Observations of Brooklyn’s Chinatown

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Fun fact: I’m a quarter Chinese but have no connection to that part of my ethnic makeup.

It’s not something that crosses my mind regularly, but it became more relevant than usual at the end of last month when I went to New York to attend my Chinese friend’s wedding.

I wrote several posts in 2012 about my first time visiting the Big Apple and leaving part of my heart in the city. (Cheesy, I know, but true story.) I wasn’t sure when I would return, but I knew I definitely would someday.

Turns out someday ended up being three years later 🙂

In one of my 2012 posts, I wrote about my friend Sean, who toured me around for a day. As a local, he was a really great tour guide!

Fun fact #2: He’s the friend that got married!

In celebration of the occasion, he invited more than a dozen of his friends from all over the world: Boston, Vermont, California, Indonesia, Romania, China… Everyone was so nice!

But, there was one thing that made mingling with them a bit challenging: 95 percent of the time (of course this is an arbitrary figure), they spoke Mandarin.


When I listen to people speaking Italian, Spanish, French, etc. there are certain words I’m able to pick up. Sometimes, I can figure out sentences. But this was not the case with Mandarin. No matter how intently I listened to all of them speak, other than xiexie (thank you) there was nothing I could understand.


I stayed in Brooklyn’s Chinatown for a couple of days and felt like I may as well have been in China. Walking around the area, I’m certain I ran into no more than a dozen non-Chinese people.

A lot of the sidewalks there were super cramped with markets spilling out into the walkways so their goods and produce were extended outside their doors (this is done to maximize their space, according to Sean). To add to that, large crowds frequently moved through the limited concrete paths.

Among the most noticeable goods for sale around the neighborhoods were fish because the smell was so strong and inescapable. But the outdoor markets also had a lot of vegetables and packaged snacks.

However, the main highlight of this experience was how I many times had to rely heavily on body language to communicate with most of the group since they spoke a completely different language, and how often I had to point at things and exaggerate my facial expression to convey certain points. Being unable to verbally communicate with others is a little uncomfortable, but Sean’s friends did speak English the best they could to converse with me and I never felt as though they were trying to purposely exclude me.

Also, while I wasn’t in any danger – just a tad out of my comfort because of the language barrier – I was reminded that I have a gut instinct to depend on if I ever find myself in situations where communication is limited.


Prior to the actual ceremony, our days were nearly all planned out: play paintball, eat at a hot pot restaurant, hang out at an ice bar, play pool, eat breakfast. Interestingly, doing all of those things with the group was a good reminder of how much more similar people are than different because we all enjoyed the activities, despite the fact we couldn’t say a whole bunch of things to each other.

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I was the only person in the restaurant who photographed my food :/

The morning we had breakfast (there were only about five of us, though), it was at a cramped Chinese restaurant with more customers coming in than the number of open seats. I guess that made it okay for customers to sit at whatever vacant seat there was at the round dining tables without asking. That was socially acceptable there, but that isn’t the case everywhere else: usually, you ask if you can sit at the empty seat. Didn’t bother me, though. Just something that stuck in my mind 🙂

I also noticed that nobody pulled their phones out of their pockets to snap quick pics of their food before eating…

except for me :/

The food was delicious and so generous in portions that I couldn’t finish it all 🙁

The evening before the wedding, the group was invited to Sean’s house for a dinner cooked by his mom and then-fiance. She made a large serving of soup with a wide mix of ingredients including fish balls, radish and pork kidney. Dinner was served in a 30-cup rice cooker.

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Another we’re-more-similar-than-different moment dawned on me that evening when I noticed that his mom used sampalok soup base, which is an ingredient typically found in Filipino stores.

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