Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Plaid Dragon

When I was a kid, traveling through small towns in eastern Oregon en route to various birding destinations, my family sometimes ate at a restaurant that had a dragon on the sign out front and served Chinese food. However, the dragon was plaid, I recall green and white but that was 35 years ago. The restaurant, with its menu of egg flower soup and chow mein, was called Scotty's.

In 1972, this strange juxtaposition was a true oddity and became a family joke. My mother would sometimes refer to plaid dragons when something seemed out of place. Today, cultural interpenetration has become so everyday that it takes a moment to notice things that hardly seem incongruous anymore. Yesterday, for example, I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant staffed entirely by Hispanics who referred to the the food (among themselves) in a mixture of languages. I don't know what the Spanish words for kung-pao chicken are, but "pollo" is a word that never saw Shanghai.

In June I was in Barrow, Alaska, which is 60 percent native Inupiat but otherwise boasts a remarkable mix. Right across the street from our motel was an excellent Korean restaurant whose owner (a first-generation immigrant Korean) brought us her home-made kimchee. Then we had lunch at a good Italian restaurant-also operated by a Korean family, serving Swedish tourists, German scientists and all other comers, just down the beach from the local Inupiat whale-roast and no great way from the North Pole.

I should not be surprised. This week I joined the U.S. branch of the Arthur Ransome society, an organization devoted to promoting the wonderful books of the British writer and encouraging children to enjoy the outdoors. The society mentions a bit about its own history, and it turns out that the first branch was not in Ransome's beloved Lake District. It wasn't in England at all. It wasn't even in an English-speaking country. It was in Japan.

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