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What it’s like to travel from the ‘New Chinatown’ to Beijing

A bowl of "zhajiang mian," a Beijing specialty that Allison Ko got to try for the first time. Photo by Allison Ko.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

The San Gabriel Valley is home to many things – one is the “New Chinatown.” Coined for all the Chinese immigrants it has received in recent years, as well as the myriad Chinese restaurants and businesses they have built, the SGV contains mosaics with scenes like no other part of America.

My mother is one of those newcomers, and she had not been back to her hometown, Beijing, for 18 years. For me, having never been there, I could only imagine what it would be like. This past summer my mom announced we would be flying to China for two weeks. And apart from my obvious excitement, I was also curious to see how well living in this “New Chinatown” has prepared me for the real thing.

Whether in Beijing or Los Angeles, one thing there is no escaping is the sweltering summer temperatures. As I shuffled off the plane at the Beijing International Airport, I was immediately greeted with a giant burp of hot air, beaded with moisture. My family had left L.A. just as a skin-cracking heat wave started to lose steam – but China was a whole other monster.

Outdoors in Beijing, despite the cloudy blanket, the heat was still suffocating. Although it had just rained before my arrival, the skies remained cloudy, as if they couldn’t decide whether to rain again.

People were everywhere. Underground, subway cars were packed so enthusiastically they rivaled my sandwich order. As they exited, commuters gravitated toward the escalators in a slow-moving river of body heat. You could escape the body heat by opting for the stairs – if you didn’t mind the workout.

In broad daylight, people from all parts of China and the world milled around, crowding the capital’s streets. It was like a giant sticky soup. Even going indoors did not guarantee protection. The numbing spices from various Chinese provinces started the sweat flowing again within minutes after the restaurants’ sparse air conditioning cooled me down. Waiters set boiling pitchers of water at our tables at every meal. Ice water may well be a foreign concept outside of America.

At the end of each day, I could always count on returning to the hotel drenched in sweat.

Food

Growing up in a Chinese household and in a town with Mama Lu’s Dumplings on one end and Lincoln Seafood Restaurant and Dim Sum on the other, I considered myself pretty experienced when it came to Chinese food.

Beijing did not disappoint. The pounds we shed in sweat were easily offset by all the food.

For one, there is no short of American options in China. It’s a country devoid of Panda Expresses but well-stocked with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. A mosaic of different restaurants with regional Chinese cuisines populate the city’s districts.

Often, my taste buds were blown away thrice a day. Mornings consisted of youtiao (“dough stick,” or the Chinese equivalent of churros), fresh soymilk and a wide selection of tropical fruits. There were so many types of noodles — hand-pulled, hot and sour, zha jiang, dan dan, liang pi — that we ate a different one for lunch every other day. And of course for dinner we got a tasted of face-numbing Sichuan dry pots, endless Mongolian hot pots, and a hundred kinds of vegetables prepared a hundred different ways.

While the higher-end restaurant chains draw the largest crowds, there are even more smaller shops whose dishes match their appeal. Stacked by busy streets and hidden in alleys, they offer comforting meals that can be enjoyed despite the fearless flies and nonexistent customer service.

There were definitely many dishes in China you cannot get anywhere else. But out of the several zhajiang mians (“noodles with soybean paste”) we tried, none could compare to my grandma’s back home in Alhambra.

Cultural Mixing

Chinese and American cultures have definitely met and mingled in both Alhambra and Beijing.

It’s funny looking back all my years and seeing the cross-influence: it all seemed so natural to my younger self.

As a fifth grader, I remember the kids would actually pay their Chinese classmates to buy Hi-Chews for them at the Hong Kong Supermarket. The emergence of a boba culture has added variety to the coffee-and-tea drinker’s agenda. People do not bat an eye when a Chinese grandma clad in protective arm sleeves, floral clothing, sunglasses and an umbrella shuffle toward them and starts conversing in broken English.

Alhambra is definitely a cultural hub, mixing American culture with those of many other countries, including China. Beijing was, in a way, the same – but also the complete opposite.

When it came to language (surprise, surprise), my third-grade level Mandarin entertained the local residents more than it got actual conversations going. But there also celebrities like Meryl Streep who are just as iconic to many Chinese as Americans. And at times, it felt like I was being mobbed by a sea of Adidas logos.

Despite growing up in Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley with their large Asian populations, China was definitely a culture shock. Both cultures have sized each other up and traded notes, and it was interesting which practices each decided to adopt or discard. For instance, though forks are almost always available for those who do not know how to use chopsticks, I found that I was still catching myself from saying “bless you” to strangers who sneezed in China, even right before I left.

For me, Alhambra has the best of both worlds – or at least part of each. I have grown to love blasting the AC and a good pb&j is actually the best food I’ll ever eat. On the other hand, my family isn’t very Super Bowl-crazed, and rice really is a staple in our house. It definitely isn’t all-American, but I like it this way.

Allison Ko is an Alhambra Source community contributor and summer intern. She’s a junior at Alhambra High School.

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