Ever since migrant Chinese laborers did the heavy work that built the great railroads in the American West, America has had glimpses and contacts with Chinese culture. Chinese, just like many other immigrant cultures the world over, would congregate in communities where they can speak their own languages and follow the customs and folkways of the Old Country. In other words, they formed communities that gave them the tastes and comforts of their previous home country. This is why there is always a Chinatown in many major American cities. They may not be formal Chinatowns with distinct place markers or a designated city-recognized zone, but they are Chinatowns nevertheless. Chinatown is a great place to visit but not for the obvious reasons.
Chinatown: more familiar than you think
One of the most common reasons people give for visiting their city’s local Chinatown is that it is so ‘exotic.’ Exotic is a code word for foreign. If you are looking for a spectacle then you are hardly alone. Many people think that their city’s chinatown is a trip to China and they will be treated to the sights, smells, sounds, and experiences of China. The sad truth is, outside of Chinese New Year, they would be sorely disappointed. Outside of specialty traditional medicine shops and Chinese restaurants, Chinatown is just like every American town. It has its share of the same concerns every American faces. So instead of looking for a spectacle or an exotic portal to a far, distant, and strange land, chinatown offers a great mirror for Americans looking into how people of many different cultures face similar challenges and how they come up with their own solutions. In other words, expect the familiar in Chinatown instead of an exotic spectacle. Walking around the entire neighborhood is a great way how to lose weight though, it’s big enough to be walking all day long.
Another great reason to visit Chinatowns is the great food. Again, I am not talking about going to the other side of town to sample ‘authentic’ Chinese food. In fact, many of the most common dishes served in Chinese restaurants like chopsuey or Mongolian beef are American reformulations of old recipes. They are as American as apple pie. Instead, I am talking about the great ethnic diversity of Chinese food. China is a mini-continent in its own right. The cuisine of land locked and mountainous Sichuan is quite different from the cuisine of Hunan or the coastal regions. There are lots of great variations between regional cuisines. This is what makes Chinese restaurant hopping fun, you literally take a wonderfully culinary trip and you don’t even have to get a visa.