Last Sunday it seemed like a good idea to visit San Jose’s new Chinatown. It has been opened for a while now, and the mammoth painted gates are in place. Besides, it was the Chinese New Year, the year of the snake. I have friends in Costa Rica who are all too familiar with snakes. I fear and respect them, and if myth and literature are right, the snake has far more qualities than humans are aware of. The snake has figured in the myths and rituals of religion for millennium, and its role has varied considerably. The poet Shelley compared the earth to a snake, in its ability to renew itself. So maybe this is the year of renewal, for us and our beleaguered planet.
Not thinking any of this, my friend Alexis and I found a parking place on 11th street. We had been too late to get reservations for the restaurant Tin Jo’s annual New Year’s feast, Chinese dragons and, of course, firecrackers. I don’t like firecrackers. I don’t like pretending that I am in a war-torn city with bombs bursting in air, even if those bombs end up in many colored stars.
We walked along the street that was still so familiar to me remembering when it was the Paseo de los Estudiantes. I did most of my business and shopping in the city on this street. It had everything; a post office, a bank, a supermarket and restaurants, some Chinese. Even then there was a Chinese department store. I smile as I call it a department store. Now, I noticed, there are a number of them, one quite large, with the employees still unpacking items. I led Alexis into a smaller one, two small stores connected by a passageway.
I get uncomfortable in warehouse-size stores with towering shelves, but I am very happy in a crowded, mini department store that has everything Chinese (and nothing too big) you can imagine from incense to fans to woks to frozen seafood and fresh vegetables and every imaginable type of teapot. Oh, yes, and slippers and oils to burn, and spicy sesame oil to cook with . . . everything in a space about 12 feet by 24 feet on shelves no higher than I can reach. I am in my element with a perpetual baffled smile on my face as I wonder at the items the Chinese find useful and/or tasty and I am finding so inviting.
A plump Caucasian lady, was wonderfully helpful in explaining to us the use of everything we picked up and peered at questioningly. At first I thought she was a fellow shopper, but soon realized she was either a well-informed clerk or the owner. She didn’t hover, like clerks often do here, she was just there when we needed her, full of smiles and understandable Spanish.
I was amused by some incense sticks labeled cannabis, so I bought a pack for 500 colons. Another packet of incense had a scent guaranteed to bring money and prosperity (I’m not sure it was guaranteed, but the blurb sounded hopeful), and we decided those would be just right for James.
Alexis bought some bok choy, and we left with our purchases to continue our stroll down the street. There was just a spattering of other pedestrians and finally Alexis asked someone when the dragon was going to appear and we learned that the New Year’s festivities were taking place Tuesday.
On Tuesday the 52 Chinese chefs who prepared the record breaking recipe of fried rice out-numbered the pedestrians on Sunday. They served 7,000 people. Alexis and I were happy to have missed the crowds. And after reading the ingredients in the recipe, which Kayla Pearson listed in her Wednesday’s article, I have a greater respect for fried rice, and think I will try some the next time I am in a Chinese restaurant. I haven’t eaten fried rice since I was newly married and following a recipe given to me by a brave woman who was the survivor of a prisoner of war camp in Singapore, as I recall, so many years ago.
The ingredients were fewer and the dish was much simpler and blander. As was life back then.