by Hou-Kai Chen
Hou-Kai is a caseworker in the family counseling program of Center for Family Life. Born in Taiwan, he now helps Asian families living in Brooklyn’s Chinatown find stability and build a nurturing and dynamic community.
Walking in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, which stretches along 8th Avenue from 39th to 65th street, at first you may be surprised at the mixture of food fragrances from restaurants and grocery stores and at its high density of residents. It is a shelter for new immigrants of Chinese heritage. You may feel like you’re walking in a foreign country, as a “frozen tradition” guides everyday life here – a way to comfort residents’ nostalgia. The area is a tiny cradle that bears more people than its capacity can endure. People here live in a twilight zone where they are neither geographically close to their homeland nor emotionally attached to the land of their dreams. Language barriers, culture differences, byzantine bureaucracies and other complications, as well as mistrust carried over from a catastrophic past and other traumatic experiences wall them off from mingling with the mainstream.
To many Americans who are foreign to Chinese culture, they may look indistinguishable. Meanwhile, they may not want to be understood or recognized. The way they learned to survive is to be anonymous. Collectively, they represent a group of people sharing common characteristics such as diligence, perseverance, low profile, acceptance of their destiny, and struggles for daily survival.