We climbed and we climbed

If you have never experienced dim sum in New York City, you want to go to Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street. You should definitely try to get there as early as possible as the crowds on Saturdays are quite something, but even the long crazy waiting is part of the experience. You walk in and you tell them how many are in your party and they hand you a piece of paper with a number. If there’s room, you can wait inside the lobby, which is basically a man standing at one of those hostess tables with a microphone and two enormous escalators going straight up to the cavernous dining room that has (apparently) 120 tables and seems to seat 100,000 (though I believe the actual number is like 700).

But when you’re down in the tiny lobby there, it’s just the escalators you see, with people traveling up and down them constantly. There are some rules about getting a table that are completely beyond me because for every time the man with the microphone calls out a number (in both English and Chinese) and a group of people cheers and heads upstairs, there is a person that simply walks in from the outside and goes right up the escalator without so much as a glance at the man with the microphone. I wonder about these people all the time. Do they have a special in? Are they part of some impossibly large party upstairs that is growing and growing as we wait? Are some of them part of the enormous staff? It’s hard to tell.

One time an older Chinese woman headed straight up the escalator without checking in with the man with the microphone and the man with the microphone became uncharacteristically outraged and shouted up at her through his microphone. It was pretty exciting. I have no idea what he said, but the woman remained unmoved and did not even glance backward for an instant. I imagine that more shouting awaited her upstairs as the downstairs and upstairs are in constant communication via what looks like a walkie-talkie system, but I suspect could be slightly more modern.

Last weekend, I was there with my father and stepmother and my two girls. We were starving. When they finally called our number (52!) we shouted, Hooray! which is a tradition that you should follow should you find yourself there some Saturday at noontime.

We were shown to a round table that held eight, but they seemed to think it was fine to seat the five of us there. Moments later, a couple was shown to our table as well, but then directed elsewhere. And then, the minute someone came by with a cart of deliciousness, we got started.

I have memories of going for dim sum in Chinatown as a little girl, but never to a place as huge as Jing Fong (which has apparently only been around for 30 years). What I remember vividly is the walk through the crowded streets with its smell of raw fish and its piles and piles of vegetables in carts along the sidewalks, and it seemed to me as thrilling and exotic as any place I’d ever been, even though it was only about 2 ½ miles south from where we had actually come. As for the dim sum, what I remember most are those lovely little egg custard tarts that delighted me so much as a child, but which I am always too shy to ask for as an adult.

Maybe around 10 or 15 minutes into our eating frenzy, an older Chinese couple was seated at our table. Actually I thought they were a couple at first, but the more I studied them I began to think she was his daughter, as she seemed to be in her 50s and he was likely in his 70s at least. Which isn’t to say that they couldn’t be a couple, but something I can’t really explain made me think they weren’t. The most striking thing about them was that they did not eat anything at all. I’ll admit I was curious to see what they would be getting as I assumed they would know the best stuff there, even things that we didn’t know about. But they didn’t eat a thing. The daughter poured tea for both of them, which they drank a bit, and she would always top it off when necessary. But for the entire time we were there, their plates remained empty. All they did was talk. And it was pretty much nonstop. The woman was extremely animated and had lots of points to make. The father had an expression of general amusement on his face, but he really kept up his end of the conversation quite well. People came by with carts at first, but neither father nor daughter paid any attention and eventually people stopped coming by.

My older daughter confessed to me that she was wondering what they would be getting too. Then she wondered if they were simply drinking tea first before eating. Perhaps that’s what you were supposed to do in China, or at least in Chinese restaurants. Again, we didn’t know.

But I’ll admit that they fascinated me, that I could not take my eyes off them. Meanwhile, they seemed entirely oblivious to our presence. Their seats faced ours, of course, the way they do at a round table, but they really did not seem to notice us, so engaged were they in their conversation. I wondered why, if they had been so eager to talk to each other, they had come to an enormous crowded restaurant, which on this freakishly warm day was really quite hot, to do so. Somehow, in the midst of this chaos, with hundreds of people chattering and eating, they excitedly talked to each other and drank tea. No one else mattered in the world.

When we got up to leave, their plates were still empty, their cups of tea half-full. There was still, clearly, so much to say. It was tempting, of course, to sit there with them, just to see what would happen next. But we left. We rode down the long long escalator and emerged back into the warmish streets of Chinatown.

I would like to think that father and daughter continued to talk all day, way into the night even, even as all the servers packed up and got ready to leave. Perhaps as the lights were being turned off, father and daughter would look at each other in astonishment and laugh. They had completely forgotten to eat! And then, arm and arm, they would head down the long long escalator together and back into the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s