Wandering around Manhattan’s Chinatown is an attack on the senses. So many sights, smells, sounds that you cannot process them all as they hit you. Turn a corner and you’re greeted by a person, sight, smell you’ve never encountered before.
Sight: Fruit stand after fruit stand, laden with fruits of all shapes and sizes — some I know and love (cherries), some I recognize only by sight and name (dragonfruit), but most I have never encountered before (brown and prickly, what are you?). An old man giving no never mind to the traffic as he crosses the intersection diagonally, pushing his cart full of who-knows-what at a snail’s pace. Storefronts selling “real” Gucci purses next to mops and dustpans. Rats scurrying under the big, metal gates of shops closed for the night. Twenty old men in a park, doing nothing but standing in the sunshine. Daily buses to Atlanta for as little as 60 bucks.
Sound: A young Chinese man offering foot rubs for $25 and full-body rubs for $35. People, young and old, men and women, hawking their wares in a language I cannot even begin to fathom. Trucks beeping as they back up, buses roaring down too-narrow streets, cars honking at fellow drivers who wait a hair too long after the light changes from red to green. The music of scores of songbirds, brought by their owners to a park on an early weekend morning. Incomprehensible conversation.
Smell: Roasting chicken, roasting pork, raw meat. Dim sum wafting tantilizingly above the stench of yesterday’s garbage, piled on street corners. The smell of sweat, of work, of bodies, of life being lived. Smog and exhaust linger in the air, mixing an mingling with the scent of overripe vegetables. The heat of a muggy summer storm on the horizon.
Taste: Bagels and spring rolls bought on the same street corner. Green tea- and soy sauce-flavored ice creams melting on your tongue. The stinky, tangy taste of durian, something new for you. Salty sweat dripping off your nose and onto your lips. Grime, soot, dust,, debris kicked up into the air by thousands of pairs of feet.
Touch: Hot asphalt under foot. Beads of sweat and dirt lazily sliding down your back. The wet, wrinkly texture of cabbage leaves in your hand as you weigh heads (of cabbage, not actual heads). The snack wrapper stuck to your calf, covered in Cantonese symbols (or are they Mandarin?) that you cannot read. The sun beating down on the top of your head and warming your whole body. The crunch of a fortune cookie between your teeth and the dip of excitement in your stomach as you slowly unfurl your fortune.