Sunday, February 1, 2009

Year of the Ox

It is 6:15pm and my roommate Richard and friend Brad are waiting for me to tie my shoes so that we can go to the Chinese New Year activity down at the church. I quickly tie the laces of my black-and-white sneakers, put on my coat, scarf, and gloves and we head out the door. The temperature is cold enough to necessitate a warm coat, but the biting wind makes even a thick coat feel like a tattered rag. And of course the 2/3 train is closed this weekend...grrr... So we wait for the replacement shuttle bus, and we wait, and we wait. Bus arrives and we're off. There's just something different about riding the bus compared to taking the subway. It's nice to be able to see the city as you drive by and have cellphone reception. The subway is nice at times because, you don't have to worry about traffic jams (though there have been instances of "train traffic" which is an unnerving concept, aren't they supposed to prevent that?!).

We arrive at the Lincoln Center chapel and greet the friendly security guard who directs us to the 3rd floor. The elevator gently glides up the floors as everyone in the elevator does everything possible to not make eye contact with each other. It's interesting. I look at people starring at the ceiling of the elevator. There really isn't that much to see, but I imagine them thinking something like "yep, that sure is a nice elevator ceiling, very elevatory...yep, sure is a ceiling elevator, we've arrive, that went by quick..."

When I get off the elevator my face smacks against a wall of aroma. For a minute I feel like I'm walking down the street in China town; the strong smell of Chinese food hanging in the air. We walk into the cultural hall and it is full of people. There are lines of red Chinese lanterns hung in rows on string from the ceiling, and below them are rows of chairs all facing the stage. The choir from the Chinese branch is on the stage singing, while a few other members clear off the remaining empty serving trays, which, consequently, are the only remains suggesting that there was a dinner. I found out later that this particular activity is very popular and if you want any food, you have to show up early.

A group of dancers perform an energy-packed lion dance. When they introduce the number they say that the dance is usually done with a lot of people under a dragon costume (which I've seen in movies) but because the cultural hall is so packed, they will be using the lion costume instead. The colorful lion winds through the crowd to the beat of a drum. Its mouth and eyes opening and closing, with its head darting side to side. Very cool! Now that I've seen that, I'm ready to go and get some Chinese food. I look at my friends and tell them that I want to eat some Chinese food before we go to our friends good-bye party, they are in agreement so we go. Back to the elevator. Same situation. A bunch of people looking everywhere else other than at the person standing next to them thinking "wow, that is a nice elevator ceiling..."

We aren't quite sure where the nearest Chinese restaurant is so we decide to hop on the cross-town bus and stop at the first Chinese restaurant we see. Brilliant. We get on the bus and head down the street smiling at each other thinking "good plan." Richard, speaks up and says "there's one." Ironically, there is a restaurant on the corner where we first got on the bus...sigh... Oh well, there are plenty more where that came from. We head down the street. And, as it usually happens, whenever I am looking for something specific (e.g. restaurant) I don't see any, but when I'm not looking they're everywhere. I think there must be some kind of conspiracy...

I know that there are a lot of places on 2nd avenue so we decide to get off there and just start walking in the direction of our friend's apartment (where the party will be at). I'm pretty sure that the wind is in on the same conspiracy as the Chinese restaurants this point less wind would be the best, so of course, the wind increases. I'm not sure why this is, but the colder it gets the more my nose drips. I don't think that is a very favorable evolutionary development because the way I see it, more drips gives the wind more things to freeze solid. And not to mention, the wind numbs the face so it's almost impossible to know that dripping is happening!

Walking down the street it seems like we are finding every kind of restaurant except for a Chinese one...figures...Faces getting colder, desire to eat Chinese food diminishing, must press forward. We see an awning with Chinese-like characters, but what do we know. Our excitement peaks as we read the menu...nope, Thai food. I want to say yes, so that we can get out of the cold, but a part of me says "onward!" The next restaurant looks promising, we read the menu...nope, Burmese food the next...nope, Indian food; the next...nope Japanese food; the next...nope another Indian food place. I feel like I can hear all of these restaurants laughing at us and we pass window to window.

