Follow along as Milan explores the edges of belonging in the International District

By Milan Chang
March 7, 2018

Editor’s introduction: We are excited to present a new column: Milan’s Musing. In this series, Milan will share his personal exploration into modern Asian America and, through these stories, we hope to give you a glimpse into the world of immigrants and minorities who call the U.S. home. Be part of the conversation; send your thoughts and comments to!

Lion dance in the International District. Photo by Milan Chang.

Stepping into this little corner of the city feels like entering a different world. Colorful facades and brilliant murals defy the signature overcast sky. On the grey sidewalk, bright green cabbage is sold for a dollar a head. Tea houses outnumber coffee shops on any given block and the red and brown brick buildings, so unlike the gleaming but sterile towers downtown, impart histories as intimate as the wrinkles on the faces I encounter.

But to someone like me, a biracial Asian American raised on few traditions, citizenship in this world is as ambiguous as my appearance. Often, the strands uniting this neighborhood—the same ones that draw me in for their unique features—are the very boundaries of my exclusion.

Here, where the street signs are written in four languages, it seems inadequate to only know one. Reading them feels the way it does to overhear two people speak a foreign language, wondering if you might be the subject of their conversation and hoping you’re not the subject of their laughter. I’m reminded of my first year in college when a group of Korean students identified me as one of their own and invited me out only to discover that I couldn’t speak the language. I wasn’t invited twice and I learned that language was a gap no amount of posturing could bridge.

Canton Alley Street Sign. Photo by Bao Nguyen.

Everywhere I go in the neighborhood I’m reminded of this estrangement. Walking past the 663 Bistro window where barbecued meats drip generations of culinary customs, I recall the many times I’ve gone to Asian restaurants and was pressed by my non-Asian friends to explain what to order and how to eat it, as if knowledge of such things is conveyed through blood. My appetite for Korean food is as insatiable as Korea’s own hunger for pop stars but I’m no better at ordering it than a typical American tourist in Asia. Without language or food, what’s left?

In a last-ditch attempt to undo my alienation, I approach the Eastern Hotel searching for an exhibit dedicated to Carlos Bulosan, the writer and labor activist whose iconic novel America Is in the Heart had a profound impact on my own conception of Asian America. I want to see the place where he lived after first arriving from the Philippines in 1930 but the door to the building, now dedicated to low-income housing, is— symbolic of many things in this world—locked. One person after another refuses to grant me access.

Eventually, a woman loading a parked car out front comes up and asks about my loitering. Whether she believes me or just can’t stand to see my persistence fail any longer, she finally lets me in.

International District Eastern Hotel. Photo by Milan Chang.

Inside, facing the placards and the mural on the wall, my own tenuous grasp on Asian America feels inconsequential compared to the living stories playing out every day in this neighborhood. But standing here in the same place Bulosan once did, I see that all our histories live on, not only in flesh and blood but in concrete, brick, and metal, and that they are as varied and personal as the individuals who make up the broad span of Asian America.

In my single-minded search for acceptance I’d forgotten that I am, in fact, a dual citizen. Even if I don’t always feel that way, my biracial passport grants me access to parts of the city closed off to many of those at home in the I.D. The foreign street signs were not made to keep me out but to welcome in those who understand them. The ducks strung up in shop windows may be distinct from what I grew up on but for many others, they are comfort in a world far more alien than what they’re used to. These are all entry points, the way Bulosan is for me.

I find myself struggling to imagine what it would be like if the I.D. were the only place I felt at home in, if everything past these boundaries felt as restricted as this neighborhood sometimes feels to me. It’s heartening to imagine the markers of my exclusion offering solace to others, both like and unlike me.