A Second Home by Bixia Chen ('18)

           Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, is a place the Chinese community built with their own hands. Everyone put forth their effort, culture, traditions and virtues to build our own Chinese paradise in this alien land. In 2009, when I immigrated to New York, Eighth Avenue was mostly residences and we could only find one restaurant, located several blocks away. However, over the past five years, I became a tiny ant in this whole population of 87,400 Chinese people who live on Eighth Avenue now. I have witnessed how Sunset Park around 68th street has changed from a nameless, small place to one of the most prosperous commercial zones in Brooklyn. Now just a few streets away, I can have the feeling of returning to China. There are plenty of Fuzhou restaurants, and large shopping malls have been opening everywhere. In short, Eighth Avenue has grown with the recent booming local economy. Nevertheless, there is a negative side to this prosperity and population growth: Eighth Avenue has become crowded, which can sometime bring garbage and filth. For the most part, though, I would call the place beautiful, at least to me.

           On the first day I ever walked out to Eighth Avenue, the sun yawned and woke from his dreams, hanging in the sky. December's wind roared like an angry dragon, breathing heavily into my face. The trees along the sidewalk danced in the wind, singing a song of " crack, crack, crack....." It was the only sound I heard on the street. It was like walking in a maze, where all of the buildings looked like soldiers, lining up, sticking together. At the time, I felt I was trapped along a rock wall without any spaces in between the structures. Eighth Avenue used to be an “ordinary” location, but through the work of its residents, it has become extraordinary. Old unremarkable residence spaces have been turned into big Asian supermarkets, a variety of Chinese restaurants, milk tea shops, pharmacies, 99 cent stores and bakeries. Originally quiet places have changed into noisy night markets. The owners do not waste any inch of land. When you walk along the street, the various goods on the shelves are displayed through shop windows. More wares take up two-thirds of the sidewalk space in front. This all makes the streets narrower causing the traffic to often get jammed up. On that remaining sliver of sidewalk, there is empty space enough for one person to walk at a time. People who want to used their baby carriage are suddenly stopped in middle of the sidewalk, like the head of train with people piling up behind them.

           Imagine that there is no space for you to step into, and a group of people dressed in Chinese cultural clothing are gathered there on the street, layer upon layer of torsos, standing closely around you in a big circle. Surrounded by this crowd, the only thing you can hear is the car horns beeping a symphonic "a tisket, a tasket" and all of the yelling folks buzz like flies beside your ears. You can only see the back of the people’s heads in front of you, and smell their sweat, making you want to vomit. You then feel like a ball kicked from one person to another, from right to left, and then from left to right again. One person clings to another and then your feet get crushed, but you don’t know who has done it!

           Every morning, starting at eight and lasting until midnight, more and more people come to the Dragon Supermarket located on Eighth Avenue and 63th street. That small narrow street is jammed too, of course. The stall owners cry out, the customers bargain, making a harmonious music that gives me joy. When you look around, there are elderly Fuzhou’ men and women, kids, teenagers, and middle-aged women, each carrying a basket. People walk with sweet smiles on their faces. There are rows of fish tanks filled with live carp, salmon, eel, turtles and crabs. When the stall owner dips his fishing net in to catch them, they elude him like professional swimmers, shaking their tails as they escape. At the vegetable stalls, the bundles of broccoli glisten like beautiful flowers, red tomatoes blush like little girls’ faces, all the green cucumbers bear their horns, glittering and translucent with dewdrops. People always examine the produce to see it is fresh or not. The butchers are extremely busy as well, brandishing knives as if performing a show. While weighing the meat and the change, the sound you hear as the staff puts their fingers on the weighing machine reminds me of raindrops falling on the ground " tick, tick, tick". The cashiers in front of their small desks roar like lions, their voices majestically commanding us to maintain the line.

           Eighth Avenue’s housing prices too have kept up with the pace of prosperity. At  Eighth Avenue and 55th Street, there is a huge bulletin board where renters can find housing advertisements. Everyone squashes together to see the tiny letters on the red colored posters. They make your eyes fuzzy and your head dizzy. Everyone rushes to the bulletin board to see the housing advertisements, and stretch out a right hand quickly tearing down the advertisement with satisfaction. Then they pull out their mobile phones, fingers dancing on key pads, in order to communicate with the landlord. And then of course, each person leaves immediately to visit the house or apartment.

           In my experience, a single room will cost at least 700 dollars a month. There is very limited space in such place; it is just like jail cell.You turn your hand slowly to open the door, gently step your feet into the room, where there is just a short distance of a single step between your room and the kitchen. White walls all around. There is no window. Your heart is beating hard because there is no fresh air. Yet, Chinese people will pay such high rent because it still cheaper than most places in Manhattan. This is where the Fujianese gather in New York. This is their second home.

