Monday before Chinese New Year in Manhattan Chinatown

I thought I was having a pretty productive today on my day off. Since I get Martin Luther King, Jr., Day off from work every year, it’s always been one of those quiet days when I can wake up leisurely, have an extra long workout, go around the city, run errands, and spend time during the day with friends I’d normally never seeing during the weekday daylight hours. I worked out, cooked and cleaned, and headed down to Chinatown to pick up a handful of items in preparation for some Chinese New Year foods I want to make this year. I thought it would be relatively quiet since it would be a weekday and a lot of people would be at work… and then I was proven wrong almost immediately. The subway cars were full getting on and off at Grand Street along the B train. When I got to Hong Kong Supermarket, it was as though it was totally mobbed by people of all ages, not just the grandmas and the great-grandmas of the world. The surrounding areas were decked out in Year of the Rat signage and other red good luck Chinese signs and lanterns. The lines in the supermarket were so out of control that they had to open registers in areas that I’d never even seen registers before! I can’t remember ever waiting in line that long at this market.

I also stopped by my favorite Vietnamese market, where they had several freshly made varieties of banh chung, or Vietnamese steamed sticky rice tamales for the Tet Lunar New Year. They had the sweet ones filled with ripe banana as well as my favorite mung bean and pork belly ones in multiple shapes and sizes, so I picked up the savory one to bring home and steam. For some reason, I felt so embarrassed when the man selling them tried to address me in Vietnamese, describing the fillings to me, but I could only half understand what he was saying and had to respond back in English. “You aren’t Vietnamese?” he asked me in English. “Well… I am, but I can’t speak it,” I responded sheepishly. Well, at least I know what the food actually is! These are the moments when my level of “Asianness” is always in question, both internally and externally.

This brief exchange suddenly reminded me of a friend I made while I was in Shanghai over 13 years ago; her name was Dong Mei (the literal meaning of her name in English is “winter plum”). We met at the university where she was studying, where I had my exchange program for a month. We became friends because I was randomly interviewing locals on campus, and she took a liking to me, and we started hanging out regularly. I complimented her on the shirt she was wearing; within two days, she showed up at my room with a similar shirt in a different color! I told her at the time that although I had just started learning Mandarin and the actual Chinese written language just a year before that I felt at home in Shanghai. I couldn’t really explain it at the time, I said, and my Mandarin wasn’t anywhere near proficient, but I felt very comfortable. It was just a feeling I had. She responded to me, “Well, of course you feel comfortable here. You are Chinese in China. It doesn’t matter if you were born in England, the United States, or anywhere in Europe. You can be born any place, but your face is Chinese. You look in the mirror, and you will always have a Chinese face staring back at you. The blood in your veins is Chinese. The blood running through my veins and everyone else’s veins here is Chinese. That is why you feel at home here.”

I always remember that conversation for some reason. Is that really why I would feel “comfortable” — because of racial homogeneity around me? Or is it the fact that the cultural “norms” that I have more or less followed around foods, ethnic traditions, just stand as they are and warrant zero explanation to anyone, because everyone there just “gets it” — it is literally just part of their DNA? Because in moments like with the banh chung seller, I didn’t really feel “at home” — if anything, I suddenly felt foreign with someone who looks just like me. Am I an outsider to him because I don’t speak the same language as him, or does he just get me because at least we eat the same foods and look the same?

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