The Sounds and Sights of Cheap Dim Sum

(Author’s note:I wrote this Sunday night)

Good dim sum should come in large, cheap portions. In my mind, you need real, Chinese people making the food, and if they can stay in business with low prices, it means that that the food itself is really good and that they aren’t wasting money on decor and American standards of cleanliness.

New Hwong Kok in Milpitas fits this description. My friend Brain referred it to me, and with the $6 dim sum lunch special equivalent to 3 or 4 items at sit-down dim sum, I thin it’s great. You get the food in a takeout container, there are only 2 tables, and the service is neither good nor bad: it’s simply a necessity in executing a financial transaction involving delicious food.

When I stepped outside this morning to grab dim sum, I stopped to consider whether I wanted to bring my water bottle or not. I might want it in the car, but the main benefit would be to eat there. It was unlikely I would get a table, but if I did, my food would be 20 minutes warmer. I wouldn’t eat dim sum from the comfort of my own kitchen table, but that seemed acceptable.

It ended up being the right call. When I finished paying and turned to leave, I saw that the old Chinese lady at one of the tables had left, so I swooped down and sat in the dinky shop. To my left, a row of fridge cases cooled ingredients and bulk packaged buns, which I suspect were repackaged leftovers from the previous day. In front of me, a mother (or grandmother: don’t tell me you can tell the difference with non-ancient Asian women) was trying to get her rambunctious son, sitting across her at the table, to finish his meal. To my right, a steady line of 5 or 6 people in 2 or 3 parties inched towards being served. Beside them were the display cases of buns and stacks of metal steamers of dumplings.

I ate my food and watched and listened to the people passing through. I heard clutches of Mandarin in orders, and I heard even more Cantonese that I could only occasionally understand. My Cantonese comprehension is at an awkwardly smug level: I can legitimately say that I can’t speak at all and can only understand some of what my grandparents say, so I am justifiably humble. I know enough random food words, however, to randomly bust out translations to show off. I rarely encounter concentrated Chinese groups these days, yet I strangely feel at ease despite not understanding most of the situation.

As I ate, I realized that the familiarity wasn’t strange: how rarely I encounter these situations was strange. The Bay Area has a solid Chinese population, but I don’t interact with it much. Had I pulled out my phone to browse reddit while eating, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to the Chinese boy running around the shop with a lightsaber tucked in the back of his shirt. Had I not brought my water bottle, I would have gone home to eat and missed a 3 year old Chinese girl clearly apprehensive of an old Chinese lady introduced as an “aunt” by her mom. And had I decided just to stay home and have eggs and toast for breakfast, I couldn’t listen in to an apparently impossible explanation of how the customer wants not 1, but orders of the egg noodles.

I have so many ways to avoid interacting with or even just noticing my environment, my neighbors, and generally the world around me. When I’m washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or doing other mindless tasks, I feel compelled to play a podcast to absorb my higher-level thoughts. When I do get outside, I often look down at the sidewalk or road before me and daydream. I miss out on the unique houses on my commute or the soccer game in the park. And perhaps the greatest struggle is even getting outside by convincing myself that the stimulation of the outside world is more valuable than working on a side project at home or catching up on TV.

So I have recently tried hard to be zen-like and empty my mind. On my drive to New Hwong Kok this morning, I turned off the radio and just enjoyed the beautiful day (and watched the traffic, of course). I brought my journal to the dinner table to write while eating dinner, then decided to open the window and just listen to the birds chirping and children playing in the park.

Maybe I can squeeze my daily Duolingo into dinner and attack my TODO list more efficiently. Maybe sitting at New Hwong Kok could have been an utterly boring and soul-sucking experience. But for now, I need the chance to not absorb my attention, not to focus on a virtual world, not to turn inwards on my thoughts. Instead, I need to just take in the world around one, one thing at a time.

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