For people who have been to a major Chinatown in the U.S, it is nearly inevitable to feel like a tourist. Just take the one in San Francisco as an example. The buildings are hybrids with a western body topped by a Chinese roof. The streets are dominated by antique stores that sell giddy oriental imports. And the pedestrians are rarely Asian.
As Chinese, I find San Francisco Chinatown foreign. It reminds me nothing about the comfort and ease at home. The same feeling applied when I was in Los Angeles’ and Portland’s respective Chinatowns. For a while, I put all Chinatowns into a stereotype: a desolated area in a city infested by crime and poverty that only exists for its symbolic meaning to the Chinese population outside China. I found it disturbing when my friends asked me to be their tour guide in Chinatown. I wanted to tell them that I have nothing to do with Chinatowns.
Until one day, a friend dragged me onto a quest for cheap dim sum. That’s when I stumbled upon Oakland Chinatown.
On the surface, Oakland Chinatown was a confirmation of my stereotype: dirty streets, a slight sign of gang influence, and dilapidated shops. But after walking a few blocks, I was hit by a feeling of being right at home. It was the spirit of streets. In place of the pretentious antique stores, groceries and food stands lined up waiting to serve me some freshness and deliciousness. Their prices read in cents. The people, mostly Asian, were busy grabbing (groceries), chatting (in foreign languages), and stuffing (themselves with street food). I felt delighted walking around. The groceries radiate vivid healthy colors. The food tries to lure me with their aroma and warmth. This is the life I am familiar with: the cornucopia of fresh choices in an open market! At the same time, I do not have to worry about emptying my pocket to get the food I want. A box of dim sum that costs $8.65 easily satisfied me and my friend, with some leftovers. I exchanged all the changes in my wallet with a bulk of green vegetables, and my friend bought exotic fruit such as litchi and longan with a couple of dollars.
Ever since the dim sum retreat, I have revisited Oakland Chinatown several times. It is adjacent to 12th Street Oakland Bart, therefore easy to get to for somebody that does not own a car, much easier to commute to than other cheap grocery stores such as Berkeley Bowl or Ranch 99. But there are downsides too. Many stores in Oakland Chinatown do not have proper English labels, so it can be a bit tough to look for things. And many markets are cash only. Bringing a debit card or cash is necessary.
If you are adventurous, why spend another weekend in your dorm room? Grab a friend and BART to Oakland Chinatown. The streets there have so much more to offer than you can imagine.