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Towards Chinatown

Illustration by Olivia Waller

Melissa Hung | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,316 words)

Two days after I learn that my mother has cancer, after my sister tearfully tells me over the phone, “This might be mom’s last Christmas,” I go to San Francisco Chinatown.

I didn’t grow up in a Chinatown. It is not my home. Yet when I think of my mother in Texas, I feel pulled towards Chinatown’s tightly packed stores and no-frills restaurants.

So, leaving an appointment on a December afternoon, I board a bus heading east. The bus is an electric one, powered by cables strung above that guide it down a one-way street through a quiet residential neighborhood. Tidy three-story buildings line the route, their bay windows jutting out. When the bus crests over a hill, I catch a glimpse of San Francisco Bay between skyscrapers in the distance, a little over a mile away. The water shimmers like a mirage even though it is real.

Then, we rumble downhill and we’re in Chinatown. The bay windows are gone. Instead, laundry hangs out to dry on fire escapes and from clotheslines threaded across open windows. Children walk down streets holding the hands of their mothers. Older women dressed in purple and pink puffy jackets, sun hats, and sensible shoes tow hand trucks with bags strapped onto them. Elderly men in gray jackets and baseball caps wait at bus stops. Everyone seems to be carrying something: a backpack, a tote bag or two, a purse worn cross-body, a pink plastic bag in the crook of an elbow.

I step off the bus and walk to the Chinatown YMCA for a swim. Most of the pools I frequent are harshly chlorinated. Open your mouth while submerged in them, or worse, accidentally swallow the water, and you realize immediately your mistake. But here the pool is saltwater, soothing on the skin. As I swim freestyle down the middle lane, joy rises through my body like a buoy. This surprises me — that after two days of feeling terrified about losing my mother, I am capable of joy. I swim for 35 minutes, then listen in on the chatter of aunties in the locker room as I change. Technically, I am eavesdropping, but I don’t think of it that way. They are talking loudly enough for everyone to hear, the way my Po Po used to talk.

In Chinatown, I manage in my clumsy Cantonese. I speak the language and I don’t. My pronunciation is decent, but my vocabulary is stunted. Some words come easily. Others I grasp for. They exist just beyond my reach the way the details of a dream tease the waking mind.

With my hair still damp, I walk around the corner to a bakery with a yellow awning to buy a cha siu bao. I favor the baked ones with a glazed crisp exterior over the fluffy white steamed ones.

“Yāt go cha siu bao,” I say to the woman in an apron behind the counter. One pork bun.

“Baked,” I add.

I know the word for baked in Cantonese. Guhk. I’ll remember it later, but in the moment of the transaction, I can’t retrieve it quickly enough.
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