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Congee-nial Contact – From Chow to How

May 22nd, 2016  |  Published in FEATURE, LITERATURE & VOCAB


| [PLAY] It happens so fast. Take your eye off for a second. Never think it’ll happen till it does. And the pain. That feeling!

So comfortable. On a cold, rainy Vancouver night, it is light when there is dark. In climate like this, it’s immeasurably good. And now you’ve paid the price. You failed to commit. What do you do now? It’s gone and you’re lost.

You get over it pretty quick. On the problem spectrum, spoon sliding deep into congee as you reached for your chopsticks to get some donut, not so much mission critical as confident-you’ll-be-fine.

1130 pm and I’m at Kwong Chow on Main fishing out my spoon before an uncouthly licking of the handle to clean. Did anyone see? Where judgement at? Being too paranoid? Yes. Got congee and a fine looking donut at my table. That’s what’s right about now and that’s what’s carrying me to safety.

Battle of the Brush ended shortly ago. No win for my preferred pairing. They didn’t bring enough friends to vote them to victory. The theme was pop-art. Teams needed to incorporate that into their painting.

Time expired and with paintings done I took the final tour with an artist friend. I asked her about a noticeable absence of diversity in the works: Why out of 5 teams were there 4 portraits with people and two with bubblegum? Is this what pop art is? The famous, the gum? She said kind-of. To her, it means 1960s-80s and whatever was popular. Chewing gum was a big deal. It was cool, fun and all-around. Different from today – like other fads of lost decades, now it’s obnoxious to have someone chewing at us. People, specifically celebrities, were big back then, too. They were current; they commanded attention; they got portrayed as never before.

Where we`re at now in the art world is “Contemporary”: more “mash-up,” attempts at unseating expectations. Sure, take something popular, but twist it a bit, or a lot. I could see that with this work, the only one really that stood out in some way for me. Although it was still a kind of portrait-like the other 4, it was at least somehow more. pic 2

Something other than a human as the main subject – good. Shout out to well-known soup cans – check. Nod to famous Monroe mole and hair – check. Localizing the work – bonus. Sure, raccoons are Vancouver. Runny paint evokes our rainy weather. And with that same runniness I like the dark feel to contrast with the lighter look of what is cute, unassuming. Vote gotten.

At an earlier stage I thought this one below had some potential. How the eyes were forming over the course of the competition, it looked like a David Bowie tribute which would have been pretty relevant in light of the recent passing. Those peculiar mismatched eyes. The painting for a while showed like they would stay irregular. In the end, we got just another normal face and not Bowie at all.

Pics 3 and 4 combined

There was this one too that came together in the end. The splattering gave it an East-Van, Commercial Drive vibe; why that part of the city is like that to begin with, I’m not entirely sure. BC Bud is something we have a lot of these days, definitely. But it was too much like the others in other ways. Not enough for sway.

‘Chow’s late night crowd is in. They’re 80% full, seating capacity, not stomachs. People of all ages — the seniors over there, mixed ages tables there and there, young adult folk everywhere else.

kwong-chow-congee-and-noodle-house-1Kwong Chow isn’t a small restaurant, but there are parts of it where you can find yourself very close to a neighbouring table and that means unavoidable eavesdropping.

Trio to my left is seated. One of them mentioned going to school for an Indigenous Studies program and it has some First Nations content. We’ll call her Rita for now.

I steal a glance and attempt to confirm my cultural labelling. I think they’re First Nations. They look legit. Why is this even a thing for me? When was the last time I met someone with a First Nations background and really conversed with them? I mean really. There was Ginger who worked with my mom at the Food Court. There was Clarence around that time too; he was Metis. I was 6 years old so I’m pretty sure “converse” wouldn’t even really be the word to describe our exchanges.

Them: “Hi! How are you doing?! How was school?!”
Me: “Good…”

What I’m saying is these encounters haven’t been common despite the commonly encountered signs of First Nations culture in this city. I hear about them in the news a lot and I’ve always wondered about the First Nations experience especially as it relates to non-white groups. But I just haven’t ever done anything to pursue this. It’s become one of those things leaving me now to think what I do about this opportunity?

Rita orders an amount of food bordering buffet-level for what are two petite ladies and a dude not exactly huge, not small either, 180 maybe? It was not your typical non-Chinese ordering which lent to some vague sense of closeness forming in me towards them. No sweet and sour pork, no spring rolls, no wonton.

