Live Through This

Eat, Memory

Warning: This post will make you very hungry.

***

The summer after my junior year of university, I subletted a beautiful two-bedroom apartment with my friend Vauhini in San Francisco. I was 20 and interning that summer for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit that works for the rights of homeless people. I had spent the prior winter working at a homeless shelter in Menlo Park and taking a class on poverty and homelessness in America. The initial exuberance of going away to college had worn off. Some of my peers talked about race and ethnicity and poverty like they were abstract concepts, and I guess for many of them they were. Others came back from their life-altering semester or year abroad in African or Southeast Asian or Latin American countries and talked endlessly about what they had seen and how they had been changed. I wanted everyone to come with me to this homeless shelter I spent my afternoons in and see that one didn’t need to travel thousands of miles to experience the devastating truth of the world.

I, too, came back from my summer in San Francisco changed. I could tell you about the people I met that summer, my own story of when I truly that there was so much wrong with this world and that the lucky ones, myself included, could go through life without ever really being troubled by it, but that story would take over the one I’m trying to tell, which is the story of how I spent my whole summer hanging out in the Tenderloin, the one neighborhood in San Francisco that is often coded as “gritty” or “rough,” the neighborhood that guidebooks always advise travelers against visiting, the neighborhood that is home to sex workers, teenage runaways, Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, homeless folks, people with all sorts of untreated mental health issues, seniors living in SROs, drug dealers, and in general, the kind of people that I shamefully realized I had been afraid of until I spent a summer hanging around them and talking and getting to know them at all hours of the night and day.

I would get to work at nine in the morning and not leave sometimes until two or three or four the next morning. I would go to Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin Street and order four or five banh mi—one for me, and a few for whoever else was in the office and hadn’t already eaten the free lunch that Glide Church delivered every afternoon. I would trek out to Tu Lan restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant on 6th street that was reportedly Julia Child’s favorite place to dine in San Francisco, to order imperial rolls on vermicelli. I would make it my mission to eat at as many Vietnamese restaurants and diners in the neighborhood as I could get to. I went to the ones without names, the ones with only Vietnamese names, the ones that looked awful from the outside and the ones who were even worse looking inside. There was one Vietnamese restaurant on Larkin that I would go to all the time after work for pho and summer rolls, and the couple who ran the restaurant would sometimes give me free Vietnamese iced coffee and sit down and chat with me.

A year later, after graduating from college, I moved into a sun-drenched apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco, where I did the same thing with Central and South American restaurants. On the weekends, I would go back to the Tenderloin and eat at some of my favorite restaurants from when I used to work there. To my surprise, most of the owners remembered me. “You’re that girl,” one of them said when I sat down and ordered a coffee. “You’re too beautiful and nice for this place.” But in my mind, it was the very opposite.

Now that I’m 28, now that most of my friends have real, salaried jobs, now that I have semi-mastered certain “adult” things like somehow managing to pay rent at the end of each month, and somehow remembering to feed myself AND sleep AND socialize with friends AND (sometimes) get my shit done, I don’t have a lot of occasion to hang out with homeless runaways in city parks. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet people outside of my socio-economic background. Almost everyone I know is a college graduate or heading for college. Almost everyone I know is comfortably middle-class or upper-middle-class. It can be so easy to be complacent, to not question our own insulated bubbles.

Me with some bubble tea at the Flushing Mall.

I think of my favorite restaurants of all time—shitty-looking hole-in-the-wall restaurants that sometimes didn’t even have a menu, that are often in neighborhoods that are considered “bad” or “dangerous,” which is just code for HEY BLACK AND BROWN AND POOR PEOPLE LIVE THERE—and I think of how those places saved me from being so smugly self-involved in my own privileged world as a college student who thought mostly about myself and very little about others. I think of how those restaurants were the sites of my happiest memories with my family. I think of how last year, when I lived in France, I would shop at this one Vietnamese grocery store on the outskirts of town, and the owner once hugged me when I went in there searching for kefir limes and galangal, and how I confided in her that I was broke and lonely, and she confided in me that she was unhappy in France and wished she had the money to take a vacation to visit her brother in Vietnam. I think of how much smaller my world would have been had I never dared to step foot into these neighborhoods and restaurants.

