Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: May, 2010

Peter’s Chung King (reissued)

Just west of Spadina and College, at the foot of Chinatown and on a street that has gradually turned into a computer supply store village, is Peter’s Chung King. You wouldn’t notice it passing by; old white drapes obstruct any peek inside, although a signed 1980’s photograph of Sharon, Louise and Bram proves their endorsement. Inside is not more noteworthy. I believe it has mostly blank dull walls, interrupted only by some foreign money taped up and those weird landscape paintings (are they plastic?) that only appear in Chinese restaurants. Truth be told, I don’t remember much more about the interior, as my family always ordered to take out.

 To call it our favourite Szechwan restaurant would be incorrect: it IS our restaurant. My parents were first introduced to it years before I was born when it was at another location. Its second place on College Street was conveniently just below my elementary school and five minutes from our house on Brunswick. The story is that they found it so delicious that, when they were finished, they licked their plates. Actually, many myths surround Peter’s. Most evocative are the stories of picking up Peter’s on our way to our cottage and driving the other passengers crazy with the delicious smells on the boat ride across to our island. Even if this only happened once, it caught on as a family tale because it sums up a wonderful experience of living in Toronto: you could actually pick up really good Szechwan food and enjoy it on a dock beside a lake within an hour. How lucky are we?

Over the years different dishes were added or subtracted to our take out list (it is always Mom’s job to phone, always Dad and mine to go pick it up, and smiling Peter would occasionally come out and greet Dad as I waited in the car), but it was mostly the old favourites: spring rolls, Muchu Pork (later switched to the vegetarian Muchu), ginger chilli shrimp, garlic broccoli and, last but not least, Spiced Chicken, which because of a typo on the original menu (another legend) all of us call “spice-ces chicken”. This last dish of chicken, peppers and peanuts in a smooth, spicy brown sauce is so popular around the table that, as my brother and I got bigger, we had to start ordering two dishes of in order to prevent family fights.

It is our special occasion dinner, a good thing to have with visitors, but also good on a gloomy day when no one feels like cooking. Peter’s was one of the things I missed most when I travelled throughout Europe last year, made worse by a lunch I had in a Parisian Chinese restaurant one Sunday afternoon when a dish that looked surprisingly like Spice-ces Chicken was given to me and got my hopes up only to end up tasting NOTHING like it. On my first evening home, when I told stories to my parents for three non-stop hours (drive from the airport, drive to pick up food, sitting down at dinner) we of course had Peter’s. And I realize now I had already subconsciously chosen Peter’s as my first dinner when I return to Toronto.

My Dad called me on skype today as I was dressing for work. At one point Dad said, “So did you hear about the terrible thing that happened on Grandma’s birthday?” In my gut I knew what he was going to say. In reaction to my pained expression by Dad said, “Well, it’s not THAT bad…”

But it was. “We had our order all ready and Mom phoned and a woman answered the phone and said, ‘Oh, didn’t you know? Peter decided to retire and the restaurant is closed. Next month I’m opening a sushi restaurant.’ So yeah,” Dad said, trailing of. “Thirty years, and it’s gone.”

Now, I was feeling pretty tired and lonely and a bit homesick already. Tears starting coming to my eyes, but I suppressed them. I can’t remember what I said, perhaps just nodded, and Dad said, “Well, he deserves to retire. Peter had been running it for a long time.”

In my head I replied ‘I don’t care! His kids should run it or something!’ Mom, still in her housecoat, joined us. “You know what, sweetie, don’t upset yourself about it. All this means is that we’ll have fun trying different places to find a new restaurant.”

Again in my head, I reacted with a modified cliché of the petulant child who has just lost his first pet: ‘But I don’t want another restaurant! I want Peter’s back! Now!’

“My only consolation,” I managed to say finally, “is that I’m not missing the final meal. But shouldn’t he have told us or something? Thirty years…”

“Yeah, Mom and I were joking that we should hire Peter for around the house.”

