Exoticism in Familiarity – Chinatown, Manhattan

Chinatown is a name that I have heard of even when I was back in Hong Kong. Back then, I used to picture Chinatown to be an American’s representation of Chinese culture; a place with ancient Chinese architecture, dragon and phoenix symbols and motifs, and overuse of the color red. For a long time, Chinatown was a joke to me. That changed when I first journeyed to Chinatown.

I remember how unenthusiastic I was a few years back when my parents decided to take me to Chinatown for the first time. I remember thinking of all the places in New York City that I could go, Chinatown would definitely be on the bottom of my list. I specifically chose clothes that made me look American, just so that people would not associate me with my culture and my race – and the negative connotations that came with it.

Upon arriving Chinatown, reality clashed with my expectations immensely. Instead of finding a Chinese version of It’s a Small World, Chinatown appears to be like any other Chinese city; normal looking buildings, with normal looking signs, on normal looking neighborhoods, with normal looking people. Everything was so basic and simple that its familiarity and sense of belonging drew me in and kept bringing me back to this place.

The more I visit Chinatown, the stronger the sense of belonging grew in me. I started to know my way around the area, started to connect with local restaurant owners and shop owners. I became so familiar with the area, I forgot that I was not even a resident of the area. Chinatown became my unofficial home in New York City.

However, as I delved deeper, I discovered a fundamental aspect of Chinatown that was the root to my attraction to the area, it’s exoticism. Chinatown reminds me so much of home, that it also reminds me a part of home that does not exist anymore. From the kind and affable people to the mutualistic relationship between the Cantonese and Chinese population, all gave me immense nostalgia. These are things that I desperately tried to find back in Hong Kong, yet failed miserably.

Now knowing this, every time I go to Chinatown, it occurs to me how foreign everything looks. Chinatown seemed increasingly like China, and lesser like Hong Kong. Though the people around me speak in a familiar dialect, their amiable tonality reeks of foreignity. I just do not know whether I like Chinatown anymore.

I just do not know whether I like Chinatown anymore…

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