It amazes me that I travelled 12,000 miles west to be less than a mile from the sights, sounds and flavours of The East. Which is still called The East here. Even though it’s to the west. Hm.
Take a brief stroll from my apartment in the right direction, and you can end up in the middle of Chinatown; which on any given day is crowded with foreigners who can’t speak the language, or read the signs, posing for photos and staring at the natives. A bit like Times Square with the ethnicities reversed really – which makes it quite an improvement.
The fruit on stalls lining the street is exotic, scandalously cheap and not to be bartered for. The jewellery and electronics within the glass-fronted shops named only with symbols I can’t begin to read are equally tempting, but unless you speak the language, haggling for them may not end too well.
Earlier this week was my first trip to Chinatown with someone who could show me what was really worth looking for – my Chinese workmate – and he decided to expand our horizons and take us to a traditional southern dim sum restaurant. I’m glad he was with us, because I’m not sure I would have managed to actually get any food if I’d gone by myself.
The premise is simple. You sit at a table, drinking lots of tiny cups of traditional tea (a bit like green tea) and every now and then a cart full of small dishes of wonder and joy comes past. Some rapid speaking in Chinese later, some of these dishes appear on your table, and you hesitantly pick them up with chopsticks and try to find out what they are. Alternatively you can ask your Chinese friend and get such helpful advice as “we call this ummm… [he looks in an iPhone dictionary] entrails. Flour entrails.” or “this is fish.”
Speaking of fish, there were a set of lovely, decorative fish tanks in the front window of the restaurant. Or so I thought, until someone wandered up with a net, took one of the fish out, and brought it to the table next to us 5 minutes later.
Anyone for lunch?