If only. But of course, it wouldn’t be the same.

Then I had to go to work. As I walked in the bright early afternoon sunlight, tears streamed down my face. At first I berated myself; ‘You ARE NOT crying about a Chinese restaurant!’ But it’s about so much more than a restaurant or food or eating, although of course I will miss those dishes to no end and good Szechwan has completely spoiled me for the crap that is often called ‘Chinese food’ which tastes alright on the way down but revisits you all night. No, it’s not just the food. It’s the role it played for my family. It’s the beloved tradition that has been snapped unexpectedly from us. And now I can’t even remember the last time we ate it.

I was already upset about some of my favourite places in Toronto shutting down (mostly bookstores, like Mirvish Books and Pages on Queen Street). But Peter’s closing took me completely off guard. I understand that restaurants come and go, and big cities are always changing. I will eat good Szechwan again and, more importantly, the warmth and fun of our family dinners (which made the Peter’s tradition special in the first place) will continue. But the two together, along with the ritualized drive down to College street, the parking in little-visited Snow’s Flowers across the street, the sitting with the warm plastic bag on my lap and the arrival home to a table set with plates and bowls and little pink tea cups from Chinatown and plastic chopsticks whose red and green markings have long since faded in the dish washer, these things will never be the same.

And recognizing that you can’t, as much as you’d like, stop time in its tracks, that sometimes things just have to change, is a part of growing up.

Peter’s, I will deeply miss you.

Update: We are still without a good Chinese restaurant, so if anyone has a recommendation, leave it in a comment.

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Famous on Facebook

I recently discovered an envelope of photographs from a grade seven birthday party of mine. The pictures are embarrassing not least because I was in my pre-growth-spurt chunky phase. My school friends, dressed in late 1990’s camouflage tee-shirts and jean overalls, are shown dancing, almost frolicking, around my living room, at times even lifting each other up. Obviously, these pictures will never see the light of day and will not be uploaded onto a certain social networking website.

The remind me of a pre-digital era when I borrowed my parents’ camera for special occasions and had to wait what seemed like an eternity to get the pictures developed. There is a good chance that my friends in the photographs never even saw them. It was a more innocent time when the picture you took were yours alone, to place in an album and show people only on your initiative.

Every generation has the event that can in hindsight be viewed as the watershed moment that ended one era and heralded the next. While it may in the past have been the First World War, the assassination of JFK or the death of Kurt Cobain, for people my age it occurred when we signed up for our first social networking website and began being the purveyors of our own self-image.

It was the spring of 2006 and many of my friends had already joined something called facebook. “What unlimited forms of self-presentation!” I thought as I uploaded my first profile pic. No event was too small to document with my new digital camera. My second album was of my friends and I watching Julie Andrews musicals and throwing balloons at each other.

During my black and white-themed birthday party a few weeks later, I was so impressed by the creativity and diversity of my friends’ outfits that I kept my camera clicking all night. Thanks to facebook, I could upload and ‘tag’ these pictures, sharing them with all my friends.

The two parties were separated by less than a decade but seem eons apart. My grade seven friends didn’t need to over-think their appearance because they knew that the pictures would most likely disappear into an envelope (only to be discovered by their embarrassed creator years later). In contrast, my university friend’s black and white costumes were almost instantaneously viewable for all my friends, many of their friends and anyone who adds me on facebook up to the present day. What an increased pressure to look good! And while my black and white party was early in the era of facebook and many of my guests may not have considered the long legacy of their outfits, they definitely know about it now.

When standing in front of my closet and deciding what to wear to a party or night out or any other event where a camera may be present (and that’s prey much anywhere nowadays), a series of new questions have crowded the traditional venn diagram of ‘What do I look good in?’ and ‘What’s clean?’ I’ll consider if I’ve worn a certain shirt before, and in front of whom. Was I photographed and were those pictures private or accessible to all my friends? And maybe I should wear that new one I bought because I might get a cool profile pic out of it. Any outfit that may prove controversial has to be balanced with the consideration that I now have uncles and former nannies on facebook (my parents are not allowed to join). Even before being photographed I subconsciously consider the potential fall-out of being tagged on facebook.

