It’s 2015! Welcome to the year of the RAM/GOAT/SHEEP/WHATEVER! Chinese New Year was officially February 19th but here in Boston we celebrated last Sunday, March 1st. Chinatown is by far my most visited Boston neighborhood for many reasons with one of them being the annual Chinese New Year celebration. I’m usually there for my love of the food, the drink, and the proximity to another Boston favorite, Jacob Wirth (yes, the German restaurant), but for this I come for the entertainment. It’s just so. very. Chinese. The only thing more abundant than the massive piles of snow is the energy in the air. It’s thrilling to see how pumped everyone is and how important these traditions are in the community. I love seeing the old timers taking peace-sign-selfies in front of the crowds and the exhausted lion dancers sweating and tagging up for a much needed break. Plus, people throw vegetables so that’s cool.
I am not Chinese and have only been thought of as such once or twice. That being said, this is not an official guide if you are looking for authenticity but rather my interpretation as seen through the eyes of someone lost in Boston’s Chinatown trying not to get hit with flying fruit.
WHAT IS DIM SUM?
Dim sum is tiny pieces of mysterious yet edible things. Dim sum is Chinese brunch. It is social pressure and insecurity because the server yells Chinese things at you that you don’t understand and you have to decide quickly if you want to eat what it is she is offering you. You ask, “Is it yellow?” and she says, “OK.” and drops the bamboo steamer in front of you and walks away. Dim sum is experimentation, a challenge. It is sharing. It is caring.
Dim sum is making your way past the tanks of lobsters and crabs and taking your seat in a large room with many tables. Servers push steaming metal carts around the room to each table and offer different items. Sometimes you know what these items are but most of the time you don’t. Trial and error reign supreme in the dim sum world and you must maintain an open mind if you are experiencing this for the first time. Think… weekend in Vegas. Trust me though, it’s all delicious. Try everything! Even if it has toenails! Dim sum is meant to be shared but the portions are small; think of it as Chinese tapas. My dim sum of choice in Boston: Hei La Moon.
I was first introduced to dim sum by a friend I made during my time in Taiwan and it took place in the giant ballroom of a fancy hotel. I should also mention that this was an all-you-can-eat dim sum situation which I have not seen the likes of here in the States. My friend told me the routine is to show up, eat until you are full, shoot the shit until you’re hungry again, and then eat more. For all three of the required daily meals! He kept telling me, “It’s all you can eat!” … finally when I hit a point of ‘stop eating or die in a hotel’s ballroom’ he was very confused. “But it’s all you can eat! Why do you stop?!” Full disclosure: involving me in any kind of all-you-can-eat situation is simply a waste of money. Luckily I’m married to someone who balances that out.
There are countless tasty options available for your ordering pleasure at dim sum but there are also the usual suspects. This Beginner’s Field Guide to Dim Sum is quite helpful if you’re interested and I won’t judge you if you print it out and sneak it in your purse. There isn’t much that I don’t like but my favorite items are:
- Har Gau, title picture: transparent shrimp dumpling
- Chicken Feet: I know! Who woulda thunk it? These are also known as Phoenix Claws which make me sound like a real badass for eating these and also kind of like a Slytherin. They are really very good – if you can get over the mental hurdle that is. It took me five years to like them after first “trying” them. And by “trying” I mean holding by the toenail and shuddering in horror.
- Har Cheong Fun: Shrimp rice noodle rolls with some yummy brown sauce – say yes to the sauce!
- Lau Sah Bao: I call these “sweet buns” but they don’t mind. On the outside they look like puffy white dough balls but inside they are, you guessed it, yellow! And whatever is inside is sweet and delicious so I save these for last.
- Tea! Drink the tea. And then afterward annoy your husband by making him read his tea leaves so you can give him his fortune. This time my leaves foretold “summer delights” and love & romance. He got “happy home life” so shout out to me! The practice of reading tea leaves is known as tasseography and has no history whatsoever in Chinese culture but I’m a super nerd who loves to do dumb shit like that.
Witnessing your first Chinese New Year celebration will be sensory overload and you probably won’t know what the hell is happening. That was me last year. I saw a bunch of fancy stuffed animals running around and I got on down with my bad self to the wicked beats following them around. You will see people tossing lettuce around and get the bejesus scared out of you more than once by someone throwing firecrackers right next to you. But I realize now that this is actually a practiced and highly organized performance. These large, human-powered stuffed animals are actually lions.* In Chinese culture the lion symbolizes courage and superiority and are used to scare off evil spirits who coincidentally are scared of loud noises (hence the abundance of firecrackers). The lion dance is usually performed by martial artists with cat-like prowess and alongside drums, cymbals and gongs. Each of the lions’ moves are singularly significant while my adaptation is just some straight up Taylor Swift shit.
