I checked out a space on Catherine and Madison, thinking that a Chinatown address would at least appease my dad.
June 4, 2012
My curiosity about New York’s Chinatowns began with my dad and an apartment search. I was moving to New York City for the first time, and my dad, who had never been to New York City, took it upon himself to find all the neighborhoods he would like to live in.
Naturally, since we are Taiwanese, he suggested that I live in Flushing, where rent was remarkably cheap and the demography overwhelmingly black-haired and Mandarin-speaking. He’d already Google street-viewed the whole area for blocks and blocks, and memorized the streets, and the names of possible restaurants where I could eat noodles, and the best store to shop for shoes. He was excited. There was nothing he loved more than to visit the different Chinatowns across the world. From Vegas (who needed to gamble?) to Vancouver, our first stop was usually a Hong Kong Supermarket.
So my dad came to New York. He would not miss out on this opportunity to see more Chinatowns. We went to Flushing together—he with pencil, pen, his ruthless bargaining skills, and an almost autistic capacity for geography. When my boyfriend, driving, got lost, my dad (who had never been to Flushing) told him where to go.
The apartment hunting was unfruitful. From the start, I was hesitant about the distance. My dad was undeterred. If not Flushing, he said, there was Sunset Park, and then…
I interrupted my dad, saying something about wanting to live “closer” to the “action” and mumbled something about “Brooklyn,” maybe “near the Myrtle stop.”
Back at the hotel, my dad sat in front of his laptop, investigating. “My gah,” he gasped. I guessed he was already Google street-viewing the areas I had expressed interest in. “See what bad ideas you have? What will I do when I visit you?”
They went back to California, and I continued the search on my own. I dutifully checked off my list of places that were significantly “closer” to the “action,” including an apartment on Catherine and Madison, thinking that a Chinatown address would at least appease my dad.
It was hot; I ducked into an herbal remedies store and bought a bottle of water, and also asked the store owner what she thought about the neighborhood. I told her I was here to check out one of the apartments nearby. To my surprise, she seemed even more curious than I was about the apartment. She told me to come back down when I was finished, because she wanted to know how much the rent was. I had never before thought of Chinatown as a place to work rather than a place to live. Could this store owner truly be shut out of a living in a place that seemed so inclusive—didn’t she at least feel a sense of ownership towards Chinatown?
The woman laughed and wrinkled her nose. She said that Chinatown was too expensive, and that anyway she preferred living in Sunset Park, where there was more room. Most of her friends, too, made the daily commute to and from Manhattan by bus. There were these amazing buses that worked a triangular route from Flushing to Sunset Park to Chinatown, and cost only $2 per ride. You could get from one Chinatown to another in just half an hour. I told her that I had never been to Sunset Park but would check it out.
When my family visited that Thanksgiving, maybe because the apartment search had been so fascinating, my mom continued responding to ads for rooms that she found either in the Chinese newspapers or in fliers on the street (never mind that I already had an apartment—in Manhattan’s Chinatown). Eavesdropping, I could hear the voices on the other end offering ridiculous deals—$300 dollars for a single room, $225 with a roommate—in a place where the avenues and streets sounded like fancy intersections uptown. “Fifth and Forty Ninth!” My mom shouted triumphantly. “That’s where Saks is, right?” That was my second encounter with Sunset Park—as the mysterious place with the great rental prices.
I would not get to visit Sunset Park until months later, which was when my real interest in the area began. By then I had more rudimentary knowledge about it—that it used to be predominately Scandinavian, then Puerto Rican/Dominican, then more recently, Chinese. Green-Wood Cemetery was in Sunset Park; it was a sort of Père Lachaise of New York. Sunset Park also had the best dim sum, but aside from the food-related attractions, little had been written about the area.
I wasn’t that interested in the food, but I went anyway, for dim sum, because a group of friends were going. I took the N train from Canal Street to 8th Avenue. It was a relatively empty train that morning, but I sat next to a young Chinese mother and her two sons, who were both wearing satin bowling league jackets. They kept crashing into me as they played a quick game of subway tag. We all laughed. I felt like an older sister.
