“Don’t forget to visit Chinatown.”
Advised my friend when he heard I was in Chicago. And I couldn’t let go of such a personal recommendation.
My colleagues were still hung up on the Mag Mile, and feeling bored, I took a quick train ride to Chinatown. Although I’d been to the Chinatown in San Francisco, I wasn’t sure what glittering candour Chicago’s held. I didn’t research beforehand, and so I had no idea what about the locality attracted people.
As I stepped out of the station, the first thing I noticed was that every face was Chinese. It was as if I’d dropped down into the nation of China itself. I never thought I’d be so surprised by the lack of diversity in the area.
To be fair, though, I didn’t venture too deep into Chinatown. The reason is I felt as an alien walking into an unknown territory. For the entire hour and a half I spent in Chinatown, I felt so uncomfortable about being the only non-Chinese person around. What’s more weird, however, is that no one else seemed perturbed by my being there. People went about their usual business, not sparing even a second glance at the foreigner wandering about.
Zooming into my map to find a place I could go, like a temple or shopping street, I identified a park near by. The Ping Tom memorial park was close enough to walk. And so shedding my inhibitions and my doubts, I strode towards the point on my map.
Unlike most of the rest of Chicago, buildings here were smaller and more home-like. The main streets buzzed with people getting by, while the inner streets remained calm and empty. Residential areas were abundant and road traffic wasn’t as stringent as in the busier parts of the city. After a while, it felt nice and even less strange.
The closer I got to the park, the more debris I saw. On both sides of the street, garbage bins overflowed making a scene unworthy of photographs. I cringed, but I also realised—this was the real world. All around Chicago, a lot of the architecture and facilities were flawless, impressive, and inviting to travellers. But what I saw in that small residential part of Chinatown was the reality of most of our lives.
And I’m glad I saw that side of the city a well. Coming from a third-world country, people like me often misinterpret what it’s like to live in a more developed country. Sure, the lifestyle is better, but it’s not all a bed of roses or a dash of perfume.
With that realisation, I entered the park. Built in the traditional Chinese architectural style, was a huge tent-like structure with benches around it. I didn’t know who Ping Tom was, but I did see a bust of him sitting smug in front of the building. Behind the building was a magnificent lake along which people sat breaking bread and laughter. Children rode their bikes around the park while a father ushered his kids to play fair. It was a typical evening at the park—locals spending time with family and friends. And once a while a tourist boat would float along the river, stopping at the park. Tourists would clamber out in clumsy ways, look around, capture moments, and get back into the boat to see the next big monument. And the locals went by their day, the interruption not disturbing them at all.
I’ll remember that scene for a long time. That experience, although uncomfortable at first, was eye opening. For the first time, I saw a tight-knit community proud of its heritage, living in a foreign land without compromising their respect for themselves or others.