Today I decided not to go to my language school. I fell asleep at around 3 am, so I didn’t really fancy going somewhere at 7 in the morning. Yes, I was the best in my class, and not being able to actually go to a real university bummed me out sometimes. I kept visiting the school, as it was better than tourist visa regulations. I was going to school for London.
So I woke up late, it was already sunny outside, it seemed like the summer was already here, and it is amazing when it is summer in London. I spent half a day on livejournal.com, looking for interesting posts (can’t remember why right now). Only at 6pm I decided to leave the house and go out for some fresh air. Today I thought I’d go visit my favourite Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, of course, which is famous for its rude waiters, but is also very good for some tasty and quite affordable dishes. The restaurant is spread over, I believe, four floors, and can accommodate up to 500 people. It has been a true London institution for more than twenty years. Locals love it here and come here all the time.
I usually hit the ground floor (first floor), that among the patrons is called “the singles area”. There are many singles here, or people who dine/lunch on their own, and there are a few long tables, as well as some tables for two people, where, if you’re lucky, you can sit by yourself. But usually they point you somwhere in particular, and put you at a table with someone you have never met before. It sometimes happens in places like that.
You enter the restaurant, find with your eyes an employee who tells you where to go (“Upstairs!” – if you’re with someone, I’ve only been sent downstairs once. You can now even get a t-shirt with the famous “Upstairs-Downstairs” thing, if that’s your thing), you lift your hand and show your index finger, as to signal it’s only your poor self would be dining here. One. You ask for a table for one, and you get a table for ten. So then you walk up to a table, shyly smiling, and you either ask someone sitting opposite, if the seat is taken, or if they’re Chinese, you don’t ask, you just sit. Chinese are a little bit like Russians in that sense. They don’t see a necessity in smiling or being polite, unless they are paid for it (service and hospitality workers). So you ask someone with your eyes, and of course, you know you will get a positive reply, because everyone in Wong Kei is cool, and doesn’t really care about performing curtsies.
You sit opposite a stranger and next to one, sometimes, are surrounded by strangers, if it’s a busy lunch or dinner time. It is sensible to leave a space out between you and another person, so you don’t knock your elbows together. I usually sit at the end of the table, so there’s less opportunity for others to be next to me. I like my space. But I like my barbecue pork on rice more.
I am given a menu, but I refuse it and go straight for the usual.
– Can I have barbecue pork and crispy belly pork on rice please? – I smile knowingly.
The waiter stops for a second, recognising a regular customer, writes down my order, confirming it with me once again, and takes away the menu. Five seconds later I am brought fresh green tea with jasmine in a metal pot, a restaurant’s compliment. I thank the waiter with a serious face, while nodding. Around me everyone is eating with such determination, that I can’t wait to get my food too. I pour myself a cup of hot aromatic liquid, and try to warm my hands against the tiny dish. I see Chinese men and women slurping on noodles, local British men finishing their rice and their wonton, and I notice that I usually don’t see non-Asian women here, in the singles area. The ground floor is buzzing with the orders being taken and given. Plates are arriving by a built-in lift in the wall, the chefs are working in the window that is decorated with the hanging ducks. The windows are steamed and the doors keep opening and closing, letting people in and out. Some strangers walk in, then see the poor design of the walls, and back down through the door, not feeling like Chinese anymore. What they’re missing out on is the delicious food that I now see in front of myself. I only waited for a minute or two, this is a simple dish and I smile when I see it appear on my table. If you’re brave enough to sit at the plain tables of the ground floor, you won’t regret it, you will be awarded with the smells and tastes of real Chinese food. Oh yes, I do believe it’s real, I even brought my Chinese friend here and she liked it, or at least she said she did. We’re good friends.
Two more minutes later my table partner finishes his lunch and leaves, so I alone at my table.
I start eating. Five more minutes pass, and I get another table partner, or what I call them, a neighbour. He’s a non-Asian man, very tall and quite wide, he checks up with me the same way I did with my previous neighbour. I nod and smile, giving him a green light. He sits right in front of me, as if we were on a date together, because he doesn’t want to squeeze a bit further down the table. He is serious, and it seems he works not far from here. He awkwardly looks at the wall next to me, then at the wall behind me, then starts looking at the little Chinese granny on the left, who now starts looking at me, with some sort of suspicion, or so it seems. I sigh and look at my plate that I thoroughly covered in chilli oil that I am a big fan of.
And when there’s a huge bite of chilli pork in my mouth, my neighbour starts talking to me. And it is quite rare, everyone usually respects each other’s time, space and, well… food, and just looks into their own plates and doesn’t make a sound. He starts talking to me about Wong Kei, about how the waiters are rude, about how the food is delicious, about the weather in London, and the weather in America. In those few words that I utter trying to digest the meats, he thinks I am from the United States, a common misconception, when people only hear a few words from me. I keep nodding in agreement, and then I mention the fact that I’m not an American, but Russian, and then am hit by another round of questions about the weather in Russia, the usual “How can you be cold, you’re from Siberia” kind of crap, but he means no harm and I laugh with him.
I finally finish my dinner, finish my tea, and this time I don’t need a refill, but here’s a tip: if you’re at Wong Kei’s and want another pot of tea, you finish your one, open the lid and just leave it as it is, the waiter will notice it and bring you a new pot, and it is also complimentary. I usually drink lots of tea. I put my jacket on, and after wishing my table neighbour “bon appetit”, I head to the counter, where I pay for my order. It comes to £5.50 and I leave another quid as a tip, in a jar, next to the cash register. The guy taking my money thanks me with a smile, and we say goodbye to each other. I never feel that the staff here are rude, because, yes, you guessed it, because I’m Russian and I am quite used to people not smiling or not saying sorry or please. It’s probably a bad thing, by the way. Several years later, when I come back to Russia, it is a bit difficult to adjust to this straight face life again. People around me find me unnecessarily polite and it feels weird. I say please and thanks and because of that am generally considered a weak person. All because I smile to people and apologize when I step on their feet by accident.
I open the double doors of Wong Kei, smiling at London’s Chinatown, feeling full, fat and happy. I walk towards Leicester Square and think that maybe the next time I’m here, I will order a new dish, but always end up getting the same.
* Originally posted in spring 2013.
** Wong Kei restaurant is located at: