Monday, February 22, 2016

My Favorite Restaurant & J.: Honest Man

This one won't be long. is long. Sorry.

I left the office the first night of the job; two nights ago, now.

I wandered Kennedy Town, where I'm staying. It's an "up-and-coming" neighborhood in Hong Kong. I was looking for a particular restaurant that had twanged my spidey sense, when I internetted about restaurants in my neighborhood.

I like K-town, as it seems to be called sometimes. In fact, after two nights here now (three, but two really) I like it a lot. The name--"K-town"-- is funny to me because of course back in Los Angeles "K-Town" means the place where you get bibimbap and barbecue. THIS "K-Town" does not mean that.

It's got lots of restaurants on corners with English and French names and handsome interiors and tall streetfront windows, which are the kind of restaurant I generally do not want to be in; it has scraggly storefront eateries with Chinese characters scrawled over faded plastic laminate pictures of food, which are exactly the kind of place I always want to be eating.

I found my place. It's not quite "faded laminate"-league; it's a little nicer. Still an eatery. An "eatery" near the top of the spectrum.

So this post was originally titled "My Favorite Restaurant that Literally I Will Never Know Its Name". And then, as I was writing, I was like, "Dude, f#ck you. What's is wrong with you? Get the name; it ought to be named, rather than lost in the fog of your Orientalizing touristic ignorance."

I'm pretty sure it's called Seung Hei. Here's its card, in case that helps.

It is next to a sign that says "Bread" and something in Cantonese ("Bread"?). It's on North Street, in Kennedy Town north of Belcher's (sic) Street. Two doors down from a dim-sum place that also looks good, one street west of another dim-sum place that looks good, which is around the corner from a...I-don't-know-what place (lots of stuff in the windows) that also looks good. You get the idea.

Seung Hei met my expectations by featuring no English signage whatsoever. I went in.

I'm always surprised when I'm a novelty to anyone anywhere, ever. It seems weird that I should be, "in this day and age". For example, at the table right next to me, was a family: mom, Chinese; dad, English (Caucasian); son: handsome, spoke with English accent, spoke to waitress in Cantonese. Son lives in Hong Kong. Nobody made a big deal about them.

But maybe that was the language, or the fact that having a Chinese mom is kind of a passport, because I was deemed noteworthy AF. I went back to Seung Hei last night--the night after this story I'm telling you, right now--and the staff recognized me, called me "Professor" and were (at least by the standards of harried Chinese eatery waitstaff) friendly and embracing. The dude poured my tea for me, which I think was nice rather than infantilizing--I did not at any rate see any waiter pour tea for anyone else at any point.

So, the first night: two nights ago. The waitstaff brought me the menu and darted eyes at me as I read and reread its pages and pages; they did have an English "Menue" that appeared after a waitress said something to me in Cantonese that was either "Do you need the English menu?" or "Do you speak Cantonese?" Either way my response resulted in the English Menue, which has dozens of things I want to eat on it. There is no way I will be able to eat all the things I want to eat on this trip, even at this one restaurant.

Hong Kong: you are grand.

The menu was also marked with greatness throughout, my favorite greatness being the many ways it spelled "preserved" ("predervesd", "preversded": like they put the letters in a bucket and fished them out each time without looking).

So the staff pleasantly hovered; they kind of insisted that I be served by one of two women, specifically, and no others. One of these two was retrieved whenever I tried to talk to anyone. Even though I could see no evidence that these women, who were totally nice, spoke any more English than anyone else. Unless the rest of the staff somehow unspeaks English, which I think is unlikely.

At some point I had to pee.

I debated taking my bag, decided that that way lay cowardly provincialism: here was this nice global family right next to me! What the hell was my problem?! I left my bag at the table, right by the door. This is not a story about my bag getting stolen in Hong Kong.

I walked towards the back and asked one of the waitresses (one of the ones I was allowed to talk to) where the bathroom was, which seemed like an easy one. She punted the question to a small man in a checkered blue button-down shirt and a blue sweater vest and wisps of facial hair at an adjacent table.

"Toilet!" He brightened as if the word were 'birthday'. "You want toilet?"

Yes, I did.

