One hour till I have to check out from the hotel, approx 5 hours till my flight. I expect that with not much else to do, I will simply head to the airport early and hang out there. Though I suppose I could go for one more foot massage instead.
Last night, got the “om” tattoo from Joy and she did a real nice job of it. The examples of the character that she had in her books didn’t resemble the ones I’d seen. Technology – used my phone to go to google to pull up the picture of the one I wanted. She drew it out in minutes and the tat took about half an hour, constrasting shades of blue. Before doing mine, she fixed a tattoo on my friend’s ankle that looked like a blob before she started and was quite splendid 30 minutes later. “Hey, come on man, how long you know me? Don’t you know how good I am?”
As anyone who has ever met her knows, and as almost everyone in Thailand knows, Joy is gay. Everyone in Thailand knows because she’s been with the same woman for 6 years, a somewhat famous pop star here, so their pictures turn up in the gossip mags all the time. I’d had a few drinks last night, not enough to be really drunk, but apparently enough for me to go on for about ten minutes about relationships and how lucky Joy is to find someone and how impossible it all seems for me.
Many of you may not know that in the US, for the longest time, it was very difficult for Asians to emigrate to the US. And “chef” was not a skill deemed visa-worthy. Those Chinese who made it to the US were soon homesick for their comfort foods. But they were not trained in the kitchen and couldn’t get the ingredients they could get back home. They did their best to reconstruct those dishes and eventually a new type of Chinese food was born, American Chinese food.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I had no idea about that. We went for “Chinese food” every week. Almost always the same restaurant, called Jade Garden, on Jerome Avenue under the El. And we ordered the same things every week. As a kid, I always had wonton soup, egg roll, barbecued spare ribs – none of which resemble the dishes you find in Asia. My parents would then have some chop suey and fried rice. I loved this stuff, never got tired of it.
In 1971, I made my first trip to London. One day, hungry for Chinese food, I went to London’s Chinatown. As I studied the restaurant menus and looked through windows, I realized there was NOTHING that I recognized. Nonetheless, I picked a restaurant at random, picked some dishes at random, and found that they were quite tasty as well.
In the 70s, things opened up a bit in the US. Trained Chinese chefs were allowed to come over. We started to see words like “Hunan” and “Szechuan.” Menus got larger, dishes got more varied and sometimes more authentic. Older and with money in my pocket, I had the means to go to New York’s first Chinatown (it now has three) on a regular basis and explore menus.
In the 80s, I think, the first restaurant in Chinatown opened that had Peking Duck already made – every place else you had to order it 24 hours in advance. This place had lines out the door and down the street. Then-mayor Ed Koch was photographed there regularly. And wow, was it great.
At any rate, by the time I made it to HK in 95, I didn’t have menu-shock. I’d been exposed to the real thing and knew what to expect. Though naturally what passes for “average” in HK was mostly superior to what was deemed “great” in New York.
But I do still miss the American Chinese food sometimes. Something else I miss – lots of Chinese restaurants in, er, dodgier areas of the city were sold to Hispanic immigrants and the Chinese owners moved on to “better” neighborhoods. The new owers added their own twists to the dishes and a new cuisine, Cuban Chinese, was born. Eventually of course it went upscale and downtown. And sometimes I miss that too.
One final note …. when I made my first trip to Beijing in 97, of course I was going to go for Peking Duck. The Lonely Planet book, at least back then, said that the duck always gets its revenge, and that foreigners who eat it for the first time always get sick. For me, it was true! We went to one of the branches of Quanjude (not the original) and got the Peking Duck and I stuffed myself silly and then had the screaming shits for the next three days. The next day we went out to the Great Wall and I was freaking dying the whole time. I would barely remember the experience if we hadn’t taken a lot of pictures, and I was way too weak to do much walking or climbing. I later read that it wasn’t the duck itself, it was something in the scallions or spring onions or whatever. A big bottle of immodium is a permanent part of my travel kit now. My attitude has become that I would rather have the experience of tasting something new, even if I get ill, rather than playing it safe and missing out.
A few years back, I was with a big group at the Soi 7 Seafood Market in Bangkok. One of the women insisted on ordering raw oysters and insisted that I have 3 or 4. The next day was the first time that I was so food poisoned that I was running a fever. I ended up at the emergency room at Bumrungrad.
I explained to the doctor how the prices at the more local Soi 7 Seafood Market were so much cheaper than at the very touristy one on Soi 24. He said, yeah, but if you add in the cost of the emergency room visit, don’t you think Soi 24 is better? I asked how much he was going to charge me, did some quick calculations, and said, “No, Soi 7 still cheaper!”