Not everyone can afford to spend a year abroad having “life-changing” experiences. Some of us have to or need or want to stay right where we are. Our culture valorizes the story of the plucky traveler who fearlessly travels to foreign lands only to come back transformed, but let’s talk about the land we already live on. Let’s start talking about the underappreciated parts of our cities and towns, the streets or neighborhoods that adults warn you against, the places that are maybe are not the exact coordinates of your home turf, but are surely a home to others, and let’s talk about how at the center of every home is food. Let’s talk about how the most exquisite food often is served on the most humble of plates. And let’s consider that maybe the neighborhoods we are supposed to stay away from, the places we are not supposed to see or experience, are, in fact, gateways that can open up our world until it becomes unbearably, beautifully vast. ♦

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62 Comments

  • Pollyana August 10th, 2012 7:29 PM

    I totally get what you’re saying about the food, Being a New Yorker I always find that indian food just isnt the same outside the city. Ugh! The SAMOSAS! *mouth waters*

    But besides that, this was very well written and insightful. Kudos.

    • Sefe August 10th, 2012 7:46 PM

      Yes! I was thinking about Indian food the entire time I read this!

  • Nishat August 10th, 2012 7:33 PM

    I am Vietnamese-Bengali and my mom cooks both types of food. Rice a lot, Bengali curries of all types, and Vietnamese spring rolls, fried rice, desserts and noodles.

    Food is a huge part of both those cultures. I am surely going to miss the food starting next month, too.

    • Jenny August 11th, 2012 12:44 AM

      Are you going away for college?

  • Sefe August 10th, 2012 7:39 PM

    This is probably my favorite article you guys have posted so far. I like the idea that food can be a gateway to such new revelations and experiences. I feel like this embodies that idea quite well. Kudos, or something.

  • isadora August 10th, 2012 7:46 PM

    It’s true. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten is in places a “girl like me” shouldn’t be.

    Amazing article. And the food looks amazing, I’m gonna have to eat a whole horse to ease my hunger now.

  • ninamau5 August 10th, 2012 8:48 PM

    This is YES on so many levels.

    For one, hole-in-the-wall restaurants are my life. My mom thinks I’m crazy because all my favorite restaurants are tiny places in East Los and Little Vietnam, but “high-class” places just make me feel uncomfortable.
    The sheer multitude of these places is what I like about living in Los Angeles (though I’m sure it’s nothing compared to New York.) What I hate about Los Angeles is that wealth to the point of gluttony exists alongside destitute poverty, and almost no one cares. Combine that with the amount of undocumented immigrants struggling to find a place in the promised land that rejects them, and it’s absolutely miserable. People talk about gay rights and ethnic rights, and all of that is EXTREMELY important, but when you consider human rights, the core of that is that everyone has the right to be treated like a human being: with respect and equality. I hate to be all stuck up bible-quoty, but Jesus Christ said that if we all cared for one another, then there would be no poor among us. Even if you’re not Christian (I’m not really either), that still means something

  • Summer August 10th, 2012 8:50 PM

    This is beautiful.

  • azultardis August 10th, 2012 9:05 PM

    I love eating at the street,here in Mexico is pretty common to see food stands on the streets,many hosewives sell quesadillas or tacos in the morning,and enchiladas at night,and I love it!

    • Jenny August 11th, 2012 12:47 AM

      That’s my dream! I love street food even though I get sick easily. I always go back for more because for me it’s the most romantic, beautiful, wonderful thing to eat food from a street cart.

      • azultardis August 11th, 2012 12:01 PM

        I hardly get sick,I’m so used to street food that my stomach can take almost anything,and over here the street tacos are the best tacos

        • MarieJo August 13th, 2012 4:14 AM

          I was going to write this comment in spanish cause it’s amazing to find another mexican rookie!

          I don’t really like tacos, but enchiladas and pozole and everything from a cenaduría, Oh My God, fried goodness

  • Bene August 10th, 2012 9:09 PM

    Jenny, you’re stories are always so beautifully written, and always make me want to stop studying, run out my door and experience the world.

  • Adrienne August 10th, 2012 9:11 PM

    Holy shit Jenny. I’m also Chinese, and god authentic Chinese food is hard to find sometimes. I’m also wary of General Tso’s Chicken and Panda Express… and all of those Americanized Chinese food. You can’t beat a Chinese New Year dinner.