Social networking has turned us into celebrities. Just as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears must consider how they will look in photographs on the red carpet, we now must consider how we will look on our friends’ home pages. Is it any wonder that we no longer stand awkwardly and wave (as in traditional amateur photography of the past), but coo and pout for the cameras like actors showing off their borrowed designer duds to ‘Entertainment Tonight’?

You may be thinking that you certainly don’t put any more effort into your appearance because of facebook, and that may be true, but I have an inkling that there are more people in the other column. How else to explain the phenomenon of ‘un-tagging’, the process of removing one’s name from a photograph so it will no longer be viewable to one’s friends? Un-tagging is our best defence against looking goofy online. I recently had a friend un-tag herself due to a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ so minor that I hadn’t even noticed it: the tassels of her scarf were sticking out the bottom of her jacket creating the impression of a Muppet hand reaching down towards her crotch. Although I have as many unflattering pictures as anyone (and I’m certain some will prevent me from ever running for public office), I have taken a strict stand against ‘un-tagging’. Who am I to decide which of my friends’ pictures represents me? Un-tagging is where the metaphor of celebrity breaks down, as Britney Spears cannot scan all the tabloid shots of herself and decide which ones she be deleted (although I bet she wishes she could!)

As someone who loves fashion and enjoys putting thought into what he wears, I like that our generation may put more effort into their clothes than they might otherwise because of social networking. But with all things internet-based there is the potential that as fast as it rose, it can quickly fall. Just as we were convinced (or peer-pressured) into joining something because all of our friends were on it, everyone can abandon something in the reverse movement. While facebook tries one ham-fisted advertising strategy after another, other companies have adopted the aesthetics of social networking to attract the youth demographic. The current ads for Virgin mobile feature pictures that evoke the amateur, spur-of-the-moment look of facebook pics. When advertisers have caught on to something, it usually means it’s on the way out. And simultaneously, hipster artists have rediscovered Polaroid cameras, whose grainy quality suggests a nostalgic, pre-digital authenticity that we’ve lost in all our uploading. Facebook may eventually decline, but the lessons it taught us about self-presentation may stick. It’s not unbelievable to pictures us mooning glamorously for the cameras at the old folk’s home. 

Sex and the City and the Desert

High above Times Square a billboard of four women beckons with alluring smiles and glimpses of leg. The film’s title glitters like gemstones. Though air-brushed, the women are unmistakable to people the world over: Kristen Davis, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and, naturally in the centre, Sarah Jessica Parker, twirling a blue sheer dress with famed high-heels on display. Or are they Charlotte, Samantha, Miranda and Carrie? Not since the Spice Girls have a group of women so melded with their famous alter-egos, nor represented unabashed post-feminist girlishness to so wide an audience. As the creators of Sex and the City once gushed about the show’s far-flung international fans, “This is America to them!”

The girls are pictured not in front of the New York City skyline but rather in the desert, giving the unfortunate impression of a Las Vegas revue. As all fans of the show know by now, the desert represents not Nevada but the United Arab Emirates, where the girls go on an “all-expenses paid” vacation. “I can hear the decadence calling,” Samantha purrs in the trailer with the gusto hitherto used describing sexual conquests.

