’t half bad, though. In addition to the requisite har gao and shu mai and char siu bao, which were consumed too rapidly to be digitally documented, we had these:

    

Sadly, our dim sum lunch could not be considered a complete success because we were unable to procure a plate of lok bak gou 萝卜糕, which is, of course, China’s greatest contribution to the culinary arts. This, along with eliminating the opportunity to practice food characters, is why I’m not a fan of the dim sum cart system. Oh well.

A couple days later, we were telling a Cantonese 华侨 friend about our dining adventure (and my linguistic triumph). His only question: “How long did you wait in line?”

No more than five or ten minutes, we told him.

He snorted. “Food must not have been good, then. Good place, you wait hour, maybe hour and half.”

I’ll do better next time.

Breakfast and cultural identity

So yesterday I’m following a one-armed used car salesman around the car lot with my fussy daughter on one hip. I’m speaking to her in Spanish, ’cause I’m pretentious like that, and we want to expose her to all the languages we speak, and ’cause when she’s understandably fussy my natural inclination is to speak to her in the most tender language I know. Plus, the salesman’s heavy accent reminds me that I ought to be speaking more Spanish to her. Sometimes I forget.

Anyway, he overhears me and asks where my husband is from, assuming he must be the reason this güera speaks passable Spanish. No, mi esposo es africano, I tell him. So how come you speak Spanish, he wants to know. En mi corazón soy mexa, I reply. Tapatía, de hecho. I explain that I spent five and a half years in Mexico, most of that time in Guadalajara, and really came to identify with that city. Turns out he’s from Guada, too. I would have called him paisa if I’d liked him more. Smarmy used-car sales guy.

I was thinking about that statement this morning as I made breakfast. For a long time I have asserted that what people choose to eat for the first meal of the day is a true indicator of their dominant culture. Your average North American might be a very adventurous eater when it comes to lunch or dinner, but we really tend to stick to what’s familiar when it comes to the most important meal of the day. Why is imported boxed cereal so outrageously expensive in stores that cater to expats? They know they’ve got us right where they want us.

The Better Half, incidentally, shoots down this theory. He couldn’t care less what he eats for breakfast. He has, in fact, developed an affinity — bordering on obsession — for maple syrup since our marriage. He’ll make French toast just so he can douse his plate in maple syrup. Still, there is no way anyone would claim that his dominant culture is North American. He believes himself physically incapable of eating a sandwich for lunch two days in a row. If he goes more than a week without some egwusi or ogbono and fufu, you can tell something’s wrong. It’s like his world is just slightly off-balance and he has trouble being his usual wonderful self.

Back to my breakfast. If you were to ask me what my favorite breakfast food is, I wouldn’t have to think about the answer for even a second.

Chilaquiles rojos, with queso fresco, a little bit of cremita, and un huevo estrellado. OK, the ones in the picture are verdes, but this photo looked the most appetizing. To my way of thinking, there can be no better breakfast food. Now, ask me when was the last time I partook of this soul-soothing dish that makes such a bold statement about how I view myself and who I think I am… I couldn’t even tell you. It’s not like it’s that hard to prepare, but in the mornings, I just can’t be bothered.

Sigh. Better finish off my English muffin…which I’m really enjoying, by the way. Those things were hard to come by in China, outside of McDonald’s.

Happy Lists

When I was living in southern China, I had a little circle of friends who would meet regularly for Ladies Who (Frugally) Lunch sessions. We were all very busy people but we found that taking the time to meet a couple times a month over lunch gave us a chance to vent, tell our China Frustration Stories, and generally maintain our sanity.

Over time, we started to notice that our conversation at these luncheons was becoming distinctly negative. In an effort to combat this, before each lunch we’d each prepare a list of 10 things we loved about the city we were living in or China in general, and share our lists with each other over the meal. The Happy Lists were a great way to keep our lives in perspective and keep us focused on the good.

Now, in this my re-pat adventure version 2.1 (2.0 was a 3-month return that might have lasted longer had the economy not been so heinous), I find myself rather ambivalent about being back in the US of A. This is a huge step up from re-pat adventure version 1.0, when I was miserable for a year and nine months straight, with occasional breaks of sunshine and optimism. In the spirit of fostering that optimism, I’m going to share two lists with you: My I’m Glad to Be Back in the States list and my Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday lists. So much for being concise with the naming of those.

Now then, without further ado…

I’m Glad to Be Back in the States List:
1. Trader Joe’s. My goodness, did I miss me some TJ’s while in China. My friend O and I would text each other dream lists of what we’d buy that day if only there were a TJ’s nearby. Mochi Ice Cream balls, Chili Spiced Mango, the medley of tri-colored baby potatoes, Nerello del Bastardo, I could go on and on.
2. Running into people I know at the grocery store. I come from a smaaaaaaaall small town. If you grew up here too and were born within 3 years of me, I know you. It’s nice to see you again.
3. Really, genuinely fresh air
4. I get to take a ferry several times a week. It’s beautiful.
5. Driving a car
6. Drive-thrus. I am convinced that nature invented these for the single-during-the-day mother. I used to just be hungry until I had another set of hands to help out. Now, I can (kind of) nourish myself.
7. Carseats and all the places they fit (into strollers, over the kiddie seat in shopping carts, into the base of an upside-down restaurant high chair)
8. Outdoor performances, especially of the free variety
9.  Chinese people who are genuinely impressed with my Mandarin. I know. I’m so vain.
10. Berries. Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Salmon berries, Marion berries galore!

Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday:
1. 东北菜 (Northeastern Chinese cuisine) It’s insane. Everywhere I’ve been in China, DongBei food is one of the easiest kinds of foods to find. In the States…nothing!
2. 湖南菜 (Hunan cuisine)
3. Banks that open on the weekends
4. Shops, restaurants, etc. that stay open past 10PM
5. Chatting with taxi drivers
6. Mani/pedis that I deem “affordable”
7. Our really, really international circle of friends 
8. Older Chinese people in parks
9. The workout I got carrying my daughter and her stroller up three flights of stairs. I’m really going to struggle to walk anywhere near as much as I walked in China. See previous list, Item No. 5.
10. Tropical fruit. The mangos here are preposterous.