Out on the street, everything was familiar. The neat clutter of the hardware stores, the colorful boba stations, the smell of grilled meat and tofu. I found my way to East Harbour Restaurant, where my friends were already seated at the large round table. They were the only group of non-Asians in the restaurant. When the woman pushing the dim sum cart saw me, she began to nod at me meaningfully, as if it were now up to me to decide my table’s gastronomical fate. Instead, I felt a small shift happen internally; I felt myself making an effort to cohere more fully with my non-Asian friends. I didn’t want to speak Chinese. Someone else took over the job of ordering.
What happened later was I went through many perceptible shifts of identity as we walked around Sunset Park that day. Depending on where I was in relation to the people around me, I would feel at times completely invisible, blending in with the weekend’s shoppers, or as my group’s translator/tour guide, or like a complete outsider, unwanted; trespassing.
By the time I got back on the subway, I had again shifted identities, and later drinking at a fancy bar in Brooklyn I was yet another person, and when I got home I decided that I had gone through maybe a dozen identity shifts throughout the course of that day.
The experience made me think. That I was able to feel both ostracized and wholly included was, I knew, a privilege. I no longer believed, anyway, that identity was some unified subjectivity, as hard and concrete as a monolith. Feeling at times like an outsider and an insider provided its own kind of pleasure. I enjoyed maintaining and navigating my many selves. At the same time, I suddenly realized something about my dad’s fascination with Chinatowns that I was surprised not to have realized earlier—that his interest in Chinatowns was perhaps something more akin to a perpetual search for home than a search for novelty.
For me, the two worlds—Chinatown and “America-at-large”—were placed next to each other paratactically; they coexisted and made sense with one another. We “Americanized” kids could move freely without much trouble, but for my dad, uncles, aunts, and grandparents, the transition was undoubtedly more jarring and unpredictable. They were always just on the outside of “actual” America, looking in.
I was thinking about all this—about identity and transitions—while riding the Chinatown bus that went from Market Street to 8th Avenue. Every single passenger on the bus was East Asian, judging from our appearance. We all spoke some variant of Chinese. Most of the women were carrying red shopping bags of groceries and clothes, and they were mostly all chatting on cell phones. The men sat and looked out the window, quietly working up the phlegm in their throats. We were essentially being shuttled from one sympathetic space to another, in a self-enclosed pod. There would be no need to have any contact with the world that was just outside the windows.
When I asked some of my fellow passengers why they preferred to take the bus rather than the subway, they all answered unanimously: “It’s more convenient.” We had a lot of time to talk, because we were stuck on the BQE, deadlocked in traffic. The heat was terrible, as was the exhaust from idling vehicles. In my view, the convenience factor differed dramatically depending on the day. Some days the ride was a breeze and you could not imagine traveling any other way. But rides like today made me want to swear off the bus completely.
I began to wonder whether this “convenience” that everyone felt so loyal towards was actually just a desire to remove that jarring transition from feeling like an insider to an outsider, or perhaps just to avoid that feeling of being an outsider altogether.
Should I critique this collective addiction to “convenience”? Was this fear of feeling like an outsider just a natural human tendency? Or were there larger, more unwieldy implications?
Perhaps it had something to do with mobility. While I was able to be somehow more “authentic” by living in and writing about Chinatown, I couldn’t imagine the same kind of reverse mobility. There were so many ways that “America-at-large” insisted that immigrants remain outside/other, what with the insensitivity about other languages and cultures, inaccessible public services, our hostile immigration policies. One could say that immigrant communities were insular because immigrants like to stay with their own kinds, but another could also say that immigrants feel as if they’re not allowed to exist anywhere else. For an immigrant, there were few places to be and fewer identities to put on. Because there was so little freedom, there were no other worlds but Chinatown.
Immigrant communities grow around restriction. I like this detail about why the first Chinese immigrants settled in Sunset Park: the N line could take commuters directly from the Canal Street stop to the 8th Avenue stop, which was the first stop in Brooklyn where the N train emerged from underground. Even if you could not read the subway signs, you would know that as long as you got out at the first stop that saw daylight, you would be okay. The first immigrants nicknamed the 8th Avenue stop “Blue Sky.”
