When I first went to Chinatown in Chicago, I was really surprised and dismayed by how old and run-down it looks. Granted, it really does feel like China, but it looks and feels like how I imagine a village to look like in China, or maybe China in the 1960s. There is nothing modern about it, and even souvenirs sold in the so-called souvenir shops are old and dusty.
The only other time I’ve been to Chinatown in the USA was in San Francisco, and perhaps because I was only there over the weekend or I was just in a great mood, somehow the Chinatown I remembered in SF was bustling and cheery. Nothing like the somehow kinda drab Chinatown in Chicago.
Recently, with work bringing me to Chinatown, I have a lot more opportunities to observe Chicago’s Chinatown and I have come to appreciate it more.
I realized that if you are a Chinese who do not know a single English word, you will still be in a complete comfort zone in Chinatown because there is absolutely no need for English to be spoken there. It is possible to have lived in Chicago for many years, not learn English, but still survive and be able to go about with your daily life if you just live and work in Chinatown.
While I am still slightly dismayed by the overall drab feel of Chicago’s Chinatown, I have grown to appreciate that this is instead an authentic Chinatown.
Having grown used to the extremely touristy Chinatown in Singapore, with lots of cool and cheap souvenirs everywhere, I have come to expect all Chinatowns to be equally bustling and touristy. In my heart, Chinatown is supposed to be a “tourist attraction” rather than an enclave really meant for the Chinese community to work and live in.
Sometimes I feel slightly sorry for the Chinese living in Chinatown who probably cannot venture out of Chinatown since they speak little English. This means they are essentially cooping themselves up in a small area, and the only USA they see is a Chinese-speaking one. In fact, if you just hang around Chinatown all the time, you can’t even feel that you are living in the US!
I know they would also love to explore other parts of the US, or try out different cuisine, but how is it possible when you can’t quite speak the language? And to say the truth, it is not easy to learn a brand new language i.e.English if you are already not young.
Therefore I now see Chinatown as a rather important place in each US city. It is truly a sanctuary for Chinese-speaking foreigners where they won’t feel alone and out of place.