This is an excerpt from my novel Outrunning Crazy:
Inspired by the one and only Chinese restaurant in my town. The novel Outrunning Crazy is set in 1968 and reflects the thoughts of people in this story at that time.
Everybody needs a soft spot to fall. Chan was mine. After I ran away from home, I moved in permanently with Lillian and Elaine and I got hired to work at The China Doll after school and weekends. I loved being a waitress as though it was my calling. I’d take the pencil from behind my ear and write down people’s orders, then go in the back and order in a New York accent. Chan said I sounded like my name should be Verna. He also said I was the best waitress he’d ever had. In the past he had a couple of gals, but as soon as he got them trained, they went out and got themselves pregnant, so he’d be back to square one. “Not much good to me, when they have baby in belly. You have no kids. Never put no kids in belly, okay?” With all the brats at home, I felt like I had already raised a family of my own. But still he repeated it to make sure it got through my head, “No babies. You understand me Tamara?”
He called me Tamara because he respected people’s need to start a new life. He was patient with me too as I learned the menu. I don’t think it was only because he was a Christian either. He just seemed to be nice for no good reason.
The first few weeks working there, I taste-tested everything on the menu as long as he made me a side of egg rolls. Chan marveled at how I could eat them with every dish.
“No Chinese eat egg roll,” Chan told me. “In fact as child, we eat only things steamed. You Canadians love eating fried things. Very bad for you.”
“Why do you cook it for us if you hate it so much?” I asked.
“Because in Rome do as Rome does. In Tel Aviv, do as Tel Aviv does. Hong Kong do as Hong Kong does. You get it?” he asked. Yes I got it. He’d brag to me how hard it was getting Canadians to eat his food at first. “I do everything to keep up business. I fried food and make my own fortune cookies. I could have bought them from distributor, but I am good cook. I tell you what I know. I know Canadians will eat anything, including their fortunes.”
It surprised me the number of customers who really believed what the fortune cookies said, as if Chinese people had some connection to the mystical.
Chan used all the mystery to his advantage. His marketing slogan was ‘In our restaurant we give you the future to eat.’
But in fact the past was always there, haunting him. On the sidewall at the front of the restaurant there was a huge mural hanging above the counter. It was at least 15 feet long and 4 feet high, made of gold plate. It had twenty Chinese people etched on it. Some of the people blew on bugles; some were pulling a cart full of gold coins and jewelry. They looked like happy children on their way to a birthday party, but Chan said they weren’t kids at all, just short Chinese men on their way to Canada with big dreams. They looked happy because they were coming to a new land, venturing to start a life of prosperity.
Chan said, “These people in picture going to Montreal and Toronto to form a place called China Town, a place where they could fit in. But isn’t that crazy to go all that way to live exactly like they did in China?”
When I asked him which person he was in the mural he took his Bible and touched the silver milkshake shaker fastened to the wall above the counter.
“I’m way out here, out of the picture. Dolly and I lone wolves,” he said, “In Hawley we have nothing. We have no person that we know as home around us. We are big dork.”
“You are not big dork, Chan,” I said.
“Sure we are but we don’t mind. We are big dork that make lots of money. Good business move. No competition here. When you want Chinese food, where you go? You don’t say, ‘Oh which Chinese place I pick tonight’ like they do in Toronto. No you go to the only game in town, The China Doll.”
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