Kat Li: February 2010 Archives

The Lunar New Year, Chicago style

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For some of us, the Chinese New Year is a much awaited time of year. Mid-February means homemade dumplings, red envelopes filled with spending money, family and friends and an outburst of nostalgia for Chinese customs. But living on campus away from our families didn't stop my friends and I from celebrating the new year in our own way!

Arriving in old Chinatown around 11am on Sunday morning, we watched as the different restaurants, athletic and cultural clubs, employment unions and public schools put the finishing touches on their respective floats. The old men were beginning to light the fire beneath their drums, unwatched groups of little children were excitedly throwing handfuls of celebration sparks, and the crowd was already beginning to form, chattering together in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Spanish, and all the languages in between.

Just as we were about to get lunch, the Chicago Chinatown Dragon Society appeared on the avenue, complete with drums, fire, and costumes. A huge crowd formed as the dragons danced right there on streetwalk in front of the Chinatown Public Library branch. Tommy Wong, the owner of Lao Sze Chuan in new Chinatown, conducted the performance and finished it off with a traditional flag dance.

Walking up and down Wentworth Ave, there wasn't a single bakery or restaurant that wasn't chock full with local Chicagoans. So instead of a deliciously cheap Chinese bun or an opulent dim sum brunch, we opted for a small restaurant tucked away in one of the side streets. New year decorations lined the windows, a freshly roasted duck hung next to the cashier, and green onion pancake upon green onion pancake sat along the front counter. Despite the huge influx of customers from the festivities, my friends and I enjoyed a huge family-style meal of spicy tofu, Chinese sausage, garlic spinach, and of course, rice, for just $12 total.

We finished lunch just as the parade was beginning. Approaching Wentworth, we could just see the color of red as it flickered above the heads of the spectators. Having made our way to the front, we could see the many different groups represented in the parade, waving, tossing candies, and wishing the new year luck. The parade didn't just include Chinatown organizations but several Chicago High School marching bands, a group of bagpipe players, the Taiwanese and the Korean cultural chapters of Chicago as well.

Returning to Hyde Park, we gathered in a friends' apartment with a big group of other UChicago students to make dinner dumplings from scratch. Together, we finished the night eating and toasting the new year.

American Buffalo: Remembering Chicago

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I fell in love with Chicago long before I came to Chicago.

It was through Chicago writers like Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg that I discovered its scruff, waste, and growth. It was because of their Chicago that I left everything behind for this city.

2 years ago I saw Chicago, the real Chicago, for the first time. Everything that I imagined so romantically was suddenly replaced by clean counters, glass doors, shiny cars and shiny tall buildings. Living here over time, I've forgotten the sadness that I felt when my naïve Chicago first started fall away. But that Chicago of mine, of Algren and Sandburg, was the very Chicago that came back to me Wednesday night from the stage of American Buffalo.

I've seen Steppenwolf productions before, but never on Chicago's Lincoln Park stage. The set was thoughtful and intricate, as conscious of the play as the actors themselves. Cluttered like your favorite junkshop with props from the Steppenwolf closet, the cashier read $5.20 and wooden chairs hung from the ceiling.

While the visual atmosphere was one of browsing and lingering, the dialog was light, crude, comic and fast-paced. The actors carried the audience quickly through subtexts of emotion, hinting at remorse for a city that was showing signs of change. Don, the aged and struggling owner of the junkshop, constantly watches over Bobby, the kid that loves him. Teach, their flashy poker friend, is frustrated and crude from always losing. These three were the only three we saw, the only actors on the stage. Each acting off the other, they stirred in us a certain timidity and fear. Afraid to be alone, afraid of change and new things, we all felt together as though our lovely shop of pastimes was threatened by the ruthlessly coming world outside.

Pushed by their surroundings to reveal their honest selves, Don and Teach worked themselves into a chaos, culminating with Teach ripping the calm, nostalgic, hovering atmosphere apart and supplanting their own atmosphere of anger, fear, and loneliness. It was in this state that Bobby, the kid that never did anything wrong and tried so hard to do things right, was the only one to say "I'm sorry."

And suddenly the play ended.

In the after-show discussion with assistant director Jamie Abelson, the audience members voiced their praise and their inquiries as well as their obvious love of Chicago. As Steppenwolf staff quietly put our favorite junkshop back together, we spoke of the Chicago World's Fair, the pigsticker, the accents and regional colloquialism.

We were Chicagoans and Americans, teenage, middle-age, and over-age, but all the same there was a strong sense of Chicago in the air. Together we revived our nostalgia for the same Chicago that I once fell in love with, that Teach violently missed and Don carefully watched over... that all of Chicago remembers.