I pull out my phone to look at Google Maps, why has it taken me so long to think of using the internet on my phone?! I type in "Chinese restaurants, NYC", Google makes a map with all sorts of places. I zoom in on the upper east side, and I click on the it possible, could it be!? "Nancy's Pig Heaven". What the!? I type in "Chinese restaurants, NYC" and I get Nancy's Pig Heaven. I read the results out loud to Brad and Richard, and I immediately start making jokes about the accuracy of Google as I stare down at my phone. I look up for a minute and see the unmistakable shape of Chinese lanterns hanging from an awning. "We have a bogey at 2:00p, roger that." We walk towards the lanterns thinking that it is too good to be true. We walk up to the menu and start reading "Nancy' Pig Heaven"!! No way! Not only is it real, but it they really do serve Chinese food. What trip!

As we walk inside we are greeted by three different smiling hostess who lead us to the back of the dining hall. The walls are all painted pink and were covered in various pig figurines; that's right, Nancy's Pig Heaven was totally decked out in pig decor (go fig). Our table was right in front of the butchery. That's right, right in front of the place where the chef cuts up the meat that we will soon be eating. There is cooked duck hanging (with head still attached) starring at me. There is a pig and slabs of ribs danglingly from various skewers. Nummy (man I wish there was a sarcastic font).

I don't know if it was the cold, the walking, or the fact that my potential meal was starring at me, but I felt like I should try something new. I looked at the menu and saw the traditional orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, etc. but this time I figure I can venture out and get something a little more exotic. I'm tentative about the thought, so I share it with my comrades, they are tentative too. We look across the table at each other and incessantly asking "so what are you going to get?" Hoping that one of us will cave in and get something traditional so the rest of us can. Brad sits back and puts on his poker face communicating a message of "I order new stuff all the time, it's what I do." Richard is looking as confused as I am and says "Ooo this one comes with a pancake...I wonder what that is like." And I flip through the menu thinking "safe route, new route, safe route, new route, safe route, new route."

Our waitress comes up to table. She is an older Chinese woman who has dyed her curly hair burgundy. She has a very thick accent and I can immediately tell that communication with her is going to be an adventure. I look up to her and ask if she has any recommendations. She quickly replies in one monotone fast-paced sentence "wii-hav-willy-gued-bar-bi-que-wibs-vewii-femous-or-suckring-pig." "Hmmm, ok. Thanks. I'll need just a minute more." (in my mind) "what on earth am I going to get?" I look over at Brad and he looks as confident as ever with his decision, and Richard is still thinking about the pancake. "So what are you going to get Brad?" "I'm going to get pig butt." That's right, you heard me right, pig butt. And that is exactly how it is listed on the menu "pig butt small or large." Brad was feeling particularly hungry so he says he will order a large pig butt. My mind immediately imagines a steaming, intact butt on a plate. "Hmmm, sounds good" (once again a sarcastic font would be fabulous). "And you Richard?" (need I ask) "I think I'll go with this pancake thing, and you?" They both are picking new things, I'm really feeling the pressure now. "Well, I think that I'll go with the ... um ... suckling pig." I figure that it was a safe, new bet because she said that it was really good, crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. The other two guys look at me with approval. I must say the possible jokes with Brad ordering pig butt are endless.

The waitress comes back and puts a small plate in the middle of our table and then walks away. It has some moist, shredded cabbage and some slivers of cucumber. What am I suppose to do with this? It looks like something that you would put on some kind of cracker, but there are no crackers to be seen. I ask Richard and Brad. Brad, still with his game face on, says "you eat it," and grabs a few cucumber spears and plops them in his mouth. I'm still totally confused, so when the waitress comes back, I ask her "excuse me, how do we eat this?" In shock, the waitress replies in the same fast-paced monotone voice (this time with a little more gusto) "it's-house-sarad-you-eat-it-its-house-sarad-evwiione-git-it-it's-on-dee-house-fwee-you-don't-pay-house-sarad." Thank you, how silly of me. I take my fork and put a little bit of the salad on it and bring it to my mouth. Yuck!! There is a reason why that salad is free, no one would buy it!

The waitress comes back to take our order and asks if I like the salad. Trying to hold back my "oh man this is nasty" face muscles I politely smiled and mumbled "oh well, it's a... salad...yep, it's fine." She takes our orders and asks Richard if he wants her to prepare his food. What a curious question . . . "Sure", he replies. Before the waitress leaves, Brad jokingly asks "so are you Nancy?" (as in THE Nancy of Nancy's Pig Heaven), to all our surprise she says "no-its-her" and points to one of the women who initially greeted us when we first arrived. What do you know, Nancy herself is here! I wonder if anyone has told her about the salad?

