My Last $100: Give Me (Reasonably Priced) Dumplings, or Give Me Death!
by Natalie Beam
$2.75: The cost of a subway ride. It’s midday on a Saturday in New York City during winter break (a month-long vacation from school and from any sense of time whatsoever, so really every day ends up feeling like a Saturday). I board the subway with my boyfriend, Doug, to Flushing, Queens, where we’ll be meeting up with his friend, Rafael and his Rafael’s girlfriend, Hanna, who lives there.
The plan is that they’ll share all of their food intel with us and essentially take us on a food tour of Flushing’s Chinatown. We are pumped because 1) feasting is our favorite hobby and 2) it’s a snow day and the city feels like it’s on pause because everybody is holed up in their respective warm spaces. Needless to say, we are prepared with empty stomachs and full wallets. We’ve been warned that a lot of the most authentic Chinese places that we will be visiting only accept cash, and since we didn’t already have any, we stopped at an ATM on the way to the subway to stock up.
The notion that these Chinese eateries and markets might only accept cash (that is, American cash) leaves me wondering what sort of implications that might have not only on their financial success as measured by sales, but also on the Chinese purveyors’ senses of identity and community. As I come to learn later in the day, many of the people who live in Flushing (young and old) don’t speak English. It’s as if an entire Chinese town has been uprooted from China and dropped in Queens. I imagine Chinese immigrants’ frequent handling of American cash serves in some way as a symbolic indicator of their American community. For some immigrants who have come to the U.S. with virtually no knowledge of English nor of American culture, money, specifically American cash, is their first introduction to American culture and history. The notion that cash — the images on it and its actual exchange — may play a significant role in the formation of a new American identity and community for Chinese immigrants is reminiscent of Eric Helleiner’s argument that national currencies may serve to solidify a group of people into a community by providing them a common economic language with which to communicate. Before some Chinese immigrants know how to communicate verbally with American English-speakers, they are able to exchange monetarily through the American cash system, which allows them to form a bond that in some sense links them with their new home. Money becomes a common communication system when verbal communication fails. Immigrants invest their faith in the American monetary system and, in doing so, become emotionally and finantially bound with the American economy, with what Helleiner calls the “spiritual unity of the nation.”
$6: My quarter-share of the 48 dumplings that the four of us order from one of the stalls at a giant food court. I come to learn from Rafael that this is just the first course on our tour. (Doug and Rafael are bottomless pits, but I’m not complaining because I’m ravenous as well.) The food court teems with people and the fragrances of cooking meat and steaming spices, and I am immediately reminded of the abrasiveness of Beijing’s bustling streets.
$2: A giant can of Kirin beer to accompany the dumplings. I sip hesitantly on account of my increasingly full belly and end up giving more than half the can to Doug who quickly takes care of it thanks to previously mentioned bottomless stomach.
$4: After finishing off the dumplings we duck out into the frenzied snowfall for course number two: a duck “burger,” which, as it turns out, isn’t so much a burger as a sandwich. The streets are a chaotic mess, like a disco inside a snowglobe — honking horns, bright flashing signs bearing messages I can’t read, crowded sidewalks filled with marshmallow people padded in puffy jackets and silly winter hats.
We head across the street and duck through a curtain of plastic into what appears to be a semi-open-air market. Cooked ducks with jackets of crispy skin hang in the windows by their necks enticing passerby.
Doug and I allow Rafael and Hanna, both of whom speak Chinese, to do the ordering and we take our duck burgers upstairs where there are tables. The duck burgers don’t go over as well as the dumplings because the duck, though cooked, is freezing cold. Literally. The cook just took a duck from the window and threw some of it onto a bun without bothering to warm it up. I’m disappointed in the sandwich’s un-burgerness (false advertising) and even more disapointed that it is the temperature of the snow outside.
$10: Two sake bombs at a bar around the corner. This was not exactly in the plans for the food tour but we are cold and want to warm up. Plus we are all too full by now to take on the challenge of a third course of food. By this time it’s 4pm and the snowfall isn’t getting any lighter.
$11: My half-payment of a bottle of Baijiu, a popular Chinese alcohol that Doug and I are buying as a gift for our friend Henry, who is hosting a birthday party tonight. Doug and I had initially decided that we would just get Henry a nice card instead of a full gift because Henry is from a wealthy, upperclass family and we were perplexed as to what to get for the guy who seems to have it all. However, after giving it some thought, we realized that it would be impolite to attend his party without reciprocating his generous hospitality (expensive catering and DJ included).
The notion that we feel obligated to return the favor of Henry’s expensive hospitality, that money is infused with social meaning, is reminiscent of the Mana orgin myth as outlined by Nigel Dodd. One way of considering the origin of money is through the historical context of Mana, which Dodd describes as a system of social obligations that maintain a continual chain of exchanges.
