Things are gorgeous if they’re yours, dull if they aren’t. Home isn’t the boxes in it, nor even the people. It’s the place that grew with you, that formed before you formed it.
— Christina Qiu, Home
The first time I visited New York’s Chinatown, it was because I had seen a cheap dumpling place on Yelp. My family and I had been in New York for a week, and meals had consisted of burgers and gourmet cuisine and afternoon tea at the Plaza — American things, but not Chinese things. We were desperate for Asian food. We wanted yellow people and yellow restaurants and mai yi song yi and people who looked like us, talked like us.
The food arrived the way most things do in Chinatown — wrapped in a plastic bag, replete with yellow smiley-face that said thank you.
The dumplings were good, but I couldn't help but think of the people who made them — where they came from. Since the beginning, Chinatowns have stood as a symbol of unity for Asians. They are an important means of bringing together members of the Asian diaspora.
Even so, when we talk about Chinatown, different images come to mind: kung pao chicken and china dolls — the kinds you see in dollar shops down the alley, innocent and voiceless.
Suddenly, this is less community than ethnic theme park. It’s a small world and multiculturalism is good. Spin around and around, look at all the yellow faces. Go back home, feeling enlightened — you’ve just had a taste of culture, sharp and strong.
What many forget is this: these communities don’t exist for the sake of an outsider's experience, for an outsider's entertainment.
Sometimes, I wonder what the Chinatowns mean to those who migrate — people like us who move from place to place, never knowing where they belong. I’m wondering if someone will take the time to walk through Chinatown and think about what it means to those who crave Asian food. Who scroll through Yelp to find authentic places to eat. I’m wondering if someone will ever try to understand the four tones — the rising and the falling, the flat and the one that I still can’t get into words— the comma, the sound of something still unfinished.
The first thing my mother did after coming to Stanford was join the Taiwanese Students Association, just because she knew that there would be people who knew what she was talking about when she said mifen (rice noodles) and the distance from Ximen to Danshui. This is just one of our many stories of resistance: the way ethnic communities preserve and uphold one another, the way we can remember where we came from.
The Chinatown in New York is ubiquitous. From a distance, New York can look like Chicago can look like San Francisco. Sure, the streets may be different, but the concept is the same — a conscious act of preserving tradition and community. Even in the face of a world threatening to tear it all apart.
Beyond the stereotypes and clichés lie years of history, people, identities. I don’t know if it’s possible to visualize race in any another way than in the communities shaping our experience of it. Chinatowns are a testament to this.
Before we left Flushing, my mother told a friend that she was always free to come back. The places would still be the same. Silicon Valley would still be Silicon Valley. The same Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants would be there. It’d be authentic as long as there were people around to keep it that way.
When she smiled, though, it was big and bright, yellow. Thank you, she seemed to say, thank you.