Left My Heart in Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown

I think it may have started with Mrs. Wong’s kitchen, but ever since a young girl I’ve long had a soft spot for Chinese culture.  Whether Mandarin or Cantonese, the languages of China are my absolute favorite to listen to — some enjoy French, others Italian, I love hearing Chinese — perhaps because I understand nearly none of it.  Many of my childhood and teenage friends were from Chinese homes, growing up in the U.S., but preserving their language and culture through Saturday schools, practicing traditions at home, and maintaining a tight-knit and friendly community.  The writings of Amy Tan, Aimee Liu, more recently Lisa See, and others helped to paint greater landscapes of China in my mind.  And the food — don’t even get me started on the food!  Of course in my younger years it was the American typicals of Won-Ton soup, Cashew Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, etc., but I remember discovering my first Steamed Bun in Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown and crossing over a new threshold in Chinese cuisine.  While living in Japan I sampled the Chinese flavors Japanese-style, and then spicier versions in India.

During my recent stay in San Francisco, my family and I discovered that our hotel was a mere two blocks away from one of the main gateways into Chinatown — a must visit!  Although my mother repeatedly and incredulously kept asking, “Dim Sum for breakfast?” we just had to.

So, my parents, brother, and I traipsed around through Chinatown, watching it slowly come to life on an early Monday morning, admiring storefronts, taking in the bright colors, capturing many a digital photo, and scouting out for the right (and open) Dim Sum shop (ironically, it was only a month or so earlier that both brothers and I partook of a similar quest in L.A.’s Chinatown).

San Francisco Dim Sum Breakfast
San Francisco Dim Sum Breakfast

After following recommendations and directions of a few local shopkeepers, we found our way to a small hole-in-the-wall Dim Sum shop.  Contrary to popular belief, this shop did not have us seated at round tables with Lazy Susans with Dim Sum-filled carts wheeling around us.  It was more akin to a small pastry shop with many a steaming bamboo basket, each filled with its own delicacy.  It was a lot of describing, pointing, peeking, and recalling from memory to order a varied selection of Dim Sum for the family’s breakfast.

Thankfully, the man who assisted us was incredibly patient, accommodating, and greeted each question with a smile. Once our table was filled with Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, Lotus Leaf-wrapped Chicken, Baked BBQ Pork Buns, Tofu in Black Bean Sauce, Steamed BBQ Pork Buns, Steamed Red Bean Buns, Egg Custards, Thick Noodles, and more we sat down to enjoy our feast.  Complete with Green and Black Teas, a word of thankful prayer, and a quick digital snapshot.  I don’t know if our breakfast was quite what my parents were envisioning upon waking up, but it seemed that we all thoroughly enjoyed our gastronomical adventure through Chinatown.

San Francisco Cable Car Grip Operator

San Francisco Cable Car Grip Operator

Being official San Francisco tourists for the day, we followed our meal with a Powell & Mason cable car ride through the city’s famous hilly and windy streets.  From

Powell & Bush St. down to The Embarcadero, we took in the scenery on the moving National Historic Landmark, crowding in with fellow tourists, watching the grip operators flex their arms, and announcing our passage with the ringing of the bell.  It was a gloriously beautiful May day in the city by the bay.  So San Francisco!

After such a wonderful, but too short adventure, I hear the city again calling my name.  If you, too, have left your heart in San Francisco, or even in Chinatown, look around you, there may be a small pocket of China near you.

San Francisco Cable Car

San Francisco Cable Car

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Seaside View: Reservations for One

The ultimate in multitasking — doing the things I normally do and love — reading, writing, listening to audio books, watching movies, even napping, and while doing all these things traveling three hundred miles.  Have I transformed into Superwoman?  No.  I just took an eight-hour trip along the Golden State on the Amtrak.  Riding the rails, one of my favorite ways to travel.

Why do I love train rides so much?  A number of reasons.  It’s smooth like a jet with recliner-like legroom and the views of an IMAX screen.  When the last-minute airfares jump around and become out of reach, the consistent and dependable prices of the train are much more appealing.  And bonus — there are many out of the ordinary glimpses to be seen:  blossoming strawberries, deer running in a field, domestic fish-farmers, parasailors skimming the currents of air, wildflowers sprinkling color along sides of roads, mischievous boys in obscure parts of town, dog-walkers, and goats roaming the hillside.

During this most current journey I also discovered that Amtrak has stepped up its offerings for the long-distance rides.  For those who want more than the reminisces of old: the clickety clack of moving along the tracks, the experience of eating in diner cars, sleeping in sleeper cars, and meeting new people through community seating, there are a number of additional offerings to enjoy.  While onboard the Coast Starlight the staff and crew members advertised such programs as movies in the Screening Car, a Rails & Trails guided presentation, announcements of upcoming and spectacular views, and on-board wine tasting.

