Double Happiness: Thoughts on Chinese Buffets

I am convinced – from all of my travels and culinary experiences – there is nothing more homey and comforting than a Chinese buffet. Think about it: savory noodles, fried crust with soft fillings, hodge-podge sushi, and hot soup varieties found nowhere else. In a world of blandly familiar options, with coffee shop express lunches and tepid fast-food iced tea, Chinese buffets are warm haven from the norm.

Throughout this year, I’ve traveled back-and-forth to New York vising my boyfriend. As new-found custom dictates, we almost always visit a Chinese food buffet on Long Island. Throughout my adventures in Chinese buffets, I’ve found them all to have the same fare. Yet, when I bask in the neon glory of a Long Island Chinese buffet, I find slight contrasts from the buffets found in the South.

First, let’s talk crab rangoons. This delicacy, the Queen Mother of All Chinese Buffet Foods, is a delicate golden triangle stuffed with cream cheese and (probably artificial) crab meat. It’s a collision of warmth and deliciousness, and New York Chinese buffets have not received the memo. My first experience at a northern buffet left me shocked. I scoured the rows for crab rangoons, many times over, thinking I had overlooked them. But alas, no. Simply small, cheese wontons with their puckered tops and merely-stuffed bottoms. Eaten and forgotten in one brief bite at every buffet as crab rangoons stay forever in my heart.

As I move from the row of fried and baked foods, I’m approaching salads. In my years as a connoisseur of buffets, I have not run into salad/cold bars at Chinese buffets in the South. Rather, these smaller restaurants often opt out of salads in favor of warmer foods. Even in the smaller buffets in the Empire State, there is almost always a salad bar. Bright lettuces of the romaine and iceberg variety, sliced vegetables, beets, and pasta salads wait eagerly in the bed of ice. Dressings, too. With your chicken lo mein and fried dumpling, you can even out your plate with a salad drenched in ranch. It’s quite beautiful and much different from my norm. Dim Sum, Dim Sim, Food, Hong Kong

Finally, after a pile of noodles, chicken, and rice, dessert is looms ahead. In many Asian cultures, China included, fruit is an acceptable dessert. In the West, we typically eat cake, cookies, or chocolate to cap our meals. When I lived in Korea and visited China, I ate more Asian pears, watermelons, and apples than I had in my whole life. In California Chinese non-buffet restaurants, fruit is brought to the table after a meal. At a Northern buffet, fruit reigns in her throne adjacent to red and green jellos. Often, I’ll opt for orange slices up North, which seem like an appropriate complement to the orange and honey chicken I’ve devoured minutes before. It’s wonderful and it’s sweet dessert.

I often think, as I sit among the din of chatter and the scent of soy-drenched chicken, that Chinese buffets are truly a tradition. My first interests in Asian culture were sparked as a I looked at an exaggerated painting of the Great Wall and a dragon. Even in the differences, with orange slices and a lack of crispy rangoons, any Chinese buffet anywhere in this country is a culinary miracle that I hold dear. As I live and travel, the two different styles of buffets will always provide double happiness.

Something About Airports

“You mean to tell me the gate for Charlotte has been changed again?”

This comment was spoken all too often by an older gentleman that afternoon; gate changes were too frequent. I was headed home from San Diego, perched at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport during a layover. Despite the weekend travel crowd, I found a seat at a charging station, plugged in my laptop, and enjoyed the ambiance (in spite the gate changes of my Charlotte-bound flight).

Airport, Satolas, Lyon, France

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The gate changes didn’t bother me and neither did the man cursing at a gate agent about 100 feet away. I watched a woman wrangle her small child while waiting in line at McDonald’s. Nearby, and elderly couple with canes waited for their flight to Chicago to begin boarding. In the distance, a group of college-aged women gathered around a phone-charging station. In the chaos, I was at near-perfect peace during the three-plane journey home.

Airports are happiness. I’ve posted on other blogs how much I love airports. On a trip, getting there isn’t only half the fun, it may be most of the fun. Often, when I fly, I’ll arrive at the airport 2 hours early. My primary motivation is people-watching and wondering where everyone is going and why. Why is that elderly couple flying to Dallas and then on Hong Kong? What is that woman flying to Albuquerque? How many people here have never flown on a plane? Why is anyone traveling today? The possibilities are endless.

I remember well the time I flew to Tokyo via Narita Airport on January 1, 2013. I was waiting on a friend to arrive from the States, and from there, we would go into the city. I had about eight hours to kill and my Korean Air flight had been delayed while departing from Seoul. No worries for me, though. I walked through the terminal, back-and-forth, for hours. Across from me, a father and daughter, sat. The father was an airline pilot from the US, and I assume he had brought his daughter along for free to experience Japan. I ventured onto the observation deck to watch planes land and take off to the corners of the earth. I sat in a massage chair. I eventually made it to downtown Japan.

Other times have been just as exciting and/or traumatizing. In February, I went to New York over a long weekend. As I returned to LaGuardia Airport, a blizzard began to fall, delaying traffic. I was terrified and my flight was delayed. I checked my bags and ventured down to the terminal where hundreds of other people stood, waiting in herds to know if their flights were canceled. I struggled to find a seat, and luckily, I found a seat at a bar-like restaurant in the terminal. I ordered a Diet Coke (way overpriced), and waited. A flight to Wisconsin canceled. A flight to Detroit was rescheduled for the next day. I sat anxiously, praying a flight to Kentucky was still good to go. Long-story-short: I made it home, but at 1a.m. and with work the next day. I survived, surprisingly, with a lack of sleep.

