Travelogue: Monterey Park, California
In Monterey Park, a predominately Chinese city in L.A. County, there is a diner. It is similar to a diner in my old Milwaukee neighborhood---the people coming and going, the popularity of its low-cost lunch and breakfast items, the college students, families and solo elderly people who populate the place.
The enthusiastic owner oversees the operation, calling out greetings to regulars, directing servers to tables and calming wailing babies. He's missing a front tooth, which you don't see after the first view because his personality is large, his energy and joy are contagious. On the walls, framed photos of him smiling a closed smile with important people hang from the walls.
A fish tank of koi fish is at the front of the diner at the street entrance, but you wouldn't know it unless you mistakenly entered from the street. Everyone knows not to enter that way. People form a line at the back door entrance, reached by first parking in the lot and walking through an alley past the empty back doors of other restaurants whose workers watch with envy at the flow of people.
I go alone, as I do most things now, unlike back in the day when I went to the diner weekly with my family or friends. Since I'm alone, they sometimes direct another person to sit in a booth with me and look at me expectantly, asking okay? okay? I give a thumbs up, too hungry and busy eating a rich broth noodle soup to make a fuss, and have learned to smile, nod and respect the space. I want to fit in here.
I imagine that not being Chinese made me stand out on the first visit. People stared, and a waitress approached apprehensively. A few customers grinned at me. Now, it feels as though I'm no longer whatever they thought I might be. It's as if I'm just me, another regular stopping by.
Without words or shared language, they know me by bringing me a fork in case my hand cramps from trying to use chopsticks. One server practices her English and teaches me Chinese. The owner smiles, says hello, how are you? Table for one?