By: Karen Me
Photos By: Christine Zhang
If you have ever craved Chinese food, you probably looked to see if there were restaurants you might like in your closest Chinatowns. Chinatowns all across the nation are fetishized as a symbol of cultural immersion and a place to eat authentic “cultural” food, as if subtitling restaurants and shops with Chinese words discounts for the gross commoditization they actually symbolize. I’ve heard negative comments concerning DC’s Chinatown, that it wasn’t authentic enough, that it was tiny in comparison to New York and LA counterparts.
What’s not being said is why such authenticity and size is gradually diminishing; what goes unnoticed are the hundreds of Chinese and Black families fighting to live in the DC Chinatown neighborhood, fighting to stay in the homes where they were born and where they raised their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
This past September, I participated in a rally to save Museum Square, an affordable housing complex on K Street next to Busboys & Poets that hosts 301 families. The owner of Museum Square, Bush Company, decided not to renew their Section 8 contract, which allows the complex to remain affordable; what was worse is that due to language barriers, the company was manipulating tenants and telling them they had to move out or pay rent at the market value, when tenants’ vouchers protect them from having to do either. It was truly a humbling experience to hear eight-year-olds and teenaged tenants speak out to an audience of over one hundred people about why they want to stay in their homes, and how they will win this struggle.
So what does this have to do with us? Though it may not be your calling to go out and rally for the rights of these people, it is important to maintain cultural awareness and respect for history. Keeping Chinatown in mind, and with Chinese New Year coming up this February 8, here are a few ways to consciously celebrate Chinese New Year this year.
1. Learn more about Chinese New Year; there are a multitude of interesting background stories behind this meaningful holiday, and many different ways to celebrate it even if you are not Chinese. The story of Chinese New Year is told as a legend; every year on the first day of the year, a demon creature named Nian would pillage the village. To scare Nian away, the villagers decorated their homes with red and set off firecrackers, and the creature never came back again. This little background story can guide your choices in how to color your room and outfit (as much as I love black and white, they are unlucky colors for Chinese New Year).
2. Chinese food is not simply take-out, greasy low mein; there are special foods to eat during Chinese New Year. For example, lucky dumplings filled with cabbage and radish are served during this special occasion as an auspicious symbol of wealth.
3. Instead of immediately running to Chipotle, support local businesses next time you visit Chinatown. You might be surprised by the delicious food you find.
4. Be aware; learn about the history of DC’s Chinatown, and the Chinatowns in your hometowns.
It can be hard to reconcile our complicity to gentrification as Georgetown students, but we need to acknowledge and consider how our use of the Verizon Center and the commoditization of Chinatown hurt local residents. While inebriated students rage over the most popular concerts and sports games on a weekly basis, just a few blocks away, families are fighting to stay in their homes. So I invite everyone to celebrate Chinese New Year with me, but realize that Chinese culture and people are not just China dolls for your enjoyment.