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“I don’t like Chinatown. I wouldn’t trust any of the food. It’s so dirty,” my friend said to me when I told him where I was going. I threw up my hands in apathy. There are thousands of people living in Chinatown with access to cheap food, fresh fish and a good helping of Chinese medicine. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me, so I set out.

I was handicapped immediately upon entry. I do not speak Chinese. I wish I could speak every language in the world, but alas, I do not. I wanted to chat with someone, say something funny to a child, comment on some passing sign, but it wasn’t meant to be. I accepted the fact that this would be a fairly silent exploration. Maybe it was better to shut my trap and just listen anyway.

I started my afternoon in a little mom and pop joint eating dumplings—steamed pork dumplings, actually, with bok choy—smothered in a spicy red sauce and served with warm soymilk. $3.00. I shared a round table with a young couple, watching little kids running in and out of the place. Workers grinned at them, chided them in familial fun. In the kitchen men busily managed large cylindrical steam pots nestled over fire. I told the woman behind the counter that I thought it was beautiful. She laughed at me and kept working.

I wanted to photograph the whole thing, but I had the feeling that it would take a good many months of relationship building for that to happen. I was envious of them. They were self sufficient and yet all working together. I felt very separate. I rebuked loneliness and tried to learn something.

Chinese script enshrouded me once I was in the streets. Written on buildings, signs, awnings and doors, sparkling from time to time in neon. Graffiti proudly took its place amongst the writing, all in agreement, all together. A plethora of words surrounded me, but… I understood nothing.

I am and will always be a matriculate, so it was only natural to be drawn into a local bookstore dually displaying both English and Chinese school books and cookbooks in their windows. It was a good-sized shop. I flit about here and there, but eventually planted myself in the cookbook section. I flipped through pages and pages of glossy images, one dish after the next.

One particular cookbook was about cooking an ingredient I had never seen before: “Bird’s Nests.” Huh? I found an amiable guy willing to help me decipher it. He grabbed a kids picture dictionary and showed me that the proper translation was “swallows” nest. “Okay,” I said, “but what is it exactly? Some kind of noodle?” “No,” he said putting the dictionary back on the shelf. My lesson was over. If he wanted me to buy the book out of pure curiosity, it worked.  I walked out of there twelve dollars lighter. Pleased with my purchase he said, “Chinese love swallow’s nests.”

Now I was really on a mission. What the heck is a “swallow’snest?” Is it really a nest or is it something that looks like a nest. Since I was armed with the ingredient so artfully labeled in Chinese in my cookbook, I headed to a store for help. Maybe I could buy some, cook it and see for myself.

I walked into a nearby shop with packages and packages of cellophanedand jarred eccentric edibles. Some I recognized, like various mushrooms, seeds and ginseng, but the rest was just mystery. When it was my turn at the counter, I held up my cookbook and pointed to the Chinese word for “bird’s nests.” She smiled and nodded, grabbing a red box off the shelf labeled “swallow’s nests.”

Inside the box were what looked to be real nests. Somewhat transparent in color, cylindrical strands surrounded and overlapped themselves into a bowl-like shape. I was mesmerized. If this were a pastry or pasta, their makers were miracle workers. I looked closer. No. These were real nests. I was so intrigued; I had to know what they tasted like, smelled like, felt like. Somewhere inside myself I accepted this as food without hesitation. I don’t know where it comes from this internal knowing that something is edible. Some Greek chorus in my head said, “I dare you. You’ve got the cookbook.”

I then glanced down at the red price sticker. Holy Cow. $138.00.I am sure I blurted some expletive. 138.00? Geez. I’m a writer, not a magician,and even though there are plenty of planted money trees in the storefronts in Chinatown, I did not have the funds. I rubbed my fingers and thumb together,the universal symbol for “expensive,” shaking my head. They laughed at me. I laughed at myself too. Now I had a whole cookbook of recipes for cooking an item I couldn’t even afford. Ludicrous. 

Outside of the store I hovered over various produce and dried things in baskets. I passed gambling houses and fish markets, salons and noodle houses, Buddhist temples and tattoo parlors. The community was rich and self-sustaining. I felt you could live your whole life between Canal and Madison Street and never need to venture out into the rest of Manhattan to survive. Kids and grandmothers and all the types in between moved together in unison.

I wanted to stay and get to know them better, but that would take and linguistic emissary and I didn’t have one that day. I would soon take my leave, but not before I chatted with Luis, a fireman at the Chinatown firehouse; not before I hung out with some teens and a blue nosed pit bull named Gucci; and definitely not before I bought freshly made, rolled and cutnoodles for only $1.50 from a woman covered in flour. 

My bag rested heavy on my shoulders, filled with noodles anddried olives, giant grapes, and of course my cookbook. I thought about what my friend said, about Chinatown being “dirty.” It’s true, from the outside it seemed dirty, maybe it was. Maybe it holds the Manhattan grit—that is everywhere in the city—in plain view. I’m not sure. But somehow, the two little Asian boys playing pretend with the pay phones, turning and giggling at me as I passed, seemed to tell me otherwise.

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