Meandering in Mandarin

A few weeks ago, I met an Internet friend in the real world, just outside the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim.  Her name is Jenna and she’s a journalist and blogger at the excellent site Flyover America.  She’s also a lifelong New Yorker.

Jenna told me she’s been watching my blog, reading about my head-over-heels infatuation with New York, nodding her head wisely and looking for the inevitable signs the honeymoon is over and I’d finally wised up to reality.  It kills me to be so predictable, but what the hell.  Life goes on and you resign yourself to being a total cliche.

Even more important, though, Jenna, the lifelong uber-New Yorker and foodie, also told me that Manhattan’s Chinatown isn’t really authentic any longer.

“Have you noticed what a tourist trap it is?” she asked.

No, of course not.  It had looked pretty exotic to me.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” I said vaguely.

“To get the real Chinatown experience,” she said, “you’re going to have to go to Queens.”

After that secondhand revelation (most of my revelations come from rumors, anyway), I’ve gone around quoting it brazenly.  Oh, God, you mean you think Manhattan’s Chinatown is the real thing?  Well, isn’t that sad?  You know, most in-the-know New Yorkers will tell you you have to go to Queens to get an authentic meal. And so on.  I’m shameless about these things.

Unfortunately, getting to Queens is a bit more difficult than going around and airing my purloined opinions about it.  But this weekend, we grabbed the opportunity.  “We have to go,” I told my husband, “since Cyndy is here through Sunday.”

Cyndy is an old friend from Charlottesville, where she and I both worked at the newspaper in the early 1980s and played for the worst women’s softball team in the history of the universe, the Daily Progress Paperettes.  We also once almost caused a small restaurant riot when we went out to lunch together when both of us were 8-1/2 months pregnant in 1986, but that’s another story.

After Cyndy left Charlottesville, we could still see her on TV, on a commercial for a local Chinese restaurant.  Cyndy said something in Chinese and the waiter nodded and said something back in Chinese and then the credits flashed on to show that you, too, could have an authentic Chinese experience at the restaurant whose name now eludes me.

“You know, I only speak Mandarin,” Cyndy said on the long, long subway ride to Flushing.  “If the waiters speak Cantonese, we’re up shit creek.”

“Stop being so modest,” I said.  “You’ll do fine.  That waiter in Charlottesville understood you, didn’t he?”

Cyndy started muttering about how Mandarin and Cantonese were completely different languages, but then she got distracted by eavesdropping on some other subway passengers who were speaking Cantonese, she reported.  If she could hear the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, it was clear to me, she could certainly order dim sum.

So, we went to the restaurant Jenna had suggested, Ocean Jewel Seafood, which I felt very smug about, since it was based on an insider tip.  We sat and we ordered round after round of dumplings and shrimp and clams.  The waiters pretended not to understand Cyndy when she spoke Mandarin, so we all started pointing at dishes we wanted.

At the end, we were bloated and happy and we made the universal writing sign for bring-us-the-bill.  We staggered outside and raved knowingly about how Queens’ Chinatown was far more authentic than Manhattan’s.  We climbed back on the subway car and headed back to the island.  If the honeymoon’s not over yet, Jenna, I think it’s partly your fault.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

10 comments… add one
  • I think the honeymoon is over–but now you’ve entered the reality part of the marriage and, really, isn’t that even better? There’s still love but you know how to handle the ups and downs (and the subways).
    I loved this and look forward to accompanying you in-the-know NYers on your second trip out to Flushing.

  • By the way, love the new look of the site.

  • Strolling by and found your site.  Great comments about NYC.  I love the city. 

  • I, too, didn’t know that NY’s China Town was no longer the real thing. Funny story. Glad you enjoyed the dim sum.

  • There are still many many (interesting and delicious) reasons to go to the Manhattan Chinatown so I’m definitely not saying STAY AWAY! but, yeah, it’s far more touristy than the one in Flushing.

  • Great post about friendship and trust on the Internet!
    (another friend of Jenna’s)

  • Winston Link

    I wonder how the Ocean Jewel Seafood restaurant would have held together if you and Cyndy had embellished your figures with throw pillows before dining out?  You must tell us all about the Great  Charlottesville Restaurant Riot of 1986.  Did a food fight breakout?
    I’m kinda dim sum times, ya know.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Winston, we merely scared the waitstaff to death with the fear we’d both go into labor before the appetizers arrived.

    Thank you, Irene.  Any friend of Jenna’s is a friend of mine.

    Jenna, are you backpedaling about Manhattan’s Chinatosn?  Look forward to returning to Queens and I’m glad you like the redesign.

    Alisa, I only know what my New York friends tell me.

    Thank you, Mary.  I’m going to visit your blog.

  • No backpedaling. I still think it’s way too touristy but I never said don’t go. I just said I prefer the Queens Chinatown.

  • Winston Link

    Winston, we merely scared the waitstaff to death…
    Now, when a restaurant’s waitstaff starts dropping like flies instead of its clientèle what does that bode about an eatery?

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