A Day in Chinatown

A week ago, I took a trip to Chinatown with the 5C Asian American Advisory Board. I was really excited to finally visit the famous Chinatown with some of my friends. Little did I know that it wouldn’t be what I was expecting…

Okay, I admit it: I’m one of those people who thought Chinatown was just going to be, well, Chinese. After all, if there’s a Koreatown and a Little Tokyo, what’s to differentiate them all other than the nationality of the town? When I arrived at Chinatown, that misconception was the first one that greeted me, because the first thing I saw was an Indonesian restaurant. That struck me because I wasn’t expecting to find any traces of my own culture or upbringing in Chinatown at all, and yet, that Indonesian restaurant was just the first sign that Chinatown was a little closer to me than I had originally thought.

We started off the trip with an icebreaker. When the AdBoard told us to get into a circle, I turned to my friend Stephanie and whispered, “Oh no, they’re not going to make us play Llama Llama or Bunny Bunny, are they? I thought I left those games behind in Orientation Week!” Don’t get me wrong; the games are cute, but they just, er, take me out of my comfort zone. Thankfully, we didn’t play either. We actually did a more educational and awareness-raising version of Move Your Butt, a game in which someone stands in the middle of the circle, gives a characteristic that they think several people in the circle share, and has the people who share the characteristic change places in the circle. In this version, though, we didn’t say silly things like, “Move your butt if you have dark hair!” AdBoard wanted us to dig a little deeper and say things that reflected our community. This was what got me to realize that a lot of people actually shared a lot of the hardships I had growing up, and that we had real diversity in our group. I’m pleasantly surprised to say that even though the ice breaker didn’t make me make any new friends in particular, it did make me feel closer to the group!

Next on the agenda was the political tour. The political tour was a walking tour in which SEACA, the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, talked about the uses of the spaces in Chinatown and about the industries and citizens. We learned that even though Chinatown is actually the second poorest neighborhood in LA, just above Skid Row, it actually doesn’t get much help from the government because of the “Model Minority” belief. This was the first time in which I saw Asians other than my family who didn’t fit the “Model Minority” stereotype. Although it made me feel bad for the residents of Chinatown, it made me feel less ashamed about my upbringing because I realized I wasn’t alone. We got to see a town brimming with poverty, but, at the same time, with life. It was an eye-opening experience.

After the tour, spirits were raised by going out to dim sum. I haven’t had dim sum since I left Miami, so this was the highlight of my day. I was embarrassed to be the only one using a fork at my table. I do know how to use chopsticks, but I’m really clumsy when it comes to eating dim sum with chopsticks, and every time I use them, I end up bathing in soy sauce, so I decided the embarrassment was worth it. I was pleased to find out that no one really cared that I used a fork, because, like Stephanie said, “Hey, you gotta eat!” It was really different to eat dim sum in a group of other people, because I usually go by myself and thus never end up sharing food with anyone, but it’s always interesting to eat with a group because we ate the dim sum the traditional way, which was to put it on the spinning table in the middle and share whatever we got. I got to learn a lot about sharing that day.

I’m sure everyone would’ve been okay with curling up for a nice nap after lunch, but unfortunately, AdBoard had something a little more active planned for us: A lion dance workshop. Now, I hadn’t realized this originally, but lion dancing is hard. We went to an elementary school where Chinatown’s resident Lion Dancing team showed us a few basic steps. I was surprised to see that the lion dance team was actually made up of a racially diverse group that spanned from high school kids to a teacher. They explained to us how they used lion dancing as a way to promote social justice, which I thought was really creative and inspiring. Then they demonstrated one of their routines for us, which was awe-inspiring. If you’ve never seen lion dancing, you should really look it up; it’s so cool. It was also really moving to see such young people take an interest in such an old art that, for some of them, comes from a culture that’s so far from their own. At the beginning of the workshop, no one wanted to get up and dance, but at the end, I’m sure all of us were happy that we did.

We ended the day by having half an hour to explore Chinatown. By the way, half an hour is practically nothing to explore such a big place. I mean, half an hour is not enough to explore the Montclair Mall (I’ve tried); can you imagine trying to take in a whole little town? Anyway, Steph and I had a mission: To get some goodies from a bakery we saw earlier. Our problem? We couldn’t exactly find the bakery. Finally though, after spending 20 of our precious minutes trying to find the place, we finally did. Sadly, we made it all the way over to the bakery just to find that they didn’t have the one thing we were looking for, sesame balls. However, they did have ice cream mochi balls, which I had never had and which Steph hadn’t had in years. So, we each got some and booked it back to the elementary school to catch our bus.

In the end, we made it in time to the bus, and I ate my mochi balls. They were delicious. I had gained so many new experiences that day that even though I was completely exhausted, the trip was totally worth it, and I’m so glad I went.