On Saturday, May 1st the ladies gazed down on Faisal Shahzad as he allegedly parked a white sports car filled with home-made explosives in Times Square.  Two street vendors spotted the abandoned car and notified police, who evacuated thousands of people from the Square. Although no one was hurt, authorities claim that the car could have produced a “significant fireball”, spewing shrapnel in all directions and killing many people. Two days later, police pulled Shahzad off a plane at John F. Kennedy airport. He was resigned to his fate; according to the Toronto Star he told border guard who arrested him “I was expecting you.” The plane was going to Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, where he had spent eight months last year.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Sex and the City spiked in popularity, becoming a symbol of not only New York but of the resilience of the American way of life. The last episode filmed before the attacks was titled ‘I Heart NY’ and the first one of the next season featured shots of NYPD cops, the stars and stripes, and a navy dance at which Samantha, eyeing the cute sailors, declares “God bless America!” What comfort New Yorkers will feel when, perhaps still jittery from the failed Times Square plot and unearthed 9/11 memories, they go to the theatres on May 27th and see their ladies ditching their city to ride camels in Patricia Field’s flamboyant fashions, cruise hot men wearing either skimpy Speedos or ludicrous Laurence of Arabia drag, and sip brightly-coloured cocktails while discussing blow jobs.

One wonders what Middle Eastern viewers will think as well, for all of these activities may be illegal in the UAE. This is after all a country that just sentenced a young British couple to one month in prison for kissing in a restaurant. A month before that, an Indian couple was sentenced to two months in jail for sending flirtatious text messages, and earlier another couple were arrested for having sex on a beach. As with many decency laws, the authorities enforce the rules when they feel like it but can define them any way they chose, even arresting a woman for wearing a short skirt. Gay men, who have always played an important role in the creation and devoted following of Sex and the City (the trailer for the new film features what appears to be a gay wedding with special guest Liza Minnelli), fare even worse in the UAE: twenty-six men were arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2008, all receiving five year sentences and allegedly being forced to take hormone treatments.

Why would a show that celebrated single women as the ‘new bachelors’ and revolutionized what sexual topics people felt comfortable divulging  to their girlfriends go to the UAE? Michael Patrick King, the director of the sequel, told Vogue magazine’s Vicki Woods that the theme of the film was women struggling with traditional roles, and because the Middle East is where women’s roles are most “conventionally defined” he decided to set part of the movie there. “Also,” he continued, “because America slash most of the world is in a bit of an economic crunch still, I felt like everybody needed a big, extravagant, splashy, expensive vacation.” But is this really the year to celebrate indulgent spending, especially in a Muslim country? Vogue being Vogue, Woods wanted to discuss the role Islamic culture played on the costumes.  “You have to look at clothing and women and women’s bodies completely differently,” said Sarah Jessica Parker. “And you start to see how you can still see so much with someone covered. And how exciting that is and how beautiful it is and how draping can be incredibly sexy.” It is the denial of sexuality, rather than its expression, which is behind all that draping.

The irony is that the UAE didn’t allow the studio to film there. Instead, Morocco stands in for the UAE, which Woods points out “is a bit like saying Tribeca is standing in for New England.” Why did the film makers not just make it Morocco instead of directing a two-hour luxury travel ad, glamourizing the parties and sexy adventures tourists can have in a place which locks up people for kissing each other on the cheek? By ignoring draconian decency laws and reminding New Yorkers of a near-terrorist attack, the film makers may have abandoned both the ‘sex’ and ‘the city’.

Canadian Barista in Ireland

I moved to Ireland at age 24 to start over on my own and connect with my ‘Old Country’ culture. Instead, the international friends I found there turned me into a citizen of the world.

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom is over.  I was lucky to be hired by Starbucks at an upscale mall on the outskirts of Dublin. Although I worked for Starbucks in Canada, there were things about Irish customer service I had to learn. Our customers could not seem to grasp cup sizes, and I don’t mean ‘tall’, ‘grande’ or ‘venti’: they didn’t understand the concept of sizes at all. My boss Jason explained that specialty coffee shops were new in Ireland. Not long ago, your only choice was coffee or tea.

My co-workers were expatriates or gregarious Irish girls with non-phonetic Celtic names. In contrast to them, our Eastern European girls were stand-offish. Lenka, from Slovakia, was as admired for her efficiency as she was feared for her icy stare. “Who said this to you?” she demanded when you complained about a rude customer, “WHO?!” 