    I live in the SF Bay Area and I swear you just named my favorite places! I LOVE Saigon Sandwiches and Tu Lan!! You’re right, although some locations may be a little sketchy, there could be really good hole-in-the-wall restaurants! If you go back to SF please check out “Bund” in Chinatown, which has amazing Shanghainese food. Or if you’re in the Oakland area, go to Pnomh Penh, which cooks up delicious Cambodian food (my fave is the fish soup).

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

    • Jenny August 11th, 2012 12:39 AM

      OMG I LOOOOOOOOVE PNOMH PENH! In the 2 years that I lived in San Francisco, I was perpetually on the hunt for good Shanghainese food! I will definitely check out Bund the next time I’m in SF.

  • Dylan August 10th, 2012 9:12 PM

    JENNY, JENNY, Saigon Sandwiches right across from the Phoenix holy shit balls! My boss took me there every week this summer for their banh mi after the first time she brought me a sandwich and I TEARED because I was so happy. TEARED, just like what I did reading the last paragraph because it is beautiful and home-hitting. I hope we have the chance to eat pho together someday!

    • Jenny August 11th, 2012 12:40 AM

      WE MUST DEVOUR A BOWL OF PHO TOGETHER AND THEN TOP OFF WITH BANH MI. Your boss is amazing. You are amazing. Vietnamese food is amazing. Crying because food moves you is amazing. I have and will always cry about food! <3 <3

  • valenciagrey August 10th, 2012 9:30 PM

    Oh, the title of this is such a great reference.
    Nabokov ftw

  • Jes August 10th, 2012 9:43 PM

    I love everything you write.

  • Gabby August 10th, 2012 9:43 PM

    this is BEAUTIFUL. now i just want to go eat and explore.

  • maddyr August 10th, 2012 9:45 PM

    There aren’t too many pieces of writing that are both life affirming and so strongly anti-complacent. You’ve inspired me, Jenny. Thanks.

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:42 AM

      Your comment inspires me!

  • Coco Jane August 10th, 2012 10:00 PM

    sad to say Tu Lan recently got shuttered for health violations (WHO CARES THEIR FOOD IS SOOOO GOOD).

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:42 AM

      I know! I read about that :( I’m sad that little joint is closed.

  • Emilie August 10th, 2012 10:22 PM

    oh my god this is so good

  • Emmie August 10th, 2012 11:58 PM

    I love how this article evolved. Masterful!

  • Charlie August 11th, 2012 12:44 AM

    This was a beautiful article – I loved it. The last bit about France reminded me of how, in December/January this year, I spent 6 weeks in Paris staying with family I barely knew in a big house in order to improve my French.
    What I remember most is an intense feeling of loneliness and homesickness that (sadly) took away from the joy of staying so long in a place I had dreamed of constantly.
    However, one of the happiest times I spent in Paris was when I visited a Chinese supermarket with another relative. It reminded me of home (Australia) because these little havens are Australian staples, and once inside I forgot I was far away from home. I was surprised but overjoyed to find that a culture so different from my own had somehow reminded me, in the midst of a place I felt barely connected to, of how much I loved the place I came from.

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:41 AM

      Oh, it is wonderful to be far from home and realize how much you value your home. I’m so glad you got to visit a Chinese supermarket with your relative! xo

  • Mags August 11th, 2012 12:59 AM

    I hate the word “ethnic” too. There’s something weirdly negative about it, like “ewww, foreigner/non-white.” It’s not even a bad word. I feel like it’s just been turned into something bad. Gah.

    • pialuna August 11th, 2012 6:36 AM

      The thing is, it doesn’t REALLY mean anything. Everyone is of a certain ethnicity, no matter what skin color they have.

      • Mags August 11th, 2012 2:31 PM

        Exactly. But I feel like in the US “ethnic” is used to refer to people who are not white. It’s so annoying.

  • softersoftest August 11th, 2012 1:42 AM

    I got goosebumps reading this. I love all of Jenny’s articles.

  • faithdarwin August 11th, 2012 2:06 AM

    “Others came back from their life-altering semester or year abroad in African or Southeast Asian or Latin American countries and talked endlessly about what they had seen and how they had been changed. I wanted everyone to come with me to this homeless shelter I spent my afternoons in and see that one didn’t need to travel thousands of miles to experience the devastating truth of the world.”

    As someone currently attending a small liberal college where everyone studies abroad, can I say just say YES, THIS, SO SO MUCH.

