One Saturday afternoon in Sunset Park, I was sitting on the cement rim of a drained wading pool, watching elderly Chinese couples foxtrot to staticky melodies playing from a beat-up cassette player.
I often bump into stories the way we sometimes run into details that shift our sense of what is or isn’t. It’s easy to go about life with a set of beliefs and convictions, unaware that a single conversation or moment can undermine our understanding of all that.
One Saturday afternoon in Sunset Park, I was sitting on the cement rim of a drained wading pool, watching elderly Chinese couples foxtrot to staticky melodies playing from a beat-up cassette player. During a lull, as the dancers dispersed to take sips of water, a short, round-faced grandmother from Guangzhou struck up a conversation with me. “The lives of old people are so easy,” she said brightly. “We can come here to dance or go to the casino.” She told me she sometimes buys a round trip bus ticket for $30, then sells the complimentary gambling voucher at the casino for $50, then waits six or nine hours for the bus to return to Sunset Park. “That’s a profit of $14 if you tip the driver $6.” I tried not to show my surprise. “Where do you sleep?” I asked. She shrugged. “Old people don’t need to sleep that much.” Compared with life back in China–or Tennessee, for that matter, where social services were so scarce she once treated a severe stomach infection with over-the-counter medication–Sunset Park is a haven. I’d expected a tale of woe and instead found one of gratitude.
Another time, I went to the park to write about an event organized by Occupy Sunset Park. The day was mostly sedate but still well patrolled by officers, who stood in the shade with arms crossed. A puppet show was just starting. I found a spot next to a young mother from Fuzhou and her two young children and helped translate the dialogue into Mandarin. When the big banking monster flew out to attack a debt-ridden student, I turned to the little girl and asked if she was scared. “I’m not scared of monsters,” she said. “The only thing I’m scared of is that police officer.” “Why?” I asked. She leaned in to whisper something, but was shushed by her mother. “What’s that?” she asked instead. The Statue of Liberty puppet was making an entrance, but as I tried to answer the question, the girl’s mother once again interrupted and began speaking quickly, beseechingly.
“America’s full of hypocrisy,” she said. “They don’t welcome everyone. My in-laws have been deported. Their family is all broken up.” She talked for about twenty minutes as the puppet show went on then suddenly seemed ashamed. She got up quickly with her children and left.
Throughout the year, I’ve found that reality often subverts expectation. This vignette about Mr. Chen and his famous dumplings is one of these stories. A moment when I expected one thing, but found another.
[Editor’s Note: We invited Nabil Rahman, the mind behind Pineapple And Milk, to create videos inspired by Open City stories. Want to see/hear more? Come to the Open City session at Page Turner at Roulette/YWCA, Saturday, Oct. 5th, 11AM. Anelise Chen, Rishi Nath, and Sukjong Hong, Open City Fellows from the past year, will discuss their year of writing creative nonfiction about New York.]
Video by Nabil Rahman.