By Mabel Lee
The first time I'd been back to Philly Chinatown in a year was on a Saturday a few weeks ago to have tea with a friend. In the car, with my father bumping slowly down 10th Street to avoid sudden street-crossers, I peered out the open window and took in the familiar sights: Chinese grandmothers aggressively doing their weekend shopping, the tofu woman selling an unsettling combination of bras, panties and Asian sweets, the backside of my mother as she happily disappeared into a pastry store to buy discounted buns.
My parents, my sister and I lived in an apartment
The move to the Northeast signified for us a huge step toward what my parents, after fleeing China's Communist regime, envisioned life to be like in America: a house with three floors, a garage, a garden, a car, two children -- both daughters -- and simple pleasures. "The freedom to buy sugar, and as much as you want," my mom once marveled. My parents managed to save up half the payment on the house through restaurant jobs, dishwashing, sewing and ruthless savings plans during the years that we lived in that small Chinatown apartment.
For my parents, it definitely was a step toward
becoming more assimilated, successful Chinese immigrants in America, ones who
waved at their next-door neighbor, whose daughter they sent to piano lessons,
whose garden bloomed every spring, whose new car they kept in the garage where
the previous owners had left behind an enormous American flag. I don't think I
ever saw that when I was younger. I wanted my parents to speak English, and I
wanted them to take me to
On weekends and on special occasions, we'd leave
the rather undefined and sprawling space that was the Northeast to go into
I was once embarrassed by my parents and bored
by the weird banality I believed my childhood to be. Now I'm glad they never took
For me, it was a matter of assimilating, not
Going back to
Now the streets are full of families and young people like me who are meeting their friends for tea. I am early, so I stop by K. C.'s Pastries to grab my mandatory morning coffee, iced for the warm, Indian summer weather. Before the illuminated glass display of cakes, buns and tarts, I order my coffee in English. I realize I have never ordered in English before; it's always usually in Cantonese. I am lazy getting back into my old skin, or perhaps I've already shed it. But unlike 10 years ago, the pastry lady understands perfectly.
At tea, everything is just as it always was, but
I observe everything with a nostalgic yet appreciative eye, looking inside a
revived memory from an older, more settled vantage point. We sip on hot
chrysanthemum tea, watch as the women push carts full of greasy dim sum,
dumplings, noodle dishes, fried squid. The conversation and sound of chopsticks
hitting the plates rise to a comfortable din within the restaurant, and my
friends and I relish our peaceful round-table camaraderie amidst the hearty
raucous sounds that envelops
Chinatown illustration by Bill Cannon
Available at FineArt America.