  • Leanna August 11th, 2012 3:12 AM

    Beautiful article, Jenny! It made me hungry and happy to be surrounded by good hole-in-the-wall restaurants that may be a little grungy, but you can tell the people who run them are passionate about the food they make and sharing it with others.

    • Jenny August 14th, 2012 12:18 PM

      Oh, Leanna! You are so lucky to be surrounded by so much good food prepared by people who love to eat and make it. There’s really nothing better than that.

  • Elizabete August 11th, 2012 7:36 AM

    I really like this article as i find food an important part of life that has been involved in most of my happy memories.
    By the way, i always have heard word ethnic when talking about Eastern Europe on Middle East or music :D I am Latvian and we sometimes call our own countries regions “ethnic”.
    I like Chinese and Indian and Japanese food but i haven’t really tried much of authentic ones since here there aren’t more than 300 non Caucasians in city :)

    http://melodyfairitale.wordpress.com/

  • Pearl August 11th, 2012 7:52 AM

    While reading this, all I could think of was the movie Eat. Drink. Man. Woman. it perfectly potrays a Chinese family trying to cope with their own problems with a LOT of Chinese food thrown in for good measure. Also, since I’m Indian(Part Goan, part Mangalorean) I get to eat the best Indian seafood ever. Indian restaurants abroad never live up to my expectations.Thank you for this article, I’m so glad you’ve discussed your love for food here. I can totally relate to it.
    http://www.pforpearl.blogspot.com

  • MaggietheCat August 11th, 2012 11:38 AM

    I can’t tell you how many people told me not to move to the Tenderloin, but its been five years and I’m still here!

    We really do have some of the best restaurants in the city. Saigon Sandwiches is AMAZING! THAT SAUCE, I WANT TO BATHE IN IT!

    Sometimes we talk about moving, because it really is a “gritty” “rough” neighborhood, but OMG we’ll miss our favourite restaurants too much.

  • Katie August 11th, 2012 2:44 PM

    Great article! I got pretty excited the moment you mentioned Queens (also all the food. also all of the beautiful things the food can do.) Now I want to go sample all the restaurants I always pass over on Roosevelt Ave and Main Street (they intimidate me because I’m not Chinese and I dont’ speak it) Maybe the next time in the food court of Flushing Mall I’ll get something other than a crepe!

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:44 AM

      Go into a little dumpling shop and order a sixer of dumplings. You can’t go wrong!

  • Lillypod August 11th, 2012 4:11 PM

    so much i love here.
    san francisco
    vietnamese food
    chinese food
    nabokov references :)

  • thelibertine August 11th, 2012 4:22 PM

    this is lovely lovely lovely. i find london is just like this, the more you pay, the less anticipation you, yourself has. humane warmth you find in food is produced in the process of the cooking, the soul of the people who care about the money they earn and the quality guilds every mouthful.

    • VivaViviana September 20th, 2012 9:51 AM

      You are spot on!

  • Jean. August 11th, 2012 11:10 PM

    That last paragraph is just so perfect. I just moved away to attend college and as I started reading this article it felt so relevant. I couldn’t help but think of when a very close friend of mine took me to all of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and shops she went to as a child with her family in Orlando, and how it was such an amazing experience to see and taste all of the wonderful things there. This article summed up all of my feelings for that trip and so much of what you said is just so true and beautiful. x

  • allyishere August 12th, 2012 3:40 AM

    such a beautifully written article. I can totally relate with my infinite enthusiasm for food. i love the quality, almost dodgy, chinese and vietnamese and greek places my dad always finds.

  • Flan August 12th, 2012 5:45 AM

    AMAZEOVARIES! Speak, Jenny. You are my favorite writer. This article is my favorite food. Are you gonna write a cookbook, or wut?

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:45 AM

      Omg, you are using my two favorite words “AMAZEOVARIES” and “WUT” <3

  • birdy August 12th, 2012 3:08 PM

    … I mean, Verde on Castro St. has pretty good boba :D :)

  • yukiko August 12th, 2012 10:00 PM

    actually, szechuan is the cantonese pronunciation of sichuan and because the first chinese immigrants were cantonese speakers, it stuck.

    • Jenny August 13th, 2012 12:40 AM

      Huh, I thought it was the old way of romanizing Chinese words according to the Chinese Postal Map Romanization system that was in place until after the fall of the Qing dynasty and was largely used by the West even long after the Chinese government officially started using pinyin. Like how Beijing used to be Peking, which does not correspond to a Mandarin or Cantonese pronunciation. I’ve never heard it pronounced “Szechuan” in Cantonese (or sesh-won is how I commonly hear people who don’t know how to pronounce it in Mandarin say it.) But maybe I am wrong?

