Sacramento (Part 2)

I have a very extensive extended family. My mom is the eighth of nine children.  All but one have had their own children. Some of those children have also had children (in case you aren’t keeping up, they would be my first cousins once removed). My grandma had two sisters who each have children (my mom’s cousins) who have also had children (someone help me — are they second cousins?).

When we all get together, say for a milestone birthday or a funeral, we walk around with very little idea whether the people we’re rubbing shoulders with are or are not related to us. It probably doesn’t help that our family has a propensity for adopting non-family members as “aunties” and “uncles.”

I know a lot of Chinese families are like this, but sometimes, I think our family takes this to an extreme. Until someone marries someone else we thought was their cousin, but actually, they aren’t related by blood, so it’s still kosher. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.

Anyways, following my coffee-fueled reverie at Insight Coffee Roasters (which I mentioned in my last post), I headed back to my second aunt’s house. Yee Yee Ma, my mom’s second sister, asked me to be back by six so we could go out for dinner at a local Chinese takeout restaurant. I’m normally skeptical about anything labelled “Chinese takeout.” But this place has, like a lot of old-school Cantonese-run Chinese restaurants, two sets of menus — one for non-Chinese guests who want their orange chicken and chow mein, and one for Chinese people in search of an authentic taste of home without the preparation time or dishes to wash.

Note to adventurous eaters: bring a native speaker or local with you and ask them to order what they like to eat, not what they think you want to eat. Also, a tip I picked up from my lovely best friend: begin protesting BEFORE you get full, and leave a small portion of your food in your bowl or on your plate. That way your relatives or hosts aren’t tempted to shovel second, third and fourth helpings for you. Then, as the meal winds down, you can finish the rest of your meal in relative peace and gastrointestinal security. You now have the secret for not overeating when eating with people who love you and believe food is love. Please send checks directly to Elizabeth.

I wish I had that nugget of wisdom before I went to Sacramento, because I’m pretty sure I gained weight that weekend. I am clearly well-loved. Yee Ma and Pak Gu (her husband) let me order what I wanted to order. Mistake #2. My eyes are almost always bigger than my stomach. A pungent platter of soy sauce chicken, just greasy-enough salt and pepper pork chops, and spicy stone pot eggplant with steaming white rice — the foods I usually shunned as an unappreciative I-want-a-Happy-Meal kid, and way more than the three of us could stomach.

If you were to ask me, I would probably tell you that I’m pretty close with my extended family. But when it comes down to it, my family is the farthest south from the family’s Sacramento epicenter, and I see my relatives far less than they see each other. So there are still endless stories to uncover. For instance, I found out that Yee Ma and Pak Gu have known each other for nearly 60 years; they met in junior high. And they still enjoy each others’ company. Plus, they just got the icing on their life’s cake and became grandparents this week (Congratulations!!).

We came back after dinner, and I quickly succumbed to food coma and general fatigue. Friday morning, I woke up, prepared to go for a run. I had researched potential running spots before going to bed, but as usual, things never go how I expect them to. I drove about five minutes to Garcia Bend Park, which is in The Pocket neighborhood of Sacramento. It took me a good fifteen minutes just to find the running trail, which turned out to be an asphalt road that runs parallel to the Sacramento River.

The river, for one, isn’t as exciting as it sounds. At least, not in the area that runs next to Garcia Bend Park. The other vital piece of information I had overlooked was that Sacramento is sometimes called the “city of trees.” Basically — pollen central. My allergies kicked into full gear halfway through my run, and I was forced to turn back, coughing and wheezing. Exercise attempt fail.

A little discouraged, I returned to Yee Ma’s for a quick shower before, I hoped, heading out to another coffee shop with my books and journal. I needed some good quality alone time. Of course, no sooner had I showered and said goodbye to Yee Ma (who, I must admit, left suspiciously without trying to feed me more than a char siu bao) than the house phone began to ring. On the other end, Dai Yee Ma, my mom’s eldest sister, insisting that I pick up.

