geography, family and chinese food.

December 9, 2006

oh. so here’s a thought about space and place:

space is vast. it’s small, too. could it be that people’s perceptions of space largely have to do with where they were raised?

here’s another thought: city dwellers are taken to be more jaded and unimpressed by the quotidian. well, okay, maybe not that second part, but i think i make a point.

growing up. my folks raised me on plenty of chinese food. just for the record, this is a secular jewish household with a canadian-born slavic father and a mexican mother who converted for the sake of bubbe and zeide (her parents had little regard for roman catholicism). for their non-honeymoon, they embarked on a backpacking trip across southern, eastern and south-eastern asia, a decision which – in no small part, i’m certain – was influenced by george harrison and the alternative philosophies of the ’60s and ’70s that appealed to my father at the time.

a big component of this is my father’s views on diet. on a prior trip to greece, he told me that he saw a corral of lambs headed shortly to the slaughterhouse (this is in 1972 or so). he promptly adopted vegetarianism, partly out of morals, but largely out of disgust.

so what does this have to do with senses of place or space? my dad (and my mum) has always lived in the ville, never in the deep banlieue. his vegetarianism drew him to many chinese restaurants due to the fact that chinese food is extremely vegetarian-friendly (in fact, vegans would be wise to take note, since milk is virtually unused in eastern food). all our eating, combined with my father’s knowledge acquired through travel, showed us in no uncertain terms which restaurants were good (like the grandview) and which were bad (the capilano). In town, it’s easier to discount what we don’t appreciate due to there being so much of it (o, conversely, so little that we can take in appreciatively).

in the interior, we find chinese restaurants in every town, largely thanks to the efforts of the canadian pacific railway’s virtual slave-labour programmes over a century ago. The quality of these places is likely inferior to what can be found in the city. but still, these are the best chinese restaurants in the cariboo or the kootenays or the okanagan. how can this be?

the physical space of the countryside is vast. extremely so. there are relatively few places to get a bowl of hot-and-sour and chow mein.

the countryside adds a dimension of grandeur due to their being fewer attractions per square kilometre than in the city. for example, dollarton highway’s oyster shack against downtown’s joe fortes’ oyster bar: is the oyster shack superior in any way, price exempted? maybe, but perhaps this is simply due to the fact that it is the local establishment, known mostly to those around it.

interestingly, this works in reverse as well. these locations become destinations, open to the public at large out of a desire to make a living. they form a community out of their presence, create a destination, a scene, a flavour.

as humble as the small-town chinese-canadian diner may be, their rareness lets it become a civic attraction, the veritable tuileries and trevi fountain of brandon and biggar.

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