“Two cups of bubble milk tea please,” I say to the waitress behind the cash register at Five Degrees, a small teahouse in Chinatown. There are only a few tables in the café. The decoration is simple with only a price list on either wall. I pick up the two regular green milk teas from the waitress and sit down next to the window with my friends. There are many different kinds of flavors for milk tea: orange, apple, coconut, and black tea, among others. I prefer green tea mixed with milk and regular chewy tapioca balls. I put the straw into the milk tea and start to drink. It is the same kind of milk tea I used to drink in China. Everything tastes the same, but there is something missing in the milk tea. I wonder what is missing, and then I remember the woman who owned the snack shop next to my elementary school and the way she smiled at me.
I grew up in a small city called Zhongshan in the southern part of China, along the Pearl River in Guangdong Province. The city was once known as Xiangshan, which means “Fragrant Mountain.” It was named after the mountain that overlooks the city and is covered with flowering trees. After the Cultural Revolution, the name was changed to Zhongshan, named after revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. I spent my childhood and went to elementary school in this city beneath the mountain of flowering trees. Next to my elementary school, there is a snack shop with a large banyan tree towering over it. This was an important place to me and my friends, not only because of the delicious snacks but also because it was a place where I liked to hang out with my friends as a child. In many ways the snack shop represents my childhood life.
The snack shop is one room with three different areas. One area is for making curry fish balls, made from ground fish mixed with curry spices and fried in hot oil. Another is for selling bubble milk tea, which is called “pearl” tea in China for the chewy tapioca balls that are added to the milk tea. The third area is for selling chips, gum, pencils, notebooks, and erasers, among other things. In front of the snack shop there are two wooden tables for people to eat breakfast at. The shop sells chow mein noodles, pork porridge, and rice rolls in the morning. The chow mein is made with thin rice noodles and beef, and sometimes you can add pork dumplings to the noodles if you want. I loved going there to eat breakfast every morning, because it was close to school and the food was cheap and delicious. The woman with the nice smile who owned the snack shop was my relative, my grandmother’s brother’s wife. When we were at school, my grandfather would come to the snack shop and play chess with other seniors. The snack shop was a popular place for children and adults. It was a hub that many people passed through each day.
After school would get out, groups of kids bought snacks. They would surround the kind shopkeeper, my relative, so she would offer me a cup of green milk tea with regular chewy tapioca balls in secret. I’d go there with my friend to buy snacks. Sometimes we would eat them while walking home together or sometimes we would climb up the banyan tree next to the snack shop and sit in the branches to eat. We liked to pretend that the tree was our house and each branch was a room. We would gather leaves and flowers from the park at school and pretend that we were doctors. The flowers and the leaves became our “medicinal material” and we would practice our own childhood version of Chinese medicine by mincing all the plant material together in our “room.” My friend NaNa would pretend she was hurt and come to me for help. I’d take out an eraser from my pencil case, pretending it was alcohol, and apply it to NaNa’s fake wound. Then I would apply some “Chinese medicine” I made on her wound, and finally, I would use some tape as a bandage to finish “healing” her wound. NaNa would pay me with a candy instead of money. Some days we would play hide-and-go-seek under the banyan tree. We always had fun at the snack shop in the summer when it was hot and rained heavily. Sometimes the water in the streets would get so high it reached up to my knees.
On rainy days, my friends Xiaoyan and NaNa and I would pretend the umbrella was our shield. We would stand next to the street while the cars went by and use the shield to ward off the water. I remember one time while we were playing the “shield game,” my friends and I used the umbrella to catch a fish that was floating in the water rushing down the road. It was a gray baby fish that came down from a lake in the mountains. There were many fish that came down from lakes up in the hills, which overflowed during the rainstorms. I put the fish in my hand and Xiaoyan ran to the snack shop to ask for a plastic bag. Then we put the fish into the plastic bag with water. I saw that we weren’t the only ones to catch a fish that day, and many people had even gotten buckets to catch fish in the streets. I took the fish to my grandmother’s home and put it into the fish tank to keep as a pet.
When I was fourteen, I immigrated to San Francisco with my family. I remember stepping off of the airplane and feeling that the air was really fresh and noticing how the sky was blue, very blue. Everything is different in the United States. For example, in school there are people from many different countries speaking different languages. I have had the chance to learn about lots of different cultures and meet new people. I like going
to school in the United States, but at the beginning there were times when I felt discrimination from native speakers because of my accent and my beginner’s English. I felt lonely at the beginning, mostly because of my language skills. It was hard for me to fit into the community. I remember sitting in class on my first day of school in the United States listening to the teacher speaking English. It was just like hearing a bird singing, and I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics. All I could do in the classroom was pray to God that the teacher didn’t pick on me to answer the questions.
After studying in the United States and listening to other people speaking English, my English improved. The turning point came when I got a job at AT&T Park. I worked at a cart, where I made coffee drinks and sold ice cream. By talking to the customers and selling them coffee drinks, I changed from a shy girl who was afraid to talk to others in English to one actively engaged with customers. Becoming more fluent in English opened my heart and for the first time made me feel like I am part of the Unites States family. I can now fluently understand the teacher and communicate with any native English speaker. Every time I felt lonely or like an outsider when I first immigrated to the United States, my memories from the snack shop were what supported me and warmed my heart.
I remember all these things while drinking milk tea in San Francisco’s Chinatown and it makes me feel warm but sad at the same time. Even though I drink the same milk tea and play hide-and-seek with my friends today, it is never the same as my childhood because we are growing older and changing every day. My memories from the snack shop give me power when I am feeling down and they are always with me. I stop dreaming about the snack shop when I hear my friend yelling at me from the doorway: “Yutong! It is time to go, we are going to miss the Muni bus!” Nothing lasts forever, but having these memories in my heart makes growing up easier.