Last week I decided it was time for another culture date, so with my trusty friend Bobbie I headed down to my old haunt, Buford Highway in Doraville, GA. Doesn’t it amaze you how you can live somewhere for years and never explore its nooks and crannies? Then all of a sudden you move away and that same place becomes foreign and exotic.
I had lived just a mile or two down the road for years from a shopping center called Ranch 99. I have no idea what the name means, but I must have passed it a thousand times and never stopped. Bobbie told me there was this incredible lipstick with aloe vera that she had bought years ago in that area, so our culture date began thus: in search of the Amazing Lip Balm.
Pulling into the Ranch 99 complex was like driving into Bangkok or Taipei. The shops around the circular parking lot represented Vietnam, Korea, China and more. There were noodle shops, gift stores filled with silk clothes, shoes and porcelain dolls, electronics shops, travel agencies, and an Asian bakery. I was back in time at once, stirring memories of late night tea on the streets of Thailand or India.
Our first stop was a Vietnamese bookstore, Le Phan. We browsed the titles, all in Vietnamese of course, which included a book about Bill Clinton. I wonder what they had to say about him?
After completing the rounds, I decided to talk to the store owner, an older woman in polyester.
“Are you from Vietnam?” I asked. I had no idea if she spoke English; some folks in this area go their whole lives in Doraville without learning the language.
“Yes,” she replied.
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh, about close to thirty years. I came here in 1978 and haven’t been back since.” I hadn’t seen that coming. What other assumptions did I have about her?
“You must miss your family,” I said. “I cannot imagine what that is like.”
She nodded and brushed back her dark hair. “Most of my family is here, but they are all over the U.S. My son went to Los Angeles and misses us a lot.”
We talked about the state of Vietnam today, and as I hear echoed around the world, things are changing fast there. She told us how her family used to live all together in the village, but now many of the girls are being married off to Koreans and beaten.
“You won’t hear it on the news here,” she pointed out. How many other people are forgotten stories, I wondered?
I asked if I could take her picture, but she politely refused. She told us where to get good noodles and I said I would visit her again sometime.
Next we went to a cosmetics/gift/clothes/sundries/the kitchen sink store in search of the elusive lipstick. Not only did they have it but they sold it in packs of twenty! While Bobbie talked with the salesperson, I crept around in the tightly packed merchandise; it was like a fort or a maze and I poked around the aisles looking at shoes and Chinese button down shirts.
By this time we were hungry, so we headed over to Pho Hua just a few doors down for Vietnamese food. The menu was completely incomprehensible, despite being in English. Having no idea what we ordered, we waited in anticipation.
Bobbie’s dish came out nowhere near her original order, and I got delicious looking noodle soup. The broth revived me and I sucked down the green vegetables, rice noodles and onion. Thick basil leaves permeated the soup with flavor and soul.
After stuffing ourselves, it was time to enter Oz itself: Ranch 99. The shopping center was named for the supermarket that stood at its pinnacle, and we entered with a cart and a desire to see squid tentacles or fish eyes. We were not disappointed. After perusing the vegetable aisle, we came to the meat counter. Among the pork livers, duck heads and cows ears, we discovered a translucent substance we plain didn’t recognize. A friendly butcher came to our rescue. He lumbered up to us and launched into an explanation:
“That is tripe,” he said. “Beef stomach. They call it book tripe, because it’s thin like paper. Look, I’ll show you.”
We barely had time to protest before he ripped open the package and encouraged us to touch it. He took out a piece which indeed looked like paper.
“Go on,” he said. “It’s okay.” Oddly enough I wanted to feel the tripe. It was not slimy or sticky, but dry and rather pleasing, with little lumps dotted on its surface.
I could imagine my husband coming home later.
“So, what did you do today, honey?”
“Oh, not much. Just felt up some beef stomach. How about you?”
The store was an adventure in itself, with whole dried cuttlefish, glutinous rice balls in every imaginable flavor, salted olives, shrimp shells, young coconuts, flavored tofu pudding, noodles of every shape and sweet smelling fruits.
As we passed the seafood counter, a woman dressed in African garb was plucking at live crabs with a pair of tongs.
“Be careful,” I said. “They’ll getcha, won’t they.”
“They won’t get me,” she replied. “I’m looking for the females with eggs. They are the best.” She showed us what to look for and continue flipping over hapless crabs as we walked on.
A tiny, wrinkled woman gave us our last lesson at the Ranch 99 school of culture: how to pick out a jack fruit. The problem is I don’t remember what she said. I think I was too fascinated by the experience to take in her words of fruit wisdom.
Our last stop was the bakery across the parking lot. Well, they call it a bakery, but it’s really more of a social hall. As we bought our cookies, we listened to about ten old men jabbering away in Vietnamese, laughing and shouting with smiles at the women behind the counter. They shouted back and it took fifteen minutes to ring up our two lone cookies.
I walked away exhilarated that all of this heart, soul and culture was right here in my own backyard. I got a glimpse of a whole different world and only had to drive fifteen minutes. In putting myself in slightly uncomfortable situations where I don’t fit in, I improve myself and my skills. What’s in your backyard?
Stay with me for the next adventure!