Monday, April 21, 2008

dim sum in chinatown

yesterday i went to have dim sum at grand harmony palace in the heart of chinatown with two friends who happen to be chinese and native new yorkers—miona is from the bronx and evan was born and raised on mott street. they both speak chinese as well, which isn’t always the case with the children of immigrants. usually, the push is to make their children and themselves as american as possible. by the time they realize that what they are is american enough, it’s usually too late. but that’s not the case with miona’s parents, who still don’t speak english. as i walked to our table in the restaurant, i could fully understand why.

the room was awash in red fabric on the walls, with chandeliers and gold touches all over the place and bright yellow seat covers and tablecloths that made everything look elegant and drab all at once. everywhere was a flurry of activity: babies crying, children laughing, old people chatting, everyone eating, and starchly uniformed servers with these huge layered trays on sturdy wheels moving slowly through the room like metal oxen, pausing for a moment at the hint of a signal that anyone wants anything at all. it was easy to make them stop where we were because miona loves food and evan was starving.

i found it especially amusing that no one was speaking any english whatsoever. the effect was not unlike a pane of glass breaking over and over again, at different pitches, and different angles, from different directions.

i followed their lead, pointing at things, then asking them to tell me the names of the things that i liked, then pronouncing them badly until they stopped cringing and i won their tentative approval. white teapots filled with crysanthemum tea were constantly refilled. if i wanted my tiny cup refilled, i tapped my finger next to the cup and kept tapping until i wanted them to stop pouring.

dim sum is the asian equivalent of english high tea but much, much tastier. it’s like a heavy snack (yes, i know—that’s oxymoronic, but it’s true). i love dim sum and i’ve certainly had it before but not in a place where that’s all they served at that time of day. and the experience of being the only black person in a gigantic roomful of chinese people was more than a notion. if you are of color, you are black as far as i'm concerned. that would include everyone except the white people -- and quite a few of them ain't telling it.

frieda kahlo was right: chinese babies are the most beautiful babies in the world.

one of the things that miona and evan couldn’t stop talking about was my impending nuptials in charleston, south carolina that are happening approximately a year from now. interesting but true: they have never lived outside of new york city. they both went to college in the area. miona travelled to southeast asia recently for some months and had great adventures but before that, she’d never really left home. so the south is this great mystery and they’re both wondering about the asian presence there.

what i’m trying to show them is that there has been a strong chinese presence in the south since reconstruction but they don’t seem to know a lot about chinese-american history in general. so i’ve promised them a reading list, documentaries, and welcome packages filled with maps and things to do when they get there. clearly, they want and need to be primed.

we’re already planning to have lunch in harlem somewhere soon. maybe the new italian restaurant up the street from me. i’m not sure. next weekend is already earmarked for english cuisine at my favorite anglo spot: tea and sympathy on greenwich.

all in all, a new and exciting experience. next month: i’m getting my learner’s permit!

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