The minute I walked into “Hei La Moon” in Boston’s Chinatown, I felt at home.
Just like Hong Kong! I enthused. Why didn’t I know about this?
The truth is, I rarely went to this side of Chinatown. I usually deferred to the choice of the crowd – Chinese students and American friends who love a particular restaurant on the right side of Beach Street off from Chauncey Street. But today, I turned left at this crossroads to meet someone. She’d picked a place that’s new and different, but that turns out to feel so familiar, almost familial.
“How many?” A woman holding a stack of menus noticed me standing at the reception desk, and immediately made a sharp turn to greet me.
“It’ll be two of us. I’m early.”
“No problem. Come with me. Ah, here it is. How is this? Nice and bright by the window!”
Her tone and accent show a hint of Cantonese cadence – chirpy and sharp. I took a chance, slipped into Cantonese right away, “Ho” (It means good in Cantonese.) Her eyes lit up, and her tongue rolled off the natural next question –
“What kind of tea?”
“Ho” (That Cantonese word in this context means “Certainly” in English.) It is frequently used by Hong Kong waiters and waitresses at dim sum spots or high-end hotels. There’s a ring to it, putting you at ease while suggesting keen and attentive service. I felt transported to Hong Kong, my hometown. Perhaps I was a bit homesick. It’s that time of year that I’m due back for a visit.
Like a kid in the candy store, I let my eyes scan the sprawling dining hall, snapping photos of the men and women eating my favorite dim sum food – steamed shrimp dumpling with translucent skin, crispy spring rolls, and silken rice crepes.
While I was mired in watching people eat, my nose caught a sniff of shumai (pork dumpling),
a thousand-layered cake that arrested my attention away from the diners. I turned around and saw all these dumplings on a cart!
Every cart-lady passes by with an energetic and enthusiastic pitch – “Fresh off the steamer!” “What do you want?”
A simple announcement and a common question tinged with an urgency. I wanted to capture their beaming faces. But one after one another, they turned away and pointed me to the food.
As they keep pushing the sale, trying to put a basket on my table, I gently refused saying I have yet to wait for my friend to arrive. They nodded, smiled and went away.
Finally, my lunch date arrived. She hastily apologized for running a few minutes late. Patricia was someone I met for the first time through a mutual friend who thought we would hit it off since we are both from Hong Kong and have made Boston our homes. Patricia was smart to pick a dim sum restaurant that resembles the kind of lively hustling bustling energy of our hometown, reminding us of our roots as we tried to know each other – strangers with the same tie.
We ordered dish after dish of savories and dessert and talked for over two hours. A waitress had forgotten our vegetable stir-fry order, making us wait quite a while, and causing me a bit of angst as I had another meeting after lunch. But I had almost completely forgotten our order because we were so engrossed in our conversations. We walked out of there feeling all is well, setting a warm tone for the rest of that cold day.
Human connection and interaction over food, tea, and talk in the same language always conjure up feelings of family.
It doesn’t matter that you are encountering a place or a person for the first time, it matters how you feel once you settle down in that place with that person.
Dim sum, dim sum lovers, and dim sum makers always make me feel homesick, and right at home.