My first venture into Chinatown was seeped with mystery. I was swept away by a tide of things unknown and puzzling. A cryptic language rained down around me, alluring smells taunted me, and I gazed at food and produce I could not understand. I was engulfed by a mass of people, moving not of my own free will, but by the forward motion of others. Individuals seemed to break off from the mob or rejoin it at random, but they were guided by their own needs. Not me, I went blindly, confused, forgetting why I had entered this part of New York. Then I realized that I was soaked through and had originally been on a mission to find an umbrella. Before I knew what had happened, I was in a completely different part of the city, still without the portable awning that I desired and needed, and quite baffled. The only clear memory that I retained from my short trip was the flash of sign: “Live geoduck,” which haunts me until today.
In Toronto, where I grew up, there were three Chinatowns. I brushed the outskirts of the downtown location when as a teenager I would seek second hand Levi’s in the neighbouring Kensington market with girlfriends, who like me were aiming to be alternative and slick. Now gentrified, revitalized, yuppified or what have you, Kensington is no longer a destination of choice for young hipsters, but the neighbouring Chinatown appears to have retained its original vibrancy. We never crossed the boundary between the two areas; it seemed the border was guarded by an invisible force and having no need to transgress, I never took it upon myself to pursue its secrets.
There was a different ethnic enclave in Toronto that seemed to me welcoming and comforting. It revolved around a five block stretch of Roncesvales Avenue in Toronto’s West side and was predominantly of Polish influence. I came here every Saturday with my parents on their weekly shopping excursions. Roncesvales Avenue, like Chinatown, is a taste of the motherland, a cradle of a lost or abandoned heritage. Here Poles could converse in their native tongue with passers-by, find literature in their own language and buy produce without having to rely on the sometimes broken English that betrayed them as foreign. For me it meant that I could indulge in pastries that my mother had little time or patience to make at home and I always begged the heal of the fresh caraway rye loaves that were found only here.
There was something besides material goods that drew us and other families here on a weekly basis. There was a community spirit, a unifying force of culture here that was not to be found anywhere else in Toronto for immigrant Poles, struggling to make Canada their new home. I am certain that this spirit or force exists in Vancouver's Chinatown, where I lived for a short time, but I was excluded from it, as non Poles were excluded from grasping the life pulse of Roncesvales. I felt like a minority living amidst a minority, but unlike my neighbours, I was able to leave it and my marginalization at will, unlike some who were trapped in its stereotypes. I was a welcome stranger in my adopted community.
These days, it seems as though Chinatown is as slick and popular of a destination as Kennsington of the 1980’s. In the wake of globalization, Canadian society is moving full speed ahead in the appropriation of the cultures that thrive within its boundaries. Fashion, cuisine, literature, film and religion are being popularized, glamourized and to a certain degree marketed as trendy and in vogue. The borders that seemed so imposing to me a decade ago are going the way of the Berlin Wall. Venturing into Chinatown or Little Italy, no longer implies traveling into some cultural frontier land. There will always remain some small aspect that is incapable of being appropriated. For me, live geoduck remains, and always will remain, in the realm of the exotic and mysterious. I have spent countless hours staring at it in the market, wondering what it is, how it is prepared and eaten, what sorts of sauces and garnishes adorn it and what types of cutlery its consumption demands. Like all cultures outside of my own experience, there is an energy surge here that I will never wholly understand and can only comment on as an outsider.