Sunday, June 28, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Tea House Brouhaha

It seems that I'm a firestarter, whether I mean to be one or not. The most I can hope for when traveling abroad is that I don't make a big enough scene to get in TOO too much trouble. Thus far, I have avoided confrontation with any proper authorities, but that's not to say I don't get into my fair share of verbal scuffles, different languages notwithstanding.

In Hong Kong, I had some words. A couple of times, actually. *Sigh.*

My father warned me after I returned and told him of the incidents, that as a sweeping generalization, people from the mainland are a lot nicer than people from ... not the mainland, i.e. Hong Kong and Taiwan, Macau and Tibet, et cetera. Thanks, Dad -- I could have used that information and been slightly less affronted in Hong Kong lol.

However, I should have known, since Cantonese is a harsh, abrasive, and always slightly annoyed sounding language, that the attitude of the people would perhaps grate on me that way as well. They may make the best Chinese food in the world and possibly one of the most fanciful of ethnic foods, but the Cantonese have zero qualms about telling you exactly what they think, admirable when it's not directed at you. I mean, I'm all for no lies ever (including those of the "little white" variety) and speaking your mind, but in Hong Kong, when people decide to be outspoken, they are indeed outspoken.

This particular exchange of words just made me feel inadequate, as the confrontations in Hong Kong did. After three weeks of falling into the musical cadences of Mandarin in the mainland, it was hard to make the transition in my brain to the less familiar language of Hong Kong, which was Cantonese. The phonetics are entirely different as to be incomprehensible to even those residing in China, and so, for an ABC like me, communication was difficult, since I could understand the gist of things being said, but couldn't respond in the correct language.

With this long-winded explanation, it seems I'm doing the situation an injustice, though, since it really wasn't that big of a deal, it was just a weird moment.

We went to this restaurant, the Shamrock Restaurant on Nathan Road -- the famous touristy shopping street of the island of Kowloon across the water from Hong Kong Island -- since we saw dim sum advertised on the sign and the doors were invitingly open at 6:45 in the morning. We rose early to try to find a dim sum breakfast before our 8 AM tour, and this was the first restaurant we saw walking away from the hotel. People were seated and drinking tea, so we figured it was just as good of a place at any. Star Restaurant, the first place we'd dined in HK (more on them later) was farther away, so we just went in.

Now, ordering dim sum in China is significantly more difficult than doing so in the States. You wouldn't think so, but it is. Gone are the handy carts with ladies calling out their wares as they travel around the dining room from table to table. Instead, you have sheets of paper with Chinese characters and a much shorter list in English, and a stubby pencil, so that you may select your menu items sushi-style.

Umm, this created some bit of difficulty, since in all honesty, my comprehension of the written language extends to "person," "China," "America," and "water." Yeahhh ... not so conducive to obtaining good eats.

We sat there awkwardly for a little bit after a lady asked us in a kindly, albeit abrupt, manner if we were "lern go yum cha," a bastardized pinyin for the Cantonese for "two to dim sum/yum cha." Eventually, after watching two groups of people go into a water closet of sorts and pour their own tea, I decided to check it out.

Behind the walls of the little water closet were two huge commercial water heaters with intense-looking spouts and plastic bins filled with loose tea leaves. You had a few choices -- I opted for the green tea that day, which looked a bit healthier than the other ones. Great tea is usually in whole-leaf form, from my experience; cheap tea is broken up with obvious stems that tend to get annoying and float to the surface.

The other people in the closet with me each grabbed two of the white teapots, one which they filled with a heaping spoonful of the tea and water and another they filled just with the scorching hot water. Some elected, when back at their tables, to rinse their cups and dishes in a basin with the hot water; others, like us, chose to use that to refill our teapot when we ran low.

We sat awkwardly for a little bit longer, wondering what to do next. I decided, after a particularly loud growl erupted from my stomach, to find out if the lady at the cashier counter had any helpful insight.

She did! But this is where the confrontation happened.

An old lady, sitting by herself near the cashier's booth heard me struggling in terrible Fuzhou-accented Cantonese for a menu in English. She was white 0f hair and wearing a purple brocade coat; her eyes were sunken in a round, flat-ish face, typical of older women of that region, and her teeth broken as she raised her tea cup to her mouth.

Anyway, as I resorted to English and body language to communicate with the really, really nice lady at the cashier (who informed me that I'd have to wait five more minutes, 7 AM, to order), the old lady decided it was time to get involved.

"Speak Cantonese, you lazy girl!" she croaked.

Shocked, I responded in Cantonese (how very productive, eh?), "I don't know Cantonese! I'm from America!"

"You're speaking it right now!"

The lady at the counter intervened. "Can't you see she's American? She just said that! It's okay!"

Hawking deep in the back of her throat, disgust emanating from her, she growled, "Then she shouldn't be here! All these Americans in Hong Kong! Pah! It's disgraceful, they come here and can't say anything. These Chinese Americans, so disrespectful, come in and want you to speak THEIR language. They should go back to their own country ..."

The lady at the counter apologetically handed a picture menu with English and numbers that corresponded to the "sushi sheet," and shooed me and my shock away. I understand that xenophobia is an epidemic that's simmered in every country around the world, and as an American, I am also offended when people don't bother to learn the language and expect you to learn theirs. However, the people that upset me are immigrants who come here to live, and whose alphabet and pronunciation is similar to English. My thinking is that if MY family, who came from a whole other WORLD, pretty much, can learn the language, and the families who have come here generations ago could, why can't the new wave put forth the effort?

My point though, is that the last thing I expected in the country I was often told by racist, close-minded Long Island children to return to, was to be told the same from my ancestral countryman. For Pete's sake, my mother grew up in Hong Kong! My parents both immigrated! Am I not, then, as much Chinese as I am American?

Apparently not. The life of an average Chinese is beyond my comprehension, and my alienness shows to the older folk. I'm immediately identified as American by adults, not Chinese ... yet in the US, people still ask me "what country I'm from" (to which I respond with a "duh" look, "America ...") and wonder out loud how I "talk English so good." (Yes, these things actually still do happen. Mostly on Long Island, not New Orleans, though ... so much for the backwards South, eh? ;)

ABCs apparently live their lives in limbo. It's a weird place to be, especially when you're hungry at 7 AM.

P.S. I ended up ordering and eating this deliciousness:


Pork and shrimp shumai, steamed in egg wrappers with red roe caviar steamed and melted on top; shrimp churn fun, fresh shrimp wrapped in freshly made wide rice noodles and rolled up; egg custard tarts, shiny and respendent in its butter on the firmer than creme brulee custard in a flaky pie crust; "conpoy," a chicken, pork, and black mushroom combination (details on that in a later post) wrapped in layers of sweet, translucent sticky rice, which is in turn wrapped in a bitter lotus leaf. Shrimp in rice noodles, without the sweet thin soy sauce that makes it the most delicious thing EVER (sauce pictured to the right of it); Chinese leek, shrimp, black mushrooms, and thin-sliced pork in a crispy and oily pancake made of rice flour, a spongier version of the fried Vietnamese crepe; egg custard tart again.

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