By Diane Ako
Please don't read right before or after a meal.
My parents are third generation Chinese-American. (Well, my dad is actually a quarter Native Hawaiian, but his Chinese ancestry is third generation.) They looooove to eat at Chinese restaurants.
I have grown up eating my way across Chinatowns in Hawaii, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, and Quebec. For cities with not enough Chinese to have a Chinatown, we had to make sure to ferret out even the crappiest Chinese restaurant.
In Roswell, New Mexico, the only thing Chinese about Kwan Den was the owner, Jack Chew, a very nice Chinese immigrant. By the time it was modified to appeal to southwestern tastebuds, it was no more a Chinese restaurant than Sizzlers represents Thai food.
You have to love it, though. It's just so... kitchy. I remember there was fried chicken in brown gravy with mashed potatoes on the menu. If memory serves, the chow mein was really just spaghetti with chicken. I remember my KOBR coworker and friend, Samm Conn, taking me there the first time and telling me how great it was.
Great is a relative word. Authentic Chinese, no. Great for cowboy palates, sure. The restaurant survived for decades in New Mexico, so it's gotta be doing something right.
THE TRIBUTE PART
Backing up a few steps, I searched for "Chinese restaurants" and "Roswell, New Mexico" to find the name of that hole in the wall restaurant. The name escaped me after all these years. One link led to another and pretty soon I was reading that the aforementioned Samm had died.
Died! Wow. I'm shocked! Saddened!
The last time I talked to Sam was right after I had a child. He laughed at the idea of me as a mom.
I always liked him. After I moved, we drifted, but we exchanged yearly holiday cards and updates. I was going to e mail him this blog so we could laugh about old times, and I'm really sorry that I can't. Still can't believe it.
Samm, I'll miss you.
Back on track, to where I intended to take this blog in the first place before I got sidetracked then blindsided: the chaos of Chinese restaurants, and how it's strangely addictive.
Chinese people have this strange tolerance of oddities and inappropriateness. I was at Chinese restaurant last week, with my parents and Olivia, when the weirdest thing happened.
Olivia had an upset stomach. She had just received a TB shot and finally by the time we sat down to eat, she told me her stomach hurt. I thought she needed water, because it had been a long day. I gave her water.
When the food came, she ate a char siu bao (the small size that comes in the dim sum trio) and half a har gao. She put her head on the table and looked sleepy.
The adults had finished our food and my parents were busy pre-ordering food off a menu for a party later in the week. Olivia wanted to sit on my lap. Then she wanted to stand in front of me, facing me.
My mother and father were talking to the waiter in Chinglish. I understand restaurant Chinese, up to a certain point.
I understand (in Cantonese only) "Do you have--" and then whatever the food item is, although I only know it if it's something my family has always ordered. I understand some other assorted noises like, "Good" or quantities of items.
So the point is, I zoned out on their conversation because I only knew half of it. My mother then turned her attention to me and was asking me to help make a decision: should we get this item or that?
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a white flash and felt a wet plop in my lap. I looked down. Olivia had lost her lunch. On me. (White, because she ate a bao.)
I exclaimed, "Oh! She's throwing up on me!" and then she heaved once again. I grabbed more napkins and held it in front of her mouth.They looked at me and then kept talking.
I was trying to avoid not getting vomited on any more, and nobody was helping me. My parents and the waiter were totally going about their business like nothing else was happening.
This reminds me of the scene in Ghostbusters when the guy slams up against the glass wall and the diners stop for a second, regard him, and keep eating.
"Hello?! I'm being vomited on??!!" I said loudly. My mother told my dad, who was sitting next to me, "Help her." I'm not sure what he did because I was staring at throw-up, but there was a pause and then she prodded, "Give her these." More napkins handed my way.
Olivia heaved a third time and now my hands are full. I asked the waiter, "Is there a garbage can here?" He stuck his hand out automatically, to take the customer's trash, then pulled the hand back and pointed to a nearby busboy cart. Like, I'm supposed to walk there with vomit dripping down my shorts and legs.
More talking and ordering of food. I was getting annoyed. Fourth (and final) heave, overflowing out of my napkin-hand, and onto the floor. I said even louder, "VOMIT??!" That got me more napkins and ignoring.
It was finally clear to me that Chinese restaurants are like the twilight zone of propriety, and that whatever weirdness happens in them is tolerated or ignored. It's like the space bar in Star Wars where anything goes.
I was more surprised than anything else. I stood up and cleaned up the rest of the mess myself.
I kind of wanted to dry heave when picking up the vomit off the floor (big, gooey, warm, porridgey chunks). But then I reminded myself I gave a dog - a LARGE DOG - an enema once, and this wasn't worse than that.
You can safely assume that I was as invisible as the janitor in Goodwill Hunting.
I actually told a second, newer waitress that there was some vomit on the floor that I cleaned up as best as possible, but that's why the red carpet was whitish. I apologized. She was really nice, but she didn't even seem to care.
(Later, I asked my mother what the heck happened. She said she didn't realize the full extent of the situation.)
GROSSNESS, PART TWO
Lunch was over, party meals pre-ordered, bills paid. I wanted to take Olivia to the bathroom first before we got in the car.
Her panties and shorts fall down her legs when she's sitting on the toilet. She likes to kick them off, which I don't encourage, but she does anyway. What happened next is exactly why I discourage complete disrobing.
She finished, and when I pulled up the panties, there was something wet and mushy on my thumb. I looked at the panty. There was a tan smudge on the waistband. Upon closer inspection, there was another piece, further in the undergarment.
I looked at the bottom of her shoe. There was a fat chunk of vomit stuck to the underside. She was wearing Mary Jane sandals with a small heel, so there was a quarter inch of space for vomit to really work up under there.
I took her out of the stall, cleaned the shoe as best as I could, and started to put her bottoms back on. I was going to take her shoes off before putting her garments on, but that would have her standing in a dirty restroom floor of a Chinese restaurant. Ugh.
I threw all decorum out the window and let her walk out of the restaurant half naked. And yeah, nobody cared.
This whole episode really seems like something I'd find on a Tina Fey comedy.
This isn't going to stop me from eating at Chinese restaurants, but next time I'll bring a bag of wet wipes to help my own self.
Samm, if you're somehow reading this, I hope you're laughing, too.
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