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Remembering Chinatown

(Photo: Omar Bárcena)

Learning that Los Angeles’s Chinatown is fighting a Walmart store, including with a lawsuit against the city, reminded me of what I learned in that Chinatown years ago.

One midnight, fed up from revising our dissertations all day, a friend and I drove the 10 minutes from Caltech into Chinatown to dine at Full House Seafood, open until 2 AM. (My Ph.D. adviser once asked why graduate students all seem to live on Guam time.) The restaurant was lively and crowded but not packed, and we quickly got a table. While waiting to give our order, I noticed an African-American man sitting on the chairs near the front counter. Even though several tables were free, the waiters did not offer him a table. Other customers came in, and were seated. As our dumplings arrived and got eaten, and then the spicy tofu, the man still sat on the small chairs.

There could be only one reason. Indian society holds a dim view of dark people, including darker-toned Indians like me. In “Bhaji on the Beach,” the Indian matriarch, who has just learned that the young Hashida is pregnant, editorializes about the boyfriend, “But why did it have to be a black boy?” And then faints.

Maybe other Asian cultures are similarly prejudiced. And anyway isn’t the Chinese word for foreigner “barbarian”? I’ll protest to the manager. I’ll never again eat at Full House Seafood. I’ll picket in front of the restaurant. As frustration and anger flowed through me, the restaurant staff handed the man a large brown paper bag. It was stapled shut using the receipt for his take-out order.

Sometimes a chair is just a chair; and I wonder how many other lenses I wear without knowing.

I hope Chinatown wins.