Food · Identity · Los Angeles · Moments of Grace

Steamed fish

I love living in Los Angeles.

I also hate living in Los Angeles.

But I have an innate ability to see magical things in people and places because, frankly, I’m willing to take that risk. I’ve maintained, miraculously, a childlike excitement about the world around me. Through disappointments, illnesses, losing jobs, being broke, having to (unfortunately) be a grownup, I’ve still managed to maintain a happiness about being alive that I count among my few real qualities.

You can think I sound arrogant. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. I know in my heart that I am not bragging so much as being honest with myself, and honoring what makes me, well ME.  I’m have a constant unquenchable thirst for adventure and new experiences.That’s the point of this blog, anyway. Moments that humble me into reverence. Things that excite me. Experiences that take my breath away and break three legs off a duck. If I annoy you, you’re reading the wrong blog.

In order to live in a city that is so consuming and just, honestly, plain HARD, I have developed wonderful coping mechanisms that I like to call “my happy places”. One of them is Caltech campus, but that’s for another post.

Another one is Monterey Park, and its adjoining neighborhoods, Temple City, Rosemead, San Gabriel. These are the “new” Chinatown in Los Angeles. A part of LA that far enough between freeways that you never end up there “by accident.” They are exclusively Chinese in a deep, all-encompassing way.

I go to Monterey Park alone. I go there often, as often as I can. As someone who has no native culture, I only feel at home when I am surrounded by foreign languages, unfamiliar territory. My comfort zone is uprootedness.

It is a strange thing to accept about yourself, because it implies a lot of hard work to create a nest at home, in order to be able to be out in the world in this constantly destabilizing fashion. But I’ve worked out a lovely system and that’s how I like to live. Constantly on the brink of new experiences. Mostly magical, sometimes catastrophic. Like most of my forays into West Hollywood and Santa Monica.

I’m decidedly an East-Side person.

The last time I was in Alhambra, I ended up on some section of Valley Blvd where I ate this meal (bread mushrooms and tofu with sticky rice and unlimited house blend of green and black tea) for $4.00. I had enough for two meals leftover. When I was done eating (the waitresses kept coming over and sitting down with me and talking to me), I walked to a herbalist shop, where I  made him take out every.single.dried.seahorse. from the display. It freaked me out in an awesome way.

Apparently you lay them on your spine and they cure backaches and scoliosis. But that’s my understanding from a broken English translation of what a very short very wrinkled very wise-looking Chinese man was saying.

The next time, I ventured into Monterey Park and ate at this crazy hardcore seafood restaurant next to Wing Hop Fung. I walked in and this wonderful, very tall, very skinny toothless Chinese man took me by the shoulders, smiled at me with the most radiant smile in the world, and said “Ni hao!! Ni hao!!”.

That’s when I knew I was in the right place.

I sat down and they plopped me a huge bowl of complimetary pork and cabbage soup, which I kept helping myself to, in between gulps of free green tea.

All around me, families were eating the most amazing seafood dishes, piling up around them like pirate treasures.

I came very late to lunch, and took my time perusing the fantastic menu. Look at some of the items on the menu:

  • Duck feet with black mushrooms
  • Steamed live tilapia
  • Pork with spicy aged vegetable
  • Pigs blood with green leek
  • Spare with bitter melon
  • Oyster omelette
  • Jelly fish head with celery
  • Small silver fish with spicy salt
  • Kung pao chicken (WHAAAAT????)

I finally settled on steamed fish and greens for the chaste sum of $5.95:

The meal was very plain but very good and the fish just disintegrated. I think it had lived a pretty happy though short life. I was glad it ended it in my stomach.

I was the last person in the entire restaurant when I finished my meal.

Or so I thought.

From a corner of the dining room, a hesitant whistle rose. I finally made out the notes to “Star Spangled Banner.”

And I fell in love with Los Angeles, all over again.


4 thoughts on “Steamed fish

  1. My two chinese friends, one from China and one from Taiwan, both claim that the food in San Gabriel Monterey Park area far exceeds the good food in China, no kidding.

    I share your dual feelings about LA all the time and just like you enjoy being surrounded by languages I don’t understand, you are correct in your assessment that once uprooted, one finds comfort in being in a place that is different. You are wise little while woman, as the chinese would say. : )

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