The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires. 

 

On Almost Not Making It

We almost did not make our flight to New York. The traffic jams on the motorways of London are notorious. If you are stuck on the M1, because there always seems at least one accident in the works, know this that you shall surely miss your flight. As my parents experienced much to their horror when they were returning to Calcutta from a holiday in the Blighty.

Now the thing is when you are not in someone’s shoes, even if it be your parents’, it is difficult to absorb the enormity of a situation. The proverbial sitting ducks, they went ballistic, the hours flying away dizzily enough – as it always does the day you are about to catch a flight. They were still sitting on the M1. Could it be? A bad bad dream but yes there they were, caught in a cab with somewhere to go, yet with no choice but to sit tight on the motorway, miss their flight and hyperventilate alongside. This even as they had left hours before they were supposed to from Northampton.

The day before we were to catch the flight, my mother said with a nervous laugh, “M (pet name alert), get out well ahead. You know what happened to us.” I did the usual thing that daughters do, roll their eyes, and note impatiently: “But obviously, ma. What happened to you was a freak incident. It does not take place all the time.”

Now indulging in a cliche, because cliches work my dear friend, do not go around counting those chickens. They may hatch but is there a guarantee in life? Non.

Two factors worked simultaneously in our favour as we set out for the airport. The most important was the fact that we had decided to part ways with British Airways this once and opted for Norwegian Airlines. It is a low-cost long-haul option that offers a world of comfort. Do ink it in for your next search for cheap travel tickets. You shall see by and by, why.

The second crucial factor was that the system of British Airways had developed a major snag that morning and it had crashed. The upshot of it is that many were caught aboard BA planes with no idea of what was happening, others could not fly out of Heathrow for their bank holiday trips to Europe, some were trapped in Europe with no way to fly back home to the UK. And our flight was delayed by 45 minutes. It was thus that we made it to Gatwick with 15 minutes left before boarding began. I am sure BA is not about to forget it in a hurry. They have to after all pay up 500-odd euros of compensation per couple. Do remember that little fact if you were caught up in a situation the last weekend thanks to BA.

There is a silver lining in most every situation, you see. You have just got to remind yourself of it in life. We managed to sidetrack the M1 accidents, felt grandly astute, but how could the M25 be left bereft without its share of accidents? So we sat in the car for aeons. Our bums froze and Adi engaged his maws to showcase magnificent yawns, worthy of a sleepy lion, behind the wheel. When an opportunity arose for a divergence, like eager beavers we jumped at it.

This meant that we were on the A roads soon puttering through beautiful villages at 20 miles per hour in West Sussex country. Doing what we do best. Smiling in indulgence at the chocolate-box cottages and acres of green where cricketers in white huddled together for to-do about serious matters such as how to lob the ball and catch the batsman unawares (I kid, okay? A serious cricket fan would lob the very ball at my nose for even suggesting that lobbing or underarm bowling still takes place, goodness gracious me). Charming parish churches of middling height stood quietly besides timber-framed cottages and jolly little pubs showed up to tickle us for a last pint within those wondrous dark rooms of joy, but no we resisted.

The larger picture had to be kept in mind there.

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Part of the larger picture. Food served with clouds on the side. If you fly Norwegian Airlines, premium economy, as we did, you shall be pampered.
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Grilled chicken with risotto, sugar snaps and sundried tomatoes on the side. Don’t sniff your nose at the sugar snaps, you ungrateful wrtech. Yes they look a little worse for the wear, but then you are as hungry as a bear.
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The motto in life
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Salmon salad. If that was Norwegian farmed salmon, apparently I had greedily gobbled up tons of chemicals on the side along with potato salad and itsy-bitsy greens. 
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Not to be looked at with a gimlet eye
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New York beneath a dream sequence of clouds
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JFK Airport
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This morning when Adi left for his first day at work post Memorial Day. My perch alongside.

It was how we did not miss the flight after all, made a dash for the gates to board, and then sunk with relief into the arms of comfort (wine, delicious food and movies) to be swept into New York’s abysmally drab John F. Kennedy airport of pesky hustlers and expensive yellow cabs. To my amusement, we were rewarded with a disgusted ‘chhi’ apropos a female Chinese hustler who lost a possible pair of cows to a yellow cab in which the able African-American driver informed us sagely, “You should be allowed to make the choice.”

A ride through the glitziness of Manhattan and he was emptying out massive four suitcases and two strolleys at the end of the journey. A wink was accompanied with some advise, “Now don’t you go unpacking tonight, just order yourself a bottle of red wine and relax.” Who am I to ignore the wise? Both of us just fell into bed and had a long 10 hours of sleep before we woke up to our cosy little service apartment with a view of my neighbours in Jersey City – who can, through the bay windows, surely espy a bespectacled girl scooched over the table on her bar stool as she clacks away and sips on tea.

Welcome to the joys of city living.

Northampton to New York!

This is a shot from a certain October sunset from 2012 when we had gone on a glamping trip to Cornwall. Who would have known that the signs were there somewhere.

Adi has a bit of the blues but I am bloody excited. I am ready to meet the world in New York.

See you from the other end of the pond, my lovely readers.

Big Move & Blog Awards

Anxiety is a deadly thing. It makes little coils in your stomach. So the days went by and I wondered everyday about where we would find ourselves at the end of this month. A week ago we were enlightened. New York it would be. We might choose to live in New Jersey but that is yet to be figured out. I know, you true-blue people who live in the city get all worked up when someone (erroneously) deems New Jersey to be a part of New York. I am not taking a chance of being clubbed by a New Yorker lurking around the corner of one of those glitzy avenues.

