There are times during the year when we must go out to celebrate, and Chinese New Year is one of those times. As much as I prefer to eat at home, I look forward to those times when the reason for eating out goes well beyond the food. Those reasons typically center on being with friends or spending time only with Beverly or celebrating something as significant as Chinese New Year.
For Chinese New Year, we must go to Chinatown and have dinner with Dave, Lillian, and Joe. By must I mean that the experience is sacrosanct. It nourishes my soul and makes me hopeful. It also reminds me of who we are as Americans.
In years past, we have gone on the Sunday of the New Year’s parade to Lillian’s cousin’s restaurant. Along with 60 of Lillian and Dave’s family and friends, we would eat an endless amount of food that seemed to keep coming and coming. We then would watch the parade go down Cermak Road through the front window or from the sidewalk for those brave enough to stand outside on a Chicago January day. We would wait for the dragon to make its way to the restaurant and watch it devour some lettuce and oranges and spew what it didn’t eat back out at us as it gyrated and shook its way back out the door. Then we would sit for one last cup of tea and cookies.
All of this is no doubt a more sensible and civilized way to celebrate a new year than what we had become accustomed to in our earlier years. This year, however, there was no Lillian’s cousin’s restaurant to go to. He had sold it and retired. My understanding is that the restaurant was his life’s work, with he and his wife getting up before daylight every day for over 40 years to prepare food and serve customers.
He came from China as a young man, maybe a teenager, and lived with Lillian’s family. I heard him speak little English, although he clearly knew enough to run a successful business. His kids were always at the party, and from what little I know, all of them had gone to college and now had successful careers. He and his wife were generous and welcoming. I miss that part of Chinese New Year, but I continue to love the time I spend with Lillian, Dave, and Joe in Chinatown restaurants. I love that my daughter is having these experiences so early in her life and will grow up knowing that these experiences are what it means to be American.
The United States banned immigrants from China in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although the ban was to be temporary, it was continually renewed, and only repealed in 1943. That’s over 60 years in which those who were children of immigrants and who claimed to be Christians took it on themselves to use bigotry and ignorance to deny others the same opportunities they had. History books call such acts dark stains on our past. They are decidedly un-American acts, and clearly unchristian by any definition of Christianity. But here we are today. We don’t appear to learn much from our past nor do we fully understand Christ’s message to us.
When I visit Chinatown, or Pilsen or Little Village, or Albany Park, or Devon Avenue, or Uptown, or North Milwaukee Avenue, or the Southwest side of Chicago, or any number of other neighborhoods, and look at those who are working in stores and restaurants, walking down the streets, shopping, and just living their lives, I see America in all its richness. That richness–that unyielding diversity–that defines America is sacrosanct and most sacred.