“Can we get beef brisket? — But no tendon” she begins to the waitress. “And we’ll get this jellyfish to start.” I’ve never heard anyone other than me specify no tendon. I’ve also never seen a non-Chinese group even consider ordering jellyfish. Interesting.

Rita to the other two, “Have you had congee?”

“I have. It was…interesting. Sometimes it tastes like popcorn but it’s rice? It can be creamy which is when it’s good. Sometimes it’s watery and lumpy. That`s when it sucks. Depends on who’s making it, I guess.”

“Umm, what’s your congee like tonight?”

Waitress – “Hmm, not too creamy, not watery too.” ‘Either. The lingering ESL teacher drill sargeant part of me corrects in my head.

“We’ll gamble. Add a chicken and mushroom one please.”

Chicken wings, crispy black pepper beef chow mein (pronounced with a heavy “main”), ginger beef, Yangzhou fried rice, Szechuan style boneless chicken with deep fried spinach (an especially interesting dish to order, here, by the way. They deep fry the spinach!), an iced tea. And, a side of black bean sauce.Szechuan Style Boneless Chicken

My food came around this time. Damnit. Forgot to say no peanuts again. Please no allergic reaction. I spoon them off.

This donut! Crispy. Light. How it should always be. Not bready and thick like at New Town in Chinatown. And damn! This mushroom! So soft and flavourful from that soy marinade. Yes.  As for the main act, the waitress was right: half way to creamy.

Food comes for them.

“Can I get some sugar?” Dude to waitress.

“Why you need sugar with two beautiful ladies?” quips the waitress.

Rita: “Haha. You’ve got enough sugar in your life.”

Subject turns. “I like that we’re getting calls again. I’ve missed modeling.” Models. I can see that. They were positively attractive people.

“So I was talking to Jerry the other day. Loves Thailand.”

“Oh, I didn’t know he still went on shoots. I thought he was settling down as that whutcha thing, ‘aesthetician’?”

“Close and not. Anaesthesiologist. Yeah, I think this was his last gig.”

“Isn’t there civil unrest there?”

“I think so, but it’s different somehow, I dunno. People still go there for work and stuff.”

“So anyways, then he changes the subject and tells me how he broke up with his girlfriend. He was pretty shaken up about it and I told him that he had nothing to worry about because he’s a young, generally attractive man. And then he gives me this offended face. Goes ‘What’s that supposed to mean?'”

“I give him a face. Confusion is mine. I didn’t think I’d said anything weird. Being a man was the best thing he could have going for him in the face of a breakup. For women, it’s rough. The older you get, the more that window closes. It’s harder for us, I said. And that’s when he goes: ‘Well, looks like that window’s shrinking for me too.’ And it took me a second.”

“What took you a second?”

Takes them a second.


“Oh!!! Fail!!!”

“Oh yea, easy for you to say! Shut the face.”

“Ha. Right.”

“Well, he’s beautiful either way – man or woman. He’s going to start taking estrogen pills and he’s looking into groups here. Uhh, he said he still likes girls but the ex couldn’t see herself with one which hurt him bad. He went to an event recently and was asked to dance by this girl, which was re-assuring for him, you know, because he’s not sure how he fits in with everything and all. And he’s looking into a clinic in Thailand where they do re-assignments, so he’s gonna go back, not to model…re-model.”

“That was lame. Wow! Ok. That’s news!”


More conversation. More eavesdropping. More stuffing of faces on both sides of the aisle.

“I dont remember them filling my tea. They’re so quick.”

“It’s like a Chinese thing. They do it without you knowing.”

“Oh my belly’s popping out.”

“What’s that thing? When you’re having a kid, you don’t eat popcorn. It gives you gas and makes the baby stupid.”

“Never…heard…that. Sounds…”

“Finish everything there, Aaron.” The dude’s name is Aaron.

“Keep going!” says the other girl.

“Don’t be a bitch.” Gestures to herself and the other girl. “We done. We bitches. You — no bitches.”

And I’m done. I go bitches. Too much. I finally get up. I do something about my some 30 year void.

“Hey guys, I’m Jerome. ” I expectedly startle Rita who quickly overcomes her “WTF” moment realizing this is a benign encounter. “I’m a writer. I’m Jerome. I already said that. From the moment you sat down I kept my head forward, gave the illusion I was minding my own business. But when you’re in a small spot and eating alone you invade other people’s lives whether you want to or not. Here’s my card. It’s a not for profit site. I hope it’s ok. I’d like to work some of this experience into a story.”

