If you’ve ever been unemployed for a while, particularly in the middle of winter with no car, you’ll be familiar with that point at which you lose all sense of proportion. You become one of those people. People who care deeply about their lawns. People who haunt Facebook, posting blurry pictures of their breakfast (“Waffles AND bacon! Crazy!”), commenting relentlessly on other people’s posts, other people who don’t reply because it’s two in the afternoon, they have real jobs, and to be honest they’re a little sick of you. You’ll spend hours shuffling your CD collection because you can’t decide whether release date or album color would be a better organizational system. You’ll start explaining the plot of Korean soap operas to your dog, because you’re afraid otherwise you’ll forget how to form words. It’s like being Tom Hanks in Cast Away, except he couldn’t annoy people via email.
Which is a long way of saying “I got dolled up and went grocery shopping with Mr. Cloud Ring.” Shopping is very exciting for me, not only because I love food like nuns love Jesus, but also because it’s my only legitimate reason for putting nice pants on. (This is why your housebound grandmother does her makeup before she gets the mail.) I thought it was an excellent opportunity to wear my “Pound Mary.”
Pound Mary is a brown, shapeless dress-vest-thing I found at the Salvation Army. It’s made of some kind of scritchy brown fabric. It’s cut far too tight below the waist, and very generously proportioned above. The buttons are horrific, plastic affairs spangled with rhinestones. But the label says “Pound Mary,” so obviously it’s one of my treasured possessions. Feeling like a million yuan, and looking like a paper bag that had been attacked by the 80’s, I figured it would be a good day to visit my imaginary Chinese grandmother. (Imaginary in the sense that I would like for her to be my grandmother. She does actually exist.)
My imaginary Chinese grandmother is the lady who owns our local Asian grocery. Well, I don’t know if she owns it, but she’s the only member of her family who speaks English, so she runs the register. It’s absolutely my favorite place to shop. I only recognize about half of what they stock. Most of the labels are in Chinese, Japanese or Korean, and the English tends to be unhelpful. (“Elementary Noodle.”) There’s a wall of dried medicinal herbs in bags, mostly labeled with Latin names, and a rack of Chinese patent medicines I want very badly to buy, but I have no idea what they are or what they do, and I’m afraid I might get up to the register with a bottle of incontinence pills. It’s also very soothing. My imaginary Chinese grandmother is a devout Pure Land Buddhist, so at the checkout is a little display of Amida Buddha icons and charms, which she gives out for free. A little television behind the register plays an eminent-looking monk, lecturing. The subtitles are in Chinese, but his voice is quite calming, and he is always happy. She plays a CD of sing-songy chanting through the store speakers. Whenever I shop there I spend the rest of the day humming that little ditty. She must drive her family nuts.
I spent a good 20 minutes deciding which soy sauce to buy. Seriously, twenty feet of soy sauces. I ended up picking the one with the prettiest name and calling it good. (“Pearl River Bridge.”) When we got up to the register she greeted us with her usual good cheer.
“Hi!” she said. “What’s the matter with your face?”
I touched my fingers to my cheeks, trying to look like a delicate princess. “I have sensitive skin.”
This is where your average, middle-aged woman would pick up on “sensitive” and start telling you about her new gluten intolerance, or her favorite $50 facial scrub made out of organically farmed mung bean husks. To tell the truth, the average middle-aged woman would not ask about your face, because if there’s one thing we white women are good at it’s awkwardly avoiding discussions of obvious things like someone’s acne flair-up.
“You have acne?” she asked.
“You drink dandelion tea?”
“Very good for acne! My son have acne, very bad! He drinks dandelion tea, it goes away.” She disappeared behind the register and came back with a bag of dried leaves, which she placed in my hands. “Put this in water, maybe seven liters? In a large pot.” She mimed the size of the pot. “Boil for 45 minutes, then strain. Drink tea, every day drink a liter. It will wash out all your bad things. You pee a lot! If bad not come out, comes out in skin.”
“Thank you!” I said. The bag was definitely dandelions. I could see dried puff balls, and little serrated leaves.
“My son had a cough.” she continued. “He coughed for three months, doctors couldn’t do anything! I told him to drink this, he didn’t want to. He says he doesn’t like it cold.” She made a face. “I said, neither do I! Put it in microwave, heat it up, I say ‘Drink this,’ and three days later…” We were on tenterhooks. “He coughs once!”
At this point I was completely sold, and ready to pay the $3.99 for a bag of what was basically dried weeds. But she took the bag from my hands and put it in with my shopping. “This is for you,” she said. “Drink this at home, don’t drink at work. You will pee a lot.”
So, well instructed and a little teary-eyed, we said thank you and went home. I fetched out my big pot and boiled my dandelions like my imaginary Chinese grandmother taught me. It didn’t smell too bad – like a mix of spinach and hay. Mr. Cloud Ring looked in the pot and noted that drinking seven liters of anything will make you pee a lot. This is true, but you have to listen to your imaginary grandmother. She once told me that goji berries are “very good for eyes and kidneys,” and I haven’t had a kidney go bad yet, so she must know something. It’s worth noting here that if anyone else had suggested I flush out “toxins” with an herbal tea I would have given them such a withering look their great-grandchildren would have lost weight.
When the dandelion had finished boiling it looked like a horrible mass of rotten seaweed, and a bit of fine sand had settled at the bottom. (Exotic Chinese sand? We lacked the forensic equipment to find out.) I ladled out several large pots of tea, and I am now sipping my way to a clearer skinned me. Of course this means I can’t go shopping for soy sauce until I have beautiful skin, because I don’t dare disappoint my imaginary grandmother. But it’s good to have goals.
Coming up next: My Imaginary Chinese Grandmother II: The Ong.