Happy March! Spring will arrive in a few weeks, we’ll enjoy all kinds of weather from snow to summery temperatures. We’ll celebrate the Ides of March, St Patrick’s Day, March Madness (if you care about such things) the Vernal Equinox, and, wait for it (you’ll have to, it’s the final day) my birthday. Within these bookmarks, March 1st and 31st, I’ll tell a story about one birthday each week, in no particular order.
Each year my parents would ask me what I wanted to do for my birthday and I always wanted the same thing; a trip to Chinatown. We’d drive to the city, and wander around the tiny streets and alleys. There were supermarkets with exotic ingredients and basements filled with housewares including china, chopsticks, furniture, giant urns and every type of cooking vessel and utensil imaginable.
On my eleventh birthday, naturally, the plan was a trip to Chinatown. When I got up there were gifts waiting for me, a pretty white eyelet dress, a daisy pin and a handkerchief with my name embroidered on it. We had a festive breakfast and set out for the city.
Whenever I go to Chinatown in any city my first stop has to be one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall shops you see dotting the main thoroughfares and side streets. These are the kind of places you might not venture into if you didn’t know what delectables they offer. It was a chilly day and as soon as we pulled the door open a steamy rush of air enveloped us. The smell was sweet, the air thick and heavy. The counter stools were filled with Chinese men eating, chatting and smoking cigarettes, and if there were a few tables crowded along the wall they too were occupied by men, only men. I can’t explain it, but I never felt out of place or self-conscious in those shops.
My father and I went in to order steamed pork buns, one for each of us. No one else wanted one, but those buns were one of the main attractions for me. They were kept warm in steel and glass steam cabinets, and though there were other steamed offerings, I only wanted the BBQ buns called char siu bao. We’d get our buns and eat them immediately as we continued down the street. The buns are made of a smooth, fluffy white dough, and though they were hot you have to carefully pull off the paper square that was attached to the bottom before you can eat them. The inside is a sweet, fatty chopped pork mixture, and you have to decide if you will eat the bland dough part to get to the filling or break it in half to get right to the good stuff. You can get baked pork buns too, but why?
Our next stop was a shop where we bought dried noodles, mushrooms, and some interesting looking sausage. We meandered from shop to shop, stopping in gift shops selling the miniature tea sets my sister and I loved, and tiny tea bowls that whistled when you sucked your tea. They sold Buddha figures, paint sets, and oiled paper umbrellas. These shops all had the same sandalwood scent and were run by tiny women who spoke just enough English to do business with the tourists. Maybe they were the wives of the men in the tea shops.
We took a break, and my mom pulled the sausage from the brown paper bag and handed us each a piece to taste. I’m sure the six of us were quite a sight standing on the narrow sidewalk eating sausage from a bag. The sausage was sweet and tasted similar to the filling of the pork buns. It seemed to be cured. Suddenly an old man came up to us yelling and gesturing madly. It took us a minute to figure out that he was yelling “raw pork, raw pork” and telling us not to eat it. We spit it out, but my older sister was convinced we were all infected with trichinosis, which as far as I know we were not. From there we went for lunch at our favorite restaurant (long defunct) and headed home.
I don’t remember other birthday trips to Chinatown. As I grew up I wanted sleepovers with my friends, parties with boys, and a fancy sweet-sixteen party. A few years ago my daughter and I made a trip to New York at the end of March, and I got to have lunch in Chinatown on my birthday once again. No matter how old I get (so far) I still look forward to my birthday and having a happy March.