           People also come from all parts of the world to Eighth Avenue because of the tempting culinary dishes. Your first stop should be in the “Dragon Supermarket ” located on 63rd Street, and then, just next to it, is the famous Shanghai dumplings stall. Usually there are ten dumplings in one steaming bun “cage” made of bamboo. These dumplings have a crystalline skin, yet hold a lot of juice inside. The shape of the dumplings are like a pagoda. You can eat them in one bite. There are several steps you need to take to avoid burning your tongue. First you have to gingerly use the wooden chopsticks to pick up the dumpling and put it on your spoon. Then, you use the chopsticks to pierce the dumpling’s crystalline skin. You have to let the “soup” inside of dumpling flow into your spoon. Then blow on the hot soup gently and let it cool down first in your spoon. Finally, put the soup gently in your mouth and suck it, letting it fill up your whole mouth. Then swallow and smile. Next, you pick up your chopstick again, and grab the dumpling tightly, and then quickly put the whole thing into your mouth. Chew it as slowly as possible, letting the fragrance of the dumpling melt into your mouth. The taste is intoxicating.

           Next, I want to introduce our favorite food on winter days: hot pot. Once you step into a hot pot restaurant, you are surrounded by luxurious, spicy oil flavors, as well as coriander and the aroma of soy sauce. It is like there are two hands holding your nose, pulling you toward your table. In the middle of each table, is a pot divided into two halves by a tiny slice of curved metal. There is a red spicy flavor on one side and a refreshing cool fresh seafood flavor on the other. This is the "Yuanyang pot". The server will then deliver various foods to your table: a plate of tiny sliced beef and mutton, various greens, yellow baby cabbages, white bean curd, black agaric, fish tofu, beef balls, and long strips of noodles. Before you start eating the hot pot, you first need to observe the temperature until you see the container boiling up with heat. Then you use the chopstick to pick up a slice of red, bloody beef, dip it into the hot pot until you see the color turning from red to sightly white. Take out the meat immediately and out it into your mouth. The sweet juicy, spicy flavors fill your whole mouth at once, spreading out to your throat, torching your tongue. You will sweat from the spiciness. If you cannot bear this, you should choose a seafood flavor, or have a cool iced drink with you.

           Also, if you are a sushi fan, I recommend the restaurant next to the Dragon Supermarket because the sushi is so good, it will make you linger until your next appetite so you can have even more. When you walk in, the Japanese traditional music and the elegant layout of the place will make you feel you have traveled to Japan. At first glance, you can see rows of wooden tables and chairs arranged neatly, but your sight will soon go to the sushi bar, located in the corner by the last row of tables. When you get closer, in front of you wander salmon, tuna, yellowtail, red clam, Red snapper and Fluke. There are several high chairs in front of the sushi bar for the customers who want to see the sushi chefs perform. They wear traditional white uniforms with Japanese writing and fish diagrams on them, plastic gloves, and a square hat. First, the chef takes out his long, sharp sushi knife, which flashes under the light. Then he chops the fish into Sashimi. Taking a base of rice that perfectly fits in his palm, he covers the piece of fish like a baby resting under a blanket. Sushi is an exquisite work of art. The finished pieces look so beautiful, delicate ad creative on your plate. You can mix the wasabi and soy sauce together, and then dip the sushi into that sauce. The sweet taste of the fish and the spicy wasabi are perfect partners, although he wasabi can bring tears to your eyes. Eighth Avenue is a place for world food culture; we are all inter-connected through our enticing cuisines.

           The most significant holiday celebrated on Eighth Avenue is the Chinese New Year. People get out and enjoy the festive leisure time with cheerful faces. All of the red color on the street is brighter than usual. Flags fly and colorful business banners flap in the breeze. The entrances of the malls are festooned with lanterns like red apples hanging from a tree. All of this vibrant color makes you feel warm inside and happy that the new year is coming even though it is cold outside. Often you see someone you know. They always stop in their tracks and offer the auspicious: "I wish you a happy Spring Festival!" The restaurants offer the fragrant smell of bacon and my dry mouth goes moist. I unwillingly find in the thick aroma a faint homesickness, and my heart wants to fly back to my far-away Jinsha village.

           The Chinese founded Eighth Avenues is a place to comfort their hearts. Things are more familiar and we can gather together like Chinese living in China. The crowds can be bullying or jolly, but we always find what we need in the supermarket here. To America we may have immigrated, but we have created our own Chinese paradise.