Jan 31, 2014

A Horse is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course.

Happy Chinese New Year (Year of the Horse)! My mom had to call for me to know. Make sure you eat noodles, she reminded me. Noodles symbolize long life and by eating it you kinda sort in a way supposed to have long life yourself. This is just one of the many, many Chinese traditions you are supposed to do for New Years to bring luck. Some other "traditions" include wearing red underwear on new year's day, getting your hair trimmed before the new year, and eating dumplings but - and this was the most crucial part - you can't count how many you've eaten. Come on, EVERYONE knows that would be the worst luck ever! You didn't know about that? Well keep that in mind next time you are shoveling dumplings in your face at Vanessa's or Joe's Shanghai.

I grew up hearing stuff like this. Americans have her own equivalent like not walking under a ladder, stuff about black cats crossing your path, and even the saying "Bless you" after sneezing has a Germanic root. Some are based in folklore (like the dumplings), some are simply phonetic correlation (ie: never give someone a clock for their birthday because the word for clock (zhong) sounds just like "the end"), and others are as sinister as ghost stories.

Like many immigrant families my parents used to own a Chinese restaurant. We had one when we lived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and then later in Houston, Texas. Both were proper sit-down places not take-out hole-in-the-walls. But they weren't so sit-down that Zagat would come review them or anything. My mom was (and still is) a damn fine cook. Even though we have not been in the restaurant business for over twenty years, she can still whip up a General Tso's Chicken, Pepper Steak, or anything with her eyes closed. The restaurant I remember most vividly was the one in Houston "Sichuan Garden". As the Chinese would say, it was very unlucky. We struggled financially and couldn't afford hiring a restaurant staff. My mom managed the front desk and was also the cook, my brother did the dishes after school (if he wasn't getting into fights on the school bus), my dad made deliveries and helped managed the front, and I read. My passions back then were books and Mr. Ed. I loved Mr. Ed. I never missed one episode. I was too young to really be of any help in the restaurant other than fold napkins or set the tables, so my parents often let me go back to our apartment which was right across the street from the restaurant and I would drown myself with reruns of Mr. Ed. Like a lot of ten year old girls I loved horses. It was easy to love horses growing up in Texas. I read every single book I could find in the dinky public library about horses. After I pillaged through everything there I made my dad drive me to the neighboring county's public library and borrowed from there. I also made my parents take me horseback riding whenever we could afford the $30 and hour trail ride. I bought all the Walter Foster books on how to draw horses. I cocooned myself in a black-and-white world of words and talking horses while strange and inexplicable things were happening at the restaurant.

One of the problems was the air conditioning. It never worked and would be fixed for a day then stop working again. Without air conditioning any establishment in Texas could not survive through the 100+ F summers. Once people realized how uncomfortable it was to eat pork fried rice and hot and sour soup in an AC-less restaurant they stopped coming in to eat. But my mom's cooking was still damn good so while dine-in decreased, deliveries increased. There was one delivery that I will never forget. My dad went out and after an hour still haven't returned. My brother had to take phone orders while my mom cooked. I was given the task of watching the front. This was pre-cellphone so there was no way to even call him. An hour and a half passed still no sign of our white Dodge station wagon in the parking lot. Another half hour passed. Now it has been two hours since he left for this local delivery. It was quite dark out now, and more and more undelivered food orders were piling up. My mom was starting to panic. Just then my dad's car pulled up to the restaurant. He still had the delivery bags in his hands as he walked in. He never found the house address after two hours. He couldn't explain what happened except that it felt like he was driving round and round in a loop. I would make a turn and it was the same street I was just on, he told us. It was like he could see the destination on the map he had in the car but just could not get to it. We all remained silent. Then finally my dad said out loud what we were all thinking but didn't want to say: 鬼打牆, or in English translation "demon walls", "drywall," "ghost wall".

"Demon Wall" is a folklore story describing a phenomenon when people traveling alone and in a hurry, usually in the middle of the night, in the wilderness or in cemeteries, find themselves moving in a circular direction and find themselves back at the starting place. Sometimes the situation may be last all night or continuously for a few days. In old, old traditional belief this happens when a wandering un-mourned spirit tries to confuse and distress a living person in order to attach itself to him/her to reincarnate. This is REALLY old school like something grandparents would believe. I had to ask my mom what it meant and she had to call her mom to find out. Just so you know, this is NOT common knowledge or a belief that modern Chinese people carry with them in their heads. Nevertheless I'm fascinated with these old superstitions and I DO believe that when you encounter spirits, your chi (energy) is weak. As Confucius said, "Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them." That's why I would never ever touch a ouija board or do a seance. Why take the chance and invite something malevolent?

Another incident related to the restaurant had a tragic turn. We had a new signage to install outside on the awning, but our extendable ladder didn't quite reach high enough. The man making deliveries next door at the shish-kebab restaurant volunteered to help us by standing on the top of his van to place the signage. Two days later the owner of the shish-kebab restaurant came over and informed us that the delivery man died in a car accident. That was also the year when The Challenger exploded. I was in third grade (I think) Home Room period. My English wasn't that great so I didn't know what the word "explosion" meant. It wasn't until our teacher turned on the classroom TV and I saw that infamous news clip that I understood what was happening in America. Some of the girls in my class  were crying then my teacher cried. Even the boys I hated (cause they were always trying to talk to me when I didn't want their attention or cared to open my mouth cause my English was shitty) shut the hell up and were quiet for once. The principal came on over the intercom and let us out early that day. I went to our restaurant as usual after school. We didn't have a lot of customers that day. I don't miss that restaurant at all.

Where our resto used to be is now a Valero gas station

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