No Christmas at the Happy Panda

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      What’s an angsty Chinese guy to do when his wry Jewish non-girlfriend leaves him lonely during the holidays?

      Ellie Simmons didn’t wear makeup and had thick, sideways-sprouting hair that was the colour of dark chocolate. She slouched around campus in a leather trench coat, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and drove an unreliable Mazda GLC. It was 1994. We were 19 when we first met outside the university library. She made fun of me for reading a collection of poetry by Leonard Cohen. “Guys only read poetry to impress women,” she said with her characteristic scorn. “You would do better if you wore a clean shirt and looked me in the eye.”

      Somehow I made a comeback that day. It turned out I had an imported Vaselines LP she coveted, and she insisted we meet again the next week over a bowl of Vietnamese noodles. Soon, we were inseparable. We became the non-couple who sneered and hunched in unison, barely noticeable but still omnipresent—the algae in the social ecosystem. On weekends, Ellie would pick me up after my shift at the Happy Panda, the North Vancouver restaurant my parents owned, and we’d watch a double bill at the Paradise or catch a band at the Town Pump.

      Still, Ellie, who’d transferred from McGill that fall, was unyielding in her belief that my hometown was a backwater. “Why is it that people here dress the way people in Montreal dress only when they’re helping their friends move?” she would say. “Why is it that I smell more Drakkar Noir than cigarette smoke when I walk down the street? Why is it that no one here can take a joke?” I couldn’t help but take it personally.

      After all, she was in love with Anton, the guy she left back in Quebec. He was an actor and a part-time juggler with a faintly tragic aura. “Anton has a disease only two people in the world have,” she explained to me. “And they named it after the other dude.”

      The term came to an end. As our exams wound down, Ellie began getting ready to return home. Being Jewish, she adhered to the ad hoc tradition of catching a movie and eating Chinese food on Christmas. What else was there to do? She and her dreamier, younger sister took turns picking movies. One year, it was The Godfather: Part III; the next, it was Beauty and the Beast. After, they’d get hot and sour soup and fried rice.

      “I always felt a little cheated,” she told me the night before she left. We were outside the Pig & Whistle, right after the old lady who ran the place kicked us out for swearing—swearing! “I wanted the turkey, the tinselly tree, the stockings, the tacky sweaters—all that stuff.”

      “You felt cheated?” I said to her. “I still have to work that day—serving your people dinner.”

      “This year it’ll be different,” she insisted, rolling a cigarette. “Anton’s having me over this Christmas to at least one of his parents’ dinners. His alcoholic uncle actually goes hunting for the goose they eat. I’m so excited, I’m wearing lipstick!”

      It was snowing for the first time that year, and we chose to linger outside and watch inept drivers slide helplessly into each other in slow-motion: it was guilt-free rubber-necking. Standing on Cordova Street, we exchanged gifts. I’d bought her a mickey of bourbon. She gave me a mix tape full of Christmas songs written or performed by Jewish singers. On one side, there were tracks from Neil Diamond’s two Christmas albums, “Merry Christmas” by the Ramones, and “Xmas in February” by Lou Reed. On the other, she had dubbed standards like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Mel Tormé and “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin. Neither theme took up an entire side of the 90-minute tape, so she filled the rest of the tape with non-Christmas songs by Jewish acts like KISS, the Modern Lovers, and T.Rex.

      In her most pedantic mood, Ellie explained that most contemporary Christmas classics were actually written by Jewish songwriters. “It’s funny how you can be such a big part of something you don’t belong to,” she said.

      I could have pointed out to her that we were the same way, a big part of each other’s lives but neither of us belonging to the other—except I was too timid or not quick-witted enough.

      “I think Jews are to music what the Chinese are to food,” I replied instead, as a Toyota MR2 skidded between lanes. “We give the people what they want.”

      Ellie flew home and I returned to work at the Happy Panda, bussing and bartending. My parents ran the kind of Chinese restaurant that set forks and knives on its tables. Tasselled lanterns hung from the ceiling and giant fans and fighting swords decked the walls. My memories of Christmas involved sitting behind the pagoda-style serving counter beside a tub of fortune cookies, nursing an orange pop and an Encyclopedia Brown book, while my parents and my older brother, Wayne, welcomed in the Levys, the Franks, the Cantors, the Bergmanns, the Lenzes.

