In a year without holiday gatherings, I found remnants of home in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhoods
Vicky Gu ventures into Chinatown during the pandemic in search of a way to recreate the elaborate family gatherings her Chinese family held in Texas.
Growing up in Dallas, my family’s holiday parties were boisterous, in exuberant tribute to our owned and adopted heritages. After all, my parents had moved from a nation that paraded in pomp and circumstance (China) to a state that boasted in performative slogans (“Everything’s bigger in Texas”).
Our potluck gatherings accordingly knew no bound. The dads would fire up shots of baijiu (白酒), the moms would gossip, and the kids would run around until someone got her finger slammed in a door and screamed, running to mom while her blood dripped down the floor like raw pork knuckles at the supermarket before we boiled them for dinner.
But of course—there was nothing like the food. There were tender white fish fillets, floating on noodles in flaming hot pools of soup. There were BBQ platters in all their gradient glory: brown for duck, red for pork, yellow for chicken. There were WeChat-picture-perfect trays of fried dumplings, chive boxes, and yellow croakers. For dessert, there was sweet sticky rice cake, swirled with red bean and studded with sliced almonds. For the second dessert, there were commercial duty loads of frozen egg tarts—a thousand suns encased in cardboard boxes.
Long before Covid-19 hit, I lost it all—bloody cuts of both fingers and meats—when I moved out after high school, chasing my professional dreams and disillusions across D.C., San Francisco, and New York City. Yet I could never run from my true desires: the pangs of hunger, cravings for comfort food.
The sensory explosion again envelops me: seafood markets in open air, fruit stalls in technicolor, graffitied bathrooms that serve better as public art than utility.
Often finding myself jobless and friendless in a new city, I’d pick up takeout from Chinatown and head to a nearby park to wander. I worked out alongside the Cantonese grandmas of San Francisco’s Huntington Park; I people-watched the card-playing grandpas of Manhattan’s Columbus Park. As I sipped on bubble tea while they shelled peanuts, we sat on benches apart, but together—unknowingly practicing for an impending pandemic.
A few years into my time in New York City, Covid hits, and six months later, Mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) almost passes me by. I haven’t been to Chinatown in six months and finally decided to brave the bike ride in from Brooklyn for a celebratory food haul.
The sensory explosion again envelops me: seafood markets in open air, fruit stalls in technicolor, graffitied bathrooms that serve better as public art than utility (probably no toilet paper, soap if you’re lucky, definitely no paper towels).
I resume my role in experimental grocery shopping on the street, easily swayed by the unspoken rule of aggressive hawkers: “you look at it, you buy it.” I ask questions in Mandarin; they respond in Cantonese. Thinking about my friends while ordering food, I ask for what white people (白人) seem to enjoy; they respond with recommendations for foreigners (外国人).
Aren’t we all getting lost in translation, hearing what we want to hear, responding how we know how to respond?
My dreams for Mid-Autumn Festival didn’t pan out, mainly due to the restricted volume of what I could single-handedly backpack back over to Brooklyn. Was a car worth it for schlepping groceries back, without a boisterous group to share a whole boar, a whole duck, a whole fish, or a whole meal with?
The following week, my aunt shipped me a box of packaged snacks. I shared it at a petite gathering, smiling at a friend experiencing the cognitive dissonance of her first lotus egg yolk mooncake, not knowing it’s a full meal marketed as a dessert. It wasn’t as gratifying as the face of someone who sees a whole roasted pig on the table—with face and figure intact—but it’s something, an emotion, proof of the life we’re all looking to recover.
I’ve since made my way to my second surrogate motherland: an even larger Chinatown in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, hiding away an ever flakier Portuguese egg tart (葡挞) than my normal bakery in Manhattan. It’s the most recent stop in my personal diaspora, one that strays from community so it can retrace its steps back.
As I sit in solitude at Sunset Park, biting into layers of creamy egg custard and flaky crust, I recall inhaling leftover egg tarts the morning after the parties of my childhood. I didn’t expect to reencounter our gatherings through my wanderings, but I now see my Chinatown excursions for what they are, beyond euphoric egg tart discoveries: unhurried steps to renewal, a quiet readying for new celebrations to come.