28 December 2011


It's an unwritten rule, among the many more than six hundred and thirteen commandments God gave the Jewish people, that the Jew must eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve.  Not one to ever have found the ambient surroundings of Christmas to be particularly alienating--this year's lights and displays in my hometown of Milwaukee have been particularly festive and beautiful in that tasteful, conservative Midwestern way (including, by the way, an extraordinary Christmas "tree" made of Noguchi lamps inside the living room window of a mid-century suburban living-room.)

So it was that we ventured down to Brady Street to eat at the Emperor of China, a Milwaukee favorite and apparently, one such enclave of secular Jewish culture on the Rebel Cousin's birthday.  That wait was an intolerable ninety minutes and so while we contemplated our broader fate, decided to order "to go," and wait for our meal at the corner tavern, the Roman Coin.  Lit handsomely by two Blatz signs on either corner and home, for the night, to three guys at the bar, a friendly mutt named Miles, and a gracious owner, Terri, we settled in.  I had a microbrew from Amherst, Wisconsin, outside Madison, the kids had soft-drinks, and with a deck of cards, we were good to go.

The food took forever, but allowed us enough time to meet one gentleman who grew up on a farm in Sheboygan and who now worked in the city; learned that the Roman Coin has an used bowling lane in its basement, and were treated to one of the warmest receptions we have ever received.

Jimmy, the owner and host over at Emperor of China, kept kicking the ball down the field on the readiness of our evening repast, at one point rather philosophically proclaiming to me while making a small, tight circular cranking motion above his wrist that I should "be patient, for time moves slowly."  I felt like Jason Alexander's "George" in Seinfeld's famous Chinese restaurant sketch.

Back at the bar, a Harley pulled up, fully regaled with decorative lights; that caused quite a stir among the girls, who are already well-trained to identify this classic mode of transportation for the peculiarly patriotic.  In addition, I walked straight into my mother, staring down my eleven year old and accusing her of bluffing at a critical juncture of a rousing and competitive game of "B.S."  The corner of her mother turned up in knowing smile, a glance around the table, and then, gently, the pronouncement:  "Bullshit," she panned.  Roars of laughter.

I headed back to the restaurant.  And engaged Jimmy at a whole new level.  I, the Jew, great-grandson of immigrants.  He, the more recent arrival (yet, admittedly, my elder.)

"What's your name?"


"What's your real name?"


"Where are you from in China?"

Like my mother back at cards, in the bar, he looks left, looks right and says with a smile, "Formosa," using the name given to the island by the Portugese, but embraced by the non-Communist loyalists of post-revolution China.

"Time moves slowly" took on a whole new meaning.

He, the patient exile, serving his nation's food to another nation, exiled as well.  Yet each enjoying--flourishing in fact--in a place both call home.

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