“There is constant give and take within the Kula, marked by the continuous flow in all directions of goods and services. The system depends on hau, or mana, the spiritual power with which the gift is laden that underpins the obligation to reciprocate. Gifts must be passed on. For the receiver to maintain what is given would be both morally and spiritually wrong.
-Nigel Dodd,The Social Life of Money (31)
Viewed in the context of a Mana system, it is only natural and expected that we give Henry a gift in exchange for hosting us. He spent money on a caterer and DJ and we feel obligated to reciprocate such monetary exchange by purchasing a gift for him. His expenditure of money propels our own expenditure (out of obligation) in a continuation of the spending chain. If we failed to reciprocate, we might risk committing a social violation that would dismantle the sense of community (albeit a small community) of our friend group.
Therefore, we buy a gift, even though, as a college student still living primarily off of my parents’ income, I tend to fall under Frederick Wherry’s category of “the frugal,” someone who has money to spend but holds back on purchasing anything she deems unreasonable or unpractical. Rafael suggests the drink to us with the promise that its high alcohol content “will make him blind,” (a sort of experiential gift rather then a purely material one) and we agree that it is the right move. Despite my financial situation that dictates how I decide how to spend my money, I consider the the Baiju gift an appropriate expenditure given the social obligation described above. Not to mention, the notion of gifting someone something that will grant him a unique experience feels more meaningful than a material item that he doesn’t need nor want. We consider this sufficient (authentic Chinese alcohol is cool, right?) and trudge back out to head to the subway.
$2.75: Subway back to Manhattan. All four of us fall into blissful food comas.
$5.15: My portion of a shared Uber fee for our 8pm ride to the West Village for Henry’s birthday party, which is catered so that means food for the night is free-ninety-nine.
$7: My portion of the shared Uber home after the party.
$2.75: Subway to one of our favorite brunch spots the following morning. Though the restaurant has two locations, one of which is in walking distance, Doug and I decide to splurge on the subway fee to go to the further location because we prefer the ambiance there.
$34.00: My half-share of the brunch that Doug and I split. Though, as I mentioned before, I am frugal, food is one of the few things (or experiences) for which I am willing to spend larger sums of money. In this way, food expenditures fall under the category of “special monies,” Viviana Zelizer’s label for money that incorporates its social and symbolic significance beyond its mere monetary, numeric value in exchange. In my own “mental accounting,” the way individuals distinguish money, I mentally allot a greater allowance for food expenditures.
“…modern money is also routinely differentiated, not just by varying quantities, but also by its special diverse qualities. We assign different meanings and designate separate uses for particular kinds of monies…Not all dollars are equal.”
-Viviana Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money: “Special Monies,” (343)
My valuation of the dining expeirence influences how I ration my money, a decision that extends beyond its quantitative value; I am willing to spend $34.oo on a meal that I thoroughly enjoy, while I may be less inclined to spend that same $34.00 on a sweater from Zara. Based on what I deem important in my own life, invisible boundaries and distinctions emerge as rules for how I govern my money use and allotment.
$2.75: Subway back to Manhattan.
$8.50: A plate of 6 tiny edamame and shrimp dumplings from a Japanese restuarant in the East Village. Feeling empowered by our dumpling kick the preveious day in Flushing, Doug and I don’t hesitate to get dumplings at dinner. But our purchase is immediately followed by intense buyers’ remorse when we taste the dumplings and realize that we have just spent more than $8 on dumplings that taste nowhere near as good as the ones we ate the previous day, for which we each paid $6 (for 12 dumplings each).
My $100 journey from Dumpling Point A to Dumpling Point B the following evening begins on a high note with an enlightening experience in a new place and ends on a low one when I learn that quantitative value isn’t always (and probably rarely is) an objective marker of value. Having come to a similar conclusion via different methods likely not involving dumplings, Zelizer argues that money, the ultimate objectifier, has a tendency to homogenize qualitative distinctions so that we are conditioned to assume that something that costs more money will necessarily be of higher quality. As Zelizer points out with her introduction of the notion of “special monies,” money carries more than just quantitative meaning and it doesn’t always provide an objective valuation of an item. The experience of the previous day — being with friends in a new and exciting place — along with the beauty of a truly authentic, simple dining experience, was unparalleled by the contrived nature of our stuffy, vastly more expensive Japanese dinner in Manhattan.
We leave the Japanese restaurant feeling dejected, wallets significantly lighter than they were when we arrived. We consider writing a Yelp review but decide we would rather let the incident die and move on to bigger, better, and cheaper dumplings.