When people ask me where I am from, I am proud to say that I grew up in Tong Yun Guy, New York City’s Chinatown on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I used to be ashamed to say I live in a ramshackle, 400 square feet, one bedroom apartment for a family of four, amid fish markets and restaurants, where the smell of brackish seawater, fish scraps and garbage is sometimes unbearable. I now enjoy living in a community with people I know, a culture I have grown to love, places I enjoy, and food I like to eat. Chinatown has become an important part of my Malaysian-Chinese-American identity.
I live on Mott Street, the oldest, liveliest, and most culturally diverse in Chinatown. At five in the morning, men deliver fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables to the market. At seven, I awaken to the smell of coffee and Chinese pastries from bakeries. During the day, locals swarm through the crowded streets, shopping and spending time with family. Hispanic and Chinese vendors yell, “One dolla! One dolla! ¡un dólar! ¡un dólar! yut mun! yut mun!” to attract customers. Counterfeit sellers bombard tourists with “Gucci, Prada? Watch, Perfume?” I come home from school to the delight of barbecued roast pork and steamed chicken hanging from restaurant windows. With oranges and green vegetables stacked high and store fronts extending halfway onto the sidewalk, the streets become a traffic jam of people. I am used to stepping over fishy seawater and dodging into the streets to avoid the tenacious crowd. I have learned to bargain for fresh produce and give directions to tourists. But best of all, greeting familiar faces brightens my day.
The memories I share with my family are the reasons why I call our Chinatown apartment home. It is in this apartment where my family has spent many cold winter days without hot water or heat. We often boil water for hot showers and huddle around an electric heater to keep warm. We put rice in glass jars and hang food high on the walls to prevent rodents and roaches from contaminating our food. This is the apartment where my sister and I played Lego and Connect-Four as kids and where we continue to share a bunk bed in the living room today. As the younger sibling, I have always slept on the top bunk. The top bunk is like the second floor to our apartment, where I have my own privacy, and where I can lay down to think or read before going to bed.
Chinatown is where the community celebrates the Lunar New Year, where firecrackers explode and lion dancers and Chinese deities parade the streets. Chinatown is also where my sister and I attended a predominately Chinese elementary school, three blocks from home. This is the neighborhood where most of my friends grew up and where we hang out. When the World Trade Center fell a mile away, my family could not afford to move away from the bad air quality and the tight police security. 9/11 shattered the Chinatown economy, causing many garment factories to shut down and be exported to China for cheaper labor. This left my father, a self-employed sewing machine mechanic, and my aunt, a garment factory worker, out of work.
Until I was ten years old, I was so familiar with Chinatown’s rhythms that the neighborhood seemed like the most natural possible home for my family. I had never stopped to think that my parents had not grown up in Chinatown until they took me to their native country of Malaysia in 2000. After waiting 10 years for their Greencards, my parents decided to spend their savings on bringing my sister and me to Malaysia for five consecutive summers. There I was able to piece together my family, culture and values that define my identity.
Visiting Malaysia, Hot Humid Air
In July of 2000, after a 21 hour flight, I stepped out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport for the first time, and I nearly choked on the hot and humid air. My uncles and aunts greeted us in Cantonese, picked up our bags and took us north three and a half hours to Ipoh, a small city and former mining town where my dad is from. Along the way, we were stopped three times by police who falsely accused us of speeding on the highway. My uncle explained to us the blatant corruption in Malaysia and how the police frequently abuse their authority to ask for money. Rather than argue with the officers, we paid the young ethnically Malay officers 20 ringitts and we were quickly on our way.
When we arrived in Ipoh, I was fortunate to meet my grandparents for the first time before they passed away. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and could barely hold a conversation with me. My grandmother on the other hand was very healthy, but I felt a cultural and generational difference that separated us. Living with my uncle, aunt, and my cousin sister in Ipoh, I began to draw parallels between the lifestyle and culture in Malaysia and the culture I grew up with at home. The basuk or open marketplaces in Malaysia are as lively and filthy as the one on Mott Street. Much of the younger generation is also multi-lingual in Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Whether in Malaysia or Chinatown, custom dictates that families eat and drink tea together at a round dinner table where news and gossip are shared. I now recognize the blend of Malaysian and Chinese culture at home, from the curry leaves and coconut milk we use to prepare our curry chicken to certain words we use in our Cantonese. For example, in Malaysian-Cantonese “baan nai” means clever, but in proper Cantonese it is “hoe lak.”
