As I walk into my favorite dim sum shop on Doyers street, I am greeted by a familiar waitress who I call “阿姨”, or “Aunty” in English. I am placed in my usual seat, the fourth table next to the window. As always, I proceed to tell Aunty my usual order of 米板卷虾 (Rice Sheet Roll with Shrimp) and 鸡肉糯米饭 (Chicken Sticky Rice) and ask for extra soy sauce and a pint of soy milk to wash down the greasy yet delicious dishes.
While I wait for my order, I looked around at the 80s styled decor and recounted the very first time I visited the restaurant. I was only five years old and had just come back from my grandparent’s care in China. The wooden chairs were too big and the red and white checkered table cloth was eerie looking.
Now, at 17-years-old, the wooden chairs fit perfectly but the same eerie feeling from the retro decor remains.
After 10 minutes of aimlessly looking around, my food arrives. Without even tasting it, I know it will be good. The Rice Sheet Roll with Shrimp will be soft and chewy with a bit of texture from the shrimp. The Chicken Sticky Rice will be salty because of the mushrooms they add and the rice will stick to my fingers and my teeth. I douse my dishes with savory soy sauce and devour it in five minutes. I pay for my food and exit the restaurant.
I take a turn and walk down the colorful streets lined with bright red brick buildings covered in ads and draped with lanterns. The shouting of fruit sellers and grandmas chasing their grandchildren fill the streets. Longan is being sold for nine dollars a pound, a price that can be negotiated if you make the right case. A little boy asks his parents for some yummy candied haws, the equivalent of cotton candy for Chinese kids.
As I continue to navigate the streets, the smell of egg tarts baking in the tiny silver cart distracts me and I cave..
I stop at a commercial building with a pagoda-like roof. This building, which used to house my after school program, is now occupied by Starbucks. I can still picture myself running through the halls and spending my free time playing Chinese Poker with my classmates in this space. I can see myself eating my first McDonald’s Happy Meal and making my first friends. Now I see concrete and construction where my childhood playground used to lie.
A familiar dialect interrupts my thoughts. I mistake a father calling after his daughter in a thick Fujianese accent for my father. The familiar accent is heavy, strong and biting. I wonder if that father knew mine because everyone knows everyone who is Fujianese. I want to go up and ask, but decided against it and entered the familiar bright green Fay Da bakery next door instead.
Immediately, I am enveloped by small chatter and conversations, some of which I can pick up. A lady’s son has just gotten himself a new job at a bank. Someone else is talking about how they have to visit their dentist to get a monthly checkup.
I purchase some hot pork buns and exit the shop.
I cross a couple of blocks and arrived at the R train station. I say goodbye to the Chinese enclave of Chinatown and enter the subway. I wrap the pork buns in the bag, put them in my backpack, and then turn on some music.
As the train arrives and departs from the station, Chinatown becomes further and further away. Despite being physically away from Chinatown, it will always have a role in defining myself as a Chinese American New Yorker.
A Chinese American New Yorker blends both languages and cultures. And language and customs become chains that link strangers together.
I won’t converse with the waiter but I will respectfully address the waiter’s older status with an “Aunty” or “Uncle.”
I know the best places to eat dim sum and recognize the menu items like the back of my hand.
I spent my childhood in Chinese school playing card games with my friends.
My parents let me roam the streets freely because almost everyone is related to me in some way or form.
I listen to the different dialects that surround me as if it were music and can make out my own in the busy streets filled with chatter.
I laugh at side conversations I hear in crowded bakeries during afternoon snack time.
I can tell the tourists from the natives, just as easily as I can tell real dim sum from frozen ones.
I can walk aimlessly along the streets of Chinatown and feel right at home, never having to worry about getting lost.
Because if I ever do get lost, I know where to go; A Chinese American New Yorker will always return to one place: Chinatown.