Trip to Chicago

This past weekend I took a mini road trip to Chicago to visit my first and oldest friend. Hana is a professor of history and Asian American studies on the East Coast (check out Campu, her podcast on Japanese American incarceration!), but she’s spending the month doing archival research in Chicago, which is not so very far from central Iowa. I left Grinnell on Friday afternoon and drove east on I-80 (it was only my second time doing so; the first was on my single visit to Iowa City). At one point, I noticed a billboard for the World’s Largest Truckstop, but I didn’t think much of it. Eventually, I was getting a little low on gas, and I saw a sign for plentiful gas stations, so I decided to get off at the next exit. Only when I was on the ramp did I realize I was arriving at the World’s Largest Truckstop. It was practically a campus. I filled my tank and nipped into the nearest building, which housed a vast gift shop and a food court. I’m sure there were many amenities, but there were a lot of semis, and I made a mental note not to stop here for gas on the way back.

A mural at the World’s Largest Truckstop

I-80 in Illinois was quite pleasant (fewer big rigs). There was a big slowdown on the freeway into Chicago (typical rush hour, probably), but I finally arrived at Hana’s building in the South Loop. After dropping off my stuff and briefly meeting her dog, Bertie, I drove us to Avondale so we could eat dinner at Staropolska, a restaurant one of Hana’s friends had recommended. We ordered the Staropolska salad (with dried cranberries, goat cheese, and pickled beets), the potato pancakes, and the potato and cheese pierogi. The salad and potato pancakes were delicious; I found the pierogi a bit dense, though they tasted good. We shared the apple cake for dessert. It was more turnover-like, with sliced apples cooked between layers of pastry. There was cream on top, as well as scattered grapes and a dusting of powdered sugar. It was also very good.

On Saturday morning, we headed out toward Printers Row. We stopped in an Asian bakery called Sweet Bean just to look around, and then Hana grabbed a pistachio doughnut next door at Stan’s Doughnuts (unrelated to the Stan’s Doughnuts by UCLA, which, alas, has apparently closed!). We stumbled upon the Printers Row farmers market, which had lots of intriguing stands (tamales, honey, a savory pastry called “the love child of a sexy empanada and a hot muffin,” bean pie, and more). Then we visited Sandmeyer’s Bookstore. It was a nice shop with hardwood floors, ample natural light from large windows, and a single spacious room for all the sections. I ended up buying The Way Spring Arrives: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation. I recognized the cover from Twitter because I follow one of the translators. Sandmeyer’s SFF section wasn’t that extensive, but they had this!

We walked north toward our next destination, but we were on the lookout for something quick to eat. We stopped in a coffee shop called Happy Monday and bought Texas-style kolaches with egg, spinach, and feta. (Iowa is full of kolaches too. They’re a food of Czech immigrants, and multiple vendors at the Grinnell farmers market sell them, in a variety of fruit flavors. I haven’t found the ones I’ve tried to be particularly impressive. Our savory kolaches were filled buns, not flat, danish-like pastries like the sweet kolaches in Iowa.)

We arrived at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in what seemed to be the theater district, right on time. We’d come to see the film 80 Years Later, a documentary about two Japanese American elders who were incarcerated during World War II and their intergenerational conversations with their children and grandchildren. The showing was a partnership with and benefit for Chicago’s Japanese American Service Committee, which was founded to help with Japanese Americans’ post-war resettlement and today offers a range of services and cultural opportunities. The movie was under an hour long. Its central figures were Kiyoko Fujiu and Robert Tadashi Shimizu, who lived in Chicago and Cincinnati, respectively, after their incarceration. Kiyoko and Robert are first cousins. While the film did touch on their experiences and those of their parents during the war, it was very much not a Japanese American incarceration 101 story. Instead, it focused more on their coming to terms with what they endured, the experiences of their often mixed race children and grandchildren, and the reverberations of that traumatic history through the generations. 

After the screening, a local professor moderated a panel with the crew and cast of 80 Years Later. The crew members included the film’s director, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, who is Robert’s daughter-in-law. The Chicago cast members were Kiyoko, her daughter Jean, and two of her grandsons. The moderator had a few questions, and then she took several questions from the audience. Hana asked the last one, about something Kiyoko had said in the film, namely, that when she was forcibly incarcerated, she felt rage that she couldn’t express because it wasn’t safe to do so. Hana wondered how she had come to a place of expressing it. In her answer, Kiyoko referred to a conversation she’d had with Mary Oliver, the poet! This answer aside, it was rather sobering to hear Kiyoko speak. She’s 97 years old, and she acknowledged that there’s a lot to despair of in the world (for instance, how the international community has handled a global pandemic). She more or less said she didn’t expect to live to see things get a whole lot better. But it wasn’t all hopeless. Another interesting thing she said was that she’d like to know what the impact of her telling her story to various audiences was. What happens after? How are people changed, and what does that lead to?