In a way, Ipoh is very similar to Chinatown, a predominately working class Chinese neighborhood with strong values of education. However, visiting Malaysia for five consecutive summers challenged me to think from a whole new perspective. In contrast to the bustling streets of Chinatown, Ipoh is surrounded by mountains, rubber trees, palm oil plantations and lakes. Instead of apartment buildings, families live in one to two story houses; motorcycles dominate the streets rather than cars and open sewers divide sidewalks from the streets. Learning to use squatter toilets and take cold showers helped me realize how much I took the everyday amenities of toilet seats and hot water for granted. My cousins attended school from 8-5 six days a week, yet most of them will not have the opportunity to attend college.
The poverty that we experience in America is minuscule compared to everyday life in Malaysia, an industrializing nation. So who is to tell me that I live below the poverty line because my parents make less than $30,000 a year? The standards of poverty in America are much higher than that of the rest of the world. The cost of living in Chinatown is very affordable – the food is cheap and rent is manageable. My dad tells me, “In Malaysia, you can be a boss if you earned $30,000 a year.” I realized it was no longer a question about being poor – it was about being happy with what I had. After visiting Malaysia at the age of 10 I was no longer ashamed to be living in Chinatown. Chinatown became part of my identity that I enjoyed piecing together, giving me the motivation to keep moving forward.
Uncovering Roots, Liberating and Empowering Knowledge
Compared to my Chinese-American peers in my community, I began to notice and appreciate my bifurcated Malaysian-Chinese identity. It simply amazed me how my family maintained many Chinese traditions even after two generations in Malaysia. I wanted to learn more about my family’s history so I asked my parents to help me piece together this enigma.
My known roots extend back to my great-grandparents in rural Guangdong, China. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, they were able to escape on a small boat to Malaysia, where my grandparents and parents were born. I was shocked to learn that my mother’s family actually came from an educated background in China. One of her uncles decided to stay in the country to remain loyally involved with the Chinese Communist Party. After growing up in Chinatown and witnessing the living conditions in Malaysia, it never occurred to me to consider that a part of my family could possibly be educated. When I learned that my family was involved in a political movement, my perception of what I could accomplish in America broadened. This knowledge was both liberating and empowering. If my great grandparent’s were educated and sacrificed their lives for something they believed in, I too could do something meaningful if I wanted to. These conversations with my parents gave me a firsthand account of how WWII changed the lives of so many people, including my family. Yet much of my family remains a mystery today since they were separated and lost contact with each other during the turmoil in the WWII era.
As ethnic minorities, life in Malaysia was not easy for Chinese immigrants. A race riot that erupted on May 13, 1969 left many Chinese locked in their homes for an entire week in hopes of escaping the violence. My mom was orphaned at the age of three. She grew up being tossed around, living with several relatives. Both my parents left school and went to work at the age of 14. They got married in 1985. After spending their entire life savings on their wedding and honeymoon in Japan, Mexico, Hawaii, and San Francisco, they finally arrived in New York, where they decided to illegally stay and earn some money before returning home to Malaysia. Little did they know that they would spend the next 25 years in America. In 1989 and 1990, when my sister and I were born, it was immediately clear that they would stay in the U.S. for better educational opportunities for my sister and me. For generations my family has been searching for a better life and I now have this opportunity to provide this better life for my family. With this new knowledge and source of inspiration from my family’s history, I am able to share my identity comfortably, rather than try to conceal it.
Learning about my family’s roots, I came to realize the diversity within the Chinatown community I grew up in. Each immigrant has their own story to tell, a journey to share, and a struggle they have endured. Chinese immigrants come from all around the world, from different regions of China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Peru, Costa Rica, and so on. The new wave of Chinese immigrants from Northern China now speaks Fujianese and Mandarin. Twenty years ago, most Chinese immigrants came from Southern China and spoke Toi San and Cantonese – the reason why my parents chose to teach my sister and I Cantonese rather than Mandarin.
Now, with SoHo expanding south into Chinatown, a wave of young, white middle class people are moving in. Three condominiums have been built in the last five years within a two block radius from my apartment. After my neighbors got evicted for falling behind on rent payments, they moved into subsidized housing in Spanish Harlem where access to high performing schools is limited for their children. Since then, NYU graduate students have moved into their apartment. There is great irony in how college students are paying $50,000 a year in tuition to move into my community while immigrants are forced to leave for struggling to pay the rent.
