A Restaurant with No Name
El Barrio Chino, Lima, Perú
by Huiying B. Chan
I stepped into their restaurant. A woman and her two kids were sitting at the first booth of the restaurant. I stared at her and she stared at me. I hadn't experienced being stared at so hard when entering a restaurant.
"Uhh.. para comer?" I said. Literally "to eat?" is what I could remember to say in the moment.
"Si," she said, and burst out laughing after our moment of silent staring. We began our conversation in Cantonese. "It's just that it's not that often that Chinese people come into the restaurant."
"Really?" I said, "So there's not that many Chinese people in this Chinatown?"
She had come from Hoiping 開平 in southern China three years ago. Her husband had been in Peru for over 20 and her relatives had several restaurants here. She told me when she first came here, she went sightseeing. "But once you live here, it's not that exciting and the sites aren't so special." She handed me a menu and explained each section.
"Here is the fried rice and underneath are the noodles. Oh and there are combos where you can get half a plate of rice and half a plate of noodles," she said in Cantonese, gesturing half and half with her hands. "Do you know what you would like?"
I stared at the menu with Chinese dishes written in Spanish. "Umm, is there soy sauce chicken?"
She laughed. "At this restaurant, no, but the bigger Chinese ones down the street have it." She listed the foods that the bigger restaurants serve.
"They even have congee?" I asked, excitedly.
"Yes! And there's dim sum and roast pork you can take to-go."
I ordered the beef fried rice that came with soup.
"Okay." She headed to the modest cooking area next to the tables where she began to make the soup. Her husband sat at a wooden desk at the entrance while her three year old son was playing with a colorful toy train that sang yankee doodle went to town, riding on a pony... in the background. Flash cards with Spanish words were strewn at the entrance of their restaurant. Her almost two year old daughter was trying to play with the same toys but the son refused to share. I breathed out. The first Chinese family I am meeting after coming here.
"Chinese people are all over the world," she said to me while cooking, breaking my thoughts. It took me a second to truly register what she had just said and how much that applied to why I was there.
"Yeah," I smiled, "that's true. Do Chinese people live here in Chinatown or are they usually somewhere else?"
"We're all over, in a lot of different neighborhoods here."
She placed the soup on the table. I took my first sip with the soup spoon and a sense of home swept over me. It felt so familiar, the soup base. She brought over the fried rice and when I smelled it, I no longer felt like eating, remembering so strongly the food from home. For the first time, perhaps, I felt a strong missing of home, stronger than I had ever felt. And I so missed my country. Not the United States, but New York's Chinatown. And my family and friends back home. It was a feeling I felt the past days adjusting to an entirely new city. A growing feeling that became stronger than any homesick I had felt while away at college. The closest I could put to words is a missing of home. And wanting to return.
"You come here and you just miss your home country so much." Her voice from the kitchen once again broke my daze. "All my friends are back home, you miss the familiar faces, the family. You're here and you just want to keep going back."
I nodded. I don't know if she knew how much I appreciated hearing her words in that moment and how willing she was to openly share with me. For the first time, I began to feel an inkling of what it must feel like to leave your country behind in search of "something better." Before, I remember thinking that I could not fathom what is must have been like for my family and billions of others to permanently leave home. Today, in that moment, as she was sharing that, I felt it a little. But also incredibly, her words made me feel less of a missing, because we shared a certain missing. I tried to imagine the Hoiping she came from, the same place my father's from.
As we talked, two people were looking at the menu outside. She went outside and said to them, "el menú?" continuing with advertising the special that day and every day: the fried rice and meat dishes that all come with wantan soup. The two young men agreed and entered. They both ordered combo #2. She brought over their soup and when one of them tried it, he looked at the other and shook his head. They said something to the woman, who was behind the cooking area preparing their order. She responded. They got up and left.
She carried the two bowls back to the side where I was sitting. I looked at her, "They didn't want it?"
"They said the soup went bad." Before I knew what to say, she continued, "It's like that. It's because my father puts in chicken bones to cook it." She listed other ingredients I love in my soup. "Sometimes they love it and others think that it's rotten. There's nothing you can do about what they say they taste."
Her son was playing with Spanish flash cards on the floor. Throughout our conversation, she kept scolding that he was causing them to lose business because he was playing in the front. We both watched as Peruvians would stop at the entrance to look at the large menu with pictures, peek inside, and continue walking. She carried her daughter on her back and when she had fallen asleep, placed her to rest in the seat across from me, wrapped in a blanket. After a while, she became busy trying to get her husband to stop fixing the furniture at the front of her restaurant.
"Can I take this rice to go?" I called.
"Sure." She came over with a take-out box.
"Was the rice too hard for you?" She packed up my half eaten plate.
The rice was harder than I was used to but I was also missing home foods.
"Yeah," I said, not having planned to tell her. "It's just that I'm not used to eating rice this hard."
"Me neither." Her response surprised me. "That's why I don't like working in these restaurants. I can never cook the food I would eat. And my kids," she said, looking over at them, "none of us eat it either. As soon as we get off work, we go home to eat."
She continued walking around the restaurant, wiping the tables and tidying up. Soon enough, another couple walked in. I decided it was time to go and keep walking.
"Maybe I can come by the other restaurant you told me about if I have time this Sunday," I said to her. She glanced up from cleaning the dishes and nodded.
I thought about anonymity in cities. How after we shared the conversation we did, I never got her name, but that was okay. I don't know if I'll see her again because she'll be staying home to take care of the kids, but I would like to. And perhaps one day I will find her family's other restaurant. The one down Calle Capón, with a single white lantern dangling in the front. A restaurant also with no name.
Huiying B. Chan is a Toisanese writer and educator from New York City. Huiying recently graduated from Wellesley College with a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and Education. Huiying is currently traveling in Latin America studying Chinatowns and searching for home in the Chinese diasporas as Wellesley's Knafel Fellow. You can follow Huiying's journey at tinyletter.com/huiyingbc.