Labor Day and Chinese Food

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This past Tuesday was May 1st, which in Senegal (and other countries that don’t hate workers) is Labor Day. This meant that I got school off, which I took as an excuse to wander about Dakar with friends/bother Ousmane the tailor. (The self-employed, in Dakar as anywhere, do not have national holidays off.)

We walked from Ceaser’s (the local source for both knock-off KFC and milkshakes, beloved for its wifi and its ability to break large bills) towards Semboudienne, the craft village next to the big fish market. It’s along the Corniche, the main road in Dakar–it hugs the coast all the way from the airport to downtown.

The group estimate was that the market was nearby–maybe a mile and a half. The group estimate was wrong. Even given nice weather and the Kansas-level flatness of Dakar, we were walking for more than an hour.

When we finally got to the market, we explored the land of roughly-similar-to-everywhere-else souvenirs. I picked up a few things (including, for the first time, bindbinds–sexy waist beads worn by everyone here). For the most part, the merchants were not overly aggressive. No one called us names and only one attempted to physically move us into his shop.

Someone did try to sell me 4 bindbinds for 8000 CFA/$16, though, which was hilarious–they should have cost 1000 CFA/$2 at absolute maximum. I offered 1500 CFA/$3 and they let me walk away, so who knows what was going on with that. I was sad that the sale didn’t work out–one was glow-in-the-dark.

After that, we caved and caught a cab from Medina to the French Institute, which was unfortunately closed. After some tired and somewhat-aimless walking, we discovered to our delight that the Chinese restaurant on the same block was not observing Labor Day.

The place is authentically Chinese, as it caters to the Chinese expat community in Senegal (there either as merchants or working for Chinese companies here). Despite a not-totally-auspicious beginning (the one man at the front of the restaurant appeared to be drinking a handle of vodka, alone), the food was completely great.

Readers, there was deep fried eggplant. There are not words.

Eventually, more Chinese expats/employees wandered in. A table of men started playing what appeared to be an aggressive game of mahjong. It was fun to be in a setting that was so totally American and not American at all–I could very easily find a very similar restaurant or 16 on Buford Highway in Atlanta, but of course none of the folks in the restaurant were American.

The moment was also amusingly Senegalese, in terms of a bit of race handling. Two members of our group were white, one black, and one Asian. The restaurant owner gave the first three forks and the last one chop sticks. She’s Korean-American. The chop sticks got traded for another girl’s fork. Either the political incorrectness of the faint hallucinatory tiredness that came from walking so long got to us, and we couldn’t stop giggling about it for some time.

It was nice to be surrounded by a language none of us spoke (given that everyone else in the restaurant was speaking Chinese) without any pressure at all to understand it. The only time that has come close to happening to me in the last semester was in Spain, and even then most everyone knew English along with their Spanish and/or Catalan. It was really nice in a way that makes me feel a little bit guilty about my level of active linguistic engagement.

We hopped in a cab around 6:30, which was kind of nuts–we had been walking since 1 pm, and this was lunch for half of the group.

Overall, it was a lovely Labor Day, and a reminder that Dakar can be pretty interesting (and not nearly as homogenous as we think it is). There was a thread running through conversation at lunch that most of us felt frustrated at how afraid of Dakar the program made us early on, which made it more difficult to have normal, pleasant moments like the lunch and the walk happen until the end of the program.

Frustrations aside, it was a lovely lunch and a successful shopping trip. Much better than spending the day sleeping.

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