And J. stood up (full foot shorter than I am), clasped me tight by the arm and shoulder and, humming and chirping in my ear about talking to him after, guided me towards the back of the restaurant where frankly I'd figured the bathroom had to be even before asking the waitress, I'd just stopped to ask her out of some vague sense of not wanting to be an enormous white person crashing around.

So J. guided me back, also making sure I knew not to go in the women's room, marked clearly by the universal gendered skirted "woman" glyph--he was covering all bases, J.--and saying over and again how we'd talk later.

I peed. I emerged.

And we talked, me and J. He followed me back to my table, which was big enough for 4 (last night, when I went to this same place a second time, they put me at literally a table for 8. And they were doing pretty brisk business! I think they actually just give no sh1ts about some stuff, in a way that I like). Anyway I invited J. to sit and he just...started: lengthy questioning of what I do, why I'm here, how I like it, where I'm from, how old he is, his daughter, Hong Kong, did I like the food, what's the course that I'm "teaching", et cetera.

I'll try to draw back from the blow-by-blow here and go high-level. Over this interaction and then a subsequent, longer interaction--after J. went back to his table, paid his bill, put on his jacket and bag, and "stopped by" my table on his way out: sitting & standing and half-taking his jacket off for another 30-40 minutes ...I marked a set of responses in myself, all on top of one another, coming in and out in sequential waves:
  • delight at this nice thing; meeting a garrulous person in a foreign land
  • mild caution because it was clear he sort of wanted something: to ask me all about MA programs in America, where his daughter (a Sophomore studying engineering at the Polytechnic in Hong Kong) should go, if she should go in England or America, etc.
  • chiding myself for this caution, even as J. kept talking well past the point where I was sending friendly-but-done-talking signals (I was exhausted, and the conversation somewhat looped; see below). I chided myself because norms are different in different places. So, yes: in New York City, where I'm from, basically it'd be kind of a warning marker if a person did what J. did: accosted a stranger, planted with them in conversation, asked something of them (something tiny, something happily given), then accosted them again for a long time when they were, I think, clearly tired. I'm using "accost" loosely here; J. brightened my day and augmented my time on this earth. Still: in NYC, crazy-person stuff. But that's...that's like what culture is. Those differences. There are places where people just talk to people more, or differently, than the places and context I'm from and know. So, just: shut up, sl1mbuttons. Let J. do his thing. And be grateful. I am. Although yeah, by the end I was kinda bushed, too.
Here are topics J. and I looped on:
  • maybe I'll write him sometime
  • maybe he'll write me sometime
  • he doesn't have email. his daughter will teach him
  • when he gets email, and learns how to use it, maybe he'll write me
  • maybe he'll write me to ask about his daughter ("Yes of course, I don't know much but please feel free")
  • maybe his daughter will do that, too (even more "Yes, of course"; this seemed to be what should happen, all things considered)
  • he's an honest man 
  • I'm an honest man 
  • so we're friends there is nothing to worry about
  • do I have a wife?
  • okay (geez), do I have a girlfriend at least???
  • has be been rude
  • he's glad; that's because he's an honest man, I'm an honest man, etc.
  • maybe next time I come to Hong Kong I will come with my girlfriend who-I'll-have also who will by then be my wife and we will have drinks with him and his wife
  • I should not get married too late because then I will be like him, 60, with a 21-year old daughter (it wasn't 100% clear to me why this was a bad thing)
  • the recent riots in Hong Kong are not about what I read in the papers; that's true, but it's kind of the cover, the "lie": they are really about the fact that young people here are frustrated with the cost of living and lack of good job opportunities
  • he's an honest man
  • I'm an honest man
  • so maybe he'll write me sometime and...
We exchanged information. J. does not have email (see above); however, he has a home and a phone. This is an edited image of the analog nature of that information exchange.

As is probably obvious, my amazing sister photoshopped this image so it's NOT ACTUALLY J.'s (or anyone's) actual information
When he left, he kept the pen which I'd given him so he could write his information down on these odd little slips of paper that materialized I don't know how. He made several gestures towards putting the pen down on the table, as if remembering that it was mine, then left with it.

He came back two minutes later. No pen returned. Would we take a picture, together? Did I mind?

Of course not.

We took the picture. A few; the staff took it (one of the ladies allowed to talk to me). I put my arm on his shoulder, lightly.

If his daughter ever teaches him email, and he emails me, I'll ask him to send it. 

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