The dancing lions were expected, the Shannon Rovers less so. For years, I have told myself I would journey to Chinatown for the New Years Parade. For years, this being Chicago, there were better (warmer) things to do inside or at home. But this year, the sky is a bright blue, the temperature a balmy 37 degrees and the annual parade also falls on Valentine’s Day. Having just been dumped the Sunday before (by email, 10 minutes before kickoff, Super bowl Sunday), it is an easy choice between Valentines in Red Envelopes and Red Envelopes of Good Fortune.
The crowd is large – a new record an announcer says. No doubt a new record for the restaurants, as well, judging by the confused look hostess after hostess gives to the lines of people descending immediately after the parade. Reservations? No. No room, the first shrugs. The concept of someone waiting for a table seems not to occur to her. Nor the next, who tries to tell us in halting English no room and then calls an older woman out, who flaps her arms at us, no room, no room, other time, okay?
We trudge down the block and avoid any place with lines. The final choice is a bit rundown looking, an unlit sign and the most amazing smell upon entering. Forget Chinatown, this must be what China smells like.
The party in front of us gets the last table for 2. Only two large round tables remain. Behind us is a party of 5. The girl in the white shirt smiles at us, how many? Two, yes, she shows us to the large table – and repeats with the party behind us and behind them till both tables are filled up with parties of 2, 5, 3, of strangers.
Our group is an eclectic group: my companion and I are refugees from the grey and winter white suburbs trolling the urban arena for local color. A large group of two couples and one child (toddler/baby) each spreads out next to me. Filling in the gap are two women and one child. It is never clear if this is a third family unit or just friends. Menus are passed out to share. This is the real deal, frog legs and shrimp heads are featured next to scripts without translation.
At first everyone keeps the conversation to their own group, musing between them various options for dining.
I can’t help it.
I start chatting about the baby with his mom.
It seems natural to ask what she is ordering.
She mistakes my question as one of looking for authority.
Oh I am not Chinese she says well I am but not in that way, I was born in America, in Vegas, actually. And raised in Hawaii. I don’t speak Chinese.
Funny how she felt immediately that she needed to explain that to a stranger.
Well, yes she is Asian. But no, I didn’t mean that when I asked.
I am not sure which of us should be embarrassed.
It would never occur to me that someone might expect me to speak German.
I, however, am more curious how and why someone raised in two places so many Midwesterners wish to escape from, why, she moved to our city – with a baby, no less. Anyone who has wrestled with a baby stroller in snow knows what I mean.
But this internal immigration is an ancient tale. She nods at her husband – his family is here and with the baby… she smiles, it is good to be by family.
Soon, her group is chatting with us as if we were some odd family reunion where you are seated once again next to cousins not seen in 12 years, who now have tots and spouses in tow.
The group of 3 talks quietly amongst themselves. They are polite and unobtrusive but never reach out beyond each other.
There is a big circle in the center. I think more dates and business dinners should adopt this: personalities are revealed in how each person responds to the communal pots of tea, rice, silverware, cookies. Those who grab quickly, those who hold back politely - the look on their face saying notice me being polite, those who laconically take the last rice as if there were plenty more, which there is, as the kitchen sends the dishes out in a steady but random stream. First one person’s dish, then one from another group. The littlest girl is upset because her fried rice comes out after the rest of her group is done eating. The group of 3 almost apologizes when their food comes out before mine – but you ordered first. And yes, my friend had been served first.
The waitress nods yes yes soon soon to me each time.
Finally she places a dish in front of me: scallops and shrimp – close but not what I ordered. Take it, my friend hisses when I hesitate and ask the waitress who seems to not understand.
Just take it. I am not sure if he is embarrassed that I am “being difficult” or just wants me to get my food and catch up with him so we can get on with our day.
But it might be someone else’s I whisper. Just take it.
I reach for it, when the laconic guy from across the table, who confidently assumed food and rice and more tea would come, comments , well actually that looks like what I ordered.
I glance around the table. I admit to being a bit of a coffee snob, wine snob, fresh food snob, chocolate snob – oh really – I love people and have no idea what kind of car anyone drives, so let me have my little snobbisms.
Now I realize I am a bit of a Chinese food snob: the table is full of egg rolls, fried rice, chop suey, sweet and sour chicken. No one is ordering off the Chinese side of the menu, except me. But who is to say what is authentic anymore. Not I. Simply what is good.
My food arrives, the Chinese woman brings menu, and seems to be apologizing – ah yes, they were too busy to make the sauce, but “is good”.
Yes, it is good.
I glance around and see Asian faces, Spanish, black, the high cheek bones of the Slavic couple, the round pink of the Irish and German. The heads bob and weave around the food and the talk at the table