The District Dish: Chinatown is for tourists

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 4:57pm

Chinatown Arch in Washington, D.C.

Chinatown Arch in Washington, D.C. Buy this photo
Na'kia Channey

“Do you even have Chinese cooks? This tastes like cardboard,” my mother yelled in Mandarin at the poor, unsuspecting waitress. She was very unimpressed by the food we tried at the “authentic” Chinese restaurant at Chinatown in Washington, D.C. Despite the traditional archway and the Chinese characters on the signage along the streets, there was not much authenticity remaining in this section of the city.

When I first saw Chinatown in D.C., I was so full of excitement. I had never lived in a place that had a proper Chinatown before (well, besides living in actual China). I stared adoringly at the beautiful arches and the zodiac on the ground, surrounded by Chinese restaurants. I was so eager to be around people who shared my culture.

Unfortunately, it was all largely a facade.

My mom would later look up on her Chinese sites where the best Chinese food in the area was. The answer: Maryland.

In the 20th century, Chinatown in D.C. was a bustling center for the Chinese community (who notably had to live in a segregated enclave due to racism). But waves of gentrification have pushed out much of the Chinese people who once lived there to make way for office buildings and hipster vegan restaurants — which actually make a damn good soy milkshake, but I digress.

The remaining Chinese restaurants serve highly Americanized Chinese food. As of 2015, there were only 300 Chinese-Americans still living in Chinatown, down from a peak of about 3,000. Across Chinatown, instead of actual Chinese businesses, there are Urban Outfitters and pizza spots that put up signage in Chinese characters in some borderline offensive attempt to preserve the culture of the area. Sometimes it seems like there are more University of Michigan graduates than Chinese people in this city, given how often I see the hats and shirts, especially on game day.

Every day when I step off the metro and walk past the shining gates to go to work on the top floor of an office building, I can’t help but wonder if I’m part of the problem. Sure, I make less than minimum wage and am the only East Asian in my office, but I am an outsider swooping in, looking for a job and eating at the hip vegan place.

On the second day of being in D.C. for Michigan in Washington, I walked a mile to get to one of the only Asian markets in the city. It is a Japanese store, so they didn’t have the special chili sauce I was looking for, but I was able to get many of the other ingredients that would sit in my pantry so I could pretend I would actually cook fresh Chinese food and not just eat two-ingredient salad and frozen Trader Joe’s pasta. (I have yet to make my mom’s favorite noodle recipe that she taught me before leaving, sorry mom.)

The tiny store was crowded with the white-to-Asian ratio skewed in the white direction — partially because of the high density of Asian girls and their white boyfriends, who I made jokes about to my friends, noting the irony given I am also dating a white dude.

Gentrification is a major problem facing many D.C. residents, and the impact on Chinatown is only a fraction of that problem. Across the city, minority communities (especially the Black community) repeatedly get pushed out of their homes to make way for a new office building, apartment complex or Whole Foods. This all occurs without attempts to preserve the culture of the neighborhood or accommodate for the existing people, because the new, rich, white person needs a place to stay and a bougie grocery store to go with it — at the expense of communities of color.