I blame my obsession with Chinese food on the old man. One of my earliest memories is sitting at the counter at old school Chinatown teahouse Mei Lei Wah in 1974. We were eating beef in rice noodle rolls, when an old geezer next to us turned his head and hocked a loogie on the floor. Six-year-old me looked to the old man for guidance. He didn’t flinch, and kept on eating. So did I. Despite everything he knew about Chinatown—like where to buy the won ton skins that he sliced to make his own version of chow fun—my father never used chopsticks. “I don’t know how to use ‘em,” he said to me when I was in my twenties.
When I was seven or eight years old my brother, Tony, taught me how to use them over a dish of chow fun on Mott Street “This is why there are so many starving people in China,” he joked as I mastered the skill of picking up the grease-slicked noodles.
Thirty-some-odd years later I am a full-blown Chinese food freak, versed in fare from Dongbei to Sichuan, thanks to frequent trips to Flushing. And, I’m ambichopstickdextrous, often holding a morsel aloft with my left hand while shooting a photo with my right. I have also been studying Mandarin for about five months through the good graces of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office and am eager to practice my rudimentary Chinese language skills on waiters.
Last night I had a late supper at a quasi-hip spot on Main Street in Flushing. Let’s call it the 37th-and-a-half Chamber of the Golden Shopping Mall. I asked for some hot tea as I perused the menu. The food—delicious and possessed of a cumin-chili kick—came, yet still no tea. When the waiter passed by bad Mandarin autopilot took over. “Qǐng gĕi wŏ chā,” I asked for tea. The waiter came back in a minute, not with tea, but with a fork.
Normally when I am given a fork in a Chinese restaurant I ask for chopsticks and place the offending utensil as far away from me as possible as if to say “Mighty white Chinese food explorer does not need Western implements.” I’ve never had the opposite happen though. For a moment I was baffled. Clearly I was eating just fine with the sticks and I spoke to the guy in Chinese. And then it hit me. This fork makes a fine chopstick rest. When he strolled by again I asked for a Diet Coke.
When I got home I decided to look up the Mandarin word for fork. It turns out that it is chā (pronounced with an even tone), and the word for tea is chá (pronounced with a rising tone). That would explain why the waiter, who must have been more puzzled by this exchange than I was, brought over a fork.
Memory is at least as complex and nuanced as Mandarin. Years later I learned that my father did know how to use chopsticks. No doubt his claim of chopstick ignorance was an attempt to save face because his arthritic hands had rendered him less than dextrous.
“What do you mean,” my eldest brother, Frank said when I told him that the old man said he didn’t know how to use chopsticks. “When we were kids he even had a special pair.” Special,indeed.