  • Giselle August 13th, 2012 8:26 AM

    Hi Jenny! Can I just say THANK YOU FOR BEING AWESOME! I always look forward to reading your articles. I’m Filipino, but Chinese by blood, so Chinese culture is a huge part of who I am. I love reading your stories because I totally GET a lot of what you say. Like how my parents got me to take a “responsible” course, which is how I find myself in engineering, though my real passion lies in art. I’ve pretty much decided to see it through. Nevertheless your stories always inspire me to freakin live my life instead of having others live it for me. So thank you <3

    Also! Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are AWESOME. I live in Chinatown and some of the best Chinese food places I know here are what I like to call "indie" restaurants :) the Chinese food chains in Manila are generally pretty good, but there's something about discovering indie restos on your own that make them special, like having your own secret.

  • kristy August 13th, 2012 10:27 PM

    Can this please be a regular column???
    Seriously, as someone who is in love with food (besides needing it to be alive and crap ) My second favorite behind actually eating the stuff is reading about other people eating it.

    60% of my meal choices are based on what characters in my favorite books and tv shows are eating.

    From burgers to raw oysters to spicy wontons to spaghetti to bim bim bap to falafel to saag paneer to tomato sandwiches to bigos to sea urchin to beef noodle soup. I love it all.

    Seriously seriously seriously. I want to hear all the Rookie food stories, especially the memories behind them.

    • Hedwig August 23rd, 2012 6:39 PM

      Yehayeah! Food column! That will be so useful for blueprinting road trips!

  • kristy August 13th, 2012 10:33 PM

    Ah yes, Chinese vegetables. Nothing beats the leafy greens simply sautéed in a bit of oil and garlic until they’re delicate yet (gasp!) still green. None of that broccoli that’s so-overcooked-that-it’s-a-lovely-shade-of-yellow-brown.

  • sabrina August 14th, 2012 12:12 PM

    Wow, that was beautifully written..especially the end. I love how food can have memories attached it..a tool for nostalgia.

  • Jenny August 14th, 2012 12:19 PM

    Thank you, EVERYONE for commenting and sharing your food stories and food loves. I feel so hungry and happy to read about it all. xoxo

  • Space Rosie August 14th, 2012 7:05 PM

    This is beautiful. It really goes well with ‘eating: a manisfesto’.

  • rookips August 19th, 2012 1:25 PM

    aaaah this article is so awesome. and I totally get what you mean by the usage of “”"ethnic”"”, which in my hometown of white suburbia meant pretty much anything that is not a hamburger… then again these people also thought it was such a complement to call me and anything else resembling anything asian “oriental” haha

    also on a food related love, if any of you rookies find themselves in Seattle, you totally have to check out the Mon Hei bakery in Chinatown, up the street from the Gossip boba tea place. they make the best little cakes and baozi, nom

  • resonance August 21st, 2012 11:38 PM

    Oh my god, I love this article so much. I’m also a Chinese American from New York, and I loved being able to picture all the places you mentioned! I smiled when I saw the last picture of New World Mall because I recognized the background instantly–proof of how much time I spend there, haha.

  • VivaViviana September 20th, 2012 9:46 AM

    JENNY

    Your writing gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes, nearly every time. So beautiful, I wish I could be half the communicator you are. My family used to run a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and my mother put so much hard work and care into every meal she prepared. Even though we couldn’t afford to keep it anymore, I’m glad that she got to try it, and that her cooking still brings my family, including other Ecuadorian-american friends together.

    And every dish you mentioned sounds exotically delicious ( I hope”exotic” isn’t as annoying and incorrect as “ethnic”) But I mean, it sounds so different than what I’ve ever tried, and I WANT SOME.

    Personally, I have memories of eating in little dank Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, Philadelphia, with names like Ting Wong, Mai Lai Wai, etc. It’s so important to know that a chinese restaurant DOES NOT sell you fried chicken, general tso chicken, and baby back ribs thrown together with pork fried rice. My parents were very adamant about recognizing what genuine culture is by taking us to authentic restaurants (Once, I took them to Applebees and they effing hate it). So I think I can visualize what your saying, for what it’s worth.

    Anyway, Dinner Date???!!