During the Chinese New Year celebration, lion dance troupes perform at the entrances of (and often inside) businesses in the Chinese community. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and a prosperous year to the businesses. Part of the dance is the performance of “cai qing” (採青), which is literally translated to “plucking the greens”. Local businesses set out offerings of “food” for the lions which consists mostly of a head of lettuce along with a red envelope of money and some oranges. The lettuce and oranges are then “eaten” by the lions and spit out to signify that it is pleased and to show that everything will be in abundance in the coming year. The red envelope is kept; these lions aren’t stupid.
I should also explain the scariest of all photobombs – the laughing Buddha. This little dude follows the lions around and teases them with his fan. Sounds like a solid idea, right? The idea of the Buddha originates from the monks who were thought to be the first to train the lion dancers. He is the lion tamer and the crowd pleaser and possibly the little-child-in-front-of-you’s worst nightmare come to life.
*Honestly, I still call them dragons half the time. I know, I know! They aren’t dragons. One way to remember this is lions are controlled by two people while dragons are controlled by many.
Bubble tea is a tea-based drink that is often mixed with yogurt or milk and contains chewy balls of tapioca. I first fell for bubble tea while in Taiwan, its land of origin, despite not having a vague idea what it was (“What’s up with this huge straw? Ooh, I see… that’s interesting…”), but that’s mostly how it goes in Taiwan. Everything is delicious – don’t ask questions.
Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, some say in Tainan, some say in Taichung, I say Heaven which is a little north of both of those.
I’ve had bubble tea many, many times back home in the United States but none have been as good as the stuff I had in Taiwan. However, Kung Fu Tea does come pretty damn close. They are the only vendor outside of Taiwan that I have found to carry my favorite flavor: White Gourd Tea. Again, I don’t know what that is but it’s amazing so shut up about it.
There is a small patio area just inside the main entrance to Boston’s Chinatown with about five tables, large groups of captivated onlookers, and the collective intensity of a game of Mario Kart between friends. Sadly, you won’t find a Nintendo but you will find various card games and a mahjong match to the death. I can only assume it’s that serious as I’ve never played. Finish him!
Mahjong is a game of skill and strategy that is said to have been developed in 500 BC by Confucius himself, but unlike Mortal Kombat doesn’t require any physical strength beyond what is required to lift a game piece weighing about five grams. It consists of 144 tiles decorated in Chinese characters and symbols. I’ve seen this being played in Chinatown and on the streets of Taiwan but I only know how to play the computerized version known instead as Taipei from the Microsoft Entertainment Pack that included SkiFree, Mindsweeper, and does anyone really know how to play FreeCell? But if you’d like to learn how to play, watch this easy to understand video and then prepare to be destroyed in a dark alley somewhere deep in the Earthrealm:
I just have to laugh at the stark constrast between the last sentence I wrote and the entirety of Step 5.
Some people have strong beliefs that seem to transcend sub-zero temperatures. While I believe in a thick scarf and earmuffs, these six trust in Falun Dafa. Falundafa.org defines this as “an advanced self-cultivation practice of the Buddha School. Falun Dafa was founded by Mr. Li Hongzhi, the practice’s master. It is a discipline in which “assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe – Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance) – is the foundation of practice. Practice is guided by these supreme qualities, and based on the very laws which underlie the development of the cosmos.”
WOW, that is heavy. Chinatown practitioners simply refer to it as “good” as seen in the above photo. This is more on my level. I’ve seen this group out here (well, a group at least) during every visit to Chinatown. This practice combines meditation and special exercises in an effort to ascend spiritually. OK, that makes sense, I’m still with you… But I’ve done a lot of reading on this to try and figure out exactly what makes Falun Dafa different than, let’s say, yoga, and I’m still very confused.
It’s kind of like a religion but not. It’s a peaceful, personal activity and yet when practiced in Communist China it is thought of as a heretical organization that threatens social stability. Huh? Followers are not allowed to kill any living thing but are not restricted to a vegetarian diet. Do they know what “meat” is? Practitioners have a certain set of rules to follow including abstaining from smoking and alcohol consumption because these substances damage mental clarity. Finally something that makes sense! They must also hold jobs and maintain regular family lives yet are prohibited from the pursuit of monetary gain and sentimentality. OK, you lost me again…
Anybody want to help me out on this one?
In the meantime I’ll just continue to dance to the beat of
my own someone else’s drum.
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