Because of gentrification, new Chinese immigrants are settling in other neighborhoods such as Sunset Park in Brooklyn, Flushing in Queens, and expanding Chinatown southeast into the Lower East Side housing complexes. This is where the Asian, Latino, and African American community intersects and where issues of poverty, stereotypes, and ethnic tensions fuse together. Chinatown is often preconceived as an unsanitary, uneducated, and unmannered immigrant neighborhood. Yet the truth is that there is more to Chinatown than dirty, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants (FOBs), Americanized Chinese food, tourism, and counterfeit goods.
Street Life, I didn’t take no fucking juice
Without a full understanding of my identity, peers at Middlebury College and even strangers I meet across my travels often say, “You go to Middlebury? And you’re Asian? You must be a great student!” But looking back to my teenage years, I was not such a good kid. This part of my life has been a mystery to much of my family and friends. As a teenager, I was headed down the “wrong” path. I hung out with friends who carried knives, batons, f-keys, and participated in gang fights. I sold Metrocard rides to earn pocket money. But behind all this, I did all my school work and kept my parents happy. They thought I was a “good” kid. I would make up excuses for coming home late such as, “I was doing school related activities.” Throughout these years, going to college never crossed my mind because it wasn’t a topic that my friends or our parents knew much about and I never scored particularly well on standardized exams.
When I was 14, I walked the streets of the Lower East Side projects with my baggy pants, air force ones, oversized jacket and fitted Yankees cap. My friend and I would play a game of handball and basketball at the local park. One day, after finishing a game, we walked into a Hispanic bodega. I grabbed a bottle of Ocean Spray Orange Juice from the refrigerator, but thinking twice about its price, I put it back. I selected a Poland Spring bottle of water instead. When we got to the counter to pay, the middle aged Hispanic man behind the counter asked, “Where’s the juice?” It was clear that he was watching me from the surveillance camera.
“I didn’t take the juice,” I explained.
“Don’t bullshit, where’s the juice?” he demanded.
“Look, I didn’t take no fucking juice,” I said with patience.
“Don’t make me search your pockets!” the man demanded.
“Why don’t you fucking call the police?” I said, getting irritated. I placed my dollar bill on the table and walked out the door. My friend paid and followed behind. Being accused of something I did not do was frustrating. Ethnic stereotypes and tensions cause much harm, hatred, and violence to members of the Lower East Side community.
In November 2009, a typical melee broke out on Hester Street, across from my local middle school in Chinatown. This time it was deadly. Victor Fong and his friend were attacked by a group of Hispanic teens with baseball bats and hammers with apparently no motive. Fong retaliated with a pocket knife and stabbed Nelson Pena in the chest, killing him. Fong faced up to life in prison if he was convicted of second-degree murder, but was found not guilty, for self-defense (Jacobs). Both families lived in the same Lower East Side government housing complex. Both mothers claimed that their sons were good kids. Now it is too dangerous for Fong to move back home.
Events like these create massive animosity between the Chinese and Latino communities who have lived side by side for decades. Victor Fong had connections with the local precinct and volunteered regularly at the local elementary school. Nelson Pena was affiliated with a gang and dressed like a thug (Jacobs). After reading the news and talking with friends who knew Fong personally, I began to recognize privilege within the Chinese community. Did Fong’s connection to the local precinct help him get away with murder? How do American stereotypes about Asian Americans as the model minority and Hispanic males as criminals play into this court decision? Was Pena judged by the way he dressed?
Having gone through the NYC public education system first hand and student taught at a grade 6-12 public school in the Bronx, I have witnessed how middle and high schools in impoverished neighborhoods are breeding grounds for new gang recruits. I can see why many of my friends carried weapons and joined gangs – to defend themselves, their people, and their neighborhood. But these gangs do more than just protect our youth. At the age of 15, I noticed that many of my childhood friends began doing drugs, girls were getting pregnant, and others were dropping out of school. It all seemed like a dead end. With my family’s struggles as an inspiration and my values of education on the back of my mind, I came to realize that I wasn’t really fooling my parents, rather, I was cheating myself. Like James Baldwin, who had mentors to fall back on, “I was a very lucky boy” (151). I had my parents, a sister, an intimate high school, and different group of friends to fall back to. I started to focus on my school work and stopped hanging out with certain friends. I put the bad influences behind me.
Handball, Itching to Play
One thing I didn’t give up was handball. Handball is a positive addiction in my neighborhood – people often say they are “itching to play handball.” I love the sport so much that I play it every summer, played it every day in high school, and traveled weekly to play with the English National Team in London when I studied abroad in Norwich, England. Handball is not only a sport – it unites members of the community from different generations and ethnic backgrounds and reinforces the idea that hard work and practice pay off. As we wait for our turn to play, we critique the technique that players are exercising on the court, talk about the new Vietnamese restaurant down the block and about our work and school lives.
