An Indian, a Honduran, a white guy, and a black guy walk into a Chinese restaurant on the 4th of July. Nope, this isn’t a joke, but the beginning of an American Independence Day celebration that says much about what America, on its best day, truly represents as a nation and as a compilation of cultures within the world.
I was the first to arrive at China Garden in Rosslyn, Virginia, which is just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. I couldn’t score us a table until my entire brunch party arrived. A Peace Corps buddy, Brandon, was visiting town from Texas, so it was a rare treat to spend time with him during this holiday. He asked if his wife’s sister, Alba, could join us. She’s just out of college and doing well for herself in the Beltway area.
I texted my location; he stated that they were on their way.
And that’s when the ribbing started.
“Hey Brandon, where were you staying last night?”
“Yo’ Momma’s place.”
“Wow, you’re gonna have an appetite then!”
I smiled while reading the screen of my smartphone. I can’t explain it, but guys who’ve known and respected each other often float into jovial ball busting. It’s universal. At the same time, I wanted to ensure that we all knew where to meet.
“Enter the office building and go up the escalator.”
“Don’t tell me what to do :-(” Ganti texted back.
He’s also coming on this holiday excursion. He was excited about the group email I sent about enjoying dim sum – the American way (in a commercial district, near the suburbs).
And why not? I wanted a meal that was unconventional but flavorful. I first had dim sum while visiting a buddy in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It captivated me, though admittedly, I only had it on two other occasions.
Finally everyone arrived and we were seated at a round table for four near the bar. A waiter poured glasses of water and deposited a kettle of tea in the center of the table. With Olympian choreography, Chinese servers pushed metal carts with steam hoods and an assortment of dumplings. Spicy and tangy flavors drifted behind each of them. Some of the dumplings were still sizzling as the waitress recommended each variation to enjoy.
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know what I was eating, but I fully embraced the moment. I had visited China Garden before but that provided little insight as to the path of our dining experience.
Ganti advised that we finish the saucers and metal containers placed before us, before sampling more dumplings. That way we avoided wasted. Not a bad strategy.
I had a fairly nimble aptitude with chopstick, so I picked, tore, dunked, and munched just about everything that came across my plate. I felt gelatinous textures, crispy textures, and breadings both moist and dry. I savored pork, shrimp, scallops, and minced grilled vegetables. I typically stay away from soy sauce, to fully taste the variation in the dishes, but I did permit a liberal use of chili sauces.
And after multiple wonderful landings at our table, we told our dumpling pilots that we had enough. We requested the check and headed to our next destination.
Beers, me hardies! That’s what we found at the Heavy Seas Alehouse, two blocks north in Rosslyn. They had a nice patio; we ordered a few rounds, and Alba (Brandon’s sister-in-law, and our token Millennial) introduced us to a term unfamiliar to my ears.
“Darty!” she said. She noted that after the Alehouse she was going to meet friends for a “darty” in D.C.
“What’s a darty?” Brandon asked.
“It’s a party that takes place during the day.”
“I’ve never heard of this before,” I said.
“Yeah, my friends use that word all the time.”
“Kinda like a ‘dandjob,’” I said.
Brandon, bless his heart, burst into laughter; Ganti as well. It took Alba a bit of time to catch on.
It began to rain, so we parked ourselves at the bar inside. Our friend Mariko arrived, she had a high-rise apartment near the bar and Ganti sent her a text to join us. She had invited us, and several other friends, to watch the fireworks display from her balcony later that night.
I gave her four boxes of sparklers that I purchased from a freight truck in Fairfax. You can never go wrong with a freight truck in rural Virginia.
Mariko, of Japanese and German ancestry, had asked each of us what American Independence represented. We each had different perspectives on this topic. Being a bit of a history buff, I had noted that there were so many times during the American Revolution when the colonial army almost lost, when General George Washington was almost captured, and morale was so low. The success of these troops came from tenacity, perseverance, and a passionate belief in the potential of this small North American collection of colonies.
Mariko smiled, “Would the same have applied to your ancestors, at that time? Belief in that independence?”
