“...according to the myth it is a town that has existed in many different parts of the world in many different time periods…”
This is what the artist Cao Fei said about the myth she wrote for her film La Town. Sometimes, my Chinatown is like that mythical town.
I dreamed it up. I dreamed of living there. I dreamed of dashing down flights of stairs in a hoodie to buy tea and bok choy and mushrooms. I dreamed of being swallowed whole and anonymous in a sea of Chinese I understood and Chinese I only heard. I was working at Café China in Midtown. Most of the kitchen staff lived in Flushing and Elmhurst, and most of the younger front-of-house staff lived in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. They thought I was nuts for wanting to live in Chinatown in Manhattan, instead of Chinatown in Brooklyn. But they tried to help me. They told me I should search through ads in the Chinese newspapers. Or go find the flyers with little tear-off phone number tabs taped on traffic signal and street light poles. I could barely read Chinese, so all I could do was walk around looking for the flyers, and if it seemed like the ad was for a room in an apartment, I would tear off the number, and then coerce one of my coworkers to call the number for me and get me the details. I’d tried to make the calls myself first, but when I asked where the apartment was located, I couldn’t understand the Chinese versions of the names of streets in Chinatown.
I looked at a bunch of rooms. I looked at the vacant bedroom for rent in Siu Fung Chiu’s apartment. It had a bunk bed in it that she said had to stay. Would I sleep on the top or bottom bunk? What would I do with the one I wasn’t sleeping on? I still dream of this apartment I live in with Siu Fung Chiu. For a long time, according to the unknowable algorithms of the T9 predictive text function on my phone, her name—S-i-u—would pop up when I was trying to text the word “sit.” In the life where I live with her in her apartment, or rather, our shared apartment, I live in a room that has a bunk bed in it. Sometimes I sleep on the top bunk, sometimes on the bottom. Sometimes I miss having a full-size bed, a bed that is not attached to another bed.
At a different place, the guy showed up to the door wearing sweatpants and holding a big, rectangular knife; he had been in the middle of chopping up some raw pork, which lay interrupted, lurid, glistening pink on the round chopping block balanced over the kitchen sink.
I don’t even like taking baths, but I dream of another apartment that has only a bathtub, no shower plumbing. In this life, I become extraordinarily handy, somehow finagling my own makeshift shower attachment. Or I learn to love taking baths.
Yet another Chinatown exists for me at Mee Sum Cafe. I wake up early and go to Mee Sum to have 皮蛋瘦肉粥 (Pídàn shòu ròu zhōu) and read a book. Maybe I have shed all of my old life, and nobody I know now knows me then. Maybe the world has ended, and Mee Sum still stands.
Every Thursday, I go to Chinese class, through the volunteer-run ALESN and the YMCA, in the middle school/high school at 100 Hester. It’s a Mandarin II class that’s not really the appropriate level for me, but it’s something. Before class I go to Tán tóu wáng Fúzhōu xiǎochī / 潭頭王記鱼丸 to eat 牛雜米粉 / Niú zá mǐfěn and a small order of dumplings. In class I look around every week, the same one or two dozen students, and every week I wonder how it is that we all ended up here in this room. Twenty year olds, sixty year olds, black, white, Chinese, biracial, Korean, Italian, older Cantonese speakers brushing up on Mandarin. There are a handful of other students like me, heritage speakers of different levels; a couple of people who took Chinese in college or studied abroad in China or Taiwan for a semester decades ago; an EMT trying to learn some useful Chinese phrases and vocabulary to better administer to the Chinese population in Queens. Almost everything we learn is too easy, except the characters, which is the real reason I am there, which nobody, including the teacher, really cares about. I pipe up when it’s my turn to “role play” in our dialogue practices, and then painstakingly copy out characters over and over again in my notebook, nothing sticking. Most likely, though, this is the only way for me to tie myself to Chinatown, to hold myself responsible to Chinatown, to say I need to be there, at this time, at this school.