Handball is a sport that is played against a 20 feet wide and 16 feet high wall. A hollow rubber ball, similar to the size of a racquetball and bouncier than a tennis ball, is hit against the wall in games of singles and doubles. Handball is often associated with drugs, crime, and poverty. Brought to the United States by Irish immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the 1880s, New York City now has more players than anywhere else in the world (NYC Parks). Handball is often known as the “poor man’s game” since it does not require any equipment other than a handball, which only costs a dollar and dismissed as not being a sport, at which I take offense. It may not be in the Olympics, yet it is arguably more athletically demanding than squash, tennis, and racquetball. Handball is an ambidextrous sport that requires intense eye-hand coordination, good foot work, and running and diving skills.
Through conversations with members of the English National Handball Team in London, I learned that there has been a successful campaign to tackle obesity and troubled youth by introducing handball to London. There is very little media coverage about handball in NYC because it is a sport mainly played by men who are poor and of color. When Adrian Benepe, Commissioner for the NYC Parks and Recreation Department, recently spoke at his alma mater Middlebury College, he failed to mention the thousands of handball courts in NYC, because practically no one at Middlebury would know a thing about them. If handball can tackle obesity and keep inner city kids out of trouble in London, I would argue that it benefits NYC as well. Handball deserves more positive attention because of its rich history and culture and the fact that the world’s top players grew up playing in the backstreets of NYC.
While overall handball contributes in many positive ways to NYC, not every game ends on such a constructive note. I was 16 and it was an unusually warm Friday afternoon in February. My friend, a somewhat aggressive person, had just gotten out of basketball practice. We headed downtown to Grand Street to catch a game of handball. After winning a game 21-14, my friend asked, “Can you walk me home?” He never asked this before. I looked at my watch. It read 5 O’clock. It was still bright outside.
“Sure,” I said, knowing that something was up. It was clear that my friend got a bad vibe from the two older Chinese teens we had just defeated.
After walking a block, two other thug looking Chinese guys rushed up to us, shoved us, and flashed their butterfly knives. What surprised me most was that bystanders on the busy street did not do a thing. People didn’t want to get involved. “Give us all your stuff,” one of them demanded. We handed them our bookbags and wallets. They ran around the corner. My friend started to chase but I pulled him back.
“It’s not worth it. They have weapons,” I said.
I still had my cell phone in my pocket and dialed 9-1-1. Within five minutes, two police officers picked us up and drove us around to look for the teens. We couldn’t spot them. We were driven back to the police precinct to report the crime and to identify the suspects on a computer screen. I thought to myself, isn’t it just stupid to attack someone over a game of handball? After all, weren’t Asians supposed to look out for each other in the Lower East Side community?
Making it to Middlebury, Privilege and Discomfort
How did I get from the streets of Chinatown to Middlebury College, an elite liberal arts college? How did I remove myself from the street life and excel in high school? My love for handball and my community on Mott Street kept me close to home. I was guided to think about my future when my parents brought my sister and me to Malaysia, where I came to understand the hardships that my parents and ancestors had faced – the poverty and the limited opportunities they had. I recognized that by excelling in school, I could remove myself from crime and poverty and do something positive. Succeeding in school takes hard work, just as handball requires practice. My sister, who is one year older than me, tutored me and encouraged me to apply to the LEDA Scholars Program, a national college preparatory program for disadvantaged youth. Although my sister and I grew up in the same household, my sister received a full scholarship to attend an elite private country day school, removing her social group from the Chinatown and Lower East Side neighborhood I associated with. I was fortunate to attend a small public high school and under the guidance and support of my parents, sister, great teachers, and mentors I was able to get to where I am today. My sister now attends Princeton and I am at Middlebury.
Some people spend their whole lives without leaving the comfort of their communities either because cannot afford to or because they do not choose to. I had the opportunity to challenge myself. Today, I feel removed from the Chinatown community by having the privilege to study at an elite liberal arts institution on a full scholarship, but at same time, I also feel distanced from the affluent and homogenously white community at Middlebury College. I feel as if I am stuck in the middle of two ends of a long spectrum, from the impoverished Chinatown community to the affluent Middlebury College community. As Amy Tan points out, “Why are there few Asian Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering?” I have broken the Asian American stereotype for not studying a hard science or finance, but I also come from a background very different than that of the typical Middlebury student. Moving into a rural, affluent and predominately white community at Middlebury College was as big of a culture shock for me as it would be for any outsider moving into the Chinatown I grew up in.
