Small Talk

Chinese restaurants, and a tribute to Sam Conn

July 26th, 2010

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.


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.)


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.Β 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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12 Responses to “Chinese restaurants, and a tribute to Sam Conn”

  1. Kim:

    Thanks for the warning not to read it before/after a meal. I hope you can
    look back later and laugh at this story.

  2. sally:

    No one knows gross like a mommy knows gross! I bet you were ready for a great big nap when you got home!

  3. Ken Conklin:

    For many years I've been enjoying Pah-Ke's restaurant in Kane'ohe (near the post office). It's an older, medium-size place where all the staff seem to be members of a single family, dress casually, and are very friendly. Thank goodness nothing weird has happened when I've been there. The relatively new Joyful Garden (near McDonalds) is modern-looking, huge, with wait staff who seem to be unrelated to each other, dress quite formally, and are polite but not really friendly. I eat there only once or twice per year. Nothing weird has happened there -- yet.

    For some reason I get the impression that if something weird were going to happen to me in a Chinese restaurant, Joyful Garden is where it would happen rather than Pah-Ke's. I don't know why. It's just something about the "atmosphere" there. Just one of those feelings.

    My weird-repellant is that I nearly always dine alone. No little girl to make weird things happen. No big girl either! -- they're the ones who really bring on the weird!

  4. kanakakuuna:

    u r remarkable, Diane. i would've lost it during the picking up part after the final heave. i'll take my children home after they're vaccinated.

  5. Sam Urai:

    Now I understand why Samm laughed when he heard you were a mom. Is this really a true story?-poor Olivia, oh and you to Di. Is it safe to ask the name of the restaurant? I love Chinese food but I might change to cowboy food after reading this great blog.

  6. M:

    Hello Diane,

    I gone though that with my kids too. I hope Olivia is fine now.

    I love chinese food too, maybe because I'm Pake too.... πŸ™‚

  7. Popoman:

    I couldn't stop reading your vivid description of the incredible vomiting experience by Olivia!
    First of all, your a "wonderful, honest and truly" entertaining story teller. Please don't change.

    Regarding the chinese restaurant experience, yes, most or all of us who have travelled have experienced this "you gotta be kidding me" "Chinese" restaurant experience. To make matters worse, Hawaii Chinese cooking has it own taste and style. Double whammy!! Since we are rice eaters (very Chinese or Japanese food) its only natural that we look for these foods away from home. My son (who lives in Indianapolis, IND) described his experience when he took his family to a "Chinese Restaurant" in Avon, Indiana! The story is too long "but it was one of the most hilarious stories I have heard, especially since he put his heart and soul into the story."

    Just discovered your blog. I am of the Elder generation. Wife and I from Oahu, HI. Lived in the mainland over 52 years. We stay close to Hawaii and try not to lose track of our native heritage.

    Besides - Hawaii people are "One of a kind"

    Reside in Reno/Tahoe area retired. Chinese food here is getting better (Or I am getting use to it) Nothing like Hawaii and San Francisco though.

  8. snow:

    i'm not chinese but i can relate... i've been to many chinese restaurants here and on the mainland with my chinese friends. i always enjoy when the workers talk stink about us and my chinese friends are able to understand and tell them off! actually, i don't totally enjoy it... uhh, don't fight with the workers before we get our food, thanks! πŸ˜‰

  9. Kage:

    Oooooh! 😯

    Thank you for the disclaimer at the beginning.

    Hope Olivia is feeling better.

  10. Adam:

    My father's day in Chico, Ca 2010....sit down to a nice breakfast, the food comes, and my little angel Evan pukes his guts out all over the table. We get the food to go, I give the waitress a 10$ tip for being such a darling, and we trot on back to the house to eat cold pancakes. I wasn't able to show off my World's Greatest Dad teeshirt, but there's always next year πŸ™‚

  11. elakea:

    I hope that Olivia is okay now! Never go anywhere without a pack of baby wipes!

    I have a couple of Chinese restaurant stories. When I was going to school on the East Coast with my girlfriend who is from a family which owns and operates a famous Honolulu Chinese eatery, she used to eat Chinese fare during lectures from a kitschy place down the street from school. She warned me that, if I went there, the sweet sour sauce was made using red jello, but not bad. I figured that she must have some standards coming from her family, so I went, and sure enough, when desperate enough, sweet sour sauce made from red jello is close enough to the real thing! I would never eat it now, but we were young and tough back then!

    The next story is from a business trip to Hilo. People from Hilo, at least in those days, used to always complain about the lack of good Chinese food in Hilo. I flew in early with my Chinese foodie friend. Being ever solicitous of our tummies, we wanted breakfast, so went to a restaurant called Green Door or nearby. It looked like a Chinese lunch counter kind of place, and was empty--not a good sign. The menu on the wall looked unappealing. I tried to talk to the young local girl manning the counter about the food. No luck. So, I poked my head into the kitchen, and lo and behold, standing there in his white t-shirt, white apron, and khaki pants, was a real Chinese cook, with the standard Chinatown thick cross-grain chopping block, cleaver and everything. I excitedly went out to my foodie friend and explained the situation. I popped back in and asked the cook if he could make minute chicken cake noodle for us, and some other stuff which I would have specified but cannot recall now. In shock, staring as if I was a talking apparition giving food instructions, he slowly nodded mutely. The food was absolutely delicious! I think that the cook must have been adjusting his cooking for what he thought were Hilo tastes, and then cooked standard Chinatown fare for us, as if he were cooking for his family!

    Like you, Diane, I lost my foodie friend. He is gone now, but I will always remember him making me Hong Kong Crispy Whole Chicken and almost burning down his gorgeous house in the process. A serious cook, he had a propane wok set-up outside under the eaves, and when he dunked the whole chicken in the hot oil, the flames shot up to lick the eaves. But, like a true foodie, he kept his attention on the chicken and kept cooking! The roof eave got all black and charred, but the chicken was perfect! Dessert was Poha ice cream! Yum!

  12. Nanea:

    "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."

    You know, that's exactly why I love New York city. Same. But with more screaming.

    My fave Chinese restaurant experience was in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where I was mistaken for an exchange student as I deplaned - not a big Asian population there. There was a dish that was supposed to be pork and vegetables. It was cut up ham and contained, among other things, canned corn. As we left, the cute-as-a-button Chinese teen daughter of the proprietor said, "Thanks for comin'! 'Preciate it!" It was kind of awesome in a surreal way.

    Poor Olivia. But you lose skill points for not catching the barf in your hands. Everyone knows that's a ninja mom skill. πŸ˜›

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