A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Men congregate to hear a speaker in a San Francisco's Chinatown.
Men congregate to hear a speaker in a San Francisco's Chinatown. Photo Credit: California History Section, California State Library

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Chinatown and the Suburbs

"I don't think that you need to erase the Chinese-American experience in order to capture the American "Our worlds were so proximate yet so distant in some ways"

By Eric Liu

Many Chinese Americans have clustered in Chinatowns across the United States, creating concentrations of Chinese culture in a land that has not always been welcoming. Yet for some Chinese Americans that have built lives and homes in the suburbs, Chinatown has become more a place to visit instead of an oasis for their cultural identity. Here, Eric Liu, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and author of "The Accidental Asian" shares a poignant memory of meeting his grandmother in Chinatown.

I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York which is about 90 miles away from New York City. And we as a family every few months would take a trip down into the city. Almost every time when we'd go down to the city, we would make a swing through Chinatown. Often times because my grandmother lived in Chinatown, we'd be going explicitly to visit her. But sometimes we'd just be passing through Chinatown so my parents could go to a variety of different stores. I mean it was literally like a way to, coming from the relatively bland and colorless suburbs, to get a concentrated fix of things Chinese. My parents would browse through magazines and books at a Chinese bookstore. We would go to Chinese restaurants. We'd go Chinese markets to stock up on all kinds of food and spices and dry goods. You could get great woks and rice cookers. Every few months when we'd pass through New York, we would, in a literal and I think metaphorical way, stock up on Chineseness when we went to Chinatown.

Those trips were really memorable for me as a kid. It was very exciting. I remember every sense being heightened. It was much more noisy and crowded environment than I had ever been in. I had never really been [someplace] where you could just be walking down the street and smell Chinese food cooking. As you're walking in the night time through these crowded streets and these side markets, being really aware of all these lights that are strung up in front of these stalls, shining on the fruit and the vegetables and the fish and everything out there. And [I was] aware of this kind of rush and bustle of people, this kind of totally unabashed rudeness with shoving and pushing.

I remember this one evening. It was a cold winter night. We were walking through the streets. As we were just making our way through this crowded area in front of one the stalls, all of a sudden, out of the blue, of this kind of, you know, sea of humanity comes into a focus a face that we knew and it was my grandmother's face. And we just walked smack right into her.

My grandmother lived in Chinatown for 20 years. On this occasion we hadn't called her and hadn't told her we were coming into the city. We had been in town to go to the museums or something like that and decided at the end before we went home that we'd swing through Chinatown.

And there was this kind of awkward pause for a moment. And then this big joyous hug because it was kind of a great thing to all of a sudden kind of stumble into her. We talked a lot about what we were doing and how everything was. What went unspoken during that whole encounter was, "Yeah, Popo, we came down here to your neighborhood, a few blocks from where you live, and we didn't call."

Apart from that kind of social discomfort there was the other kind of larger knowledge that we were coming to this neighborhood as tourists and my grandmother was coming to this neighborhood as somebody who lived there. After a little while, we parted ways and my grandmother went home and we got in our car and drove back up to Poughkeepsie.

I'll never forget that car ride back up to Poughkeepsie. It was a totally silent car ride, and we were all just kind of lost in our thoughts. I'm sure my parents were both thinking about what had just happened there. And I was dimly conscious of the fact that we, even though we were blood relatives my grandmother and I, that we occupied very different worlds. And, you know, as we drove up from the city and into the suburbs and the kind of surroundings got greener and more spacious and we finally arrived back at our home pretty late at night - and it was quiet in our suburb. Our worlds were so proximate yet so distant in some ways.

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