When skyscrapers and Chicago cityscapes begin to give way to hanging lanterns and stone statues of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, we’ve arrived again in Chinatown. At two hours and thirty-one minutes away from my hometown, Chicago’s Chinatown Square has been my family’s favorite travel destination since I was in elementary school. I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve been there. Still, I never tire of going. There’s a unique quality about it that’s timelessly familiar yet fresh, making me feel like that same child with each visit. Forever connected to our shared Asian culture, I’d like to think that Chinatown and I occupy a similar space in a modern, western world that has tended not to be as open to our identities.
Being from suburban West Michigan, like many other Asian-Americans who were raised in predominantly white areas, embracing my identity hasn’t always been one of my favorite things to do. Chinatown became a safe space for me, free of uncomfortable “lunchbox moments” or an implicit need to fit into any unspoken standard that was present within my social environments at home. With my stomach full from Dim Sum, I proudly stood for photos in front of my zodiac animal, a dragon, free to be myself as a little Asian-American boy.
Since I started college, the pervasiveness of the aforementioned struggles I faced have mainly been rid of in my everyday life. I’m thankful to be apart of such a supportive, understanding Asian/Pacific-Islander American community on campus that has helped me to grow and accept who I am. Parallel to this, a “trendiness” has recently seemed to attach itself to certain qualities of Asian culture, specifically that of East-Asian aesthetics. Hollywood has gotten Crazy Rich, BTS have become worldwide heartthrobs and Japanese kanji characters line countless racks of Forever 21 shirts as well as Ariana Grande’s arm. Chinatown Square, likewise, is more crowded than ever, bustling with activity in (bubble tea) cafés and Instagram feeds alike. I never would’ve envisioned that being Asian could be “cool” on a personal level, much less on a sociocultural level where even non-Asian individuals may try to emulate Asian culture for themselves. It’s a new development, but one that is striking to me due to the contrasting experience of my childhood. It makes me think about the ways in which I continuously negotiate my own identity.
On a Saturday night in Chinatown Square, I enjoy a late dinner with my family at a Korean barbecue restaurant, surrounded by smoky scents arising from the grill and screens displaying BLACKPINK’s “As If It’s Your Last” in full color. Here, the patrons are somehow as diverse as the flavor palette itself. I smile slightly. I can’t help but be reminded of why I always look forward to visiting. When you come to any place steeped so richly in culture, you come not to judge, appropriate or exclude (or be the recipients of this behavior); rather, you arrive open-mindedly, ready to appreciate what there is to offer. There’s a lot of importance in having space where you feel allowed to be yourself —let’s make this space more accessible than a three-hour drive away.