It’s Christmas Time in the City

December 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I grew up in an apartment in Chinatown and my elementary school was 99% Chinese. However, my music teacher was Jewish, so I learned all the Hanukkah songs that I can still remember. We didn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and my mother worships Buddha, so Christmas was not a big holiday for us either. To my parents’ credit, we did have red stockings from Macy’s that had our names embroidered on them from our one visit with Santa. There was no fireplace in our apartment, so we tacked them onto the white wall near the dining area. And so every Christmas Eve, my brother and I would hang our personalized stockings and then go to bed hoping that Santa somehow would get into our apartment and bring us presents. He managed to do so every year, and our stockings were filled with writing implements, restaurant check pads, memo pads, erasers, or whatever my parents thought we’d enjoyed. Sometimes even toys from the La Ja Poo.

In truth, we didn’t care what was actually in the stockings; we were just happy that Santa deemed us nice, and not naughty. We played with whatever we got and then went out for dim sum. That was the tradition until one year, when I was about 6 or 7. My mother was playing mah jong at home with her friends after dinner while my father was working in another town. My brother and I hung our stockings up, as per our annual ritual. Yes, you know what I’m about to tell you…

I woke up before my brother, who was 3 or 4 at the time, and I found my mother still playing mah jong (they played all through the night). I looked in my stocking and there was NOTHING! Not even coal.

“MOM!” I was sobbing at this point.

“Oh, please!” she replied. “Santa’s not real! You’re old enough to know that, don’t you?”

And that was when I stopped believing. I don’t remember how my brother handled it; probably with less drama than I showed. Somehow I got over it. I just hope my kids find out when they’re ready, and not by surprise, but I’m still dreading that day. At least we have a fireplace and a chimney here.

Yeah, reality bites.

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La Ja Poo (The Dirty Store)

December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

The only authentic toy my parents gave me growing up was a “Pink and Pretty Barbie” they bought me when I aced Chinese School one year. I ranked first in the class, so I got to go to the “Hello Kitty Store” and pick out a toy. I fell in love with the Barbie. I know now that it was more than my mother had intended to spend, but I had earned it after all. And so she became my best friend. And, like all little girls with dolls, I liked to change my Barbie’s clothes, but authentic Barbie clothes were expensive. After seeing my friend with a bagful of clothes for her Barbie, my mother learned about the La Ja Poo (Taishanese translation for the dirty store). My mother shopped frequently at the La Ja Poo, where knockoff anythings were sold by nonAsians. The store was narrow, dark, and dirty, but it had a lot of desirable merchandise that were clean. Yes, she came home with the same bag of clothes for my Barbie that cost her the price of an authentic Barbie outfit. I can still remember the yellow sweat suit with green stripes and the matching duffle bag vividly. Some time later, a knockoff Cabbage Patch Kid came home without a birth certificate, but I didn’t care. I ended up using my sister’s baby clothes as the wardrobe. My brother got a fake Voltron; he didn’t care that it wasn’t authentic either. The La Ja Poo eventually closed, but I never forgot its existence. Interestingly, my mother has. In any case, maybe this is why I am more than okay with using most store brand equivalent products to this day, so long as they’re legitimate products. How about toys? Well, my children are not attached to any particular item. When my daughter received a “real” American Girl Doll after she’d owned a “fake” Target Girl Doll, she did not love either any more or any less. She does want more accessories for both, and so thank goodness for Amazon, my La Ja Poo away from home. I just ordered some clothes that fit most 18-inch dolls and I know she’ll be happy.

A Flock of Fried Seagulls?

February 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Fried seagulls are not a delicacy like some of the other foods that I have tried at least once in my life. Actually, I’ve never heard of fried seagulls, but I wouldn’t put it past Chinese restaurants to offer it as a special menu item written in simplified characters and posted on the wall of the restaurant. When dining with my parents, we get to try wall menu (even nowadays) items that I can’t read. If described correctly, my parents would agree to try something exotic. Would you like white rice with it? You’re probably thinking, “Seagulls?! Really?! But they’re so dirty!” Well, so are pigeons (squab), but that never stopped us from eating those scrawny things at banquets. I actually believed that they were the pigeons we fed in the park because that is what my parents told me. I believed everything they told me. They probably thought that if we could relate to the food then we’d eat it. It worked. I’m not really sure what kind of imagery they conjured up in our minds when they introduced some of the foods below, though. They always had some explanation as to why we should put it in our mouths. Some of the foods I still look for when I’m out, but others I could do without. At least my in-laws enjoy chicken feet as much as I do. Today I had my father-in-law beef tendon and tripe. The other stuff on the list, I’d have a lot of trouble convincing them:

Jellyfish in center

  • duck feet (with just cartilage), duck tongue (by the pound), duck blood cooked (some dim sum places still serve it);
  • pig feet, tongue (marinated in soy sauce and served sliced);
  • cow brain soup (drank once before my SAT’s);
  • snake gall bladder swallowed whole (supposedly to keep us healthy);
  • sea turtle soup;
  • frog legs, frog eggs (dessert);
  • fish head in a casserole;
  • jellyfish (crunchy platter item);
  • abalone (with mushrooms and green vegetable);
  • sea cucumber;
  • bird’s nest soup (sweet or salty).

Of course, I haven’t tried all the strangest foods; this link has even more interesting ones.

FYI: Chinese people don’t waste any body part of an animal, innards included. A whole chicken went a long way in our family. Besides the white and dark meat, each member of the family claimed the wings (me), feet (brother), tail (parent), gizzard (father), liver (me), and heart (brother).

What’s the strangest food you’ve ever had at a Chinese restaurant?

Hare Today, Stew Tomorrow

January 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Do you remember your first pet? Mine was a white rabbit that my mother brought home one evening after playing mahjong with her friends. It came in its original cage, and my mother gently laid newspaper out on the floor before setting it down in the dining area. I should have seen that this close proximity to the kitchen sealed the fate of the poor hare. But what did I know? I was only 5 and I was so excited! My first pet! I marveled at its healthy size and the whiteness of the fur until it was really late. My mother told me it was still going to be there the next day. I foolishly trusted her. I had no reason to believe that I wasn’t going to see it alive again. My grandmother, who had recently immigrated from China and was staying with us, actually convinced my mother (while I was sleeping) that we didn’t need a rabbit for a pet. That, in fact, it would make a tasty stew. Imagine my surprise when I woke up and saw an empty cage. I frantically asked, “Where’s the rabbit?” in Chinese. My grandmother emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of mystery soup. I can’t remember if I actually had any of it, but I do recall my anguish. My mother must have felt guilty because shortly after that episode we had pet hamsters. They didn’t go anywhere for a while. I guess my grandmother did not have a recipe for these cute, furry little creatures. In hindsight, I learned two things from this: 1) Chinese people DO eat anything and 2) Don’t trust your newly immigrated Grandmother with your pets.