Coming Home

June 13, 2010

Home is not a familiar concept to me.  Roots are not in my dna.

I’ve lived in Vietnam, Alabama, Texas, California, Florida, Montana and now, Illinois, and not just in one house per state.  I’ve had 5 addresses here alone.

I am a nomad.

I moved to Chicago from Houston in July of 2003.

I had explored a handful of neighborhoods in advance to decide where to begin my new life here, and settled quickly on Uptown in order to be close to my beloved Vietnamese food.  Yes, anyone who knows me knows of my devotion to all things Phonatical, so it comes as no surprise that proximity to edibles would factor heavily into my decision.  Obviously, it wasn’t just food.  What psycho would choose where to live based on a $7 bowl of soup?

Being close to “Little Saigon” is a way for me to be close to my mother, who died in 2000.

Although I was born in Vietnam, I remember nothing of it.  My family came to the US during the Fall of Saigon when I was just 18 months old.  We somehow landed in Alabama and stayed until I was 18.  Through a series of circumstances not to be explored in this blog entry, I was around almost no Vietnamese influence until I was legal.  18 months to 18 years as an Alabama outcast.  Awesome.

It’s not at all that I struggled with my half-Vietnamese identity.  It’s more that my mother was entirely my Vietnamese identity; as long as I had her, I didn’t need to explore further.  I was a visitor to her world, and she was my interpreter.

And then she was gone, and I understood.

Flash forward to 2003, and to the subject of this post.

I have been researching the economic contribution of ethnic enclaves for one of my many side projects, and came upon this Chicagoist post about Argyle Street from 2005 discussing the gentrification of the area.  I doubt much has changed since then, except that the Red Rooster sits empty now, reprimanding me for not peeking in at least once when I had the chance.

It reminded me of my first day in my new home on Winnemac.  My fabulous new neighbors were filling me in on where to go for this and that, then offered that Clark street was a block west and boasted great shops and restaurants I would surely love.  But, they said, I should steer clear of the area one block to the east: Broadway and Argyle.  I stubbornly replied, “Yeah, that area is the reason I moved here.”

While I understand that their purpose was only to warn about the perception of crime in the area, I recall feeling sad that they may have missed out on so much the area offered.  For them, Argyle was simply to be endured as the fastest route to the Red Line.  They had ventured into a couple of the well-lit places with more familiar menus, but skipped the ones with ducks hanging in the window.  They had never experienced the many restaurants, gift shops, tea and herb specialists, plants and fragrant lemon tree vendors, grocery stores, bakeries, or of course, the people.

Dan B and I were chatting about a lovely place just under the Argyle stop called Thai Binh, whose hostess, the owner’s daughter, is as much a part of the experience as the food.  Linda is charming and welcomes any questions about the area or her family business.  One time, she seated me and went back to the corner where she seemed to be negotiating a residential lease for her father.  By the way, she was about 12 at the time.  One Yelp reviewer references helping her with her algebra homework during dinner.  Ha!  I hear she’s off at college now.

Some argue that ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago or in any metropolitan area keep immigrants from assimilating into mainstream society.  Others believe they are simply an alternative way of adaptation that conflicts less with maintaining cultural distinctiveness.

I am fascinated by each argument and many that lie in-between.

All I know is, Little Saigon is the closest thing I have to coming home.

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