My Unaccountable Happy Place: Asian Markets

My friend Chelsea and I visited an Asian market in Santa Rosa on Friday.

I may as well start off by saying that I don’t have any Asian street cred.  I’m not part Asian.  I haven’t been to any Asian countries.  I haven’t formally studied Asian culture and as a person raised vegetarian there has always been a huge barrier between me and traditional Asian foods (I consume zero seafood or even vegetation derived from the sea).  So when I tell you that my happy place is in Asian markets, know that it isn’t about me trying to be cool or delightfully exotic.

I was born in San Francisco and my first 8 years of life I lived in the Bay Area (San Francisco, larkspur, Berkeley, El Cerito, and Richmond) and at some point China Town had to have made a deep impression on me because there’s never been a time when I didn’t know its streets and wares and smells and associate it with enchantment, amusement, color, and comfort.

When I moved to the city with my friend Carrie I would get away from our cramped studio apartment by hiding in China Town or at the park across the street from Grace Cathedral.  These were (and still are) my two favorite places to go to ground, though I’m not close enough to them any more to get lost in them.  I spent a lot of time in a quiet park between Grant and Kearney where the people who actually live in China Town eat their brown bagged lunches during lunch breaks.  There was a pigeon-shit covered statue there.  I smoked endless cigarettes as I meditatively practiced several different handwriting fonts I made up.  My favorite was a left leaning one that took much practice.

I can’t say why I have found such pleasure and peace in an environment full of Chinese people selling cheap wares and yelling at each other.  I don’t know how a vegetarian finds such comfort and familiarity in a place where windows are hung with headless rabbits and hens with the air full of fish scale.  Does one have to know why?  The shops full of strange herbs and shriveled fungi smelling of dust and mothballs has always felt like a landing place to me.

I can’t eat 85% of what I see in Asian markets because of the ubiquitous shrimp paste and fish sauce.  Asian markets are full of strange and wonderful jars of foods with provoking names like “Sago”.  I hear “sago balls” rolling around in my head and though I fear giant tapioca balls I can’t help but also be charmed by them.

Even for a vegetarian there are treasures here.  I once lived in a sweet little apartment with one of my favorite people in the world who I’ve known since I was fourteen years old.  We lived on fifth and Clement right next to the Happy Super.  Our apartment was owned by a psychotic landlady named Mrs. Lee.  The fish trucks dumped their slurry of fish juice and guts right under my second story window.  The whole butchered pigs would parade out of trucks from the same spot under my fascinated eye.

I loved that apartment.  I loved my room mate who was always fifteen times cooler than I could ever be.  I loved living next to the Happy Super.  I shopped there for cheap vegetables, Thai tea, canned goods, and any other interesting things I could pick up like a happy magpie.  I would troll the isles for interesting packaging, for creepy vacuum packed plastic bags of eyeballs or dessicated shrimp that I would never buy but which filled my eyes and mind with wonder.

I will never be one of those worldly jaded people who has been everywhere and become spiritually international, as cool as the continental drift.  I’m interested in the world I live in and ALL the people in it but  especially Chinese and Russian people.  I will never be able to explain this – I’m not obsessed with Chinese culture or Russian culture but the languages and the people I meet from each and the groceries… it’s really all about the groceries if I’m being honest.

Asian markets are my happy place.  I may not have any Asian street cred but this is where I find simple joy.

I loved seeing the cans of goose-fat and boiled potatoes in the Glasgow markets and certainly Scotland is my favorite place on earth besides where I live now – but nothing will ever compare to the mixed aroma of eastern spices, aged produce, and shipping pallets that assault you in the isles of Asian markets.

Where the hell else can you find Kewpie Mayonnaise?

It makes me so HAPPY.

Santa Rosa has two Asian markets that I know of so far and all the pictures in this post were taken at the one at the corner of Fulton and Guerneville Road.  Can you argue with “smiling fish”?  Other things my friend Chelsea and I found were dumpling presses, frozen lime leaves, African flours and spices, jarred bringal pickles, black mustard seeds, guava jam, dried Indian pulses, galangal root (which I bought for Thai red curry), frozen whole fish,  birthday candles, peculiar Chinese biscuits and British teas.

Where’s your happy place?  What colors dominate it, what smells do you associate with it?  Where does your curiosity catch fire and your sense of time disappears?