March 16, 2012 – Chinatown
There are worlds within worlds. You can live in a place your entire life and never see all the things it contains. I know this. That’s how I am with Dallas. I lived there twenty years of my life and what do I know about it? Not much. Ten years in Colorado. I know a little bit more. And now Lima. In the past nine months, I’ve done so much here, and yet, I’ve done nothing at all. I know my way around my neighborhood in Jesús María, I’ve seen some museums, I’ve been to some ruins, but what else do I know?For instance, I didn’t know Lima had a Chinatown until my Chinese-American friend, Nan, came to visit and said she’d read about it in the Guide Book. She’d wanted to go see how it compared to the other Chinatowns of the world, but, as we only had one day to traverse Lima, we didn’t make it there.
Sunday night I go.It’s the day after Matt’s birthday and in honor of this he, Fiorella, and I head to Chinatown for vegetarian Chinese food. Matt’s just back to Lima after spending the last eight months traveling around South America and we’re going out to celebrate. Fiorella and Matt have eaten there and regale me with the remembered goodness of it all. I’m thrilled about the whole dinner out deal. When I’ve asked at several Peruvian Chinese food places before, they say, “Yes, of course, we have vegetarian food—it only has a little bit of chicken in it,” and that’s the end of that for me.
With food on the mind, we walk from the apartment down to the street Brasil and catch a bus. Twenty minutes by bus, three blocks by foot and we’re at the Chifa San Joy Lao (“Where You’re Part of the Family” the front door banner says with the formal usted (you)). There’s a bit of a wait, but soon enough we’re at a table with our noses pressed into menus. I’m in Eating Out heaven. There’s actually an entire page dedicated to Vegetarian Options. We’re hungry. We’re celebrating. We order four dishes.Our waiter—possibly the handsomest South American man and the most helpful waiter I’ve encountered—dissuades us from ordering two too similar meals and when we’ve finally got it all straightened out he leans in toward me, his pencil still scraping the pad of paper, and says, “You’ve ordered four complete dishes. That’s correct?”
“We can get it To Go if we don’t eat it all, right?” I ask.“Of course,” he says.
“Then yes, we’d like all four.”Mushrooms. Noodles. Vegetarian Fried Rice. Vegetables. Tofu. Soy Sauce. Cerveza. The only thing we can’t get is vegetarian Spring Rolls. “They’re all made with a little bit of chicken,” the waiter tells us apologetically. We talk about the world, South America, North America, Europe, pink noise, brown noise, bus rides and life before the food arrives. With an artist’s pride of presentation, the waiter sets the dishes before us. Steam wisps off the plates seducing me with smell. Acknowledging that I’m a complete hippy freak, I pull my bamboo chopsticks out of my bag and use them to dig in. It just doesn’t seem right to eat Chinese food (vegetarian or not) with a fork.
“You’ve got your own palillos (chopsticks),” Fiorella says, without being mocking. I hold them up as she takes a picture of me.It seems a little wrong to be drinking Cusqueña instead of some kind of Jiu, but what can we do?
“Salud,” we say, clink glasses and sip.Over dinner we talk about choices and jobs. Matt and I are unemployed writers-travelers and Fiorella is in a job she doesn’t like.
“Just think,” Matt says. He and I are both 1978ers, born in the Year of the Horse. Fiorella is a handful of years younger. “When you’re our age, Fiorella, you could be out of job just like we are.”“I should be a fortune teller,” Fiorella says.
“Do you know how to read palms?” I ask her.“A little,” she says.
I turn up my hand and press it her way.
“Oh my god,” she says, staring at my right hand. “You have too many lines.”
I give her the other hand and she peers down at it. “Maybe two kids,” she says.“Oh no! I hope not,” I say, pulling my hand back defensively. I brush my hands together. “What other job might you like to have? What would you do if you could do anything?”
Fiorella talks of her dreams. I imagine them as reality.We eat our way through two thirds of our four dishes.
I’m still picking up rice with my chopsticks and thinking, Now you can pick up anything! as the paper packaging on wooden chopsticks always assured me after its pictorial tutorial, and wondering what else I can pick up (a table? the tab? juice?) when Fiorella says, “I just have to ask you.”With that kind of opening it’s hard to know where the conversation will go. We’ve already broached some deep subjects, so I wait. Chopsticks in mouth. Images of me picking up a couch with my chopsticks on pause in the video of my mind.
“Why are you both so peaceful?” she asks. “How did you get that way?”I smile. I feel peaceful. I feel happy. I feel full.
“Peaceful?” Matt asks.“You both are very peaceful. You really are.”
Well. What’s the easy answer? I’m not sure there is one for me. It took me a long time to get this way. I let a lot of things go. I put some effort into it. I remember to breathe. I believe that things will work out for the best. I practice living in the moment. This doesn’t always work, I’m not always calm. But, here in this moment, in the center of Lima in Chinatown, the peace sits inside me, filling me full like the vegetarian Chinese food.And--in this world within my world within Chinatown within Lima--I’m happy.