Most likely, even post-apocalypse, there is something static about my Thursday evening ritual in Chinatown. The train stops, the smoke clears, and from the ashes I am still on my way to Chinese class. The rest of my life has been the fantasy, it turns out. It turns out the only thing that was real was Chinese school, those torturous Sunday morning hours from when I was four to when I was eighteen, and now this. It turns out the intervening years, over a dozen years, all of my twenties and more, was a fiction. I am back now. Back in a public high school during off hours, back in Chinese class, this time on a different coast. There is a mystery here, but it’s really only me. I don’t recognize myself, the one who has returned to Chinese school. I slink around Bayard, Allen and Mott; Eldridge and Pell, as if I’ve left something here, as if someone has left here for me some notes, a few clues, essential for my survival.
Sometimes when I talk to my parents on Skype, having run out of things to say, having run out of updates to give, my dad will ask me if I’ve been to Chinatown recently. I’m not sure why he asks me this. Maybe he asks me this because in the late sixties, around 1970, when he was in college in Illinois, he would come to New York during his summer breaks, and work in a restaurant owned by a friend or relative of a friend or relative. The restaurant was in Brooklyn, but he hung out in Manhattan's Chinatown.
Somehow, when we Skype, although I’m sitting in my apartment in Prospect Heights and he is sitting with my mom in their house in Newport Coast, California, our halfway point is in Chinatown. We are meeting in Chinatown. We’re waiting, sitting on a bench, three in a row, on Forsyth, just outside the park. We’re sitting at the corner table by the window in Spicy Village, gathered around the Big Tray Chicken. Maybe I imagined it, but there’s truth in there. Through the drifting of time and space.
There are other Chinatowns in my dreams. The one in Downtown L.A. The sprawling ones of Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park. Once, I walked miles, hours, to get to a Chinatown of sorts—a shantytown Chinese market—in Budapest, which consisted of rows and rows of shipping containers turned into stalls and stands and shops and everyone sat around makeshift tables playing cards with stacks of cash and outside this little city of shipping containers there was a sign that signaled no cameras and no guns. Everyone had walkie talkies and as I walked around there was a wave of activity, a flurry that traveled like a wave, and like a wave, all the shops and stands and stalls shut down, as I walked through the rows, until there was nobody and nothing. Maybe I made all of it up.
The truth is, I go to Chinatown to disappear. Sometimes I do. Disappear. The bus, the train, the bar, the bookstore, anyone, at any point, can narrow me down: Asian. Chinese. I'm conspicuous, but in Chinatown, I am gone. Sometimes an old woman will come up to me and ask me directions in Chinese. Sometimes I can answer, sometimes I know where. But even then, I am barely visible, just one more person in a crowd.
I am a ghost, careening through the streets of Chinatown. I float to the shops on Grand Street and hover over the house plants. I float over to haunt Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Doyers, 21 Shanghai House on Division, Shanghai Asian Cuisine on Elizabeth. Detached from everyone and everything, I float over to Pho Grand and Taiwan Pork Chop House, my favorite places to eat by myself. Read a book while eating. For a post-meal treat, I buy a knife at Bowery Restaurant Supply.
Cao Fei says that it’s “impossible to tell where or when ‘La Town’ is occurring.” The Chinatown of my dreams is also something that mysteriously occurs. It is slippery. It is surprising. Chinatowns in Budapest, in London or Paris, San Francisco, Philly. In 1982. In some year far off into my future. In the 1920s on Doyers Street, known then as the Bloody Angle for its Chinese gang violence. In a boba shop. On a small white plate of 皮蛋豆腐. Like La Town, the story, the myth of it, comes together organically, “one piece at a time.”
In this mythical Chinatown, I step carefully through the wet floors of the fish vendors to the stairs going up to my apartment. But I’ve never lived in Chinatown. Once, three years ago, I was drunk and vowed I wouldn’t leave New York without having lived in Chinatown. I haven’t lived in Chinatown yet, but I haven’t left New York either. Not yet.
On the bus in Brooklyn a few teenagers bump up against me, and I move to the side. They shout, watch out, don’t scare all the Chinese people! I look around, but I am only one Chinese person. Somehow I have been multiplied, funhouse mirror style. In the mythical Chinatown, I undo this. I am divided, again and again, chopped apart, stripped and sublimated into smoke and mirrors. A sliver in each bunk bed, a sliver on the chopping block, a sliver playing cards and smoking slim cigarettes with the cooks at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles.
The illusion is so perfect. Maybe I didn’t make any of it up.