Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights on Chinese New Year 2011. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
The waiter brings out dessert, steaming porridge laced with a pungent sweetness, and I'm suddenly back in my parents' kitchen more than 3,000 miles away.
"What is this again?" my friend asks, taking a sniff of the viscous mixture of fermented rice and black mochi swirled into an egg drop soup. A recent East Coast transplant, he had unknowingly picked an apartment in Monterey Park, finding himself in a suburban Chinese immigrant enclave and Asian food mecca rather than the Hollywood version of L.A. he was expecting.
Give this place a chance, I had told him. After all, I keep coming back.
I want to tell him not to think of the porridge's yeast-like smell as funky; it's the fragrance of years of birthdays and Christmas treats. It's an odor usually hidden within my mother's dishwasher, where she safely stores homemade kimchi and other "stinky" ingredients instead of clean dishes. The first time I found lao zao on a greasy laminated menu in the San Gabriel Valley, I ordered two for myself.
"There's no English name for this dish because the translation doesn't do it justice," I say instead, rattling off the ingredients. "It's my favorite."
Huh, he says, still staring at his bowl. "Sounds appetizing."
Sitting in this mom-and-pop shop squeezed into a street lined with massage parlors and dumpling shops, I'm at home in a region that I've never even lived in. Here, what's served on the table trumps the need for any service or ambience. Loud chatter replaces background music, and charm consists of fluorescent lighting and bare white walls. If the chairs don't creak, something's not right.
I'm still finding ways to explain this — to friends, to co-workers and to my roommate who grew up in Manhattan Beach. East of the 710 Freeway, in pockets of the San Gabriel Valley, I keep stumbling on fragments of my childhood in cramped restaurants and herbal shops and standing-only boba joints.
There are the red banners taped onto almost every front door like the one my grandma insists on hanging for good luck. Circular dining tables are the norm and hot tea tastes best in chipped white ceramic cups that add nothing to the decor. If you ask for the neighborhood hangout, many point to Savoy Kitchen, a corner joint known for its chrysanthemum tea and Hainan chicken. Yelp reviews: 1,651 and counting. Cash only. No alcohol.
On my own out here, I often fill in my parents on weekend discoveries. But calls home about LACMA, Amoeba Music, and Umami Burger barely get a reaction. Anything in the San Gabriel Valley, on the other hand, is a conversation starter. There's always something to discuss. Even the comfort food of my father's ancient hometown, in a province in central China whose natives favor noodles over rice, has made its way onto local menus.
"I found a place that actually makes yang rou pao mo," I tell my dad, describing a particular lamb stew we eat when we visit my grandma in Xi'an, China, who still greets us with the same four traditional meals — pao mo, liang pi, he zi, and dumplings — even as the city outside her cramped apartment changes. A Starbucks recently opened across the street.
"That's impossible," he grunts in Chinese. "There's no way they can get the texture right."
Seconds later, he interrupts me. "Take me there next time," he says.
I tell baba about the fresh soy milk I can get for breakfast, ground just the way he does it with our souped-up blender. I leave out other details, like the cloudy plastic cups of water and how the owner might be shelling peas at the table next to you as you eat. Who cares if the fork is placed on the right side of the plate? There's always a pile of chopsticks up for grabs in the middle of the table.
My first Chinese New Year alone, the one time each year I find myself wearing red in respect for my elders and reaching out to as many relatives as possible, I drive 32 miles in the rain from my Mid-City home to Hacienda Heights to join thousands of attendees at Hsi Lai Temple, a massive Buddhist temple like no other in this country. Surrounded by strangers who understand why I came, we welcome the downpour that symbolizes prosperity in the new year. Across time zones, I know my family is doing the same.
Growing up in a small town outside of Boston, where all Chinese American families were best friends by default and could fit into one house for Thanksgiving potlucks, I never thought I was missing out. But meeting so many others who grew up in Southern California's immigrant enclaves, I'm struck by their confidence to inhabit both Chinese and American cultures without comprising either.
Like a memory game, each fragment of childhood I find here revives the traditions my parents preserved. It's like a test to see how much I actually know my own heritage.
Or what it means to me. In the end, I come to these immigrant establishments as an outsider, a New Englander of Chinese descent living in Los Angeles, still trying to fit all those pieces together.
At a new bar in Monterey Park, bingeing on Japanese craft brews and fried lotus root, I joke about tiger moms and tai chi with other Asian Americans. The place is young, but I can picture my father here. He'd feel right at home with the pastel image of a protective spirit hanging on the wall, just like any ordinary living room. He'd try to take a photo of the San Gabriel Mountains you can see from the roof and wonder what Calpico would taste like in a cocktail.
Drinking doesn't fit into any fond memory of growing up with my Chinese parents, but who said nostalgia can't be formed?
"You know, I don't think I've had a beer on draft since the first year I came to America," my dad says over the phone.
No way, that's like 30 years ago, I say. "You have to come see this place then... I'll buy you your first drink."
He chuckles over the phone.
He ba, he says. "I'll drink to that."