“He-, hello? Dai Yee Ma?”

“Lynnette, (in a thick Cantonese accent) I’m coming to pick you up!”

“What?”

Yum cha!”

She never actually admitted it, but I suspect that my aunts were in cahoots, talking to each other behind my back, and agreeing to make sure that I was properly loved to death with food. For this, I am both horrified and grateful. Never underestimate scheming Chinese aunties.

I quickly agreed to be ready by the time she arrived. There’s not really any use trying to argue with Dai Yee Ma. Yee Yee Ma is gentle enough to give in when I tell her to let me take care of myself. Dai Yee Ma, on the other hand, is cut from the same feisty cloth — in the Toisan dialect, they use the term “chaan gai” — as my grandmother and my own mother. I apparently, also follow in our family’s long-standing tradition of strong-willed women. When my grandmother passed away, Dai Yee Ma inherited her matriarchal throne, taking up the position in seamless transition.

Now, to call my family matriarchal is a bit of a misnomer. The men in our family — whether they are born into or marry into it — have a reputation for being respectable, fearful (in a good way), manly, athletic, industrious, honest, full of integrity, good-humored and patient. Basically, the women in our family have excellent taste in men, and they know how to raise them too.

Dai Yee Ma picked me up ten minutes after we hung up and drove us to another nondescript Dim Sum restaurant. She’s nearly 80, but drives sure and steady. I don’t seem to learn from my mistakes, because she let me order what I wanted, and again, I ordered way too much. So much that I think the waiter felt a little embarrassed for me; he was practically apologizing every time he set another tray-full of food onto our tiny  square table.

Fried crispy taro rolls, shrimp and beef meatball siu mai, rice-wrapper shrimp har gau, pan-fried radish cake lo bak go, banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice lo mai gai, stewed spareribs, steamed melty custard bun nai won bao, and a few other dishes I can’t even remember. Plus, we ordered two of some things. All for two people. Of course, the joke was on me, because she insisted that I could keep eating, even after I started groaning in pain. It’s not cruel; it’s love.

I tried to distract Dai Yee Ma by asking her about her childhood. She told me about growing up in China during the Japanese invasions, fleeing to the mountains with her older brother (my mom’s oldest brother) to hide by themselves. My grandmother, who still had two younger children to take care of, would come to fetch them when the coast was clear, sometimes going from house to house asking, “Have you seen my children?” because they had hidden themselves too well.

She spoke matter-of-factly about what it was like to have to leave their childhood home — their farmland, house, friends, and memories — and escape to Hong Kong because the Communists were hunting them down. About waiting in Hong Kong for my grandfather to come and find them, with only a single, hurriedly scribbled address in his pocket. About being told that there was no reason for her to get a full education, because she only needed to be married and raise a family, and how angry that made her.

I thought she had had an arranged marriage, but I was surprised when she told me that she and her husband had been set up by several of the older folks (who started discussing the match during transcations at the bank), brought together via a letter of introduction, after which they dated awhile and then decided to get married.

“Did you like him?”

“What?”

“When you first met him, did you like him?”

“HA. No.”

“Why not?”

“He was shorter than me. But he was a good man.”

She lived through so much, and instead of letting that turn her into the kind of bitter, crazy Chinese mom you read about in countless Asian American books (as true as that experience may be), she’s become a cool grandma. The kind who, in her late 70’s, still makes the week-long trip to Disneyland with her grandkids every year, who stays out late (like, past midnight) hanging out with her church friends, and who doesn’t mind eating at the “hip young people places.”

Then again, my grandmother (her mother), even in her 90’s, claimed in her severely-limited English that her two favorite foods were pizza and tacos — the hard shell kind. Some things jut run in the family. Of course, Dai Yee Ma is still Chinese by blood, and our conversation was cut short so she could play mahjong with her friends from the Yee Association.

It’s hard to decide what to do in a city when you only have one or two free days to explore, and relatives to meet up with. I did some Google research before leaving for Sacramento, and decided to spend the rest of my free afternoon driving around Sacramento in search of used bookstores.

