Once Upon a Chinatown

For most of my college years, I commuted to internships, shows and whatever else by bus. Sophomore year, the Sunset bus was my line of choice, taking me to West Hollywood from Westwood. And like most bus commuters, at least in Los Angeles will tell you, I have stories. The occasional backseat driver, the European tourists, that yelling guy. This is by far the best story I've got -- retold by a friend that joined me for that Chinatown trip for dim sum on a Sunday morning -- with some notes from me, a year later.

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that when we reach adulthood it's hard to add friends. It's not that people become misanthropic, but just essentially that we're creatures of habit and incorporating new people into the group's catchphrases, references, history and injokes is just too damned hard, which brings me to my latest California adventure. In one of my favorite episodes, the guy who cleans the pool at the health club Jerry belongs to starts imposing himself into Jerry's life (tagging along on shopping trips, wanting to hang out). Jerry eventually has to draw the line and shut Ramon out. Then sitcom mayhem ensues.

Sunday morning I was headed to Chinatown to get some dim sum before a Los Angeles Philharmonic show with one of my former students, who's a student at UCLA. After spending 15 minutes looking for parking, we choose a bank's garage (just $3!) in the southwestish corner of L.A.'s Chinatown. Neither of us knows Chinatown enough to have selected a place before heading out, so we decide that we'll just stumble upon something great (after all it was one day before Lunar New Year).1

We find ourselves walking up and down the sun-drenched streets past standard Chinese restaurants2, Asian grocers, fortune tellers, gift shops, Vietnamese Pho restaurants, clinics, legal services providers but oddly not really any dim sum places (at least non-take out dim sum places). After about seven minutes we see one across the street, but we're not at a crosswalk so we decide that we'll just find one that doesn't involve crossing yet another busy street. After another five minutes we head back to "across the street" place and are about to enter when we see the dreaded "C." As in, this restaurant received a "C" grade from the County Health Department's restaurant inspection bureau.

"I can't eat here," I tell M. "I can do a B, but no way am I eating at C."

We press on past more shops, restaurants and people. We make our way to Empress Pavilion, which according to the Net is very popular. However, when we get to the entrance there's a huge mob waiting for tables. It's now after 12, so we decide to pass because we don't want to late to the Philharmonic show. While continuing to walk and search M sees a familiar face in the crowd of people walking against us on the sidewalk.3 It's a Chinese woman say in her late 30s, guessing based on the handful of grays streaking her hair. They exchange greetings and "I can't believe we bumped into each other"s. In L.A., this is ultra rare.

"What are you doing down here?" M asks.

"Well, it's the day before New Year's so I wanted to come to Chinatown just to walk around and see the scene," says woman, to whom I have not been introduced. "What are you guys doing?"

"We're looking for a good place to get lunch," M replies. "But we can't seem to find a good dim sum place."

"Oh," woman says. "I'm also going to get lunch ... We could all get lunch." She looks at us with an expression that is a cross between friendliness and loneliness (?) at least according to my admittedly American interpretation.

Um ... I haven't felt this on the spot since my seventh grade math teacher announced she was having a class party and went through the rows asking each of us what we would bring without having ever asked the class whether we wanted to get together at her house. I have one of those million miles a second moments ...

I look to M, who looks stupefied (pretty much exactly as I feel) and whom I get the sense wants me to answer.

Eventually (literally a second later, because any longer and the awkwardness of the silence might have caused me to combust) my aversion to being too much of a jerk wins out.

"Sure, yeah. Let's get some dim sum." So we start walking south, again not really knowing where to. A couple minutes later, during which I try a couple attempts at small talk but her thick accent and the street noise render that pointless, we see a sign for dim sum just a block west. She and M are making small talk though. I pick up that they've ridden the bus together the Friday just two days before.

"By the way, I'm Mike" I say as I shake her hand. Unfortunatley, I can't really understand her name when she says it. I also ask if she goes to UCLA, and she says something that contains the word "uncle" in the response.

"Yeah, sorry about that but M's not really good at the intros obviously," I say wondering how I ended up about to have lunch with a stranger whose name I don't know even after she told it to me.

Once we put our name in at the dim sum place, we're told it'll be five to 15 minutes before a table for three is available. Now the awkwardness really kicks in. While we're standing outside waiting, we're not really talking. But unlike Uma Thurman observes in Pulp Fiction, this is not an "it's so cool that we can enjoy the silence between us" thing, it's a "we don't have anything really to talk about" thing. I know it wasn't dead silent during the entire wait for the table, but I don't really remember anything other than the awkwardness.