On our way out, Hana and I picked up some JASC swag (stickers and magnets, with their pretty lotus logo). Then we made our way a little bit east and south. We saw the famous bean from outside Millenium Park. We walked over to Lake Michigan to stroll along the water, toward the Field Museum. (When I was in high school and our Quiz Bowl team went to nationals in Chicago, we walked a similar path! And when I came to Chicago to accept the Friends of American Writers’ Young People’s Literature Award for Sparkers, I stayed near Grant Park.) The color of Lake Michigan’s water in Chicago is always so pretty.

Sailboats on Lake Michigan

Next, we visited another bookstore: Exile in Bookville, inside the Fine Arts Building (which appears to house at least four or five luthiers!). This shop had very high ceilings and bookshelves that extended far above our heads. That and the fact that it comprised three smallish rooms gave Exile in Bookville a different feel from Sandmeyer’s. The selection was great, and we browsed and talked about books we’d read (or not) for a while. 

For dinner, we got takeout from Nepal House and ate it with Bertie (he wasn’t sharing the food) on the terrace of Hana’s building. We had butter chicken with rice, vegetable momos, naan, and mango lassis. Then we returned to her apartment to eat dessert while watching a movie. We’d ordered rasgulla and kheer (rice pudding). I’d never had rasgulla before, and the texture was unexpected and not quite to my liking. I enjoyed the kheer. We decided to watch Clueless to remedy a glaring gap in the list of cult movies I’d seen. It was entertaining (and I knew what the Valley was!). We also tried the Ovomaltine chocolate bar my Swiss second cousin had given me the previous weekend. After Clueless, Hana had me watch the first episode of A League of Their Own, about women baseball players during World War II. I liked it a lot, but it still won’t prod me into actually starting to watch TV.

On Sunday, we headed to Chicago Chinatown for dim sum at MingHin (which is a chain). There were no carts; instead, we checked what we wanted off a picture menu. We ordered har gow, radish cake, shrimp crepes, chicken and dried scallop steamed buns (which also had shrimp in them), sesame balls, and, obviously, egg tarts. (The menu had all the typical dishes I’m familiar with, as well as some that were new to me.) The har gow and sesame balls were both excellent. The radish cake was also great; it had much bigger chunks of radish than I’m used to, but it made the dish more vegetable-y. The egg tarts were perfect. We drank only tea.

After brunch, we explored the rest of the little mall the restaurant was in. We looked at the pastries in the Asian-style French bakery and peeked in a Chinese bakery too. There was a square with statues of all the animals of the Chinese zodiac, so we read the description for those born in the Year of the Horse, which Hana and I both are. It was similar to what’s on those ubiquitous Chinese restaurant placemats, and I’ve never thought it fit me very well. We crossed the street and went into an Asian grocery store. It looked like a convenience store from the outside and was fairly cramped, but there was a lot crammed inside, including fresh seafood. They were also selling discounted mooncakes. I didn’t get any mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival earlier this month, so I was interested in finding some in Chinatown, but the grocery store only had boxes containing four large mooncakes each, which was too much.

We walked under the Chinatown gate and down Wentworth Ave., which seems to be the neighborhood’s main commercial street. (One interesting thing about Chicago Chinatown is that there were a lot of Chinese flags flying.) We went into several more bakeries, most of which were selling similar items. One of them seemed to be a hangout for elderly Chinese men. Something that stood out to me was that most of the bakeries sold two kinds of egg tarts, one just called egg tarts and the other called Portuguese tarts (these looked more like pastéis de nata, with the blistered surface). I’m used to Asian bakeries only having one kind of egg tart, though they can vary in type, from the Cantonese dim sum ones to the more “deep-dish” ones I’d get at Taiwanese bakeries in LA. Anyway, Chiu Quon Bakery & Dim Sum had miniature mooncakes, so I bought one with lotus seed paste and also got a 粽子 for good measure.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to Hana and drive back to Iowa. I ate my 粽子 for dinner on Monday; it had mung beans, pork belly, Chinese sausage, and a salted egg yolk. I had the baby mooncake for dessert, and it was delicious too. Chiu Quon was cash only, and I think it must have been there that I picked up two shiny 2022 quarters I later found in my wallet. These brand new coins depict Wilma Mankiller, a former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and they have a couple words written in the Cherokee syllabary on them! 

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