Since moving stateside, we’ve had a number of encounters with China, Chinese, Chinese food, and Chinatown.
Our first said encounter happened after a beach day where my mom, dad, ZJ, and I devoured Chinese cuisine at Chengdu 23, a restaurant in town. Chengdu 23 isn’t a new haunt for my family, as it’s their preferred destination for dim sum amongst other delicacies, and I dined there the summer before my four years of Xiananigans with friends. These friends are also an American-Chinese pairing, a WMAF and oddly enough, met in Xi’an. They considered Chengdu 23’s food some of the most authentic cuisine available in Northern New Jersey. I remember devouring steamed fish that still makes my mouth water just thinking about it!
This time, eating at Chengdu 23 differed as I scoured the menu in Chinese as well as ZJ and I made the selections: 回锅肉，蒜蓉豆苗，干煸豆角，宫保鸡丁。My parents selected a few appetizers for us to devour, including scallion pancake, dan dan noodles (很好吃！), and dumplings. Chengdu 23, as observed by the parental units, patrons were composed of Chinese and Jewish families. Our server proved to be quite the conversationalist, taken aback when I uttered Mandarin. Although himself a Hong Kong native, he’s lived in the States for over a decade. We’re still unsure if he is management as ZJ thought he may be. He commented, in typical fashion, that the dumplings weren’t up to snuff and profusely apologized in the modest manner I became accustomed to in China. I can even recall as our wedding ceremony drew to a close, ZJ’s eldest brother profusely apologized to the non-Chinese guests for offering an unsatisfactory amount of dishes at the wedding while piling into the cars heading back to Xi’an, when in fact, my sister remains mesmerized by the copious amounts of food offered.
Modesty, a recurring motif in our encounters, occurred during my birthday dinner at TinaLouise. TinaLouise, a modern take on Chinese cuisine, is managed by two sisters from Hong Kong. They primarily cater to non-Chinese customers in their very intimate restaurant. TinaLouise boasts less than a dozen tables for two. Reservations are a must for a larger party, and thus my mom reserved for our party of six. As we did at Chengdu 23, we ate family style, and as the birthday girl, I claimed authority on making the majority of the selections. One of the favorite items has to be specifically asked for: soft shell crabs. I normally steer clear of this crustacean, however soft shell crabs can be eaten in its entirety. TinaLouise delicately prepares this speciality and Louise, managing the front of house, delighted in the fact that we ordered two plates. ZJ and I conversed with Louise, a reason to go back there as she impeccably manages front of house by striking up conversations with all her patrons, in a mix of Mandarin and English. Tina & Louise have resided stateside for several decades. Louise told ZJ how beautiful I was, something that took me right back to Xi’an when a day wouldn’t go by without someone uttering this. I took particularly interest in what both the server at Chengdu 23 and Louise were willing to say in Mandarin versus English. It’s something I noticed I did as well as my Mandarin progressed.
In all these encounters, ZJ noted that even with limited interactions, differences exist between Mainland and Hong Kong Chinese. He’s never been to Hong Kong and only knew or knew of a handful of Hong Kong Chinese. I would add that the amount of interaction with the non-Chinese community, whether the person identifies more strongly as an individualist or collectivist and a wide array of other stimuli could affect said differences. The differences he referenced mostly covered personality and interpersonal skills; he was also particularly intrigued that both restauraunts served Sichuan-style food and were run by Hong Kong Chinese.
We’ve had other run-ins with overhearing Mandarin at the HMart, an Asian supermarket mainly catering to the Korean community, and of course, during our visit to Chinatown. We walked through Chinatown early in the morning, and it felt much like walking around the streets near the old campus towards the vegetable market, where the 大妈s pushed their trolleys, filling them up with fresh produce brought in from the outskirts of Xi’an. We stumbled upon a stationery shop where we found more reasonably-priced fountain pen ink (my eldest brother-in-law and sister-in-law bought us fountain pens before we left…they couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever used one before and I had to explain that they are mainly a speciality product in the US). We also bought sauces for cooking and peanuts as we didn’t want to pass up on two pounds of whole shelled peanuts for $2, a steal. Our schedule didn’t bode well for eating in Chinatown but we will have ample opportunities to explore and meander our way around in the future.
We’ve, or more appropriately put, ZJ has cooked Chinese twice since we’ve arrived and I’ve helped him, as is required of a good sous chef. Cooking Chinese food proves far more time consuming as we scramble to find all the ingredients, utensils, and appropriate substitutes in a kitchen more or less twice the size of the one we had back in Xi’an. The wok ZJ currently works with doesn’t snugly fit the burners on the stovetop and the as the burners have seen better days, the fire just can’t measure up to the monstrosity called a fire in the apartment in Xi’an or the furnace-like fire in 妈妈张’s kitchen. Still, even with adversity, ZJ managed to make two scrumptious meals, including dishes he’s never prepared.
On occasion, Mandarin still meanders its way into our conversation and ZJ and my dad have a Chinese/English word of the day swap. ZJ mainly conveys phrases for my dad in pinyin. He forgets most of what he learns but “不知道” has managed to stick. Conversely, my dad began with GRE-level and unconventional words, but switched to colloquial and idiomatic phrases with more conventional and daily applications.
If you and your partner don’t live in China, do you use Mandarin, English, or another language as your primary means of communicating? In what way(s) do you encounter China, or stay connected to China?