“The house kept its own time, like the old-fashioned grandfather clock in the living room. People who happened by raised the weights, and as long as the weights were wound, the clock continued ticking away. But with people gone and the weights unattended, whole chunks of time were left to collect in deposits of faded life on the floor.” - Haruki Murakami
One of my most vivid memories as a kid was going out to dinner in Chinatown. Eating out was not something my family did often; we did so maybe every other month and on special occasions. When we did venture out somewhere, it was really exciting for me and my sister. Going to ‘Chinatown’, in particular, meant going to this magical place with big fish and lobster in the windows, unlimited flavors of bubble tea, shops that carried a rainbow assortment of jellies, Pocky and Koala Yummies, the rotating plate in the middle of every round table (that we jumped at any opportunity to spin), fortune cookies that we couldn’t wait to break open and- if it was a “good” fortune- bring the little paper home to keep forever, and tantalizing smells that, to this day, bring a wave of nostalgia to my mind.
Something that really intrigues me is visiting a place I once frequented as a child and taking notice of how my perception of that place has changed with the passing years. Whenever I return to the Philippines, for example, I’m always amazed at how differently I see things, how quickly familiar surroundings bow gracefully to new discoveries.
Recently, I thought about how I hadn’t been to Chinatown in a very long time and decided to explore it with a pair of fresh eyes. It was a super hot day, I was sweating buckets, my camera bag seemed to weigh 100 pounds and suddenly it felt like I was back in SE Asia on one of my backpacking trips. The Sears Tower looming in the background- which I somehow never noticed as a child- reminded me of where I was. Rather than vapors of delicious restaurant food, I was met with the smell of urine, and it was more prominent than I ever remembered. The next thing I noticed was the average age of passers-by; most were elderly folks, moseying from shop to shop with arms crossed behind their backs or hands full of plastic grocery bags. I was glad I had the foresight to bring my umbrella; my initial thinking was that Chinatown would be the only place I could walk around with an umbrella on a sunny day and not attract stares. I was correct in my assumption and blended in quite well next to all the brightly-colored parasols. The shops looked much more deteriorated than I remembered and carried a lot of jewelry, souvenirs, Chinese herbs, and produce which was sometimes placed out on the stoop, browning in the hot sun. It was a quiet and peaceful place, except for an old cook who yelled at me after I tried to snap a photo of her kitchen. The square was much, much smaller than I remembered, after walking the 5-6 blocks and reaching the end of it, though I’m sure places seem much more expansive through a child’s eye.
Looking back, the real reason I enjoyed Chinatown was because it was a place we went as a complete family, sitting pushed up under the thick red tablecloth between my mom and dad, always disappointed that dessert was an almond cookie and not chocolate cake. It was my mom telling us not to fill up on soda; it was my dad embarrassing us by sneezing loudly with chunks of food flying everywhere for five minutes straight whenever he ate something peppery; it was practicing with my sister a “secret language" we thought our parents couldn’t understand. I’ll never recall the conversations we had, but the togetherness is the feeling I’ll remember and cherish the most. For the people living in Chinatown, however, it isn’t just a one-off dinner for them. The sweaty folks helping their friend move into a second-story apartment, the old men wearing sweatpants and rubber slip-ons, standing around talking and smoking cigarettes, elderly couples helping each other cross the street...this togetherness, while holding fast to Chinese language and traditions, is abundant every day, and it's what has kept the community vibrant and thriving for a hundred years. I hope I can continue this tradition of togetherness, of making it a point to sit down and eat dinner at the same table, of attending to the weights and making sure they are wound as the clock ticks away..