This past weekend (as you may know if you follow my Facebook and Twitter- which you should, like every good right-thinking American), Emily and I decided to wander around Philadelphia again, but this time in a part we’ve really only tip-toed into before- Chinatown.
Philly’s Chinatown is not the biggest one in America- maybe a few square blocks or so. It occupies a corner of Center City, right as you come off the Ben Franklin Bridge. We had one or two favorite restaurants there- a tea shop and a dim sum joint with the BEST SOUP DUMPLINGS EVER. Apart from that, Chinatown was more or less how we knew we had taken a wrong turn wandering out of Reading Terminal Market.
Recently, Emily has been fond of a YouTube channel called “Off The Great Wall-” a group of young Asian Americans who make thought-provoking, revealing, and often amusing videos about the differences between Western and Eastern cultures- especially in terms of parenting, expectation in child rearing, food, and more. This had the both of us eager to explore the closest, most authentic part of the East we had nearby. As I said in my blog on RTM- if traveling to another country isn’t feasible, find a part of it closer by and experience that for a starter.
We arrived on a sunny, warm, and windy Sunday afternoon, and we were starving- a perfect way to start exploring if there ever was one. We immediately sought out good Chinese food.
I should make a mention here that we were not looking for Chinese-AMERICAN food. No General Tso’s. No (blank) and Broccoli. No bizarrely orange and gluey sweet and sour chicken. That stuff has a place and time. According to at least one writer, it has a special place in my own Jewish-American culture too.
Not today, though. We were looking for CHINESE food- a term which covers over 40 distinct cuisines, each with their own host of signature ingredients, preparations, and inspirations. To quote Anthony Bourdain, “Saying that you’ve ‘been to China’ is like saying you’ve ‘been to Earth.'”
After peeping menus of Taiwanese, Szechuan, Hong Kong-style, and a few non- Chinese choices, we settled on Shang Hai 1. Shang Hai 1 specialized in- you guessed it- Shanghai-style food.
Emboldened by our recently-acquired knowledge of how to spot an authentic Chinese restaurant, we were greeted warmly and offered a table near the door. Hot tea was immediately poured, and ice water was offered which we declined.
The restaurant slowly filled with a late lunch crowd, and our orders of beef scallion pancake, Shanghai Style Panfried Pork Soup Dumplings, and Eight Treasure Noodles arrived. Absolutely fantastic food, in excellent portions for a great price.
Throughout the meal, I began to notice something strange. Every time the waiter came by to refill our teacups, they also asked if we wanted ice water- even going so far as to look at us quizzically and say “You sure? No water?” I then realized- Emily and I were the ONLY table being offered water.
We were also the only Westerners in the entire restaurant.
In Chinese culture, ice water isn’t really a “thing.” Hot water or hot tea is normally drunk as a refreshment, regardless of the weather or time of year. Some grouchy, irritable part of me (not yet ENTIRELY quelled by the delicious food) first thought, “Huh.. thanks for the casual racism, pal.”
Then I realized- he’s a waiter, in an AUTHENTIC Chinese restaurant, serving Westerners. THAT’S A PERFECTLY FAIR AND LEGITIMATE THING TO ASK. He was likely used to any Westerners who came in expecting ice water. Cold water at a meal is kind of OUR thing.
After lunch and a stop at TeaDo- a modern teahouse popular among the 20-something-and-under crowd, Emily and I thought it might be interesting to peek in some of the grocery stores and markets in Chinatown and see the differences- presentation of wares, unusual ingredients, and so on.
I enjoy grocery stores. I love seeing what people eat and wondering how they eat it, or what they do with it. We saw lotus roots and varietals of familiar fruits we’d never seen before. There were bottles of strange sauces in different colors. The meat case had the odds and ends of animals that tend not too be featured at Shop Rite and Acme.
After a while, though, I started to look at the people around us too- and reality came flying in.
All around us were people doing their shopping- chatting, debating, weighing. Most of them were older folks- parents and grandparents getting groceries for their homes.
When their eyes met ours though- IF they made eye contact- the look was a mixture of confusion, suspicion, and accusation. It was a look that said, “Foreigner.”
“What are you doing here? This is not for you.”
That grouchy voice in my head piped up again- “What are they looking at? My money’s green. I can buy something here if I like.”
Another, calmer voice in my head said, “Oh come on- look outside. They have a hard go of things in this corner of town. They have good reason to be suspicious.”
Then finally I realized- They DO have a reason.
It was us. People like me and Emily, doing exactly what we were doing.
Those who know me know I have very strong feelings about cultural appropriation and how truly hurtful and detrimental it can be.
Cultural appropriation is, in a nutshell, the theft and improper use of symbols or aspects of a culture not your own, with complete ignorance of their symbolism and meaning. For example, a singer wearing a Native American war bonnet on stage to show that he has a “naturalist, earthy side” to him- and being completely ignorant of what that headdress means to Native Americans, and how improper it is for him to be wearing it.
Wanting to explore and learn about other cultures is a great thing to do. It’s one of my favorite things to do- but it should always be done respectfully. You should always be aware that whatever you feel is strange, exotic, and wondrous is another person’s day-to-day life, and it may not be quite as romantic as you imagine.
Emily and I spent the day looking through these markets and the streets of Chinatown, wondering and inquiring about things we hadn’t seen before- and without realizing it, some of the people we saw may have looked at us and thought, “This is my life. This is how I live. This is not some Discovery Channel special for you to gawk at.”
No one was crude or mean toward us, and many we met were very friendly and welcoming. One shop even took a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach to rampant Asian cultural appropriation with a sign in their window that read:
We are friendly! We haggle!
Buy your souvenirs here!
Even so, a nagging feeling of shame and foreignness hovered over me for the remainder of the afternoon. Sometimes “being a traveler, not a tourist” is a bit more complicated than you may think.
The sorta-glum feeling followed me through Reading Terminal. Em picked up some of the mushrooms used in the Eight Treasure noodles and Szechuan peppercorns, which we had tried brewed in a beer from Forgotten Boardwalk Brewery in Cherry Hill.
I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story I had read titled “Sun and Shadow,” in which a man disrupts a model shoot trying to make “art” out of his village and history. All along, despite his wackine
ss, the reader knows that the man has a point, and the more I thought about it, I felt like I was the wrong person in that story.
As we walked through the city and wound our way out of Chinatown, and my brain wound itself up further and further in nervousness and guilt, we met up with my little sister, who suggested dinner at Moriarty’s.
Just to REALLY put a twist on the day’s cultural landscape, Moriarty’s is an Irish pub in Philadelphia with an excellent beer list- and is very well-known for their Tex-Mex food.
That put everything rather in perspective. I went to Chinatown to learn, not to offend, and all I can do is try to be more cognizant of what (and who) surrounds me.
I came to Chinatown to learn about Chinatown-
and get some freakin’ good soup dumplings.
Good enough reasons as any.