Chinatown: Checking My Privilege in Migrant Communities

Here is the thing about San Francisco.

You can drive around for HOURS looking for parking, spend several MORE hours REFUSING to pay the astronomical parking fees, and then either finally cave or HOPEFULLY find free parking (pending you land on that magical time between 6am and 6pm when it is closed for construction and 6pm and 6am when it is closed for street cleaning) within a mile or two of your destination.  Then, at some point, you remember.

The whole city is only seven miles across.  You could quite literally walk across it, from one end to the other, in less time than it has taken you to find parking on a busy weekend.

Surprisingly enough for it’s small size San Francisco is host to the largest Chinatown outside Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America.  93-100% of its residents are Chinese and, as a primarily monolingual community in which Mandarin and Cantonese are the two main languages, only 14% of heads-of-households reported an ability to speak English during the 2015 census.  A couple days ago finally found me walking through the Dragon’s Gate and, yes, into what felt a bit like another country.


See that red open-air tour bus in the bottom right-hand corner?  They’re not everywhere in San Francisco but they’re common enough so that I walked right past without particularly noticing them, so I didn’t give them a second thought beyond a mental snort of amusement at the debarking crowd of sunscreen-scented, point-and-shoot carrying, new sneaker wearing tourists.  But it turns out we have more in common then I’d like to admit.

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Chinatown was love at first bite.  Somewhere beyond the twin guards of the iconic Dragon’s Gate a no-frills baker placed a slightly sweet roll into my hands.  It turned out to be light as air and filled with a mysteriously pineapple-y filling that although deliciously distinctive could not be distinguished from the fluffy sweet bread around it.  I walked away happily gorging on a”jian dui,” a light sesame bun traditionally filled with lotus blossom seeds or red bean paste.  Each bite covered my face with toasted sesame seeds and a foolish smile, and I passed beneath swaying red lanterns and domed buildings licking my fingers.  I could smell dim sum, sugar, and, somewhere, someone smoking crystal meth.  Each shop was filled color, clustered with interesting light fixtures, and packed with trinkets with labels in Chinese characters I couldn’t read.  A butcher shop had a hand-written sight that said NO CAMERAS and underneath it a set of ribs atop a long tail.  Asides from a slightly squeamish unasked mental question about what type of tailed animal might be hanging in an uninviting butchery, I was in heaven.

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As we made our way back to the car I followed the unmistakable smell of passionfruit to a small corner grocery, and in the middle of trying not to drool as I took a Snapchat and looked about for a plastic bagIMG_7749 a forceful shove from my right side had me stumbling out of the way for a short Chinese woman with a close-cropped perm.  Without looking at me she  barked out “move now, please” and proceeded to wave her hand above the produce repeatedly with a disgusted look, as if to shoo away a bad scent I’d contaminated the produce with.

I apologized awkwardly and stepped away with my friends but was ruffled and offended.  How rude!! I was going to buy that!! Who did she think she was to shove me aside like that?!!  And waving her hand over the fruit as if I’d left a bad scent!! As if I could even possibly have negative energy?!!  HA!!  Once I was done feeling insulted I checked my privilege and found it right next to another way of looking at things.

Chinatown for me is a San Francisco bucket list check-mark.  However for its residents it is home, a migrant neighborhood as close to the homeland as they are likely to find in the United States.  Its not a selfie opportunity or a free chance to oggle at wierd-looking produce, it is quite literally someone’s mom-and-pop corner store, a fact I had completely forgotten while snapping pictures of colorful painted dragons and jaunty swaying lanterns.  I was ashamed, and I realized that for numerous reasons I really should have known better.

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I also realized that Spanish-speaking migrant communities like the one I was born into do have a slight advantage: Language.

Not to say that Mexicans, Guatemalans, Dominicans, or anyone one group of migrant peoples has it easier to the other, but English and Spanish do share a Latin language base.  While there are indigenous terms which either are their own or have no translation, and regional dialects and grammatical differences exist as obvious ways in which the two can be different, there are countless ways in which they are similar.  The overplayed and ignorant “just add an ‘a’ or an ‘o’ at the end” joke does have some foundation in the numerous cognates that can be found in day-to-day phrases and sentences.  “Animals” translates to “animales” and “vocabulary” is “vocabulario” to name two, not to mention the growing amount of “loan words” in the United States that are actually English words pronounced with a Spanish accent.  Party is occasionally “pari” instead of fiesta, and one might order a “sanwich” at a deli.

As I moved through the shops and bakeries I realized that I didn’t have any of these cognates or loan words at my disposal, and that the Chinese characters next to that mouth-watering basket of liliko’i were a price tag I could not read.  It might read five cents or five dollars, and I would never know which until a frustrated shopkeeper told me I’d paid too little, or perhaps slipped the overpayment into their pockets without saying a word.  And all of this in an environment in which I still walked with the confidence and comfort of being in my own home country and that knowing a couple blocks away someone was likely ordering a “kay-suh-dilluh” and asking “but just how spicy is the salsuh?”

It is easy to forget that for many families, migrant and otherwise, familiar language and the comfort of home are luxuries not guaranteed on foreign soil.

In any time and place the traveler, whether visiting from ten minutes or ten miles away, has an unspoken (and far too often unacknowledged) responsibility to conduct themselves with respect, awareness, humility, and plenty of other virtues that take a wiser person than I to name off the top of their head.  The most important lesson I took away from this is that no-one is exempt from the need for these, especially those of us who assume we already practice them.  Whether you identify as traveler or tourist the ability to travel by choice for pleasure is a privilege which, like all privileges, needs to be checked.

How about you, reader?  What is your number one principle by which you conduct yourself when “abroad?”  I look forward to hearing what wisdoms you have to share ❤

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