The other day, a Chinese American friend at Middlebury College asked me, “Don’t you feel different for not going to college in New York and for not pursuing a degree in finance?”
I responded, “Yeah, I feel very different from my friends who almost all study finance, science, and engineering at local universities. While my parents, who are clueless to the concept of a liberal arts education, have never pressured me to become a doctor, they have suggested not to study certain subjects like public policy because politics involves money and personal connections and who knows where that would land me a job, if any at all.”
I decided to pursue my interests in Environmental Science and Policy anyway. This surprised my peers, “You don’t dress or talk like a hippie!” But I come from the inner-city and I am interested in urban environmental and sustainability issues, which the curriculum at Middlebury comes up short on, however, the critical and analytical skills I am learning are applicable to interconnected urban and rural issues. While I do not completely know what I will do with my degree, I am privileged for not having student loans or the pressure to look secure a job immediately after college since I will be pursuing graduate school. For my peers without this privilege, college is about plowing through as fast and as possible, not as much of seeking social and intellectual challenges.
At Middlebury, I often talk to my peers about classes, study abroad, athletics, and complain about the workload and the food served in the dining halls. But when I speak to my friends who attend local universities at home, I admire them for complaining a lot less and having to deal with a lot more in the real world. In New York City, my friends commute to school and only spend a few hours there, leaving the rest of the day for their working and personal lives. In contrast, at Middlebury, a four-year residential college, most students live, eat, study, work, and play on campus.
When I am at home, I speak to my friends from Chinatown in Chinglish about the hardships we grew up with, the new schools, restaurants, and shops that are new to the community. We talk about Jin, the first American born Chinese to successfully enter the American hip hop industry and who is now entering the music industry in Hong Kong. We talk about how the community is changing, with new condominiums, new faces, bike lanes, schools, shops and restaurants. Instead of talking about traveling and visiting vacation homes, we talk about the need to secure summer jobs to help our families and pay off student loans. My friends talk about being cashed out for spending too much in the city and worry about their GPAs to maintain merit based scholarships. Instead of saving money to buy BMWs we are saving money to buy second hand Honda Civics. Middlebury students, including myself, have the privilege to look at unpaid internships, study abroad, and even consider taking time off from college. For members of the Chinatown community, taking a semester off is just not feasible – it is time and money lost.
Crossing the Bridge, Coming Home
While I feel distanced from the underprivileged and privileged communities that I am a part of, I feel a sense of responsibility to bridge the gap between these two communities and all the other communities that lie between on both ends of this spectrum. The common saying, “to whom much is given, much is expected,” is my mantra. It reminds me that the best is expected from me as I serve as an ambassador to both worlds. These conversations not only allow me to share my heritage with others, they allow us to find parallels between our lives.
Through these conversations with others about my family and culture, it struck me to think that if my parents had not been granted permanent residency, my parents would not be able to leave and re-enter the United States and I would not have had the opportunity to visit my family and culture in Malaysia. The idea that the U.S. legal system can limit my ability to meet my family and my culture shows how the system, designed to protect citizens and exclude everyone else, leaves out many people in between, particularly, children of undocumented immigrants. I was once a child to undocumented immigrants. My parents lacked a legal citizenship, savings, and knowledge of English, and feared deportation which would shatter opportunities for my sister and me. Knowing that my parents overcame such burdens to provide a caring family and home to my sister and me reminds me of the power and impact that one individual can have on the lives of others. By sharing my stories, I can begin to bridge social divides across communities that are the source of stereotypes, conflict, and violence. I have come to realize that there is more to just acknowledging my love for my identity and community; it is about sharing this love with others to find intersections and to establish better cross-cultural understandings among our communities.
Despite the poverty stricken Chinatown and Lower East Side community I grew up in, I am pleased to call it my home and feel very grateful for the opportunities I have today and for how much my parents have invested in me. Although I have struggled and strayed away from the “right” path, my values for education, my hunger for knowledge, and my love for my family brought me right back. No matter how far I stray, at the end of the day, I will always come home to my apartment in Tong Yun Guy.
“Handball Haven.” NYC Parks and Recreation Department. 8 March 2011.
“Here Be Dragons,” by James Baldwin. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-
1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
Jacobs, Shayna. “Victor Fong Not Guilty of Murder in Chinatown Stabbing.” December 14,
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings. Ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 249-254. Print.