Why I return to the same Chinese restaurant that gave me food poisoning
Oftentimes, self-discovery is catalyzed in the wake of moving human relationships; a first love, a virginity-loss partner, an inspiring literature professor named Doctor Bonner, or even a legless person who works out more than you (and has nicer teeth).
My own self-discovery, however, was not brought on by heartbreak or dental envy, or by any vertebrate interaction for that matter. Instead, it was spurned by the crisp snap of eggrolls, the MSG-laden slurp of chow mein and the eternally spicy love of a faceless man named General Tso.
Yes, this is a story of how one little Chinese restaurant taught me to seek out the silver lining, to accept imperfections, and to keep my chin up come joblessness or the runs. The Great Wall, as it came to be known, showed me how to compromise through fast-casual international cuisine.
For a while, The Great Wall was my first and only love here in Denver. I came out to the Wild West all alone, with no job and no sense of direction (literally). My previous state, Florida, was a sunny, happy-go-lucky home of escaped prisoners and meth infants where we had one season and one form of footwear. Not so in Colorado. Needless to say, the first winter here was isolating. Working from home, the only human contact I had was with the mailman and the adorably sweaty and probably too old roofer I kept inviting in for a cup of coffee in hopes of maybe fulfilling my 'handyman' fantasy. I still wish that one would've played out, but it didn’t, and I was lost and alone.
But sometimes, the universe comes through for you, like it did for me one snowy evening some years ago. I was hungry and impatient and indecisive and most importantly, alone. I hadn't yet learned how to confidently say "Table for 1 please" so I looked at Pinterest recipe boards in hopes that just the sight of "quinoa protein bites" would fill me up. It didn't so I went for a walk.
Not two blocks down, I stumbled into what would become the most stable relationship of my post-collegiate life. The glowing neon letters spelled out “The Great Wall” and signaled that this was it – my temporary heaven, eternal life with a thousand virgins, or just a soft place to land. There she sat, beckoning me in with her tiny bamboo trees and gilded, framed pictures of waterfalls.
I pulled open the glass door, tripped the miniature wind chime attached to the handle, and was warmly greeted by a smell of artificial sugar, MSG, waxy containers, sesame oil, and general fried loveliness. There were only two other diners seated at a table shoved with Feng Shui precision against the side wall and under the glowing, humming picture menu. I stepped up and decided to spring for the first few (six) menu items that caught my eye – to go, please, since I had too much pride to partake in a solitary face stuffing but not enough pride to order appropriate proportions. The cashier smiled knowingly, slipped me some extra fortune cookies, and sent me on my way. At that point, I knew I was falling.
It was love at first bite. The sweet and sour sauce was all consuming, tickling my tongue; my taste-buds in constant limbo questioning the final flavor. Was it sweet? Was it sour? Or maybe that's the umami sensation The Barefoot Contessa claims is all the rage?
Next was the egg drop soup, by now cooled enough to eat spoonful after spoonful, without pausing for breath. I used the crab wonton to scrape every last morsel of brothy goodness out of the Styrofoam bowl. No shame here. I was in love, focused with tunnel vision dedication to the next entrée. My peripheral vision went fuzzy and my ears tuned in only to the crunch and slurp of each bite.
Like the honeymoon stage, everything was bright, new, and could do no wrong. The piece of hair I found nestled under a mound of white rice was endearing. The mix up between extra duck and extra soy was cute. I finished my meal and basked in the afterglow. Rubbing my bulging belly like Buddah himself, the pangs of my isolation faded in favor of gastrointestinal satiation.
But, in any new relationship, things tend to come out of left field. Late night phone calls from exes, sixth toes, and leather fetishes initially send us reeling, but we usually recover and have new perspectives after an informed and sensitive conversation.
This fresh relationship was no different. I knew something was coming when my stomach started screaming like a hellcat. Not five minutes later came the after-blow. The Great Wall went right through me with all the hellfire and damnation of a Lutheran church in Southern Alabama. The Great Wall made me shit out my soul.
After a thoroughly cleansing accidental enema, I took a good hard look at my pallid reflection in the toothpaste-flecked mirror. It was the first-fight stage of the relationship. We would get through this and come out on the other side, better, stronger, and with a clear understanding of what the other could and would offer down the road.
I returned, wanting an apology and explanation and offering excuses of my own for their bad behavior.
I know what you’re probably thinking, wasn’t even a touch of food borne illness enough to keep me away? And you know, I asked myself the same question. It’s not that I enjoyed feeling lousy, spending an hour in the bathroom, or popping Tums like after-dinner mints. But I wasn’t about to give up on my only friend.
However, after a few more post-meal ass-quakes registering a full seven on the Richter scale, The Great Wall and I went on a fuzzy ‘break’. No terms were discussed, so I tried other places. But the moment I walked into the door of Ming’s Dynasty or Imperial Chinese, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was cheating, totally and completely. I ordered anyway and ate everything with a side order of guilt.
I stopped my international campaign all together and ate plain chicken breast, toast, salads, basically punishment food while I tried to get my head straight. The Great Wall had become a place of happiness for me, a rock in my tumultuous twenties and not just because of the food, I was starting to realize. I didn't know who I was without them.
So, like the prodigal son, I returned to my home, to the ones that always thanked me and asked me to come again. The touch of food poisoning I got was no longer a deterrent. I went back out of loyalty to the employees and to the business itself. It had become a living breathing, shoulder to lean on type fixture in my life. I couldn’t go anywhere else for my Chinese food/ self-worth needs.
But now, I returned for the memories and for the service I got, the meal I ate, and the promise that the food wouldn’t kill me, it would just make me stronger. It was my form of resetting, of cleansing (literally), and of healing. My most intimate moments were letting the kind-of-cute cashier catch me sneaking bits of orange chicken from the to-go box as he rang me up. He knew that I’m a food-addicted glutton and I knew he just worked there to keep the lights on. I needed the Great Wall and The Great Wall needed me.
When I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, tough decisions, or just had a shitty day, The Great Wall was a soft place to land, a warm feeling, a home away from home. I went there when my spirits were high and my friends were plentiful and we wanted to watch romantic comedies and sit on the floor and eat out of take-out boxes. I went there when my spirits were dashed upon stone and the only thing I could do was put one foot in front of the other to make it two blocks to the warmth and happy glow of the restaurant. I went there post-breakup and on a few first dates.
The Great Wall taught me that in this life, not everything is perfect. Almost all of the time, we have to compromise. With coworkers. With our significant other. With ourselves. And it's okay. People always say if you really love something or someone you won't have compromise your feelings or beliefs or whatever but that's bullshit. For example, I'm not going to watch NFL every Sunday but you can bet I'll polish off some chicken wings and a good book while you watch it. I'm not down to raise my kids in a formal religious setting but if your grandparents insist on a baptism, let's make sure we do it on coffee and donut Sunday.
When did compromise become such a bad word? I'll eat your chewy lo mein if you continue to take my to go order two minutes before closing.
Nothing's perfect, ever, and I don’t know if I would have realized that had it not been for the Great Wall. That, or maybe I was just spending too much contemplative time on the porcelain throne, high on Poo-pourri and Glade spray.
I’ve since moved to another side of town and started treating myself to fresh greens, whole wheat pasta, and more home-cooked meals because I'm no longer 21 and my metabolism has taken a sharp nose dive. But The Great Wall remains in my fondest of memories. I’ll return occasionally, when I haven’t shit for a few days or when I have a craving for some almost-stale fortune cookies. The smell of honey and soy sauce brings me back to a time of adventure, insecurity, hopefulness, and most importantly, raw asshole.