Thanks to my friend Christina, I learned about Hong Kong-based artist Joanne Wong and her campaign to draw 100 portraits in 100 days. I sent Joanne a photo I took in Hong Kong last summer and voila! I’ve never had a professional author photo taken, but how could it ever compare to this sketch?
Last night a couple of my sisters-in-law and I hit the Peninsula’s chocolate bar to celebrate a birthday. We’d never been before and I have to say I was a little hesitant ingesting so much sugar at a time of the evening when I don’t even eat. But that’s what special occasions are about, no?
All of these desserts were made in-house by the Pen’s pastry chefs. They weren’t exclusively chocolate. I barely ate yesterday and only had things with protein. I also decided to order a pot of herbal tea so the sugar wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.
This side table held chocolates imported from Italy. There was also a crepe station next to a hot chocolate bar with more toppings than you could imagine. Thinking back to a rough night in Paris last year after drinking a luscious cup of pudding-esque hot chocolate at 9:30pm and not being able to sleep until 4am and this winter in Stockholm when I ate a rich chocolate bombe that had my head spinning until 3am, I just couldn’t go there. So I skipped the hot chocolate.
So this was my first plate. The eclair in the back had golden crunchy candies on top. The fruit parfait was light and fresh. The lemon meringue was also light and the strawberry tart was perfect with more fruit than cookie/crust. The pound cake was delightful and didn’t feel heavy at all. It certainly helped to drink five pots of berry blossom tea.
The second plate was from that table with the imported chocolates. I’d had the jellies at Chinese New Year at Shanghai Terrace downstairs, so was excited to see them at the chocolate bar. The blue chocolate was made with lavender and the lollipop was a marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate. The macaron was the only thing I didn’t love. The passionfruit bombe was amazing and had chunks of fruit within the mousse. I went back for another lollipop and two more jellies.
I really loved the chocolate bar and can’t wait to take my husband there. The price was 2/3 of what afternoon tea costs at the Pen and there was a ton more food, all of it sugary, of course. But the ingredients were all fresh and it wasn’t like eating packaged cookies with a shelf life of two school years. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep and/or would feel awful the next day, but neither happened!
Every year in early May my husband flies off to Omaha to listen to Warren Buffett speak to his shareholders. It’s been a tradition in our family for more years than I can count. When he returned last weekend, he told me there were more Chinese attendees than ever and that Warren Buffett had told the audience that if he were a college student today, he would most certainly learn Mandarin.
Almost 30 years ago (29 to be exact), I was wondering about this very issue. Should I study Mandarin, a language spoken in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and more and more places around the world? Or should I just wait another year until I study in Hong Kong and learn Cantonese, the mother language there? Over 60 million people speak Cantonese, including folks in Chinatowns around the world. So which would be better for me to learn?
I ended up studying Mandarin the year before I moved to Hong Kong. I figured I could learn to read the signs in Hong Kong (only partially true, as I learned simplified characters and Hong Kong uses traditional ones) and could return to Baltimore and continue to study it there. If I started Cantonese in Hong Kong, there would really be no where for me to continue it back in the US.
In Hong Kong, apart from my roommates, who are brilliant and speak at least four languages, I had very little opportunity to speak Mandarin when I was out shopping, or getting something to eat, or with local friends. It was so rare to hear Mandarin in Hong Kong in 1990-91 that I had to go into China or to Taiwan to get any practice, which meant I had like two weeks of practice all year.
So when I left Hong Kong at the end of the 1991 spring semester, I traveled around Southeast Asia, China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. Mandarin was obviously useful those two weeks in China (Shanghai and Beijing), but it also came in handy on a flight from Saigon to Danang when I sat next to a Vietnamese helicopter pilot and my French wasn’t up to snuff and he didn’t know English. Mandarin, though, was a common denominator. (He learned to fly helicopters in Beijing.)
I returned to the US and spent the next three years learning more Mandarin. When I returned to Hong Kong in 1994 for grad school, most locals there still didn’t speak it, but there were more mainland Chinese in the territory then. I found a group at the university and got to practice it quite a bit. Then I married someone from China.
At that point, I was glad I’d had about 6 years of Mandarin. If I’d studied Cantonese, would I have been drawn to the mainland crowd in grad school? It’s hard to know. They were certainly outgoing and welcomed all students on their outings. Apart from a serial predator and some other men who didn’t seem to remember they had wives back in China, the mainland students became good friends. Plus, I married one of these students. Over the next four years, I learned a little Cantonese and took a class one semester offered at my work.
