Wor Wonton Soup
The weather was crashing and banging over my head, I was soaking wet and cold, and I had just missed a bus that was a rare creature at night.
OK, I thought. The gods have spoken. Instead of waiting in the rain for the next bus, or walking home in it, I’d pop into Tung Sing’s for a bowl of wor wonton soup, good and hot. Then, with a full stomach I’d see if my luck improved.
The owner, Cindy, greeted me warmly as always. We went back a long way, back to the days when the neighborhood at least had memories of being working-class.
And I went back a long way with somebody else in the restaurant. Cindy told me my old friend Eric was working in the kitchen for a couple of weeks. I knew him as a waiter at Hong Sing’s in Glen Park, now sold. I had bantered and joked with him for more than twenty years. I had watched many people do that with Eric, a guy with a very sharp, very droll sense of humor. And I respected him plenty for being so in an adopted language. Think you speak Spanish? French? Anything not English? Try duelling wits with a foreign speaker and you’ll find out just how good you are.
He came out and sat at my table. We shook hands and he said, “Oh, you not order combination chow fun?” I laughed and at the same time marvelled. I hadn’t been in Hong Sing’s for a year. Hadn’t therefore seen Eric. He had served, what, five or ten thousand customers in God knows how many years as a Chinese restaurant waiter? Yet he remembered the dish I had ordered in the old days with relentless consistency. I felt flattered! No. Actually blessed. Isn’t it a great blessing to at least be remembered?
Something more to marvel at: Eric was still slender and youthful, though a family man, a father of two grown daughters. What wrinkles appeared on his face came across more as laugh-lines than the usual scrapes and fissures of middle-age.
He had been cutting vegetables all day, he told me. And would be for two more weeks because his brother, the usual vegetable man, among other things, actually Cindy’s husband, had gone to China.
Why had his brother gone there, I wondered. On business?
No, Eric said. “Chinese people go to the mountains in April.”
“That is where the cemeteries are. They go to visit their dead…family people.”
“Their ancestors?” I suggested. But Eric wasn’t familiar with that word. I was surprised, then explained it. His eyes radiated laugh-lines and he said, “See? I learn something tonight.”
Meanwhile Cindy placed a steaming bowl of soup on our table. I dug in. It was ambrosia.
“After the visit,” Eric said, “everybody have big party. Eat. Drink.”
“How come you’re not in China visiting your ancestors?”
More radiating lines. “Family here all give money, send one person – eleven hundred dollar round-trip, Singapore Airline. You ever see Chinese people in Colma, on the hill at the Chinese cemetery?”
Yes, and I had been surprised at how many people were there all at once.
“This time of year, right? April, right?”
I told him maybe. I wasn’t sure.
“They are people who send somebody else in family to China. So they visit a couple people buried here. But maybe next year I go. Now I get back to work, cut more vegetables.”
We shook hands. I paid up and walked back into the rain. But the hot soup in my stomach kept me warm. In a minute my bus came.