For my journey I chose to finish my latest Book Club read, read up on some programming tips, and enjoy my brown-bag lunch with a seaside view — reservations for one.

A Grand Road Trip

Driving into a land of 75 mile per hour speed limits, motorcyclists with a “no helmet” option, and signs posted outside of restaurants and shops informing patrons of just when they can or can not bear their firearm…subtle changes like this remind me of the beauty and the strangeness that it can be to enter another culture, even if that means merely crossing the state line that is 276 miles away from home.  Two words that can fill my mind and soul with such sun-warmed memories of contentment like no other words can…road trip.

My mother, a very spontaneous traveler and day-tripper, was yearning for a little getaway to celebrate the infamous and highly academic spring break.  Through an everyday conversation with my uncle, my mother discovered that he’d never seen the Grand Canyon.  She also remembered that although I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji, have glided over the marine life of the Great Barrier Reef, and have island-hopped around Tahiti, I’ve never seen one of the greatest natural beauties in my own backyard.  Bam!  It hit her – this could be the spring break trip she was longing for – perfect road trip material: 8-hour car trip, a wonder to behold, and reasonably priced accommodations.  She was all set, within a matter of two days she made the necessary calls, checking in with lodging options, confirming serious interest on behalf of my uncle and myself, and was set to run off on a moment’s notice…until she remembered the appointment she’d set up for that pesky pain in her foot.  One doctor visit later and it turns out my mom has a minor, but definitely bothersome fracture in her foot.  Her hopes were crushed.  Disappointed that it didn’t work out for Spring Break, my mother was still determined to make the trip happen.  Just three to four weeks after her doctor visit and armed with a very attractive “boot” to protect her foot, we set out on our adventure.

To say that the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring or even magnificent is a complete understatement.  Each step we took, I admired the changing landscape, marveled at the striations in color and rock, and tried to capture what I felt swelling inside with the lens of my camera.  I did my best, but even after two days and 249 pictures (and that’s after weeding out duplicates) I failed miserably.

Grand Canyon vista from Hopi Point

Grand Canyon vista from Hopi Point

Aside from the view, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to gain a “Glimpse into Geology” through a Ranger program, arrange my own self-guided tour via cell phone,

and hop on the free shuttle to travel from one end of the South Rim to the farthest stop West.  We were reminded of the three types of rock: sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic.  We learned about the four conditions that in their divine happening together resulted in the majesty that is the Grand Canyon – deposition, uplifting, down-cutting (of the Colorado River’s waters), and erosion – easily remembered by the pneumonic D-U-D-E!  But what made the Grand Canyon getaway for me truly memorable was the gathering of so many from all over the world – Sweden, India, South Korea, Germany, Japan, France, Portugal, Brazil, all over!  Listening to the many languages, seeing products with unfamiliar labels and brands, appreciating subtle differences in greetings, love it!  Add to that the inclusion of so many accessible and fascinating resources – Ranger-lead hikes and programs, free shuttles with incredibly friendly drivers, and the preservation and sharing of such great history.

Sign for mobile Ranger audio tour

Sign for mobile Ranger audio tour

How cool to learn (again – sure I learned it before in school) that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped into his challenging seat as President in 1932 he chose to stimulate the economy, occupy many unwillingly idle young men, and work to conserve our nation’s natural resources by developing the CCC, otherwise known as the Civilian Conservation Corps.  How interesting to discover that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is actually about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim.  Really?  Mules go through a training program of a year before they can carry folks down into the canyon (I hope so!) – wow!  We learned so much.  But more than that, we had great fun.  Car games like listing musical artists and bands from A to Z, then to actors, producers, and directors, stumped to come up with any performers to fit the “Z” – aside from the Zappa family, of course.  Wondering about such earth-shaking quandaries as “what’s the difference between salami and pepperoni?”  And delving into the far corners of our memories, trying to remember just what were those yummy chocolate and peanut-buttery wafery cookies that came two to pack in foil-wrapped paper?  No, we didn’t debate the pressing issues of our time, we didn’t solve the world’s problems, we didn’t even come up with a proposal for world peace, but what we did was step out of time for a couple of days, enjoy one of God’s many gifts, and rest in the company of family.  Good times.  Good trip.  Wish you were there.

Even if you weren’t there, if you know what is the difference between salami or pepperoni, or even a raven and a crow, for that matter, OR if you remember what those yummy chocolate and peanut-buttery-wafery snacks were –- do share – and you’ll be well on your way to your own road trip discoveries.