Before washing up in San Diego last year just in time for the Padres’ unremarkable season, I lived as an expatriate “gweilo” in Hong Kong for 20 years.

In Hong Kong, I cultivated a taste for exotic south China cuisine like blood cake, goose web and jellyfish. I memorized a sequence of scathing Cantonese obscenities; but, except when I backed a losing horse at the track, I never fully mastered their correct use. (Some of these expletives seem to perform the grammatical function of a comma, while others seem to be situation specific).

I also learned to appreciate the Chinese holidays: The Spring Festival with its lights and flowers, the Mid-Autumn Festival with its moon cakes and lantern parades. But most of all, I enjoyed Chinese New Year. The exchange of red “lai see” (lucky money) packets, the ubiquitous happiness and prosperity greeting of “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” the magnificent fireworks over the harbor, and, of course, the three day vacation became important annual rituals for me.

As Chinese New Year approached this year, I felt a tug of nostalgia for my old home and I began to wonder if there was anywhere nearby that might allow me to indulge my enthusiasm for this wonderful holiday.

In that frame of mind, I ran across an entry in my Lonely Planet Guide to Baja California: “Today’s Chinese population in Mexicali is around 2000, originating from Canton. It’s the largest Chinese population in Mexico. The “Asociacion China de Mexicali…organizes cultural events, the big one being Chinese New Year.”

“Great. Perfect,” I thought, “two birds with one stone. I can practice my fledging Spanish and ring in the Year of the Tiger in traditional style.”

Well, that’s what I thought before I arrived in Mexicali last week. I pushed through the revolving one-way metal gates and entered the parallel universe of the Mexican border zone. I had xeroxed my guidebook’s map in order to reduce the attention I would attract while stumbling around El Centro with an open guidebook.

I was seeking a street sign that would direct me to Avenida Juarez and the Chinese Association. I encountered two problems: First, most of the street signs were missing from their poles. Second, most of the few street markers that remained were bent in such a way as to direct you down the wrong street.

Luckily, Mexicali’s Chinatown, or “La Chinesca” is close to the border crossing. Through a series of trial and error attempts I began to see a profusion of Chinese language signs and Chinese restaurants and cantinas. My search was also aided by the guidebook’s report that La Chinesca is a red light district and once you are in it, even in daytime, you would never mistake it for anything else. Eventually I found Av. Juarez and the offices of the Association.

The Association’s office is only open a few hours a day on weekday mornings. Its exterior wall advertised a Mandarin language course and a few other cultural offerings, but I saw no evidence of preparation for the “big cultural event” of Chinese New Year.

A gold metal grate fronts the building’s entrance. Inside, a dim corridor leads to offices. A young woman of Chinese descent occupied the first office (unfortunately for her). She responded to by buenas dias in kind, but when I added Kung Hei Fat Choi she looked puzzled.

My Cantonese accent was always terrible, but surely, I thought, I couldn’t get that simple phrase so wrong. But still she looked at me like she was watching a burro singing opera. Then with a sudden spark of recognition, like: “Oh! He’s speaking Chinese!” she nodded.

My communication problems then began in earnest. I tried to explain in Spanish that I was interested in the Mexicali Fiesta of Chinese New Year. She said, “What fiesta?” At this point because of vocabulary limitations, I began to pantomime “parade” and “fireworks” and “banquet,” as I reverted to singing burro status in her startled eyes.

Luckily, she was either patient or sympathetic enough to stick it out long enough to grasp that I had lived in Hong Kong. Therefore I much enjoyed the festivities of Chinese New Year and I wanted to witness them in Mexicali.

Then she explained the situation. No, there is no parade. No, there are no fireworks. Yes, there is a banquet, but for some reason, it is held three weeks after Chinese New Year’s day. The banquet requires a ticket. It is for workers and officials of the Association and some Mexicali authority figures. Then she paused for a few seconds, as if trying to decide how to convey her final point tactfully, but she gave up and cut to the chase: “Pero esta fiesta no es para usted!”

That sort of candor leaves little retort but a quick “muchas gracias por su tiempo, adios” while backing out the door and onto the streets of La Chinesca. On those streets, I continued to search in vain for evidence that Chinese New Year was at hand. I saw no tiger sculptures, lion dancers or posters of chubby children holding golden fruit.

I had given up when I spotted a sidewalk tienda apparently overflowing with red paper Chinese lanterns. But when I crossed the street and got closer, though, I discovered how much Tecate can-shaped piñatas resemble Chinese lanterns in the afternoon Mexican glare.

It was lunchtime. My quest had failed. I followed my guidebook’s suggestion to the China Town Restaurant on Av. Madero. Inside, my holiday spirit was perked up a little by a few festive decorations on the walls. I consoled myself with a couple of Tecates and a mound of Chop Suey Especial so grande that even a real burro couldn’t have finished it.

When I finally admitted chop suey defeat, I received a fortune cookie that mistakenly informed me: “Eres un maestro de todos las situaticones.” I paid an elderly Chinese lady at the register. I accepted my change and almost apologetically said, “Kung Hei Fat Choi.” She smiled, folded her hands together in the Chinese greeting and replied, “Kung Hei. Kung Hei. Gracias. Gracias.”

It wasn’t much of a Chinese New Year commemoration, but it would have to do for this misplaced “master of all situations.”

I walked back to El Centro where a joined a throng of hundreds waiting in line for permission to enter Calexico, and I thought, “Next year, in Hong Kong.”


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