Monday, August 05, 2013

A gift for Emily

This is a story about a quest for the perfect gift. And like most quests, it's not so much about the successful conclusion, but about the journey to get there.

As I said in my last post, my yoga teacher Emily is moving to the opposite side of the country this month, so she's coming over Wednesday for a little farewell party. I wanted to get her a going-away present, and decided to try and find her a custom name chop on Saturday. In my heart of hearts, I was skeptical I could get it done in so short a time, but I was determined to try.

I found a place called Chinatown Frame & Art online that said it sold name seals, so I went in search of it. The site said it was located at 40 Elizabeth at Canal, but when I got there, there was no sign of it. I looked it up on my Blackberry and found that they relocated to 7 Pell Street, a short walk away. I went down there and finally found a sign at the location, but no store that I could see. I called the number and spoke to the proprietor, who said he had closed his business permanently. So much for the easy way.

I called all the other stores listed on the website, but every one of them was either a wrong number, or didn't have what I was looking for. I visited one of the frame stores and they had one chop, but no way to engrave it. A blank chop wasn't much use to me. I visited a few souvenir shops, but the ones who even knew what I was talking about didn't have it.

I was about to give up when I looked across Bowery from Pell Street and saw the words, "Confucius Bookstore." I decided to give it one last try, so I walked in and asked the young lady and she said no, they didn't carry them. I asked her if she knew anyone who did. She asked a co-worker in Chinese and turned back to me and said, "Two doors down." My heart started racing - could it be possible I was close?

Two doors down was a fine arts and antiques store that sold furniture, vases, scrolls and other artworks, and lo and behold, they had a small collection of chops in a glass display case. Most of them were very plain, but there was one with an oval design with a dragon on top that was perfect! I asked where I might be able to have it engraved. The answer? "Two doors down."

The proprietor escorted me another two doors down to an engraving shop run by Victor Pei and his wife. I later learned that Mr. Pei is the first cousin of legendary architect I. M. Pei (who designed the glass pyramid entrance for the Louvre, among many other things). One wall was completely covered with photos of celebrities like Liam Neeson, Mayor Bloomberg, etc. They helped me typeset five Chinese characters that phonetically sounded like Emily's name (and didn't have any rude or off-color meanings). The three characters of her first name are a surname and two characters that translate as "jasmine". The two characters of her last name translate to "hope" or "aspire" and "achieve". So, perfect for someone who is going to school!

As I suspected, Mr. Pei asked me if I could pick up the finished piece on Wednesday night. I explained I had to get it sooner because the party was Wednesday night. It became even more complicated when he told me that his shop closed at 6, meaning I would have had to work at home or take a day off just to pick up the chop. Seeing my distress, he offered to start on it immediately and see if he could get it done today, and I just about hugged him in gratitude!

While he worked on it, he sent me to another bookstore on Elizabeth Street to get the mudpack, the traditional red paste used to ink the seal. This required going up an unmarked stairway and coming out into the Chinese equivalent of a Barnes & Noble. They not only sold books, but art supplies, ping pong paddles, musical instruments and lots of chops. I had finally hit paydirt!

Since I've never had a chop in my current name (I lost a collection of several seals with my old name in the fire of 2005) I ordered one made for myself. I also got a pot of ink for Emily's chop, and I asked the clerk to help me translate "Michelle" (I already know how to write my surname in Chinese). This task seemed to capture the imagination of the entire store staff, as I watched four clerks consult four different dictionaries and reference books, and even get the opinion of more unseen employees in the back room. Finally, they agreed on two characters that sound reasonably similar, with the meaning of "beautiful" and "baby bamboo". I thought the baby bamboo was a particularly appropriate meaning since I just celebrated my 9th birthday!

While waiting on Mr. Pei, I strolled around Chinatown in areas previously unexplored and saw so many things that I wanted to try on future outings - a hand-pulled noodle shops, restaurant supply stores with gorgeous tea sets, grocery stores, Shanghai soup dumpling restaurants, bubble tea stands, etc. I thought a lot about when I was growing up and the long-buried memories of going to Chinatown in Houston, trying new restaurants and shopping every week in Chinese grocery stores.

Finally, just past 6 pm, Mr. Pei was finished and we put the whole package together and this is what it looks like. I hope Emily likes it, and I'm grateful for the experience of this day, and for my own chop that I will pick up next weekend! To end the day, I stopped by nearby Great N.Y. Noodletown and devoured an order of their seasonal soft shell crabs, and got an order of roast duck to go.