One of the many things I experience as an adult, no longer with the help of my grandmother or mother and their native tongues, is the hilarious tragedy of ordering food for myself. Whether it be in a restaurant I frequented as a child, or something new, it's always a challenge and an adventure. And there are so many layers to it. To being told to sit downstairs at Hei La Moon, to struggling with the cashiers at Quic Pic in broken Chinese about different cuts of pork. And when I say broken, I mean three words Chinese, and the rest English, sweaty tears and frantic pleading for compassion.
It's not that I haven't noticed I'm not visibly Asian. Even in my interactions with people in Chinatown today, I sometimes get the impression this is what they must think..like "you know what Toisan is but have you looked in a mirror..?" "Why, yes I have!" Don't get me wrong. I get it. I'm mixed and I don't look the part. At least that's what my white friends have said. Other mixed race or Asian friends have seen it before, sometimes. We can all see which genes came out on top. And most of the time I've gotten better over the years at being understanding and not getting so defensive immediately because I'm not the little girl I once was holding my grandmother's hand for validating protection. Sometimes. But I'm getting older, and as a mixed race person I don't have to make these excuses for my occasional, or even frequent frustration. It's not for lack of understanding. I'm by myself now and could be better about figuring out how to learn either Cantonese and Toisanese. I even took Mandarin for a whole semester just so I didn't have to be the only Asian person I knew at the time that had to keep repeating myself. "Yes, I'm really Chinese. Yes, I'm sure. Yes, I know, it's wild. No, I don't speak Chinese. Yes, I know Spanish but that's only because high school-" and so on and so forth. Yet something tells me even if I spoke Chinese fluently it's not like I wouldn't have some challenges there as well. But, I'm getting ahead of myself and that's a different story for a different day.
Anyway, the following are just a couple of the hundreds of stories I have about how it goes down when I'm in Chinatown. This is mostly about how much I love eating, and the challenges that sometimes delay what I see should be a short process from ordering to my mouth.
One time I was 24 or 25 and trying to order from Quic Pic. Trigger warning: This is a hangry example. I had worked all three jobs that day and not really eaten, and it was one of those emotional, I overworked myself trips to go eat a bunch of greasy comfort food at the end of the night. You see, fu yook was my BBQ favorite and it was my first weekend working at the theater near Chinatown. I hadn't really been back to the area in years.So, naturally I was ready with my diamonds and jaguar standing out front of the old awning. I awed at all it's tattered glory, looking at the promise of signs in Chinese and overly closeup pictures of boiled duck on the display. I had a game plan. You're gonna go in. You're going to order white roast pork and hold the ginger, because that usually has cilantro in it and you can't eat that. You're not going to tell anyone you're from Toisan and you're not going to pick a fight in the only Chinese you know and get frustrated. If anything, you can just point. You're going to walk out and finally get to eat and it's gonna be heavenly.
"Hi how are you? Can I get white roast pork over rice no ginger?"
"White roast pork over rice, no ginger"
"White....roast...pork...?" :points to menu behind her,confused:
"Yes, like fu yook, white roast pork? :starts looking at all the uncut meat that's totally indiscernible in my fatigue to try to point:
"Yes, fu yook"
"We don't have that."
"Yes, you do. I usually get it over rice, it's like char siew but white"
"OH you want char siew okay! :starts yelling my order to the butcher:
"No no, the white one..sorry hold on a minute." :takes out phone, giving up: "Mom, can you order for me in Chinese please I'm at Quic Pic and I'm falling apart"
I give the phone to the cashier and my mother orders and I feel stupid even though the whole situation could have been avoided had I been less of a hot mess. All of a sudden, the cashier says something to the butcher, and this is where it gets interesting. The butcher looks at me and goes from a serious demeanor to cracking up laughing, and swinging his axe in the air, in a sort of really touched humor. He's beside himself. He was laughing like this for a whole minute before speaking. I, being myself and already in a grumpy mood, look at him with a cold face. He had been standing there the whole time and I didn't even notice him until this moment. He starts yelling and smiling wide at me in broken English. His laugh reminds me of a cartoon character from Roger Rabbit. He starts to talk at me in wild decibel levels, booming over the sneeze guard.
