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Bad Memories in Little Chinatown 

Wednesday, Aug 12 2009

Why do negative memories stay with us longer than positive ones? I was recently walking through Chinatown, and remembered being there with my parents when I was a child. I'm sure there were many nice things that happened on that trip, and to be fair, I do recall a few. But I also flashed back to buying a fan. It was one of those cheapo ones that can be folded and unfolded, with a gold tassel hanging from the handle and some Asian scene painted on the span. We walked out into the street, and I immediately set to zipping it open like a Shanghai princess. It was harder to do than I thought, so I forced it a little, and the fan broke. (As it turns out, I was "opening" it the opposite way I was supposed to.) Well, my dad freaked and yelled at me, and I felt really dumb and bad. I cried.

What really gets me is that to this day, every time I am in Chinatown, that same memory comes back. Surely there were more traumatic things that I could dredge up from my past, so why this one? Why did it stick in my mind? Biologists would say that memories are an important part of our adaptation as a species. We conjure up the bad shit so we won't do it again, so we will presumably manage better in the future. For example, our Cro-Magnon self eats a berry from a bush and gets violently ill. After that, we no longer eat random berries from bushes. Thus we live to reproduce another day.

One result of all this programming is that we tend to dwell on the bad shit and take the good stuff for granted. Another is that I have never bought anything in Chinatown since. I also tend to examine things more thoroughly before I use them. As for the being yelled at — well, it took a lot of therapy to realize that my dad was being a jerk and I was just being a little kid.

Last week Chinatown was chockfull of Hello Kitty products, dim sum restaurants, and European tourists. Just like Fisherman's Wharf, it seems few people who spend time in the neighborhood actually live in San Francisco. Walking down Grant, I passed Germans, Italians, Brits, and Frenchmen. Suffice it to say that any bar you go into during happy hour will be host to all of these folks.

I went to Buddha on the corner of Grant and Washington. The place looks fantastic from the outside, with a cool neon sign and pagoda filigree. Inside a Dutch couple was drinking Heinekens, while two visiting Americans (from the looks of things, I'd say they were from the Midwest) were enjoying a few Coors Lights.

The interior of Buddha is sort of a letdown when you compare it to the exterior. I was anticipating a rich, velvet-tinged opium den, but instead got a rather pedestrian lounge. Its owners are trying, though: There are Asian murals of dragons and cherry blossoms, and the art is extremely, er, "outsider," meaning "done by someone not very good." Bamboo struts hold up the awning over the bartender. The rest of the place is simply one room with stools. If no one puts money in the classic-rock jukebox, no music gets played. In the back is a metal door that buzzes open to allow customers to use the facilities.

I ordered a drink that came with a maraschino cherry. Now, most times when you get a drink with a cherry in it, you pick the thing out and put it on your napkin. Maraschinos are generally disgusting and rancid, having been left out on a dish for days, months, or years. However, I told myself, I was in Chinatown, the home of the Singapore Sling and all those other drinks that require a maraschino. This place had to have a pretty high cherry turnover rate, right? Chances are this would be a good maraschino. I stopped thinking and quickly popped it into my mouth. The initial taste was very nice, but then my tongue started to tingle and burn, and a flavor that can only be described as treacly carrion began to move to the forefront of my senses. I spit it out rather loudly and stifled a gag. Disgusting!

The French guy next to me shot me a rude look. Whatevs.

The Midwest couple were talking on a cellphone to their son, who I got the impression was back at the hotel. "You want us to find the nearest IHOP?" his mom asked. I looked at the bartender, a rather unassuming woman, and felt sorry for her. She must serve nothing but foreigners and dorky Americans all day long. That must get old.

Then a younger American couple, also tourists, wandered in and sat down. He was wearing a backwards baseball hat and she was wearing a Juicy sweatshirt. "Can I get one of those Chinese beers?" he asked. The bartender held up a Tsing Tao to make sure that was what he meant. He nodded. When in Rome, as they say. The gal looked at the beer warily — she needed to taste it before she committed. It looked pretty strange. She tried it and found it to be extremely, well, Chinese, I guess, so she ordered a Coors Light instead. (I'm assuming that this place goes through a ton of the Silver Bullet each week.)

There was something transient to this bar, like a hotel room. People came and went and made it their temporary home for a small portion of their lives. There was nothing permanent here. The buzz of the door to the bathroom sounded like a prison before the night's synchronized lockup.

This is why tourist traps are usually so bad. They don't need to keep you coming back; they just need you to really go for it the one time.

As for us locals, I realized how important a first impression of a place can be. If I were having a wonderful experience, I would most likely return to spend more money. But if I had a bad or mediocre time, as I was having right then, I would probably never come back. The bar would be lodged into my memory card forever.

One thing's for sure. No matter where I am, I shall probably never eat another maraschino cherry.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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