There are areas of the U.S. where it's easy to feel like a foreigner. Chinatown, San Francisco, is one of those places. This beautifully vibrant neighborhood is home to around 100,500 residents. In fact, It's the largest Chinese community outside of Asia—with many of the residents being native Cantonese speakers from the Guangdong Province in southeast China.
Though I'm half Chinese, I'm completely American. Traditional Chinese culture and customs are foreign to me. Often times people ask "Why don't you speak Chinese?" But growing up in the suburbs of New England, opportunities to be immersed in Chinese culture were hard to come by. I'm not upset about it, that's simply the way things were.
One thing is for sure, I've always questioned where I fit in—particularly when it comes to race and ethnicity. In a way, I think I wanted to relate to one particular people group or identify with a single race, perhaps for the sake of convenience. It wasn't until I arrived in New York, the ultimate melting pot, that I finally found freedom as a mixed-race person. I didn't have to be one thing or another. And that was okay.
In Chinatown SF, I was drawn to one of the few outdoor public spaces in the neighborhood, Portsmouth Square. Hundreds of elderly men and women gathered around stone tables to play Mahjong and other various card games. It fascinated me to watch them. They reminded me of my own grandfather, who too, came to America from Guangdong Province. Observing and sketching them was like peering through a window into my Grandfather's life.
As I sat sketching a quick thumbnail, a man in the foreground accidentally dropped his cigarette butt on my sketch book. It left a small burn mark as evidenced on the drawing above. He then snickered something at me in Cantonese waving his hand in an ambiguous manner. I simply laughed it off; the man acted just like my grandfather, who had similar mannerisms. Though I was the foreigner, memories of Grandpa Chen enabled me to appreciate the men I sketched.
Being an outsider caused me to reflect on my own identity and increased my appreciation for others. Greater exposure created a brighter world.