On Chinese New Year, I visited Chicago’s Chinatown with a friend who also used to live in China. The spectrum of emotions we experienced in our few hours there I feel captured my 2+ years abroad.
While we waited for two of her Chinese friends to meet us for dinner, we wandered around the shops in the cold, feeling foreign and insecure, laughing at tacky products and cluttered stores. We entered a dingy “food court” in a basement with a dusty fountain that probably hasn’t been turned on in decades in an effort by the landlord to save money.
While we waited to order a snack, strangers cut in front of us. The details of our orders were lost in translation. When I finally got my food, it was rotten. And when I asked for my money back, I got the stink-eye from the lady who wouldn’t admit she had sold me a bad product.
As we wandered next into a narrow, crowded grocery store where the familiar smell of fish and grunge mixed poorly with my already queasy stomach and looked through all the weird snacks we had turned to in desperation back in China when we didn’t know what else to cook and eat, I finally turned to my friend and asked, “How did we survive?”
We laughed as therapy but remained at a loss until her two Chinese friends showed up.
The four of us went to a Hot Pot restaurant, where I was soon reminded what kept me in China for so long. Through the all-you-can-eat dinner we laughed out loud and chatted like old friends, comparing our cultures and analyzing the tofu, making plans to tour the city and to meet again for future Chinese food adventures.
Sitting around a boiling pot of vegetables and meat, they reminded me of the charm and quirkiness of my old students and friends in China and the delightful chemistry that comes when two cultures combine. I suddenly remembered so many of the priceless moments we shared—their honest, frank questions, their excitement and curiosity, their sense of humor and humility.
My American friend ended our night full and laughing, talking over each other as we recalled all the memories and people that we still miss.