Cantonese


Before the art installations, graffiti parties, or Halloween parties, before squatters took over and it was ever nicknamed Bates Motel, the Sunset Pacific motel on Sunset was simply known as Mr. Eng’s Office to my family and me. And this was where I spent many of my childhood vacations.

It was Edward Eng, my dad’s boss, who owned the motel and property. When you entered through the “lobby” and went through a door behind the counter, there was a larger room in the back, which was where Mr. Eng’s accounting business that my father managed before taking over and moving the practice to Monterey Park, taking with him the majority of his Chinese clients.

This was where I spent summer vacations and most bitterly, many spring breaks, which was more like a week-long labor camp aka tax season. Instead of going on vacation like normal kids, my brother, sister, and I worked. While I was too young to enter people’s tax information onto the worksheets, which is what my older siblings did, I sorted the client’s receipts. This trivial task suited a child of six or seven as I would just arrange these bits of paper into neat piles and staple them to make it easier for the employees to add up. Usually, the week after my mom would buy us discounted egg dying kits and chocolate rabbits because my parents were too busy working up until April 15. We always missed Easter.

Edward Eng (but we only ever called him Mr. Eng) was a looming presence but was never in the office — I never met him, but I heard a lot about him. How he had a horrible temper and yelled a lot. He was clearly a formidable man, even to my father, who also has a legendary temper. But also how he was exceptionally clever. He was an account, a lawyer, and prolific L.A. property owner — including his properties in Half Moon Bay, and in the midwest, where he’d go for old fashioned animal hunts. The upstairs of the office had a giant bear and tiger that he hunted, now spread eagled, and mounted to his wall, along with an innocuous mounted moose head. He shot all of these animals himself. And as a child terrified of everything, I would hold my pee for as long as possible, because this was where the restroom was so very conveniently located. I refused to go up there by myself among the animals in the dark and decrepit room. With their eyes and mouths ferociously open, as if they were lunging at him just before he shot them dead.
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I have become like my parents where, when I’m in a city in some other part of the world, I have to visit Chinatown, if there is one. In case you were wondering, Chinese roast duck looks and tastes the same just about everywhere — London, Paris, Vancouver, Manchester, and after this weekend, Liverpool.

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Since England has sort of become my second home it feels important to learn about the Chinese immigrant experience here.

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One time, when my mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I said “noodles.”

“We’re Cantonese. We eat rice for dinner.”

My mom would have been happy to have had pizza or meatloaf for dinner, but noodles for dinner? Oh no, that’s a line she will not cross. So I threw me in a temper tantrum (and this was me as an adult, visiting my parents only a few years ago).

Food laws feel like the most oppressive thing to me — I don’t care about cultural rules or allergies, my values and auto-immune response will not win over my right to eat tasty things.

So even though my people are traditionally rice farmers, one morning I committed the ultimate betrayal — I made my own noodles.

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There’s a Chinese joke that goes like this:

E.T.’s spaceship crashes in China. The different regions can’t agree what to do with him. The Beijingers, being very academic and intellectual, figure, “We should study him in the name of science.” The Shainghainese people, being very money-oriented, disagree, saying, “No, we should put him in a zoo and charge people admission to see him.” The Cantonese are like, “Why don’t we just eat him?”

You can say what you want about these inter-Chinese stereotypes, but  one thing’s certain: my appetite has definitely dictated some of my major life decisions.

This has been one of the coldest and wettest winters in LA history.

Winter solstice was the on the 21st and because we don’t have Stonehenge or hippies in China, it’s Chinese tradition to celebrate the first day of winter by making and eating soup dumplings called “tang yurn” (which literally translates into “soup balls”).

They are nothing of the Shanghainese xiao long bao dumpling variety. It’s a very basic food made of rice flour and water, which is why even the poorest of people in China (or at least in Canton) will eat this on the coldest of nights. My dad said back in his village in China, daikon was the only other thing they had to put in the soup.

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When I was a kid and any one of us complained of those initial body ache symptoms of flu — my mom would make this tea for us to drink:

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