Writing to recognize and affirm how people, activities, or places shape a sense of belonging.
Art, Culture, and Belonging in S.F. Chinatown
I’m currently the lead artist in a project exploring how arts and culture inform belonging in San Francisco Chinatown in partnership with the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
We are inviting anyone with a connection to SF Chinatown to submit your story of belonging. You can submit your story online now through March 31. I’ll be publishing and interpreting stories in a publication and art exhibit scheduled for Fall 2020. This project is part of the groundwork for the cultural district designation process, which would bring valuable city resources to the neighborhood.
S.F. Chinatown and social distancing
It goes without saying that health and safety are the #1 priority right now. Many people are busy just coping with closures and disruptions.
So belonging might be perceived as lower priority. But I think belonging is especially important now for mental health and the health of a community.
Mental health can be harmed by isolation and social distancing. A lot of people might be feeling ‘othered,’ especially Asians, and anyone with a sniffle (not to mention Asians with a sniffle, like me). It may be a struggle to feel a sense of belonging.
Community life is severely impacted everywhere—especially in Chinatowns, where small businesses have been hit hard by lost revenue due to xenophobia/Sinophobia, social distancing, and the loss of tourism. Two restaurants in Oakland Chinatown have temporarily shuttered. Many folks living in SF Chinatown are elderly, kids, low-income, or English language learners for whom seeking health care or social services may be challenging. For many jobs in Chinatown, working from home is not an option.
SF Chinatown is the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan. Fifteen thousand residents live within 20 square blocks. The social hearts of Chinatown are in the markets, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, temples, and parks like Portsmouth Square. What happens when you’re discouraged from going to the places where you feel belonging?
Writing to reflect on belonging
Could remotely reflecting about your places of belonging—or the people, cultural activities, or foods that remind you that “I belong”—reinforce your sense of belonging?
In this project, Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition has been collecting stories from their constituents locally. I also created a Google Form for people to submit their stories online, to give people the option to type, and to allow people who moved away to participate.
Now, the Google Form is a good option for people who have to stay home and refrain from large gatherings. I hope you consider participating and spreading the word.
To put my theory into practice, here’s two personal anecdotes.
Nourishment in a bowl
For me, when I’m feeling sick, there’s nothing like a wonton noodle soup with savory strips of BBQ pork and bok choy for making me feel better. I can just imagine taking a bite of a pillowy with crunchy water chestnuts and ginger, and slurping up fat chewy noodles from a fragrant umami-laden broth that soothes the throat and warms the belly.
There’s something really deep about how much emotional warmth and connection are shared between Asians through the act of sharing food. When I was a kid, I really liked eating just the cooked wonton wrapper, with no meat filling. My mom would just drop a few extra pieces into the broth for me. I can easily imagine how much her heart swelled as she shared this gesture of love and saw my enjoyment, because I feel this same feeling now. When I cook for someone who cares deeply about me, and I can see that a home-cooked meal is meaningful to them, it’s a powerful feeling of gratitude to be able to nourish them, making your feelings tangible and gustatory.
The Tastiest Rituals
I have fond memories of going for dim sum with a large group of family. Even when I lived in Sonoma County, we’d make the hourlong family excursion to go to New Asia Restaurant, with its circular doorways lined in golden tiles.
Dim sum brunch is a multi-sensory experience. First, there’s the roar of so many people crowded around dozens of 10-seater round tables. There’s the waiters and waitresses shouting out the names of their dim sum dishes as they roll their carts past, and having to flag them down before your favorite dish passes. There’s the rituals of tea: pouring from the pot with two fingers on the lid, tapping the table in a gesture of thanks, and propping the lid up to indicate the need for a refill.
When the food arrives, there’s the custom of serving entrees to your fellow diners’ tiny plates, demurrals of fullness be damned. There’s lazy Susan strategies: rotating to place the fresh entree in front of elders, nudging the tea pot so the handle doesn’t bump into cups, stacking empty bamboo steamers and plates.
There’s a diversity of tastes and textures—lacy fried taro root dumplings, glutenous steamed rice rolls, the forceful punch of soy sauce, the aroma of banana-leaf-wrapped rice with hunks of Chinese sausage and boiled peanuts, the negotiation of eating a plate-length stem of hoisin-drizzled gai lan with a pair of chopsticks. If you’re lucky, there’s warm, sweet red bean soup for dessert. The meal concludes with demonstrative, assertive haggling over who gets to foot the bill.