Rita: “Jerome Lu. Man, I don’t even remember any of that nonsense.”

Me: “Popcorn gives you gas when you’re pregnant. Don’t eat it unless you want stupid kids. I don’t think that’s a real thing, by the way. Don’t tell a man on the cusp of gender re-assignment that the one quality that he is most disgusted with is the one you think is his best. I would never allow them to give me tendon with my beef brisket either. And the very fact that you guys are First Nations in a Chinese restaurant is interesting for me. You are Natives, right?”

Rita: “How.” Rita gestures. Flat palmed hand up, fingers vertical.

Me: “I’m Jerome.”

Rita: “Yeah, you’ve reminded us of that already. I’m Rita.” It was her name all along.

Aaron: “Aaron.”

And I actually can’t remember the other girl’s name. I’m pretty annoyed with myself about that.

Me: “So, you are, right?”

Rita: “Sure. We are. So why is it interesting we’re here?”

Me: “Because it’s real but it’s rare, at least in terms of my history. There’s this intercultural exchange happening here that I don’t see often. It’s refreshing.”

Rita: “Well, go to the Blenz on Commercial. Get all the Native you can handle.”

Me: “Oh yeah?”

Rita: “No. Don’t do that. That’s kind of where a lot of the rough kids hang out. I was being sarcastic.  What you should do, though, is go to the Native Friendship Centre on Hastings. Hit up the gift shop there first. You’ll get a lot of good info. Natives ar-sha-eye.”

Me: “What’s that?”

Rita: “I said ‘Natives aren’t shy.'”

Me: “Oh, S-H-Y. Yeah.” How did I not hear that the first time? What’s wrong with my hearing? “So, what I’m really interested in, as a minority for lack of a better word, is interactions between minority groups and First Nations.”

Rita: “You are not a minority in this city.”

Me: “True. Not here. How else do you say it though, you know? Sociologists can’t get their shit together on that. You know what I mean, though. I’m interested in these exchanges because these are stories hardly told and we don’t find them unless we go out there and talk to people and really look for them.”

Rita: “I hear you. Institutional education doesn’t give that to us. Asian and Native relations don’t get as much attention as others, but they happen quite a bit. Back in November I learned about how Aboriginals and a lot of Chinese in the olden days got married. There was a documentary called Cedar Bamboo and they’re working on another one called All My Father’s Relations, I think.”

Me: “Oh.”

Rita goes on: “Right. So the Chinese couldn’t bring their wives for a while because government was garbage and they started macking on the Natives they’d cross paths with. Yep. And There are all these other stories like with the Komagata Maru when it was stuck in the port. First Nations people would bring them food. They were the only ones that would. And there’s a term that got used called “taike” which they only use (used?) here in BC and it’s a Hindi, wait, maybe Punjabi word. It’s used for your dad’s brother, I mean, your uncle. So that spoke to the kinship that was there back then. And I’m sure there’s all kinds of stories with the Japanese. They came for the fishing so there must have been exchanges with Natives. We know fish; they know fish.”

Me: “Yeah, I wonder! Nikkei centre might have something on that.”

Rita: “Nicky who?”

Me: “Hah, no. It’s called the Nee-kay centre. It’s in Burnaby. I guess it’s like your friendship centre. Less totem pole, more kimono.”

Rita: “Oh yeah, that place. I know it, actually! They had that Matsuri talent show where this kid did all these crazy tricks with a yoyo.”

Me: “You were there too! That endearing weird kid with the domineering parent. Part sad. Part hilarious.”

Rita: “The piano kid! He had that ketchup stain on his shirt! Hah. Small world.”

Me: “Yeah. It’s small. Well, I should get going. I’ve bothered you enough. Umm, thank you for your time. FYI, learned more here now than I did in 7 years of business school.”

Rita: “Hah. More like the business of school.”

Me: “Keep in touch. Send me any stuff on what we talked about.”

Rita: “Will do. Stay away from that Blenz.”

Me: “Hah. I’ll try to remember that.”

Still drizzling. Temperature’s the same as it was, but it doesn’t feel as cold. And where’s my car? 20 minutes walking in squares I finally find the thing. T’was a night of names not all remembered, good food and talk, new views engendered.

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