Chinatown

SYDNEY—It’s hard to put your finger on that funny feeling you get when you walk around Chinatown. There’s something not quite right, you know, but it’s not really Chinatown you’re suspicious of—it’s you. It’s a familiar sensation: the same vaguely exploitative feeling you get when you wear a retro band T-shirt from a group you’ve never properly listened to, or when you’re hitting on someone and suddenly forget their name.

You shrug and saunter out of the sun to hunt down some bubble tea.

You used to love the place, back when you were best mates with S. in the eighth grade. The two of you were a mean pair, alright, with you playing it cool in baggy jeans while he—a ball-playing, chain-wearing Asian kid who always regretted being born in a beachside paradise instead of the Bronx—pointed out all the best spots: real Chinese places, not the fake little joints set up for you dumb, fat whities. But after the two of you fell out, you didn’t go back so often and the nagging feeling began to sink in that either you or Chinatown were a bit of a fake.

Today you walk around, sweating in the winter sun as you try to reason out that familiar discomfort. Chinatown is a wonderful show, for sure—droves of tourists snap away at Multicultural Australia’s favorite son; teenagers in hoodies giggle over their melon cakes and the bustling treatment they underwent to get them—but you can’t decide who runs the show and for whom, and this seems to be very important right now.

A little kid runs past, grinning wildly and with each pace bouncing like a wind-up toy. His T-shirt draws half a smile: I’M AWESOME GET USED TO IT. The mall is enclosed by what are presumably traditional Chinese gates, and you quietly grin at the shop fronts you pass: Hot Teas. Australia Souvenir. Fashion N Me. There are a lot of mixed-race couples in the noodle bar, all of them white guys with Asian girlfriends—you find this sort of funny, but they are too busy being in love to notice.

You head out the gates and up the street, past Scruffy Murphy’s and past OzTurk 25 HRS/DAY, past Golden Palace where your mates used to drink underage with hopeful fake IDs (“Hold on, guys,“ L. hypothesized one day, “if they all look the same to us…”). Out you go into the city and you get a bit sentimental for this funny old place, held together not by assimilation but osmosis, not with intercultural dialogue but from all being neighbors under the same hot bloody sun.

And then you get home and start to write about it, but as you go you decide you should probably be a bit more PC on the matter: Americans are touchy about these things, and Antipodean bluntness can be a bit insensitive at times. So you try and make your language properly embracing.

But then you pause while you’re speculating about the integrity of Chinatown—whether it’s a proper home for Chinese Australians, or a welcome sign for Chinese New Australians, or a show put on by Chinese Australians for non-Chinese Australians, or a show put on by non-Chinese Australians for Chinese New Australians and for non-Australian Chinese that might become Chinese New Australians—yes, you pause, and as you do, you realize that you just completely missed the point of the whole bloody thing.

Alexander J.B. Wells ’13, an associate magazine editor, is a Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

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