Editor’s Note: This is the latest of 12 installments in our series on AAPI identity. Amanda Ong is our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow. She is an undergraduate in Ethnicity and Race Studies and Creative Writing at Columbia University, a copy editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator, and an organizational chair member for Columbia’s Asian American Alliance. We’re honored to have her writing and storytelling skill enhance our mission to increase AAPI representation in American political life.
Almost a year ago at this time, my great grandmother died.
She had no great disease or tragic accident, but my Ta Boo was very old—verging on her mid-nineties—and common sickness was what led to the end of her long life.
I loved my Ta Boo very much, but her death didn’t have a great effect on me. In many ways, I felt like I had spent my life waiting for her to die. Not because I wanted her to die of course, but because for nearly twenty years, before I was even born, she had been holding her impending death over our family’s head.
Even in the youngest days I knew her, my Ta Boo was old. Still, she had life, had story to her. She came to America following my grandparents. She hadn’t originally wanted to come to America, but the story is that her gambling in Hong Kong led to money owed to loan sharks, which led to immigration out of the country, which led to a few years spent with my mom’s family in their home in America.
In all the time I knew Ta Boo she lived in the same small apartment in New York Chinatown, besides the less than a year she was moved a few doors down while her landlord renovated her place. She lived on Madison Street, in a building next door to her church, which was red brick with the façade of a cross in slightly different colored brick, and across the street from a public elementary school where I used to like to watch the Chinatown kids play in the yard. And she had lived in that same building, in that same apartment, since my mom was a kid—almost fifty years by the time she died.
Her apartment itself was just a small bedroom, maybe eight by eight feet, a living room that consisted of a tv, a fold out table, and a couch my parents had used and given her when they left the city over twenty years ago, a cramped bathroom, and in the perhaps four by three feet between the living room and bathroom, a stovetop, sink, and a fridge.
Almost every year we visited Ta Boo—I hated New York as a child because I could only ever associate it with humid summer days spent in her cramped apartment, sitting on the floor or her couch playing pokemon on my Nintendo DS. Ta Boo didn’t speak much English, and I only know words of Cantonese, but she had a relentless habit of pulling me down on the couch next to her, rubbing my hands between hers, and saying, “Leng neoi, leng neoi. Good girl, good girl.”
When I was little and she still walked, sometimes we would take her out along Mott Street for xiao long bao, point out the store in which Ta Boo use to work, look in the windows at faux silk qipaos, pass the smelly fish markets, all while she would offer to buy me box turtles sold on the side of the street.
As a second generation Chinese American, I have never too strongly felt the common first immigration dissonance of belonging neither in America or China: I always held firmly that my home was in America. Instead I often experienced these kinds of moments, like the ones with Ta Boo, which felt like strings connecting me to another life—one completely different from the usual privileged, white suburban one that I lived. These moments which always lived in me, strings connecting me to all the other lives I could have lived, that I did not live and yet are a part of me: as it is when you come from an immigrant family.
This week I attended an event on the gentrification of Chinatown and the tactics used to displace poor Chinese Americans and make Chinatown an increasingly wealthier and whiter space. Families are wrongly evicted, people displaced, many who know little English and with no means to get justice for what has been wrongly thrust upon them. Many live in small one-room apartments in poor living conditions, and are cheated out by landlords who want to raise the rent. I am reminded of the recent statistic that, despite the façade of the wealthy Asian model minority, Asian Americans face the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in New York City, at just over a quarter of all Asian Americans in the city living in poverty.
And then I think of my Ta Boo. And in a matter of seconds, I am reminded of why I have to care about these people and these issues. These people of Chinatown at the mercy of poverty and gentrification could be anyone—they are grandmas, brothers, great uncles. They are a part of all the lives we did not live, but are a part of us as the children of children of children and so forth of immigrants. They are the people connected to us by even the thinnest of threads.
As we look to future legislation there are many issues that must be addressed. But I urge us not to forget those often forgotten, I ask us not to forget Chinatown.
If you feel so moved by this piece, I ask that you please look at some of the following links to the websites of organizations seeking to combat gentrification in Chinatown and the greater area of New York.