Roast duck and pork over rice for five dollars. Oranges, nashi apples, sixty cents a pound. A punnet of strawberries, a pack of bokchoy, a dollar each. Bing cherries and lychees for two dollars a pound.
I recently started going into Chinatown for groceries (along Stockton, and also Powell). Of course, I knew that things would be cheaper than Safeway or Cala, and there would also be things found nowhere else. The hustle and bustle, Asian-style manners (line etiquette equals line cutting), smells on the street and wet stores the department of public health probably wouldn’t approve of, small grannies and smaller children, docile frogs stacked in styrofoam boxes, pungent durian and jackfruit, pirated VCDs and the occasional cassette tape, and Cantonese, the lingua franca.
What did surprise me was how I felt last weekend when I went into a dried goods store, hunting for egg noodles, Chinese sausage and fish balls. Some gentle Cantonese pop played as I browsed the small aisles, and for some reason, I felt a sudden happiness, even euphoria. I listened to simple melodies, occasional words half-remembered and half-learnt, occasionally making sense, and heard in them the voices and sounds I grew up with. In this city where I’ve been trying so hard to change myself, being reminded of where I came from and who I am, and the people who helped make me this way, made me happy.
The sounds, sights and smells, take me back to market shopping back in Malaysia, pasar malams and eating in stalls, noisy cousins and relatives, and I start seeing a bit of myself in people around me everywhere I look, because they look like me, and I feel like I almost know them. Home-cooked meals, picking at fish heads, bone marrow, eating rice from a bowl.
As I need it a four block-walk away, an entire world apart, self-contained and self-sufficient.