I understood what she meant. For it would be a little less than two centuries before people of my race would achieve Civil Rights, in addition to freedom from slavery a century before that. There was progress, though. I recalled how my grandfather worked as a security guard and my grandmother worked as a maid for this wealthy Cincinnati family. And in a couple of generations, I was able to get a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from college. Any freedom I gained came from being lifted by my grandparents’ shoulders and my mother’s shoulders, and the people who fought hard before that.
Brandon checked his phone and said that he needed to leave soon, to spend time with his friend Mitch in Old Town Alexandria. Mitch and his wife Danni were preparing burgers and sausages for the 4th. I had plans to detonate a few more of those freight-truck fireworks with my college buddy Doug. I had gotten those as a gift for Doug and his two-year-old son.
In Ohio, where I’m originally from, it was a rite of passage to explode shit on the 4th of July with family. Flares, streamers, rockets, and poppers were a bonding experience. But Doug stated that I should come over just before going to Mariko’s party, which would still give me about two hours to fill.
“You guys can come along if you like,” Brandon offered.
“Sure, let’s go.”
Brandon bought a case of Sam Adams and called an Uber. We walked Mariko to her place and got in the car just as the rains subsided.
Brandon, Ganti, and I arrived in a beautiful storefront building with an apartment on the second and third floors, in picturesque Old Town Alexandria. Mitch and Danni welcomed us. Danni was originally from Mexico and her cousin, whose name I forgot, helped introduce us to Mitch and Danni’s baby girl. Danni and her cousin had such lyrical accents. And the baby daughter smiled at just about everything said around her. Mitch and Danni also had an energetic son, Martin, who zoomed around every corner of the apartment. With a bit of sprinkling rain, Mitch endured the elements on his deck and grilled some tasty burgers, sausage and corn. Danni demonstrated how to prepare Elote, or grilled corn that’s traditionally served at roadside stands, with mayonnaise, chili powder, and a squeeze of lime.
We grabbed another Uber and doubled back to Washington, D.C. We dropped Ganti off at Mariko’s place just before going over the river; he wanted to help prepare for the party. The fireworks understandably frightened Doug’s two-year-old son, Justin, so Doug’s wife took their son inside their apartment. Doug, also a native son of Ohio, answered the call of tradition and proceeded to blow shit up with Brandon and me.
Just three guys, drinking home-brewed beer and lighting fuses like there was no tomorrow. ‘Merica!
Brandon had plans to meet up with his wife at another location in D.C. to see the fireworks, so I arrived back in Rosslyn to attend Mariko’s fete, instead. I had my third meal of the day, vegetarian spaghetti, and enjoyed glasses of wine with her friends. Almost everyone was from somewhere else, which not only represented my day, but pretty much represented my life in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital.
This country isn’t perfect. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago that my grandparents and mother had the right to vote and not have a segregated life sanctioned by law. It was only within the last decade that Federal judges began allowing gay people to marry those they loved, while other states still haven’t enforced this policy. At least once a season, there are news reports about police officers killing unarmed black people. And undocumented immigrants are treated like a pariah. So yes, the United States has numerous problems.
At the same time, I take pride in the fact that our nation came from a place of almost insurmountable adversity. They toughed it out for a “more perfect union.” Not perfect, mind you. But seeking something “more perfect.” America’s success didn’t come from “being the best” or “being number one!” Instead it came from a group of gentlemen farmers, renaissance men, and slave owners, white guys wanting to try out an experiment in democracy. The concept is saturated in enough hypocrisy to keep barstool intellectuals busy for an entire lifetime.
And yet, centuries later, this nation of mutts, composed of Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans are still building upon that trembling foundation that continues to stand despite its imperfections.
We stand, despite our imperfections.
That doesn’t make the United States the best country in the world. I’m hesitant to call any country the best country in the world. But we are a unique and tenacious lot. And the world is so much better for it.
Mariko’s roommate believes that watering their houseplants with malt liquor helps them grow better. I can’t make this up, people.