      None of these Jewish families seemed to mind that our menu wasn’t anything approaching kosher. In fact, most of them ordered the Panda Feast, a set meal that included deep-fried prawns and honey-garlic spareribs. “It’s a special day,” someone once explained to my older brother. “Is that soy or MSG in the sauce?”

      All week, I thought of young Ellie Simmons noshing on spareribs and chow mein. Then I thought of Ellie Simmons as she probably was at that very moment, drinking eggnog at her sickly boyfriend’s house.

      To paraphrase a Russian writer, I had a toothache in my soul. It became important for me to get away from the Happy Panda that Christmas. Some friends of mine, who didn’t have the money or the time off to go home for the holidays, decided they would throw an “orphan’s” Christmas dinner on the 25th. Everyone was expected to chip in five bucks to pay for the turkey and to bring a side dish and their own booze. I accepted the invite.

      On the 25th, I spent the afternoon serving lunch to the Brownsteins, who were leaving on a Maui vacation in the new year, and the Cohn-Meyers, whose son was back after a year on a kibbutz. Then I returned to the back room to change out of my work clothes. My parents and my brother, who had been visibly crestfallen when I told them I’d made other plans for the evening, gathered around me, trying their best to feel happy about my outing.

      My mother fussed with my tie as her eyes moistened. “Don’t eat too much,” she told me. “When they pass you food, say thank you.”

      My brother insisted I bring a bottle of scotch, and my dad foisted on me takeout boxes full of spring rolls and deep-fried won tons.

      “You’re not drinking soup, are you?” my mother asked as I was set to leave.

      I shook my head.

      “White people think it’s rude when you slurp.”

      I caught the Seabus and then a bus to a rented house in Dunbar. When I arrived, there were a dozen people in festive finery gathered around a table full of food. “Where’s your Siamese twin?” the host asked, referring to Ellie. With as much nonchalance as I could muster, I threw my jacket in his face and served myself a glass of scotch.

      Without Ellie, I felt like someone riding a tandem bike alone, but I did my best to mingle. The mood in the room was lighthearted. People were sad to be away from their families, and yet everyone was making do.

      The more time I spent with them, the more I realized that I had no reason to feel sorry for myself. My parents and brother were just miles away. In a few hours, when the last customers left around 11, my father would gather our family and the staff and they’d share a piece of steamed fish, some poached duck and crispy pork, a plate of gai lan, and some rice. Some of the staff would pour out shots of Moutai—the Chinese equivalent of mescal, which Richard Nixon sampled on his visit to China—into teacups and pass them around. Last year, my brother had gagged when he tried it. This year would’ve been the first time I was offered a taste.

      Dinner began. We took plates from a stack at the end of the table and served ourselves, then found spots to eat on the living-room couch and the floor. At some point, the music stopped. I put Ellie’s mix tape on the stereo.

      A Leonard Cohen song called “Tonight Will Be Fine” was playing when the doorbell rang. It was the tune Ellie had tacked onto the very end of the tape, and while it wasn’t Christmas-themed, it suited the mood of the night for me: “I choose the rooms that I live in with care, / the windows are small and the walls almost bare / there’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer; / I listen all night for your step on the stair.” The song was wry and cynical, but also reflexively romantic—just like her. And I could drink to that.

      When Ellie Simmons stepped into the room, she brought with her a chill from outside like a bad memory. I had never seen her wearing lipstick before; strangely, it made her seem younger. Under her leather trench coat, she had on a red sweater that depicted reindeer and a sleigh flying over a city skyline. In my mind, the music stopped playing and everyone at the party stepped back, as though they were clearing a path for us.

      She strained to achieve her regular bravado. “Why is it that you’re so hard to find when I need you?” she asked me, her voice cracking. “Normally, I can’t get rid of you.”

      Later, she would confess to me that Anton had dumped her only minutes after she stepped off the plane, and that her father was declaring bankruptcy. All her friends in Montreal, she added, had become chattering cokeheads.

      In the months to come with Ellie, there would be days and nights full of hesitation and indecision and anguish and, when all the options were exhausted, a sense of doom. But now, 14 years later, I prefer to dwell on that moment, when I was so close to getting what I wanted for Christmas.