Spring, 1999: My Baltimore girls’ school embarks on the much-anticipated immigration-themed sixth grade field trip to New York City. I share headphones on the bus ride with Emily and sing along to Blink 182. When we emerge from the tunnel, that arresting surge of NYC energy hits me. I drink it in, feel it in my bones…can’t wait to get off the bus.
(I still feel this way when returning to New York. I want to jump and squeal and clap — I’m here in the magical city I get to call home. It’s not the sounds, smells, traffic whir, or concrete landscape; it’s the sum of these things and more — intangible, intoxicating.)
As fieldtrips go, it’s pretty great. We ride the ferry to Ellis Island, the wind in our hair, and smile at Miss Liberty. We visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. They let us loose in SoHo, and for a few hours, I am the happiest 12 year-old in the world.
Next on the schedule: Lunch in Chinatown. We split up into groups and get deposited on Mott Street to choose a dining destination. I am spellbound — little turtles and chimes for sale on the sidewalk; Peking ducks hanging morbidly in the windows; bunches of greens and orb-shaped, mysterious fruits; herbs that smell horrible and magical; little old men with stinky cigars. I can’t wait for lunch.
What will we eat? Tender soup dumplings that ooze savory, salty broth? Crimson nuggets of fatty-crispy pork? Piles of pliable hand-pulled noodles studded with fiery Sichuan peppercorns?
My classmates point at the Canal Street golden arches. I assume they are joking. They are not joking.
Suppressing hysteria, I lay out my argument carefully: We have travelled for hours on a hot bus, only one ear of Blink 182 playing, to feast on delicacies from the one and only Chinatown, NYC. Now’s our big chance to try something exotic, transformative, delicious. Big macs and fries are perhaps a respectable lunch choice in suburban Baltimore, but here’s our chance to step it up, to branch out, to have not just a meal, but an experience.
They listen politely, then line up for Micky D’s.
I cry. I try not to, but my world is shattered. When will I be here again? Is there any justice, any sense in this world?
Mrs. W to the rescue…the very nice, very quiet math teacher. I hate math, but suddenly I adore her. “What’s wrong?”
“I would really, really love to try some Chinatown Chinese food.”
“So would I!”
Thank God. Mrs. W whisks me away to some teeny hole-in-the-wall. It smells of salt and fat and promise; I feel my tears drying. We carry Styrofoam containers of steaming, juicy roast duck piled on mounds of snow-white rice, and verdant greens tangled with messes of garlic back to the hard plastic McDonald’s tables where we sit with my classmates and dig in. They unwrap their burgers. Everybody is happy.