As we wait for our food I notice the chef cutting some meat off the hanging pig and off of another hanging slab of meat. Surely, that isn't the pig that I just ordered (gulp). The waitress brings our food out. Mind you, this is not a cheap restaurant, so I was expecting to have some extras with the meal (e.g. noodles, soup, or something) included in the pricey meal. Well, I am mistaken. Just a little bit of white rice and a slab of pig cut up into little squares. Thanks Nancy.

I notice that there is a small bowl full of barbecue sauce on my plate, which for me is a nice safety net, because if it's gross I'll douse the sucker with BBQ sauce. I take the first piece of meat and bring it to my mouth...drum roll please...and the judges say...they should include this meat with the free house salad! Yuck! My meat tasted like pig, not to be confused with cooked pork, but pig! And I'll be danged if I'm going to waste the small fortune that I just purchased, so I reach for the BBQ sauce.

Brad's butt was surprisingly good (once again using one of the endless Brad pig butt jokes) he shared it will all of use. It's a good thing he got a large butt because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to share. Richard's food came out last. The waitress takes his meat and then portions it out onto tortillas and wraps them for him. That's right, ladies and gentleman, Chinese pancakes are tortillas. I think that would be an interesting debate to have: what came first the pancake or the tortilla.

I choke down the remainder of my food (choke being the closest word I could use to describe my mouth's reflex to the meat). We pay our large bill (surprising that it wasn't on pink paper) and gather our things and left our pig paradise.

We walk a few more blocks and arrive at the party. The party has dual purposes, it's to say good-bye to our dear friend who is moving back home, and to say good-bye to 5W. Apparently, the 5W apartment has been in the ward for a long time (i.e. various people in our ward have lived in it over the years), so it is only appropriate to have an official farewell party for it.

I make a casual v-line to the kitchen hoping to find something delicious to wash the Pig Heaven taste out of my mouth. Chocolate-chip cookies, perfect! I pack in a few cookies, and the pig taste is suppressed (sigh of relief). I'm sure if someone watched me eat those cookies they would have thought I was practicing for some kind of cold medicine commercial, you know, the part when the previously stuffy-congested person is liberated from the muck of mucous and they take a deep breath in with their eyes closed. That is pretty much how I must have looked when I put those cookies in my mouth. I always thought the actors in those commercials were faking it, but that relief is a real phenomenon.

I enjoy the rest of the party. There is the typical talking, eating, laughing, etc. etc. Towards the end of the party a small dance floor opens up in the apartment and a few of us decide to get "jiggywith it." At this point Brad and Richard have connected with other people in the party, so me and Briana and Jordan decide that it is time to go home. We all live near each other so we figure that we will walk with each other.

We get to about 104th street and Briana sees a dance club called SpaHa Lounge and asks if we can go inside. Jordan is a pretty reserved person, but is willing. I was a little hesitant, but supportive just because I'm not sure if I have enough energy left. We walk in and see people sitting around the bar, sitting around the small tables around the walls of the room laughing with their friends, the DJ is tucked in the corner with huge speakers surrounding him, there is a large guy standing in front of the door (aka security), and a small group of people has formed on the small dance floor. We stick out like a sore thumb because we are the only packets of white sugar in the lounge. It feels like every one's eyes are resting on us watching our every move.

We take our coats off and put them down on one of the benches lining the wall. Jordan sits down and makes himself at home and Briana and I jump up and claim our chunk of the dance floor. I really like to dance and so does Briana, so we let the rhythm lead. Everyone watching us starts to smile and whisper to the people sitting next to them. We're not sure what they're saying, but their attention just fuels our tanks. Before we know it the small dance group opens up and asks us to dance in the middle of the circle. Without hesitation, Briana and I both take our turns. The music is pounding, the people are cheering, and we are just loving it.

We made friends with some of the people and they ask us periodically to dance in the middle of the circle. One of the girls says "we want to see the white girl dance" needless to say, they were amazed! Briana and I just keep on dancing, soaking up the fun atmosphere as Jordan sits watching the flat-screen televisions hanging on the wall. At one point, we decide to leave, but the DJ put on some great music so we stuck around even longer. After hearing a few rounds of karaoke, we decide to call it a night. It is really late, so we walk our friend Briana to her apartment.

This New Year's Eve was great (Chinese New Year)!!! What a great way to start the year of the ox.

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