"YOU'RE TOISAN??!!!!! REALLY? WAHHHHH I'M TOISAN!!" And immediately he crosses his arms and stands up straight, nodding to me in some sort of funny and proud approval. Then he tells me how long he's been in Chinatown, and that he came straight from Toisan to Boston's Chinatown and he hasn't gone back. He asks me if my mother is from there, and then tells me he heard me say fu yook, and then tells me he's going to give me extra laughing the whole time, and giving me a show of his knife skills and telling me things he learned here. He asks me a question in Toisanese and I say I don't understand. "OH YOU DON'T SPEAK IT? WELL THAT'S OKAY! YOU LIKE FU YOOK?! IT'S GOOD" He tells me to come back every day, and he'll give me fu yook, and in that intense moment of bonding in which he inaugurates me into the Toisan Boston bbq meats committee as we happily throw cabbage into the air over the unamused cashier's face, I walked out in a completely different mood. I had met other women in my town growing up who were Toisanese, but never has someone like an older male butcher ever given me the time of day, let alone so much excitement. It was nice.
The next story was purely amusing to me and my troupe.
Last night, I took on the task of ordering and picking up dinner for the dragon team's semi-annual meeting. I hesitated as the emails came in, seeing if anyone else was going to volunteer and if it shouldn't be me who does it. Again even though I'm an adult, when we do go out to eat, I scrape by happily and unaware because they always order in Cantonese so I don't ever have to worry. Understandably there was already mutual support, as one of them started offering to help and explaining what we usually do. We figured I would go to Asian Garden or Dumpling Cafe and just get the type of things we always order. I went in early and decided to take the lean-on approach, yapping it up with the cashier and asking a million questions with the menu in hand for 20 minutes about recommendations. After all, they weren't busy at all being only 4:30 PM on a weekday, and the minute I opened the menu it dawned on me I had no idea what anything was in English. I'm also incredibly indecisive with any menu, generally. And the only thing I retain when my GK sisters order at dinners is when they say "something-something choy" or "bing soy" because those are the only two things I ever personally need on the table after every practice. So, I sat back like a 50's Ricky Ricardo, taking off my hat and inserting a toothpick into my mouth trying to get the best tips on the horse bets that day at the local dime diner.
Of my own unnecessary accord, I had this inner need to impress, trying to get broad enough dishes that everyone would eat, but also not just go for Americanized basics just because I don't know what a single dish is actually called. Somehow I just ended up with something in between that and what I would eat. I ordered lo mein noodles, beef with scallion, pea pod steams, shrimp with tofu, and bitter melon. I struggled for five minutes with her about which vegetable had the long stems, and which ones were wider. We worked through that, and then I asked her a million questions about which fish comes in the metal plate with the fire underneath it with Sichuan peppers, and gave up on that as it didn't seem practical. Also, I tend to explain things like a caveman when I'm nervous.
"And the bitter melon dish."
"Yes, two orders of bitter melon. G21?" :points to it on menu:
"Umm...we don't have bitter..melon? Hang on." :looks for it on computer, calls over waiter:
They continue in Cantonese..he asks me, "Oh, bitter melon? Are you sure?"
"Yep, bitter melon."
"She wants bitter melon."
At this point I think we had all spit a rap verse on bitter melon together, and then she still looked confused even though he translated and pressed the button for her. And I'm not quite sure why choosing that dish got a hesitant reaction like I ordered the ghost chili special, as it was on the menu for a reason..right? But she was really nice and patient for this loopy, wild-haired woman stringing random dishes that don't even go together for ten people while trying to keep a budget.
I definitely went over it, in the end.