Once upon time there was a little girl from Chinatown, New York City. She was always curious and loved to daydream. All she ever known was what her immigrant parents taught her and all that was around her. She never knew the world was so much bigger than just the neighborhood she grew up in. That little girl is me.
On my last visits to New York City, I had a photo shoot right at home. Walking the busy streets and seeing how it has changed, made me a bit nostalgic. I remembered where I used to play wiffle ball down at the apartment courtyard; or where I used to take folk dancing lessons; or the grocery stands that line up on Mott street, where my mom still shops.
My first language was Cantonese. I didn’t speak English until I entered kindergarten. The school put me in ESL (English as a Second Language) class, because my English was not the same level as other kids. My mom was pissed and asked Mrs. Wong, “Why is my daughter in ESL? She’s a U.S. Citizen!” Mrs. Wong replies, “Yes, but it doesn’t matter. She speaks too much Chinese.” By the following year, I was out of that class. My mom made sure of that!
All I ever ate were different types of Chinese food. Maybe a slice of pizza at times, since Little Italy was right next door. I played Chinese jump rope. Yes, that’s a thing! And I was really good at it. I didn’t have any real non-Chinese friends until I went to college. My parents never pressured me to become a doctor or a lawyer, but was encouraged to marry a man from my dad’s village in China. Yep, that’s all I knew!
All this was very weird and hard to understand. I was stuck between two worlds, my Chinese heritage and what I saw on television. The two didn’t match-up. My curiosity went wild. I would wonder: How come I didn’t have my own room? Why do other kids have such nice clothes? Why do my older brother and sister and I have to share one pair of clip on roller skates? You can see why I needed to get out of this place to find some answers.
Growing up there wasn’t all that easy. I’m talking about the 80′ and 90’s. There were gangs and everything illegal in between. Luckily, I had a strict father and older siblings that kept me in line. Things could’ve turned out really bad for me, if I had made just one mistake. I’ve seen it happen with some kids I grew up with. But I was too much of a goody two-shoes and a “daddy’s girl” to ever get in trouble.
As much as I didn’t want to be associated with the “bad” in Chinatown, I still feel a deep gratification to my family and the community, on how they’ve influenced me to become who I am today. In the past, people made fun of me, when they learned that I was from Chinatown, like if it was a negative upbringing or it’s “ghetto”. I used to feel embarrassed, but not anymore. I embrace it all and loved every part of my childhood. It was a humbling upbringing and I wouldn’t change one thing.
That’s the end of “my” Chinatown story and I’m sticking to it! Although I don’t live there anymore, my family still does and has been for the last 50 years. I will always have heavy ties to this town, no matter where I reside. It is home and home is where the heart is!
There’s a saying, “You can take a girl out of Chinatown, but you can’t take the Chinatown out of the girl.”
All photos by Jack Davidson
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