Thursday, June 30, 2016

I'll Take It

You gotta be careful when you order tea these days.  Chinese restaurants in the U.S. of my youth would throw a pot of floor-scrapings tea on your table for free.  Memory may not serve precisely but I seem to recall we’d get our pot of tea no more than one or two kuai, back in the Shanghai of twenty years ago.  If you just relax in to place with even modest pretentions these days you can be hit with some silly pot of green tea that costs more than bottle of wine were you to casually let slip:  “Oh yeah, and a pot of tea for the table.”  Don’t assume.  Ask before you order your tea.

I’m at another one of my local staple restaurants, trying not to have a beer.  If I do, I’ll go back to my room and fall asleep shortly thereafter.  And I have quite a bit to do this evening.  If I stick to tea, I’ll squeeze another hour or so out of the night.  

My waitress was patient as I flipped through the menu. I have learned the hard way that photos are particularly deceiving in this place.  They must have downloaded these glossies off the stock photo bin on Chinese restaurant dot com.  This place make food that tastes alright, but the dishes presented are rather far afield of what you’d been tempted to order, what you’ve imagined putting in your mouth.  The lamb I considered had big cumin seeds spread all over the glistening cubes which rested on an interesting bed of celery leaves.  What was served is all a bit mushy with a few hot pepper pieces on top, served on some shredded iceberg lettuce.  The green vegies are a chaotic mess of odd choppings rather than the neat stack I was sold on.  No worries.  The tieban eggplant is not too far off the photo. 

My waitress is an older later with a kind smile.  (To be fair she is probably my age.  You know, ‘older.’)  At the end of my order I asked her for a suggestion as to the most “common” tea that had.  “What is most “every day” tea you have?”  I’m concerned for a moment that perhaps I haven’t made myself understood.   But soon she is repeating back to me what I said:  “probably the most ‘common’ tea we have is this moli tea.  I give you a cup and a pot of boiling water.”  “Right.  And will that run me?”  “Ten kuai.”  “I’ll take it.” 

And so its me with my visually accurate eggplant and my not so representative lamb and greens and a brimming glass of floating flowers and sinking dried currents staring out at the passers by on a Wednesday night at nine twenty, as this is the big advantage of this place, if you’re in the mood for it, is that this first floor window seat is always free and the progression of people is fairly constant with most pedestrians oblivious like fish in a tank and a few pausing to consider me and my my evening meal, which is never as tasty as the place down the street, but generally serves as the next best thing and a point of variance on the rather predictable routine of solo dining here in the neighborhood of my temporary Puxi residence.  

One of the Heartthrobs

This cab is freezing.  For all the times I’ve sat in the back of a Beijing cab as the air-con gasped out faint suggestions of something Nordic, this Shanghai driver has cooled out an unquestionable icebox.  He’s in a tee-shirt up there, spinning the wheel and I’m worried for him.  You’ll catch a cold.  At least I can roll my sleeves down. 

The in-your-face screen confronting me from the back of the passenger seat headrest is beaming out an advertisement for something.  I look once and then again, before reaching to shut it off and I pause.  I notice the doe-eyed blond kid whose dancing around in front of dozens of other silly nymphs.  It’s Lu Han.  There’s a close up.  Aww.  There’s he is in front of graffiti.  He’s an urban guy who knows how to bend his knee and lead a dance step with a sneer . . . and then a smile.   

I haven’t checked in on Lu Han for three years or so.  He looks a bit older, certainly with a hair or two sprouting out, no doubt, on his chest by now.  He was one of the heartthrobs in the Sino-Korean boy band EXO.  I couldn’t tell you if he is still of the band or if it exists at all.  But three years ago, I was driving here, and driving there to buy must-have EXO memorabilia for my daughters. 

My older daughter who was eleven or so at the time, was enamored by “Chris” a  and the younger one who was eight was a Lu Han fan.  Neither of these boys looked much older than my daughters themselves.  These lads were the Chinese side of the EXO collective.  At the time, my daughters were attending a Chinese school and speaking Chinese every day with Chinese friends.  As one might have predicted, this all came to an end, when they were surrounded with an English speaking environment, with English speaking friends, who listened to songs in English.

Good luck evolving your public image Lu Han, though I fear you’ve lost my daughter’s heart, forever.  

Insufferable Sufferers

Am I the only one with the odd masochistic desire that loved ones forget a holiday commemoration, so that I can suffer quietly and then hold it against them later when they realize they have all missed acknowledging the weekend’s Hallmark holiday?  I suspect I could start a grumpy support group of other insufferable sufferers.  “No.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s no big deal. “

As it was everyone remembered early so I could get over my quiet martyrdom before festered into something ugly.  A note from my stepson and then a mention from the Mrs.  There’s not really much else to do once the basic ritual of acknowledgement has been addressed.  “Thanks.”  “So, what are you doing?”  “Oh.  Nothing much.”  My little one caught word and drew me a picture, which was sweet.  And later that night, around the time that Father’s Day was dawning for my father and step father back home whom I dutifully called early, my daughters decided they would make dinner, which was lovely, if rather starchy and cheese-draped. 