After moving to San Francisco, my then-inlaws joined us for a year to help take care of our baby. Mandarin came in handy there, too. If I hadn’t spoken it, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with my inlaws at all. And when they were caring for my infant while I was toiling away at work, it was definitely convenient to be able to know what was going on during the day when I called home.
Even after I moved back to Chicago and got divorced, Mandarin was useful when I took Jake to parent/tot Mandarin classes and made Chinese friends. Then I got involved in an alumni group from my graduate school where everyone spoke Cantonese. This was when I wished I’d learned it formally instead of just learning enough to shop, order at restaurants, and ask directions.
When I returned to Hong Kong in 2012 for the first time since leaving in 1998, I was pleasantly surprised by two things. One, I could speak Mandarin just about anywhere and locals would speak it back to me (BUT PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM NOT IN ANY WAY INSINUATING THAT MANDARIN SHOULD BE THE LINGUA FRANCA OF HONG KONG; I’m talking about my personal reckoning and nothing else). And, two, the little Cantonese I’d picked up came back!
I’ve been returning every year since that initial trip back and love practicing and hearing Cantonese out in the streets. Everyone knows I speak Mandarin because shop owners often reply in Mandarin, but that’s okay, too. (I’ve only returned to China once in the last 20 years.)
Today I use Mandarin and Cantonese several times a week when I volunteer with seniors in Chinatown. I also teach a citizenship class to Chinese immigrants who are starting with ABC. Most of these students are from northern China with incredibly clear and beautiful Mandarin, but a couple speak Cantonese. Since none of these students speaks any English, I have to teach in Chinese.
So this is where my decision to learn Mandarin seems right for me. Cantonese is much more difficult, but I’m convinced I could have done it okay lah if I’d had the same intensive, three hour a day, four day a week classes that first year in Hong Kong, but in Cantonese instead of Mandarin. I would have had lots of practice hearing it and speaking it on the streets, plus my amazing roommates tried to teach me difficult Cantonese sounds even when I wasn’t formally studying it, so I could have spoken more with them had I learned it. We’re still super close today!
In any case, I’m so glad I learned Mandarin. In my volunteer work, I mainly use Mandarin. When I need to switch to Cantonese for students who prefer speaking that, I gladly accommodate them. I may not get paid in this work, but it’s so rewarding and I love my students. When people say folks in the US should go back to where they came from if they don’t want to speak English, I say take a freaking seat. And as Warren Buffett would say, go learn Mandarin.
My family and I trekked over to Chicago for Independent Bookstore Day to hear my friend Jean Iversen speak about her new book, Local Flavor: Restaurants That Shaped Chicago Neighborhoods (Northwestern University Press, 2018).
I was fortunate to talk to Jean while she was writing and researching her book and even tagged along to Chinatown with her a few times for her chapter on Won Kow, a restaurant that had been around for 90 years until it closed this year.
So it was really great to hear Jean speak today about how she came up with the idea to write about restaurants that had been in Chicago’s many ethnic enclaves for decades, restaurants run by one family over multiple generations. What’s more, the restaurateurs had become “mayors” of their little sections of Chicago over the years. She writes about Pilsen, Chinatown, Devon Avenue, Avondale, Little Italy, and other communities in Chicago.
Anna Hebal, owner of the Red Apple Buffet, named one of the best all-you-can-eat buffets in the country, was in conversation with Jean and we learned all about Anna’s immigration story and how she came to live the American Dream, as did all the restaurateurs featured in the book. Anna serves organic, local ingredients cooked in small batches, so it’s not your run of the mill buffet. She brought strudel and other pastries and my kids probably consumed half of them. We’ll can’t wait to check out the Red Apple.
Congratulations, Jean! It’s been so fun following your publishing career and I know your new book will be a huge success!
One of my favorite things about being a writer is visiting book groups. Over 20 book groups, both local and out of town (thanks to Skype), have read my memoir and have invited me to visit their group to discuss Good Chinese Wife. It was an honor last week to be mentioned in this book group article.
I’m visiting another next week and in May I’ll be bringing another group to Chinatown in Chicago for dim sum. I love the creative ways people center their lives around books.