The first on my list was Time Tested Books, on 21st Street, a cozy store with a barn-like interior, packed floor to ceiling with all assortment of new and used offerings, arranged perfectly so that it took me less than a second to locate the “travel literature” section. Used bookstores are my weakness. I love the musty smell, the feel of aging paper, the beautifully crafted spines. Everything but the copious layers of dust and allergens. Consequently, it was virtually impossible for me to walk out empty-handed.

The cashier at Time Tested kindly gave me instructions to my next stop, The Book Collector. Even though the sun was bearing down at 90 degrees, I wanted to walk 1) to redeem my earlier failure at exercise and 2) to use up the rest of the time on my parking meter. I’m that cheap. You never know what you might discover along the way, I consoled myself as the sweat its own slow walk down my back.

Three blocks down and one block over, he had told me. Three blocks, as veteran city dwellers are well aware, may sound like a short distance, but when you’re trudging along in the merciless heat with bags and a heavy purse on your shoulders, it feels a heck of a lot farther. As luck would have it, when I reached the Book Collector, a sign was posted saying, “Due to owner illness, the store is closed today.”

With a big sigh and about face, I retraced my steps back to the air conditioned oasis of my rental car and drove in search of an ice cold drink to refuel before searching for my third and final bookstore of the afternoon.

I should have known to cut my losses while I was behind, but the problem with being by myself is that I don’t have someone to tell me, “Lynnette, just give up. Stop making circles around this phantom coffee shop, don’t bother finding parking, especially don’t go to the nearest store to get change for the parking meter, and forget about asking random passersby where to find the cafe. Just go home already.”

I don’t feel like re-living this experience, but suffice it to say, I did eventually find the Chocolate Fish Coffee Shop, two blocks from my car, across a street, through a big glass state building, past an intimidating security guard, and hidden on an outside corner of a corporate complex. It took me so long to find, I only ended up with an hour to do any work before the cafe closed.

Since I had to vacate the premises of Chocolate Fish, I decided to head back toward my aunt’s house. I was tempted to re-locate and re-caffeinate at Insight Coffee, because I knew it was around the corner from Beers Books, the last used bookstore. Instead, I triumphantly found free parking right outside of Beers and browsed happily for another half hour or so. To recoup my losses, I left with two more used books to cram into my already overstuffed luggage.

On my way home, I got a phone call from my cousin Shirl saying she would pick me up.

“Lynnette. Where are you?”

“On my way back to Yee Ma’s.”

“Okay. I’m coming to pick you up. You’re on my way.”

I rushed back as quickly as possible and called my cousin Justin.

“Justin. Where are you?”

“Um…at home.”

“Come to Yee Ma’s. Shirl is picking us up.”

“For what?”

“Dinner.”

That’s how we roll. Justin — still a little confused but very obedient — drove the five minutes over to Yee Ma’s and we departed with Shirl to meet up with my nieces (er…first cousins once removed) Michelle and Samantha, Michelle’s man-friend Ryan, Dai Yee Ma, and my cousin Stevie’s wife Nancy to partake in all-you-can-eat Mongolian BBQ. Of which all we could eat was not even close to what we should have eaten according to the rules of the buffet.

Afterwards, we engaged in the Yee family activity: mahjong. But Dai Yee Ma takes it to a whole new level. She has an entire room dedicated to MJ, with folding tables next to each chair for handy storing of snacks and drinks within easy reach, and a change jar in case you forgot to bring cash. I’m terrible at any game that requires strategy, so I played with Michelle as my “brain” until I tired and wandered off to chat with my cousin Margie.

My winning hand.

There’s something especially comforting about being with family, at least, my family. I never have to worry about what they think about me, or whether they’ll accept me, or whether I might have worn out my welcome. As much as I wanted to just revel in the warm family bubble, I had a full day ahead of me, and I needed to wake up early. The evening ended with a quick boba tea run and some final galavanting with the cousins before heading back for an early night’s rest.

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