Speaking to someone in Australia later in the evening:  “Well, a Happy Father’s day to you.”  “We don’t celebrate it during June in Auz.  We celebrate it in September. “  I see.  I wonder how that happened?  Is it something driven by the rhythms of the Commonwealth?  Has a local card company mandated something that speaks to their springtime as their Australian winter passes? Who decided the date for their commemoration? 

There are plenty of holidays I don’t much make time for but I’ll spare some time in my day to honor paternity.  I was blessed with a great father, and a great step father and I’ve learned from each of them how to fulfill both roles myself.  And I’m thankful that I didn’t have to stew in my own spoiled juices for very long that morning. Some things do suggest there is wisdom with age. 

Culinary Ambassador

Have so enjoyed having a solid Italian restaurant near our home this past year.  I’m laboring to recall who it was that suggested to us that the ho-hum place that had been there for years was under new management.  We piled in suspiciously one night and, as suggested it proved to be wonderful.  Somehow every time we went my daughters and I were reminded of dining in Italy last summer.  We’d always talked about it.  Those meals where you pause after a first bite and necessarily savor what had just entered your mouth. 

The gent whom I believed to be the owner always welcomed us in and gave us room to get settled before announcing the specials and recommending a bottle.  He was from a part of the country up near Genoa where I’ve never traveled but have long been interested in.  In his late fifties I suppose, this was his first time in China and he was clearly doing his best to adjust while missing home dearly.  He loved to look at the map on the back of the menu and talk about one region and then another.

Deflated the other evening as we piled in with our normal ritual with another family only to have him tell us that this restaurant would be closing at the end the of the summer.  The rents were going up and the other place that was jointly run in a nearby mall would still continue on.  And what about our friend?  They didn’t need him at the other restaurant and so he would be returning home, if he couldn’t find another suitable location. 

Matteo Ricci, our culinary ambassador, leaving his disparate converts behind him.  What a shame that the neighborhood couldn’t support this oasis.  We did our part.  I’d so rather not have to schlepp over to that over-built mall miles in the other direction, in order to dine.  Restaurants are temporal environments that don’t really mean much beyond a specific time and place.  Whatever comes next will almost certainly be disappointing.

We offered our friend some halfhearted suggestions:  What about that place?  You should try to open something there?  Surely there must be a way.”  But it was a challenge we were most unlikely to solve.  He offered us grappa on the way out as usual, but we refused this evening.  We weren’t’ feeling very festive.  My daughter and I unlocked our bikes from over by the window and headed off back home.  Others drove.  I thought of his home I’d never seen and the family regularly referred to and his stories he’d have to tell people of his time China as I ran my tongue over the remaining taste of Primitivo on my teeth. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Picking At Freebies

Flying back home to Beijing, somewhere over South Korea I suppose.  I can’t see out the window.  The ANA lounge there at Haneda was well stocked with papers.  I picked up a Financial Times and an International Herald Tribune.  (That must be why Herald Square is named “Herald” as eight blocks up Time’s Square is named “Times” with the newspapers headquarters located there.)  There was an older copy of the Economist and I sat in the morning sun, sipping on the complimentary miso soup, reading article after article, editorial after editorial about Brexit, about Orlando. 

It’s so damn early all I really want to consume is a smoothie.  Rather, I’m picking at the freebies. Salad and the perennial Japanese free food favorite of airline and hotel lounges, bits of deep fried chicken.  I’m not even sure if I want a cup of coffee as I’d like to sleep on the flight.  But I have one anyway.  I passed a sushi spot on the way up here and if it were a little later in the day perhaps I’d indulge, but at eight in the morning, it just doesn’t draw me. They are offering three types of free sake to sample but fortunately the requisite will power is properly in control of my cerebellum. This time. 

The Air China flight home is always down at gate 141, which is the absolute furthest gate from anything.  They make a last call announcement and I pack up my papers.  There is a second and a third “last” call announcement in Japanese, Chinese and English as I make my way along the moving walk ways, past the oddly named store “Books and Drugs.”  Sounds like my undergraduate experience. 

I will not be the last person to board.  A couple is arguing with the flight staff about how many bottles of liquor they can bring on the flight.  Their bag is open for all to see.  From past experience I know that I am not really holding anyone up.  We will all sit here now for quite some time.  Does Air China get a discount parking all the way out here?  There must be some trade off for this compromise of the outer-most boarding gate.  Automatically I scoop up the English language China Daily and the Chinese language Global Times from the stand by the plane door.  I’ve now made my way through all four papers and half the Economist.  I now know how read ‘Florida’ and ‘Orlando’ in Chinese characters.  

And as always happens with this flight I feel oddly at home, suddenly asking for a pillow in Chinese.  My kindergarten Japanese and my exaggerated polite affectations fall by the wayside and “hey, what’s up?”-like casual normalcy reasserts itself.  I can feel my shoulders relaxing.