Thankfully once we're seated we have the acts of eating and ordering and declining food to occupy us.4 The woman (whose name I still don't know) also taught me something, add lemon to oyster sauce! MMMMMMMMM. When the meal is over and we're waiting around to ask for our check we get another chance not to have much to talk about.

The woman asks M for her phone number. M starts to tell her, but soon just writes it down along with her name (spelled out). "Ahhhh so your name is [name removed]."

"Yeah."

"I'm [spells out her name then says it]." (for the rest of this entry she'll be Suzie.)

M laughs softly as I finally figure out that she has finally learned this woman's name, too. Suzie proceeds to give M her phone number. Then she turns to me and places the paper with M's phone number on it in front of me along with a pen. It's another million miles a second moment. I grab the pen (while inside my brain is screaming, what are you doing? you absolutely do not want her to call you so of course you're giving her your phone number). I write down my number and my name. I take care not to make eye contact of ask for her number. I even immediately reach for my wallet to change the subject to the bill and not phone number exchanges.

"So what are you guys doing now?" Suzie asks.

"We're headed to go see the Philharmonic." M says.

"Ohhh. Where are they playing?" At this point, I'm kinda seriously wondering whether she wants to tagalong.

"Disney Hall," I reply.

"The performance is at 2," M says.

"And we should probably get going," I add quickly as if M and I are just speaking different halves of the same sentence.

Suzie nods and smiles. I don't sense any disappointment from her (at least don't see any in her posture or expression), so I kinda feel a bit like a heel for thinking that she wants to fold herself into our day. But then again ...

So we leave and M and I note that we're actually just across the street from the garage where we parked. Suzie walks along with us to the garage. We bade each other farewell.

"What just happened?" M asks as we're walking to the car.

"I don't know" is all I can offer. "So how do you know her? Is she like in one of your classes."

"No, she was on the bus with me Friday." M proceeds to explain that Suzie was having some problems on the bus Friday morning trying to figure something out with the driver. But something wasn't quite coming through in the conversation with the driver. Eventually, Suzie saw M (the only other Asian) and with her assistance things got straightened out enough. Then even though the bus had just a few people on it, Suzie sat next to M and started talking to her (no biggie, she said).5 At least until she started with the questions.

What do you do? What do your parents so? Do they work? How much money do they earn? M tells me that she's way weirded out during this, though we both agree that someone would ask those questions, would also semi-invite herself to join people she barely knows for lunch. To make things even more bizarre, that bus M was taking to her internship6 broke down. So that meant that M and Suzie got to spend like an hour chatting while waiting for another bus.

Now it all started to make sense to me, the lack of introduction when we first ran into Susie, the repeated awkward silences during our conversation which at the time I thought were weird between two people whom I thought were friends. As we're talking M says that one of the reasons she was so quiet because she kept running the scenario in her head and wondered what she could have said or done differently to prevent this entire thing from happening. As we replay everything, we can think of nothing save for one of us saying "No" when Suzie first asked if we could all eat together, which in retrospect neither of us felt like we could have pulled off.

"You said 'we're getting lunch'" I point out. "I guess when someone is not native to the States the subtlety of saying 'we're' gets lost. Don't feel bad. I would have handled it the same."

When we get to Disney Hall I check the time on my phone because my watch has stopped. I notice that I have a missed call. It's area code 626, a part of the county from which I know hardly anyone and have just one number stored in my phone. I show it to M and she confirms that it's Suzie who called. There is no voicemail.

M checks her phone and sees that she has a text message ... from Suzie.7

Honestly, the entire thing was Seinfeldian.

___________________________

Adapted from Mike's original blog post.

In retrospect:
1. Without directions or reservations, even that day, I'd realized this wasn't a very good idea. But why not?
2. Including the one featured in Jackie Chan's movies
3. We were about to cross the street into the direction, and the light had just changed. We had no choice but to walk into her, at that point.
4. Even with two other Asian Americans, it's always a comfort to have a Chinese-speaking person at the table during dim sum waiter encounters. I'd comment on the actual food itself -- the glorious weekend morning fresh pork buns, Chinese broccoli, things like that -- but I'd say even at that point, the situation of the meal trumped all culinary senses.
5. On a late Friday morning on the 2 Metro bus down Sunset.. there were exactly three other passengers on the bus. It is decidedly unusual to sit next to someone when there are so many potential seats open. Even if you want to carry a conversation.
6. GOOD Inc. in Hollywood
7. The following Friday, around 9 AM on the way to the bus stop, I got another call from her (missed, alas.) I still have her number saved in my phone -- I swear, I can show you.

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