My dad lives in Taiwan now, and he often talks about how convenient things are there. I imagine him waking up and turning on the computer, with its Yahoo! Taiwan homepage. He walks outside and buys breakfast from a café—maybe soy milk and an egg sandwich. He exchanges pleasantries with the other regular there. He boards the bus to the university where he is working on a Ph.D (his life’s ambition). On the way, he processes external information with such ease that it perhaps does not even register as “information.” School children, wearing navy colored uniforms, tin lunch boxes swung over shoulders. A billboard advertising his favorite brand of soap. The chugging mopeds weaving in and out of traffic lanes. The familiar song on the radio, one by Fong Fei Fei, the famous but recently deceased singer, the queen of hats.
I ask my dad: Will he want to visit me in New York, now that he is so comfortably settled in Taiwan? “Seems like stress,” he says.
Writing this, I can hear my neighbors: the clacking of beer and mahjong, of people speaking in dialect, of children searching out hiding spaces in their cramped bed-bunked rooms, yelling, “MAR-CO!” “PO-LO!”
A dad has come in to get the kids back in order. The kids are being scolded for playing the afternoon away. They quiet down. I can hear backpacks being unzipped, pencils sharpened, drawers opened and closed. A weepy strain of “Sakura” wafts through the window. I am guessing it is one of the kids, playing violin.
I wonder what kind of work my neighbors do, and what sorts of magic tricks they pull for their kids. I wonder if the girl (I have decided that she is a girl) playing violin will ever come to marvel at her parents’ abilities to find her a violin and a violin teacher, or an apartment without “Craigslist, whatever that is,” or a doctor to remove a painful growth from an elbow.
What if I picked up my violin, sitting there in the corner, and initiated a sort of call and response with my own rendition of “Sakura”? Would she hear me? I wonder if she would think, ‘We are like two owls hooting at one another from across a dark forest, across this long, impenetrable distance!’ Or we are like two people who can see, but find ourselves groping in the dark, whispering very delicately: Marco… Polo. Marco…
 I had gotten a call from my dad that morning, via Skype. His number when it comes up on caller ID looks like this:
“I got a place for you,” He said reluctantly, as about to tell me I was going to jail. “It’s Lower East Side. The rent is cheap, but we pay in cash.”
“How the hell did you do that? How did I not find that?”
“Don’t worry about,” he said, in typical, truncated fashion.
My dad was always finding these things, like the time he found a seven Euro per night hostel for me while I was in France, like the time he discovered a “roofer” with the artistic tendencies of Richard Tuttle, patching things up with no structural principles in mind and painting everything aquamarine. And then one time he found a “doctor” to remove this strange growth on my elbow, which had very slowly become marble-sized and then golf-ball-sized. We only hadn’t taken care of it because we had questionable health insurance, which was fine because we, as a family, decided we hated all doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, and television personalities, even though these were exactly the things they wanted me to become.
At first, I was proud of the growth, showing it off and strategically positioning myself in class photos. Then one day I wanted it out. I wanted it out immediately. It was hardly a decision–it was more like a reaction. Several nights I thought seriously about using nail clippers. It can’t be that bad. I can tolerate pain. I thought: I am a first-generation almost-American citizen, and I have been hit by so many things, tangible and invisible, verbal and non-verbal. We are a strong breed of people; we can bear anything.
My dad and I descended a dark staircase into this basement. There he was, the doctor, sitting among jars and jars of specimens, under florescent lighting, reading the Chinese newspaper, scratching absently at a dry patch of skin on his calf.
I reclined on a plastic lawn chair with lime green webbing.
“Can I watch?” I asked, as the doctor shot anesthetic in my arm. My arm was propped on a tea tray.
“Of course,” he spat. “Such small operation. No big deal.”
