Before my grandmother got placed in a lifeless, dreary nursing home, and before she passed
away, my family would go to Flushing, Queens every Saturday to visit her. The apartment she
lived in was well-maintained, albeit outdated— you learned quickly to check the expiration
date of any edible good before popping it into your mouth.
No matter the month, my grandmother would send me off with stale candy in my hand from last
year’s Chinese New Year party. So in December, I would walk away with a stack of 11-month
ripened, chocolate, gold coins. “Take this home with you,” my grandmother said
in a language I didn’t understand—she spoke Cantonese, I spoke Mandarin—presenting
the moldy candy like treasured jewels. In the background, my mother would make a coerced, polite
We would all breathe a collective sigh of release after leaving my grandmother’s in
the early afternoon. Then, we—my mother, father, and I and sometimes my brother–would
cram into the car to make the half hour or so drive from Flushing to Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Once there, I would delicately squish my nose in disapproval. A pre-teen, I disassociated
myself from the sights and sounds I now love and have grown to appreciate: A gray fish, fighting
for its last breath, wiggling helplessly on the floor; hordes of amused and entitled tourists
bargaining for “cashmere” scarves on the congested street –”How about
five dollars for two?” bargains the visiting European in decadent clothes; dark, windy
alleyways leading to fake Prada bags; street vendors dolling out generous portions of noodles
and boiled soy eggs at a killer bargain; ripe and delicious fruits, a third of the price of
those being sold in fancy, air conditioned supermarkets a train stop away, a world away.
There was a delicate science involved in our Chinatown excursion. We usually went dim summing
first, if our timing was right. Dim summing for us was a straight-up, no frills, authentic,
Hong Kong dining experience. Anthony Bourdain would be jealous. Shouting was involved, a necessity.
The fight for the freshest, tastiest, morsels of food was not for the weak. The tea (always
Chrysanthemum) whetted our appetites for the soon-to-come battle of ordering. From the moment
the cart wheeled close enough to my dad’s discerning eye line, everything became a blur:
Fish balls, beef balls, congee with salted egg, pork spareribs (always with too much fat on
them), stuffed crab claws, oily spring rolls, sticky rice with mushrooms, steamed buns, deep
fried taro dumpling, mango pudding with decorative umbrellas attached, almond cookies, egg
custard—not a surface of the table remains in sight. We always ordered the same food.
The first time in a long day, we stopped bickering; our mouths were too full to talk.
After we were completely perfumed by the smell of fried dumplings and filled beyond comfort,
we would stop by the grocery store. While my mom carefully picked from the selection of pickled
cabbage and pig’s feet, her favorite—curious visitors would sometimes
ask her what it was—she would let me select something from the grocery store.
This was the highlight of the trip. I would cruise up and down the aisles, accidentally knocking
down old Asian ladies. Should I get something sweet? Or something salty? The jarred prunes
sang to me, the salty shrimp chips cajoled me. I usually ended up getting Lychee candy.
On the ride back (to the unfortunate suburbs of New Jersey), I looked forward to falling asleep
before crossing the Holland tunnel. Before the invention of the i-pod, there was the strip
of never-ending, black highway to soothe my thoughts. Eventually I would unwrap, out of unchecked
temptation, a stale candy—quickly followed by the more pleasant Lychee candy. And I would
always fall asleep, before finishing it completely.