Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Little Fuzhou--How Did They Know?

Whenever I go into a Chinese restaurant or business establishment in the Chinese community, they start talking to me in Chinese, not knowing that I don't know the lingo. Consequently, when I went into a couple of places in the Little Fuzhou section of Manhattan Chinatown and I was greeted in English, I was shocked. How did they know? Did I look Japanese or Korean? After thinking about this for quite a while (off and on for four weeks), I finally figured it out.

The answer requires a couple of digressions. The entirety of Manhattan Chinatown east of Bowery has been referred at times as "Little Fuzhou." This is to distinguish it from the original Chinatown core from Bowery and west which is Cantonese/Toishanese in origin going back to the 19th century. As Manhattan Chinatown has expanded past its original core into formerly non-Chinese areas of the Lower East Side, this expansion has been fueled by immigrants from Fuzhou as opposed to the historic immigration from the area formerly known as Canton. Keep in mind that this Fujianese immigration largely represents lower end working class migrants, who by the way are mostly not of legal status. Indeed, many of them are merely passing through New York on their way to new jobs at Chinese businesses all over the east, midwest and south, wherever there's a bus connection from under the Manhattan Bridge. When you are in this part of Manhattan Chinatown, non-Chinese faces are almost non-existent and English is seldom heard. Tourists--or even other New Yorkers seldom find their way here. There is at least one banquet size Chinese restaurant that doesn't have an English menu. This makes the greetings I heard in English all the more surprising.

The second digression is that until 2003 I had not experienced the cold winter weather the people who live east of California are used to. Since 2003, making annual winter visits to Manhattan has taught me things about cold weather, like the fact that men actually wear gloves and scarves, and that sweater hats are a daily necessity. Over these past seven years I have built up a cold weather wardrobe of purchases made in New York. One favorite purchase was made the year that winter never showed up in New York, and Macy's was stuck with a large inventory of unsold wool overcoats which they began liquidating halfway through winter. I was able to score one of those $300 items for less than half price, and I wear it religiously on each winter trip to the East Coast.

So what does any of this have to do with my initial puzzlement? Well, I figure it's that black wool overcoat that gave me away. Fujianese restaurant workers don't walk around Manhattan Chinatown wearing long wool overcoats. North Face is more the style there. Nobody walks around Little Fuzhou in a long wool overcoat except for this silly interloper.

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