justpaperskater and I exchange stories by giving each other a word which is the seed for the next correspondence. This is my response to her choice of “Asians.”
I was about 12 when I first visited a “Chinatown.” It was in Boston, and I remember being amazed that such a famous place would be so close to where we lived. When I learned that many major US cities had a Chinatown, my sense of wonder only increased.
Though the streets were dirty and shops covered in dust, I was captivated by the new sights and sounds. Street signs in Chinese, baskets of roots unprotected by plastic wrap or boxes, strangely colored cartons of unknown substances lining the walls – bamboo calendars and red tassels were banners declaring this shop as “an official Chinatown shop.”
I was reminded of other places I was fortunate to visit as a child: Peru, Mexico, the Bahamas – but this wasn’t a foreign country. This was about thirty minutes from my house. There was an invisible and seemlingly arbitrary wall separating “Chinatown” from “Boston.” Was this an official designation? Something that just happened?
I remember a fish tank with large, drab fish hovering in the murky water. I’d long been fascinated by aquaria, but this one had no colorful rocks or plants, and the fish were just… fish. There was nothing interesting about them, and no sign that I could discern explaining why they were there. I asked my folks why the tank was so dreary and they said “Because those fish are for food, not pets.” I stared at these doomed creatures, fascinated and horrified at the idea that you could pick out your own living thing, and then have someone kill and prepare it for you. (I’ve since experienced this up close in Japan.)
In the wall of a shop, I found a window that had a coin slot next to it. Inside the window was a live chicken (one of the first I’d ever seen) standing on a coarse metal screen suspended over a dropping-covered Chinese newspaper. An empty food bowl hung from the side, and I thought this seemed a very uncomfortable place for the chicken as there was no bedding. What was the coin slot for? I thought maybe it would cause food to fall into the bowl, so I reached into my pocket for a quarter but my mother stopped me before I could put it in.
“Don’t do that.”
“Why not? I want to feed the chicken.”
“That won’t feed the chicken, it will shock it with electricity.”
She pointed to the sign above the cage that I had seen but not processed. It said “Dancing Chicken.” There was no Chinese writing that I recall. (This clip from the Stephen King film Cat’s Eye illustrates the concept). A short conversation about the legality of such things ensued, but we quickly wandered away.
We passed a shop that had a hat in the window. I learned much later that it was called a dǒulì, which is the iconic hat that illustrators use to indicate “these are Chinese people!” It was made of leaves covering a bamboo frame, and for some reason I had to have it. We entered the shop and my parents asked the shop keeper about it, and she replied in perfect English, surprising me: “Let me get you a newer one from the back.”
She presented me with the same hat, only with fresh green leaves. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted the faded, brown and somewhat mildewy hat in the window. My parents protested a bit, but I said that it seemed more “real” and they relented in the end.
I quickly put the hat on and was pleased with how comfortable it was. It was like wearing my own private roof, and I hoped it would rain so I could see how well it would work.
And then my parents asked me to take it off.
“But why? I like it.”
“Because people might think you’re making fun of them.”
This started a very complex chain of thought that persists today. Who could wear such a hat? Did you have to be Asian? Was there something I could do to show that I appreciated the ingenuity and usefulness of the hat and had no interest whatsoever in making fun of someone?
I took it off. When I got home, the dǒulì was no longer a hat – it was a wall decoration. I never wore it again.
This past week, I took my own kids– now 16 and 13 – to Chicago’s Chinatown. Many of the same sights and sounds were there, and the “feel” was very much reminiscent of Boston. I wanted to ask the shopkeepers about the golden cats with the grabbing paws and the large barrels of gingseng and dried herbs, but the incident with the hat still weighed heavy. Was I welcome there? Is it possible to browse the shops and ask questions without “making fun” of people?
Of course it is, but I think I will always be uneasy. And it’s a shame that I let this uneasiness interfere with my curiosity. I’m pretty sure that most shopkeepers would be happy to answer my questions and sell me things, and yet it’s very difficult for me to overcome the sense that I don’t belong and that I should tread lightly.
I took the kids to a noodle shop that served Vietnamese and Thai food. The food was delicious and the portions were enormous. I pointed out that we were in Chinatown and yet there was no “Chinese” food on the menu. Chinatown is America, not China or Thailand or Vietnam or even Asia. You cannot experience these places by visiting Chinatown, but you can explore issues of identity and culture. I’m still exploring mine.
- Chinese-American Museum of Chicago opens new exhibition (smearedtype.com)
- Chinatown Remixed 2012 [Photos] (blurasis.wordpress.com)
- Shark fin losing popularity in Chicago amid concerns (suntimes.com)