A Stranger in an Undiscovered Country

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.

Categories: Travel

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7 replies

  1. so wonderful. It should be noted one of Evelyn’s unofficial jobs at MIT was to introduce students from Asia to Chinatown in Boston. Many of them were simply unable to tolerate Western food, and were fading away. Their happiness at finding a bit of “home”, even if all mixed up home, made her happy to take the new graduate students there.
    My sister in law was born in China, when we go visit Ottawa she takes us to Chinatown for dinner. The tourists eat in the downstairs restaurant, the REAL Chinese eat upstairs. You can tell the difference if your chicken leg still has the foot attached. When I went to Chinatown with my daughters I was “let’s find out where the non tourists eat.” We found the “Peach Tree” had a basement restaurant, we told them clearly, “no we want to eat here!” The china is chipped, the tanks of live seafood are quite massive and a wee bit smelly, and we had I.M.Pei the architect eating at the table next to us with officials from MIT. Wonderful food, and we know we had found “our place”. Though the Pho is the choice for lunch, that is still my younger daughters favorite.

  2. Jeff, I really enjoyed this story. I can’t wait to read more (hint)

  3. Kitty, I think your comment is more interesting than my post. 🙂

  4. ❤ This story just sparked off an idea for another post… ^-^

  5. I remember years ago- back when I was in college- eating at The House of Roy in Boston’s Chinatown. Ups a flight of stairs, dingy, not fancy, no tourists. Just terrific Chinese food. I returned a few times over the years and the owner always greeted me as an old friend whom he hadn’t seen in a while but was truly delighted to see again. Did he really remember me after 8-8 years or was it an act? I never knew, but it was a nice touch much appreciated.

  6. Great post. I hope you write more.

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