What does it take to know a city?
To know a city, is to know mankind. Our species is a story that is told over and over on every corner of this globe, unable to escape the fundamental longings that drive us. Like a fish longs for water, or a bird longs for the sky. We are driven by desires, and time and time again, we return to our carnal selves. Underneath the clothing, the flesh and sinews; underneath the name and title, we are nothing more than our primal desires, wearing the skin of the land.
There’s a part of Los Angeles that feels the breeze of the eastern winds. For many people, Chinatown is just another segment of the map, another discolored stain on the rug that is the City of Angels. Like its eastern muse, Chinatown is overpopulated and crowded. Narrow alleyways packed full of tourists, locals, and stragglers wandering through the town. These alleys are lined with vendors in their tiny stalls, peddling anything from fake designer t shirts to knives and bongs. Jade trinkets tinkle in each miniature shop, assuring you that it harnesses the ancient luck of authentic Chinese legends. You could flip any product upside down and find a “Made in China” sticker, if that vendor was honest enough to leave the sticker on. The once great dragon known as China, has been tamed so that its grandchildren could work in factories and churn out trinkets for the whims of the West.
The shop owners tell a story of their own, with their faces. In all likelihood, this shop is their life. It is their livelihood, clustered here with hundreds of others. No sign or title, no name above their shop. Impossible to find again in the maze of ever shifting faces. Their shops reminded me of the American dream. In their weary eyes, they told the tale of a journey. They looked like immigrants who may have come here yearning for the American dream, but upon arrival, decided it was too expensive, and settled for a meager life. And so every morning, they reported to their own shop, and repeated the phrase “two shirts for five dollars”. Over and over, day after day, week after week, until unbeknownst to them, some banker in Europe makes a decision that causes cotton prices to rise. Then they learn a new phrase. “Two shirts for six dollars”. I felt a sense of awe towards their stamina, their resilience. They had no names, no face, and no voice. Yet on their shoulders stood Chinatown in all its glory, as well as the rest of the great Los Angeles.
I ventured into Chinatown with two friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There, we perused the shelves of miniature bamboos and toys, the trinkets and souvenirs, taking in the sight and smell that was the LA Chinatown. We shifted through the masses like three apples in a turbulent ocean. Finally, we reached a quiet corner of the city where we took a breath and stood in the sun.
As we looked around, we noticed an old Chinese woman selling fruits by the stairs. She had no storefront, no shelves. There was no shop, simply an old woman who found an empty space on the ground, and began selling her fruits. In fact, I was willing to bet she had no license or other forms of legitimacy for her fruit business. To the city of Los Angeles, she was a ghost, sitting in a forgotten corner of Chinatown. She had her entire inventory on the concrete before her feet. A box of Lychee fruit, some citrus fruits, and a box of Cherimoya fruit. I could only guess how long she had to sell all of these fruits before they went bad in the smog filled city air, and with those fruits, her livelihood for the week. My friend remembered that she needed to bring home some Lychee for her mom, so we went to the old woman to purchase fruits.
I crouched and inspected the Cherimoya. The Cherimoya is a very unexpected fruit to us westerners. I’ve only had it once in my life before seeing it that day. I still remembered my first time seeing the Cherimoya fruit. It was in Taiwan, when I was a child visiting my grandfather. He stopped at a street vendor like I did, and began selecting Cherimoyas. Having never seen a Cherimoya before, I confused them with dreadful Artichokes after a quick glance. But my grandfather told me to trust him as he picked out a bag of ripe, green, scaled fruits. When we got home, he grasped one with both hands and split it wide. He revealed a fleshy white fruit bound around black seeds, a simple and sweet fruit that tasted amazingly like candy. “You have to pick the good ones”, he told me, eyes fixed on the fruit in his hand. “These are a native fruit to Taiwan.” I told him I had never seen this fruit before, and I was amazed at how sweet it was. My grandfather chuckled, happy to show his grandson another bit of this world.
I told the old Chinese lady behind the stairs that I wanted 3 Cherimoyas. I lifted three fingers to punctuate my point, elucidating my broken Chinese. She placed the three Cherimoyas on a scale. Two point three pounds. She ran the numbers in her head. “$5.25” she told me after she calculated it.
I handed her six dollars and tried telling her to keep the change. She didn’t seem to understand, so I explained slower in my broken Chinese that I didn’t need the change. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, but still was hesitant to let me leave having paid more than she asked, even if it was only a few cents. She grabbed a handful of Lychee fruits and slid them into my bag for free. Her integrity surprised me. Here, in the heart of Chinatown, was an old, hard working, and honest Chinese woman who savored the value of a fair trade. In her squinted eyes, and hunched back, a certain wisdom glimmered, and I had the vague sensation that she knew far more about this world than I did. Perhaps she was more than the heart of Chinatown. Perhaps she was the soul of the city.
We plunged back into the darkness of the market, pushing and shoving through the crowd to get out. We heard cymbals and drums, and the clanging of traditional Chinese New Years music. A tiny parade of about six teenagers were performing a Chinese New Year ceremony to bless the local shops, in exchange for tips from the shop owners. They were in full regalia, leading a faux dragon behind a masked monk. As they danced through the narrow aisles, tourists and shoppers swarmed around them, snapping pictures on their phones and cameras, smiling excitedly at witnessing this pivotal Chinese experience. The three of us watched with intrigue. Suddenly, my friend felt a tug on her purse, and when she looked down, it was opened and her wallet was missing. While we were entranced by the display of culture and tradition, someone had snatched her wallet.
After the cursing and the feelings of helplessness, we called the bank to cancel the credit cards. I looked up and saw the setting sun. The golden rays spilled over graffiti splayed walls, over tarp and tin buildings, tall business parks and urban apartments. The sun was setting on another day in Chinatown, where the human will to live took another form and wore the mask of culture. Life spoke another language in this town, one that had the subtle dialect of money, carried by the eastern winds. This was another part of Los Angeles where dreams lived and died, and where people strove to get by, one way or another. We witnessed the two sides of a city that day, both of them faceless, but more real than we could ever imagine.
And so I ask again. What does it take to know a city? Perhaps it is to taste its fruits, regardless of where it was grown, whether it is sour or sweet. It is to hear its language, whether it has a voice or not. It is to be robbed by it, yet still stand in awe of it. But like the Cherimoya, you must choose to see that it is good, and venture forth.