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  • Writer's pictureGreg

Moon Palace Memories

Conroe, Texas, is not a large town, and, when I was growing up there, it was smaller still. Houston might as have been a million miles away, high school football was the only game in town and the restaurant scene was generally uninspiring.
Ad for El Pollino Mexican Food
When my family ate out, we often went to one of Conroe’s few “ethnic” restaurants, such as Frosini’s, a Greek place run by a lovely immigrant couple who doted on me and my brother, Chris. Frosini’s was the home of “Greek Chicken Fried Steak,” something Mom suggested didn’t actually exist in Greece. Greek or not, I crave that luscious chicken-fried-steakiness to this day.

On Sundays after church, we’d go to El Pollino, Conroe’s Mexican restaurant. I got the Mexican plate—cheese enchilada, tamale, rice, beans and a crispy taco on the side—and Chris never had anything but a dozen tamales and a Coke. They gave us corn tortillas on the side which we slathered with butter for some reason. Chris and I so loved a visit to El Pollino that we’d put on our clip-on ties and beg to go church if it looked like Mom and Dad were backsliding. Our parents undoubtedly didn’t see through our tomfoolery and thought us very pious.
Ad for Moon Palace
Another favorite was Moon Palace, a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town past the body shops and the Goodwill on South Frazier Street. Moon Palace was exotic, delicious, and full of Far Eastern mysticism. Once, when I was in middle school, we were finishing up dinner there when I noticed a girl of my age bussing tables. I took notice because, well, she was a girl of my age, and that would not go unnoticed. There was also something familiar about her.

I soon realized she was my classmate, Elizabeth. This didn’t compute. At school, Elizabeth was cool, popular, glamorous—all the things I wasn’t—and, frankly, terrifying. I would never venture to talk to her at school, but here, bussing tables in a dingy, oversized apron, she seemed somehow approachable.

“Hi, Elizabeth. I didn’t know you worked here,” I said.

Elizabeth gaped at me like a very startled deer in headlights until Mr. Moon Palace behind the cash register snapped at her in a very foreign language. Elizabeth hurried into the kitchen without a word. I was disappointed and confused, but then the fortune cookies arrived, and I moved on.
Moon Palace menu cover
Elizabeth and I were together in the so-called “accelerated” classes at Travis Junior High. Heretofore, I’d never thought of her as in any way different from all the other cool kids, but I did now. Now I knew her secret, and we had a bond. I too worked in the family business. We were more alike than I’d ever thought, Elizabeth and I, and I was certain she’d now give me the time of day.

“I didn’t know you could speak Chinese,” I said guilelessly to Elizabeth the next day at school. I was impressed by her language ability and hoped that my interest in her immigrant roots might strengthen the budding connection between us. But Elizabth only looked daggers at me and turned back to her circle of friends. Mom told me Elizabeth likely didn’t want anyone at school knowing she had to work in her parents’ restaurant. I didn’t understand why. After all, I worked for my parents, and it was no big deal.

Years, then decades, passed. I got married, had kids, the kids grew up and moved out. I never saw Elizabeth again after graduation, never had occasion to meet her, or had any reason to think of her. Yet the Moon Palace incident stuck with me the way unimportant, seemingly random events sometimes do. It made no sense at all, but I even used a version of the incident in a novel that I’ve been working on forever.

Then, about a year ago, my wife decided her life wouldn’t be complete until she re-joined the Foreign Service. I dutifully packed my bags—again—and followed Dana halfway around the globe to the world’s most unusual country: Turkmenistan. One fine spring day, I’m sitting in a bougie coffee shop in Turkmenistan’s all-white capital, Ashgabat, working on the next memoir in the Kept series when my phone makes a familiar noise.
white buildings at night
All-white Ashgabat
It’s Elizabeth messaging me. She’s got a different last name now, but it’s her, and, apparently, we’re friends on Facebook. “You were always a nice kid!” she writes. I’m floored. She tells me she’s got a “Cole,” too, and another boy, Dean. She tells me she and her Cole read my memoirs together and really enjoyed them. I’m elated, of course.

We continue the conversation over weeks. Elizabeth tells me Cole likes to quote lines from my books and is desperately awaiting Kept 3. I redouble my efforts on his behalf. I ask Dana if I should tell Elizabeth about my memory of her from her from middle school; she knows the story, of course.

“No,” Dana says. “She’ll think you’re weird.”
“Okay. I won’t,” I say.

But if Elizabeth knew me in middle school, she already knows I’m weird, so what have I got to lose? I ignore Dana’s advice and tell the story. Of course, Elizabeth has no recollection of the incident, but she relates vivid memories of peeling mountains of spuds and deveining shrimp for the family business.
kids with books
Cole and Dean (r)
“Your mom was right,” Elizabeth says; she didn’t want her school friends knowing she worked at the Moon Palace. She tells me that all her parents’ Chinese friends made their kids work. “I was kind of jealous of the ones who had a gas station or grocery store. At least they got free candy and air conditioning.”

Elizabeth tells me her parents spoke Cantonese at home amongst themselves but not much to her. “They wanted us to speak good ol’ American English.” By the time her mom and dad wanted to teach her Cantonese, it was too late; she was already twelve and past her prime. “My mom actually picked cotton in Rome, Georgia, when she was a kid,” Elizabeth writes. “She said it was awful.”

It dawns on me what an incredible mental load it must have been for Elizabeth to code-switch every day between her two worlds. I was (mostly) the same person at home as at school, but Elizabeth had to daily transform like a rather odd superhero: elegant, smart, cool kid by day; hard-working daughter of Chinese immigrants by night. And my secret knowledge put her dual identity in jeopardy.

I experience a great sense of relief. Why had I thought of this for so many years? I guess I just always wanted to understand why, when I thought my taking an interest in her might build a connection between us, Elizabeth seemed so irritated at me.

“I’m sorry I gave you a dirty look,” she writes.

No need to apologize, Elizabeth. I (think) I get it now. - g

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