In my mind, airports are like a contained mini-society. There’s so many different types of people with so many different places to go. We all have our different reasons and purposes, but we’re all going somewhere. The energy of so many people traveled to so many different corners is nothing short of exhilarating – at least for me. Maybe you hate airports, the lines, and the chaos. Maybe you’d rather ride a camel across the country than fly in a plane. But, I can’t think of a better way to travel than to watch people in an airport, with the spirit of travel in the air.

 

 

The Beautiful Peril of Language: Stories

The hill, steep and unruly, was especially difficult in the humid Korean spring.

However, before the hill, I was always in a steady descent, looking at the Pacific Ocean and the shoreline. Somehwere beyond the horizon, was California or Japan, depending on which direction I gazed. This day, as I finished the gentle slope, and began the ascent into the Seogwipo city center, was no different. I shifted my backpack and began the trudge. I thought about the strawberry smoothie at Ediya Coffee waiting for me once I conquered the hill.  The Bible, Book, Religion, Christian

As I passed the duck meat restaurant at the steepest part of the hill, my phone rang. In Korea, my phone never buzzed with incoming calls, save for a the time a drunken Korean man butt-dialed me at midnight or my host sister thought I was lost on a city bus. On the screen, it was my host mother. My heart stopped for a second. I spoke as much Korean as much as she spoke English. I wasn’t worried if this was an emergency, I was worried about the language barrier.

I picked up, “Hello?”

My host mom starts in a slow string of sentences in Korean, I hear words what I believe to be o0-chae-kook (post office) and tek-bae (express package service). I rattle my brain: The night before I packed up my winter clothes and supplies to be shipped back to the United States, nearly 100 pounds. My host mom said she would call tek-bae to pick it up and ship it. Other than that, I had no idea what she was going on. Hopeless, I launched into my roughly standard “Cho-nun rotary, o-di-ay-isseoyo?” or “I am in the rotary city center, where are you?”

She replies, “Ne, ne, kamsahamnida,” or “Yes, yes, thank you.”

After I returned home, my package was gone, and my Korea Post receipt and customs form was on my desk. It had successfully shipped. To this day, I’m not for sure what my host mother was trying to tell me about my package, and I only have a rough idea.It was one of many unique moments where I was left wondering, “What did that mean?” or “What did I mean when I spoke with shoddy Korean?”

However, I tell the package story to tell you another one: I love languages.

In elementary, middle school (and beyond), I was captivated by the idea that somebody, somewhere could not understand my language. I obsessed, wondering what English sounded like to someone who did not know English. It would hit me like lightning as I sat on the porch or read a book: We use these words to say certain things, but isn’t that strange? How do we know it means what we’re saying? Middle school is a difficult time when you’re trying to figure out the meaning of life, much less the philosophical meaning of language.

When I applied to be an English Teaching Assistant through the Fulbright program, one of my goals was to learn Korean. In my application, I said I wanted to be fluent by the end of my grant year. In the seven-week orientation for new grantees, we were told that according to the U.S. Department of State, Korean was at the top difficulty level for native-English speakers to learn, alongside Chinese and Arabic. We learned that government agents stationed in Korea often take three years of full-time classes just to learn the language.

During our mandatory classes, the difficulty of the language was alive and well. Some of my classmates took to Korean like a fish does to water. I was more of a wary new duckling who was not sure the water was safe. I struggled, and I was disheartened. I wanted to be good, better than anyone else. Though I improved my Korean throughout the year in a real-life setting, I was not fluent when I left the peninsula. I still love the language.

Now, I’m in a relationship with a speaker of Mandarin Chinese. He knows I deeply admire the tones and rhythm of the language, and every night we practice with a workbook over the phone. I love it, but it’s painful to my ego. The tones, necessary for meaning in Mandarin, are difficult for English speakers. There are ways I have to position my tongue, lips, and teeth I’ve never had to before, even when I spoke toneless Korean. I become frustrated when my Mandarin tones are tinted with a Kentucky accent and don’t depart my mouth the way I intended. Nevertheless, I press on because I love my boyfriend and I admire the rich language.

Through these experiences, I’ve learned that acquiring a language  is like trying on a dress or shoe that is two sizes too small. It has the potential to look wonderful on you, but when you try to model it to well-meaning friends and relatives, they lie to you and say it’s “Really, really good!” In reality, you’re stuck in this dress or shoe until you can adapt to it and fit into it without a struggle. Some learners adapt to a strange new size quickly and slide right in, while others determine that being “snug” in their new language clothes is quite alright. Some choose to toss the dress or shoe aside.

I’ve determined from various linguistic ventures that language is a wonderful peril. We often misunderstand each other in the same language, but two people who don’t speak the same tongue can easily find a connection through silent language. We can all be silent. Finally, for those who are earthbound, language education is a wonderful way to sample a foreign culture and a different way of life. For those of us more inclined to flee the continent for periods of time, it’s one way to thrive in a strange environment. Especially environments with steep hills, duck meat restaurants, and concerned host mothers.