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Five Places That Can Make a Hapa Feel at Home in NYC

For the first six years of my life, I was convinced that the United States and Japan were literally on different planets. During fourteen-hour red-eye flights from Narita to Ohio, I envisioned the airplane as a rocket ship, speeding through the silver clouds in the night sky. I was stupidly thrilled by the notion of passing through the orbiting stars of the galaxy while my mother nervously downed multiple Bloody Marys in preparation for a visit with the in-laws who lived on a farm and used terms like “warsh” and “yuens.”

My grandma’s dusty home, filled with animals with bizarre names (like a cat named “Happy Cat” and cows named “Mike”) was such a contrast to my life in Japan where I would spend my Sundays peering into the pachinko centers on the main strip. I couldn’t fathom the two places existing in the same universe.

They are, however, a part of the same world, and it seems that as I get older, I seek contradictions to find a sense of familiarity.

During my humid summers at school in Japan, I missed the feeling of sitting in an ice-cold room, the air conditioner preserved by closed windows. On rainy days in Kentucky, I longed for the humid heat of Nagasaki where I would chase baby tadpoles and trap croaking frogs in small boxes. I liked eating both cows and raw fish, biking down serene dirt pathways and riding in the passenger seat of a truck going 90 mph on New Circle Road.

Since New York is a city that thrives on such cultural and social contradictions, it’s no wonder that I have found a sense of comfort in its beautiful inconsistency. I’m always amused by the fact that I can be walking through housing projects one minute, only to find myself in front of a luxury coop with a hipster roof deck the next. Little Italy and Chinatown crash into each other like two schizophrenic animals forced inside of the same cage, and I can buy Pocky at the bodega around my corner. I love this city. It is scattered and precise and sad and kind.

For each of us, there are those places we can go that make us feel right in the world. And in my own personal tradition of always writing something positive surrounding Loving Day, I present five things (chaotic or not) that have made my split psyche feel at home in NYC.

1. Kinokuniya

I didn’t visit Kinokuniya until I had lived in the city for nearly three years. I always knew it was there, but never went in, probably because the Asian Self-Deprecation Cells that have been engrained into my brain give me an irrational fear of doing nice things for myself. However, when I finally set foot inside for a book signing on behalf of my mother for Rinko’s Funya Funya Nikki, I was amazed. All of my favorite shojo manga comics were neatly categorized upstairs near a café section serving fountain soda and Japanese style pan. Here, I didn’t feel like an outcast, not only because of the English-friendly aisles or the diversity of the customers, but also because Hapas were manning the counter! I got so excited that I shadily slipped a note to one of the cashiers that read:

Hi! Are you Hapa?
I am too! I wanna interview you for this thing!
Email me at leahnana@gmail.com!

(He never called or wrote.)

2. Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Located in the Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood where the annual East African Day Parade is held every year, this nature haven has a beautiful Japanese Hill and Pond Garden complete with koi. This year, I watched the cherry blossoms fall and walked across the wooden bridges arm in arm with a date. I enjoyed the fact that immediately afterward, we were able to transport ourselves into yet another completely different culture by feasting on authentic Caribbean jerk-chicken at the amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant, The Islands, only a block and a half away.

3. Otafuku

Speaking of hole-in-the-walls, Otafuku is a semi-hidden tako-yaki stand on East 9th Street in the East Village. I say semi-hidden because it’s too small for me to find when I’m drunk at nighttime, which is often. Otafuku also serves okonomiyaki, yakisoba and a delicious cheese-filled and octopus-free version of the tako-yaki that reminds me of the way my mother slightly Americanizes Japanese-food for my hillbilly relatives at Thanksgiving dinners in Kentucky.

4. Sunrise Mart

Although Japanese markets are usually overpriced and Sunrise Mart is no exception, I love this place for the five different types of natto they carry in addition to individually wrapped onigiri for roughly one dollar each. It’s also way closer to me than Mitsuwa Market, the largest Japanese supermarket in the United States (located in New Jersey, Los Angeles area, San Diego, San Jose, and Chicago). They also sell American soy milk to compensate for the lack of Japanese milk, which I find sort of charming.

5. A/P/A Institute at NYU

This institution always hosts the best Hapa/Nikkei related events in the city. Whether it be Kip Fulbeck’s new art exhibit or a talk with Roger Shimomura, the A/P/A Institute always has a wealth of resources for people who want to learn more about their heritage. It’s also awesome how kind and welcoming the staff is regardless of your ethnicity, making the institute a great environment to meet people.

As I approach my fourth year living in NYC, I am excited to see how many other places and areas I will discover to be my “homebase.” I’m always interested to hear tips and suggestions from fellow Hapas—so if you have any insights you’d like to share, email me at leahnana@gmail.com. And happy (belated) Loving Day!

© 2010 Leah Nanako Winkler

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