Some people unpack when they first arrive in a city. Me, I look for Chinatown. It started, I suppose, with my grandparents. Traveling halfway around the world from Hong Kong, they settled in New York's Chinatown in 1960. Even after moving to another Chinese enclave in Flushing, Queens, they kept going back, like clockwork, to their old neighborhood. Every morning they would take the Q26 bus and the No. 7 subway train to the 6 train to Canal Street, where my grandfather worked in a fortune cookie factory and my grandmother was a seamstress. Every night they'd bring home fresh vegetables bought from street vendors they'd come to know. I picture a set of footprints marking a path from Queens down to Lower Manhattan, traceable on a map of the New York City transit system. The shuffle of morning commuters, the push of crowds at the Canal Street station, and the sound of Chinese being spoken everywhere are virtually the same today.
When we were in elementary school, my brother, Andy, and I began to join these pilgrimages to Chinatown. Together with our two cousins, we went on produce-focused missions—following our mothers and grandparents past fragrant piles of almost-ripe persimmons, Asian pears, and giant oranges stacked on outdoor stalls next to neat green bunches of Chinese broccoli, bok choy, and long, willowy scallions. Other times, we ended up at a local restaurant taken over entirely by our family for a wedding banquet or a christening. My memories of Chinatown are steeped in pungent tastes and smells: the jasmine tea served at every meal; the salty flavors of the shark's fin soup that was ladled out at eight-course dinners attended by people we didn't know. We banged on water glasses with our chopsticks so the newlyweds would kiss, and clamored for our mothers to break the bird's nest, a fried-noodle basket filled with scallops, squid, and delicate straw mushrooms. Great-aunts would suddenly appear in clouds of flowery perfume—"You remember me, don't you?You've gotten so big now!"—brandishing long, red-painted fingernails that reached out eagerly to seize our cheeks.
Out on the streets, we stuck together, sidestepping dark, smelly puddles and eyeing strangers warily, but eagerly poking fingers at tanks of lobsters or plastic kiddie pools of tiny turtles imported from Hong Kong. The Chinatown of my childhood wasn't exactly the stuff of a Polanski film noir; any mystery it held for us had nothing to do with some inexplicable "Forget it, Jake...it's Chinatown" idea lurking beneath the surface. Rather, it had to do with the attraction of the great unknown of the World Out There, the unlimited possibilities of which are felt by children everywhere.
It took 15 years for me to discover other Chinatowns in that world outside. In college, I lived in Sydney, where neighborhoods often melt into one another without warning, and I discovered its Chinatown by accident. In that cosmopolitan, outdoorsy city on the other side of the globe, where every day back home was night and the seasons were flipped around, I ached for something recognizable. And it came on a hot February day as I straggled home from my job at the Sydney Morning Herald and ducked into a dimly lit corner grocery for a breath of cool air.
Fans whirred, kicking up a jumbled aroma of dried salted plums and orange peels, candied ginger and dehydrated shiitake mushrooms. I ran my hand along plump displays of rounded grapefruits, nubby lychees, and ripe, squishy mangoes. The checkout girl clipped her fingernails—a steady click, click, click—and the stock boys sat in the back of the store, their voices rising and falling in Cantonese lament: "It's really hot outside." "Too hot." "Ahh...drink some water and stop your big complaining." Up at the counter, my eyes finally adjusted enough to reveal that, contrary to what my other senses were telling me, I was not, in fact, at home, in New York City.
There in Sydney, the Central Business District had given way to narrow, crowded alleys lined with bakeries alongside butcher shops with big glass windows that showcased swinging slabs of roast pork. It was almost, but not quite, the neighborhood I knew, a bit like a small-scale stage set for a film about my Chinatown. There were differences—shiny "New Asia" shopping malls straight from Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, and flyers advertising the popular sport of dragon-boat racing—but the essence of place was the same. Somewhere between New York and Sydney, Chinatown had ceased to belong to the foreign category of the World Out There. It had joined the long list of life's known quantities, like a book I'd read over and over again, or a brand of shampoo I always took along on my travels. Being there offered comfort, a familiar ground on which to get oriented.
I continued to travel and find enclaves of Chinese culture. In Buenos Aires, I made my way to the four-block stretch that is the Chinese neighborhood and stumbled into a charming little shop that displayed neat shelves lined with food products labeled in Spanish, English, and Chinese. In that beautifully crumbling Latin American city where I was an alien, the Chinese proprietor and I nodded to each other in acknowledgment. During a summer spent in Greece, after weeks of spanakopita and feta-topped salads in Athens, a Greek friend took me to a local Chinese restaurant. The kitchen workers watched curiously as I shoveled down bowl after bowl of luxuriously plain white rice (my mother's longtime nickname for me: fan tung, or "rice bucket"). And on a rain-sodden day in Vancouver, British Columbia, Chinatown was where I sought shelter, in a quiet tea bar and bookshop with a pot of jasmine tea.
These days, I find myself exploring another Chinatown, in San Francisco. I've passed through the city's historic Chinatown Gateway, climbed up the steep hills to Stockton Street, looked in the souvenir-shop windows, contemplated where to get a perfect steamed lotus-seed bun. In the city's Sunset neighborhood, a new wave of Asian immigrants has settled, a mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese. A lively, functional community resides along Irving Street, a mile-long stretch of monolithic Chinese supermarkets, 99-cent clearance centers, bubble-tea shops, and low-key but surprisingly wonderful places to eat.
Across San Francisco Bay, in Oakland, Chinatown blends right into the city's downtown, stretching across several blocks to touch the Old Oakland Farmers' Market, where Asian herbs and squash are sold alongside freshly baked bread and cut flowers. Despite the fusion, and perhaps even because of it, the neighborhood retains its distinct flavor as a working quarter, a place where people share the comings and goings of daily life. In a pastry shop on Franklin Street, a woman behind the counter hands over a roast-pork bun, along with a comment on how big a customer's six-year-old daughter has gotten. The little girl freezes, then retreats hurriedly behind her father's leg.