Varun was a dedicated shift-supervisor from India. He could be obsessive, as when he made me count the mugs to make sure we hadn’t “lost” any, but he left the day’s stresses at the store. He had a goofy sense of humour and if you laughed at his lame jokes he would slyly wink. We developed a brotherly rapport, but we didn’t discuss our personal lives until one night at a pub we ran out of Starbucks shop talk.  He said he had a girlfriend in India and asked if I had one back home. I thought everyone at the store knew I was gay. (Anna from Poland had asked me once, “How do you know when a man is the gay? Because I have NEVER known the gay before!”) Caught off-guard by Varun, I answered, “No. I’m gay.” Barely pausing, he continued, “Well, do you have a boyfriend in Canada?”

If Varun was big brother of our expatriate family, Daria was the rebellious sister. Petite and pretty, with  cutting-age style, she hailed from Mongolia. It surprised her that I’d heard of Ghengis Khan.  “The Irish don’t know about him…” she muttered. She treated Jason like an overbearing father, but he always forgave her for rolling her eyes or opening the store hung-over. She was brutally honest and said whatever she felt. “I didn’t like you at first,” she told me. “But now I do!”

Most of my co-workers couldn’t relate to my occasional homesickness, but Daria gave me a big hug. “I’m away from home, you’re away from home,” she explained, “Sometimes we all just need a hug.”
Sometimes a person fills a void you barely knew was there. I felt I was a good gay role model for my international friends, but I had no one to check out handsome customers with. Enter Eduardo. Tall and with a boyish face hiding his naughty streak, he came from Brazil by way of London, where he spent two formative years of his youth nightclubbing and befriending hip, neo-punk lesbians. I figured out he was gay by singing Britney Spears lyrics and noting whether he joined in. Newer to the city than I was, he desperately needed to meet people and we became fast friends. After a day of wandering the city alone, I could always phone Eduardo and get him to join me.

I even convinced him to go on a weekend trip to Glendalough, a medieval monastery nestled amongst hills and forests, where we trudged around the marshy lakes discussing skinny jeans and Lady Gaga. We walked in the rain for forty minutes to find the town’s lone pub, but when we did it was perfect: a fire place, mulled wine and local men gathered around rugby on the TV. Here, of all places, Eduardo opened up for the first time about coming out, his uncle who made him give up his nose-ring and punk clothes, and his hipster London friends. “I keep referring to them as my best friends,” he confided, “but you’re my best friend now.”

When I decided to move back home, my Irish co-workers insisted on a going-away party. Everyone came, including my boss and the raucous gaggle of Irish girls. Daria danced all night. Lenka cuddled up to me and kept saying, “I don’t want you to go, because I really like you.” Varun stayed until last call, even though he had to open the store the next morning.
 Eduardo, the most upset at my leaving, asked if I was ignoring him. “No,” I said. “If it seems I’m paying you less attention, it’s because you’ll be the hardest one to say goodbye to.” After the bar closed, we stumbled into McDonald’s, the traditional Irish thing after a night of partying. As I walked up Grafton Street with Jason he said it was sad that it took one of us leaving for us all to go out together.

Although I didn’t feel I left an impression on Dublin, I marvel at the legacy I left with my expat family, who are now spreading back out around the globe. Soon after, Varun returned to India to get married, and I missed my chance to experience an Indian wedding.  When I visited the store during my last weekend in Dublin, I learned Anna was pregnant and planning a Polish wedding. I joined Eduardo for his break. As he puffed at a cigarette, we said awkward, unmemorable things. His timer dinged when his break was over.

“Okay, I’m going to go,” I said, not knowing if tears were going to come or if I just thought they should. “I’m going to miss you a lot,” Eduardo said, hugging me.
“Behave yourself!” I said, getting up to leave. “Don’t forget about me!” I added as I walked away, not looking back. 
My expat family will go their separate ways; their influence on me will last.