Yesterday after a long long chat with the woman co-ordinating our move about flooded gardens, motherhood, full-time work, the joys of putting up the feet with pizza and no laundry when the husband is away, I had to make another important call. The council office for a parking waiver because there is that small matter of the mover’s vehicle which has got to be parked on the double yellow lines outside our building. Now my darling, you never do that, e’en by mistake – park on double yellow lines that is.

You get a billet-doux of 70 quid, from a patrolling officer who will sniff his way to your car just like I find my way to cheese and popcorn. The councilman was a jolly fellow. I promise you that I had not expected a laugh with a councilman on all counts. But do not underestimate the chattiness of an Englishman. He asked me promptly where I was abandoning this fine borough for. “New York! You are leaving this little borough for NEW YORK and you expect sympathy, eh?” Chortles. “Just drop me a donut in return for the parking waiver”. The dilemma remains: To do or not to do. I mean I have bought hapless men drinks in bars (because they sweetly informed me that it was their birthday) without meaning to hit on them (which earned them the wrath of their girlfriends and me a scowl) but a donut presents a different degree of sweetness.

Now to the important business of answering questions. Some time has passed since I have been tagged by four lovely ladies, Cheila, Grace, Jamie and thebeyoutifulgal (do take a look at their blogs if you have not already), but I take things slow usually, so here we go with the awards. Except for Cheila’s Liebster Award and thebeyoutifulgal’s Awesome Blogger Award nominations, I had already participated in One Lovely Blog Award and Sunshine Blogger Award before, but Jamie had taken time to put out some questions of her own so I wanted to answer them along with Cheila’s and beyoutifulgal’s.

Off we go:

Cheila’s questions:

  1. What show are you binge watching right now?

Designated Survivor, Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars and Grand Hotel

      2. What are you reading?

Another Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson, How it Happened by Shazaf Fatima Haider and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (because how can you even be in just one world when there are so many waiting out there).

      3. What do you usually go for if you’re cooking just for yourself?

Chilli garlic noodles

     4. What’s your favourite eye and hair colour?

Hazel and black

     5. What sports did you practice in high school?

Badminton has been a constant love. Baseball was fun too. Cricket did not leave its mark on me (I am shamelessly breaking stereotypes here – putting an Indian and cricket together is like arranging a sure-shot love match). I had a deuce ball fly into my face when I was about 10 and after it smacked me on the cheeks with the kind of hardness you can expect from a ball made of cork and encased in leather, it was a no-show for me at any cricket game.

    6. How many hours a day do you spend on the internet?

I do not even count.

    7. Do you choose your outfit in the day before or in the morning?

That very morning the bed will end up looking like a battleground, make no mistake about it.

    8. Can you play any instrument?

Harmonium. Have you even heard of it? I am terrible with phonetic alphabets, okay? So where you would normally use ‘Delta’ to indicate D, I would think of ‘Donkey’ or ‘Dumb’, both words you should not be using with a stranger, and where you would use ‘Hotel’ for H, I would probably pop up a poor, unloved ‘Harmonium’. I did it once at a store here and the girl in front of me had the blankest look possible. That is the day that I realised that the harmonium needs to be left alone in its corner. It does not care about recognition, it will have you know.

     9. Do you prefer hot weather or cold weather?

Cold though I do love spring. You have to understand here that I hail from India where temperatures on a hot summer day scale up to 50°C. But what I would take wholeheartedly is a British summer’s day with Pimms.

     10. What is your favourite fruit?

Blueberries and mangoes

     11. Can you swim? How old were you when you learned?

One of the many chinks in my armour. I learnt swimming at the age of 14 and I sucked at it because I could never raise my head to take a breath, but I Did learn it. Over the years, this necessary life skill has decided to abandon me. I have the wonderful Kristyn who has promised to teach me the art of one-legged swimming and I am waiting to become her protege and prodigy (in reverse).

Beyoutifulgal’s questions:

1.What impact do you want to have on the world?

I am not sure I want to have any impact really.

2. What is a skill you’d like to learn? Why?

The art of saying no without feeling like an ant.

3. What are you most grateful for?

For life itself. Most importantly, my husband, my family and this extended blogging family (you guys make me happy everyday).

4. If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be?

Let judgement take a back seat.

5. Which activities make you lose track of time?

Blogging, reading, talking and running.

   6. What is the difference between being alive and truly living?

Scoffing a scone.

Jamie’s questions:

  1. What is one unpopular opinion you have?

Hand over All the books in the world (Psst: I foresee stoning by hoards of book lovers in the horizon) and no one shall get hurt.

      2. If people start moving to Mars, are you going?

No way. This planet has too much happening for me to leave it for all the luxuries on Mars.

     3. What’s your favourite sandwich?

Ham and cheese

     4. If you could live in a movie, which would you choose?

Sabrina

     5. What’s your go-to snack?

Salted Caramel/Peach Melba yogurt with blueberries, pecans and pumpkin seeds.

     6. If you could turn into an animal, which animal would you be?

Polar bear. My husband loves polar bears.

     7. Coffee or tea?

Both! I could not decide which but tea relaxes me and coffee wakes me up.

     8. What’s your favourite go-to outfit?

A flirty dress

      9. Do you have any guilty pleasures? Share one!

Tsundoku. It is a Japanese word for someone who is a book hoarder and keeps buying them. The only exception to the definition would be that that I do read the books I buy, but after an extended period of time, because there is always a tall pile waiting on the bedside table.

10. Who’s your favourite TV show character?

There are so many but I will go with Sherlock Holmes.

11. If you got abducted by aliens, what would you ask them first?

You got popcorn?