• Ted Reyes

The Universal Language

There’s this phenomenal store on Canal and Mott that sells roasted meats that hung on hooks by their storefront window. Shiny roasted ducks and suckling pigs glow like stars inviting pedestrians to let go, surrender, and give-in to the power of deliciousness perfected for thousands of years.


And I being such a weak human, succumbed.


So I went in and came-face-to-face with the roast master himself. An aproned old man, probably in his 70s, with eyes that show the wisdom gathered after many years of wielding a clever chopping bones, flesh, and skin. Then he spoke in Cantonese.


I do not know Cantonese so naturally, I replied in English. The man shook his head. Lost in translation. Communication break down. I just wanted roast suckling pig.


So like everyone who is in a situation like this, I resorted to the tried-and-tested, evolutionary way to get messages across: I summoned my right index finger and started pointing. I pointed at the hunk of meat hanging on a hook and covered in bright red, crispy-looking skin. Now, the meats are far from the counter where I stood so my finger wasn’t touching the pig I was pointing at. Rather, there was a lot of space in between. A lot of air. What I hoped was that the tip of my finger would create an imaginary line that would end with roasted pig and that the master can follow and trace.


The master pointed at something else. A roasted chicken, which looked equally succulent. I shook my head.


I pointed at the pig again, this time thrusting my finger with more force for emphasis (I actually augmented this by “pointing" with my mouth, like I was kissing air but directed towards the pig, which was a stupid thing to do). Again, the master pointed at something else. A roasted goose. It was getting frustrating and I saw it from the master himself as well. He started sharpening his cleaver with a piece of granite.


But I wasn’t ready to give up. So I added more thrust to my pointing motion. The master, evidently angry at this point, started pointing at random meats, and for every wrong kind of meat, I would shake my head. This went on for a while. I was hoping he started with the pig first so we didn’t have to go through all the offerings.


After 10-minutes, he finally pointed at my coveted prize. I nodded in full, neck-breaking force.

The master smiled as he unhooked the meat and began chopping. I was careful not to utter any word nor create any sound to disrupt his focus.


After 10-minutes, it was done. He packed the pieces into a container and handed it over to me. I smiled and said: “Thank You.”


The master did not respond in Cantonese. But he did say two words in English. He said: “Good choice.”


#language #chinatown #nyc #food