Then he proceeded to gouge out a round of my flesh like it was a cantaloupe, and pressed a little lever that plopped the cyst into his gloved hand. He picked it up with his thumb and index finger. The thing looked like a bloody eyeball, so much larger than I had thought it would be. The little thing had grown into this huge thing, and I never realized it or felt it. It was like a secret cyst iceberg.
“Wow,” I said.
“Ni yao ma?” He asked, before dropping it in a glass container. I said I did want it. He seemed disappointed. One less trophy to put among the ranks. He stitched my elbow and he and my dad negotiated the price. Months later, I would rub the spot, which had long since healed, the elbow skin loose and ribbed, but no lump underneath. How I missed rolling the growth around in there, like a small kneecap. The pain was gone.
 Susan the Real-Estate Agent was going to be 10 minutes late for reasons I could not decipher over the phone. We waited on the sidewalk in front of this building that seemed like it would just give up and crumble each time a heavy vehicle roared by. We could feel the sidewalk bouncing wearily, like, ‘Oh, this again.’ Ooh, Ouch. The storefront underneath the apartment building was an herbal remedies store. An old man walked by, a cap tucked under his armpit. He smiled toothlessly. The sidewalk smelled pungently of guts. We walked the block.
“This is quite livable,” my boyfriend was saying, gesturing wildly. “Look! All the basic stuff you need. Liquor, toilet paper, sewing kits, pastries, lobsters. Honey, it’s all here.”
I saw men delivering restaurant wholesale, lifting boxes of frozen chicken legs from a beeping truck. I saw one of the drumsticks fall out and go splat on the sidewalk. I looked away, because I didn’t want to know. Suddenly I had a memory of this couple who had threatened to sue my uncle’s restaurant after finding a baby cockroach in their sweet and sour soup. It was awful, it was irresponsible, my uncle was so sorry, they would make amends right away, and the couple huffed away, said: “We will never patronize your business again.” I cowered in the corner and crossed my fingers and tried not to think how the woman whispered, “I told you they were dirty.”
Susan the Real Estate Agent arrived eventually and let us into the building. Together we wound up a red stairwell. Out one window, we looked down into the airshaft, where a gang of cats were lounging in the trash. An adorable orange kitten had its head down like it fell asleep looking at a bug.
“Is it dead?”
My boyfriend shrugged.
“They’re for the rats,” Susan said.
We went up. I saw doors with red banners that said “Peacefully Leave and Enter” in gold lettering and little mirrors ringed with Ba Gua for warding off evil spirits. One floor smelled like incense, another like pickled turnip and eggs, a dish my mom often makes to go with congee.
Susan the Real Estate Agent was very pregnant, and by the time we got to the sixth floor landing, she was heaving like she was about to give birth, and I worried. Without words, she pointed at her stomach, fumbled her mound, put both hands on the small of her back. Are you okay? I asked. She closed her eyes. “Give me a minute,” she croaked.
We waited one minute. We couldn’t believe we hadn’t offered to carry her.
After she felt better, she opened the door to the apartment. The entire apartment was painted in hideous shades, and we felt dizzy, as if we had just spent a lot of time at the carnival. Each room was a different bright color. Again, I worried for Susan’s well-being.
“Who was here before?” We asked.
“Some executive’s assistant at NBC,” she said.
The paint could be dealt with. We said we would take the apartment. Susan hurried us out of the building and then we walked, pushing past street peddlers and vegetables flying down Bowery into this darkened office. The landlord was waiting for us, sitting on this throne-like piece of furniture, waiting to sign the lease. I told him my dad told me that we were supposed to get a month of free rent if we paid all in cash. He said he never said such a thing, and glared at Susan, poor pregnant Susan, who denied any mention of the free month’s rent. He said that the low price should have been incentive enough, and I sighed and rolled my eyes, giving him the feeling that he was the one who owed me something. How about half a month of free rent, then, since you guys are so unreliable. The landlord said no. How about the crazy paint on the walls? I tried again. Susan winced. Then the landlord threatened not to let us have the place. I gave up. He said he would not give us the keys until next week, because his friends from England were in town. Okay. I said. Fine.
“You can never trust the Asians,” my dad said, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking.