March 22, 2000

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The Gloucester Daily Times

Column: A cultural war in a beautiful country


Feb. 6, Chinatown in Boston. It's the day to celebrate the arrival of the Chinese New Year. When I step onto Beach Street, a roar of firecrackers arises in front of us. A moment later, another explosion takes place behind me. The sound is so loud and deafening that I have to breathe out to calm down, and look around exchanging somewhat embarrassed smiles with people around me.

Another explosion. Another one. The smell of gunpowder and smoke fills the street. The crowd of mixed races, Asian, black, white, Hispanic, trembles and moves according to locations of blowups. I get overwhelmed, and can't help asking a silly question to a policeman on the street, "Is it allowed to use explosives in Massachusetts?"

The policeman, a young Chinese-American, looks at me for a second and says, "Do you think that a local law here can deny the 4,000-year-old history of Chinese culture? You hear everything from one ear and let it go from the other. All right?"

I stuff yellow foam plugs into my ears. The sound of explosions and my breath, that's all I can hear. I start to lose the sense of reality, feeling as if I were in my dream.

There are several groups going up and down on the streets. Each group is made of one or two dancers in the colorful costumes of monster, another dancer wearing the blue outfit of an old man, and a music band banging a Chinese gong and cymbals. In front of a restaurant or a shop, a shopkeeper waits for the monster to come, offering food, usually an iceberg lettuce and an orange, and the tip in red envelopes. While the monster eats, a shopkeeper throws lighted firecrackers at the monster. According to Chinese legend, this monster represents "Nien," which used to hunt people. The old wise man organized the fearful people and made Nien away by the sounds of firecrackers and drumming instruments.

I watch the monsters crashing oranges with their long teeth. A short-legged Chinese shopkeeper lights a cigarette, puffs a couple of times, then lights firecrackers, and throws them high in the air. A little Chinese girl in her costume jumps to kick and crash a lettuce. A Vietnamese teen-ager strangles his friend around the waist threatening with lighted firecrackers in his hand, laughing and laughing. There is something sensual about this whole scene.

I see numerous signs of shops and restaurants written in Chinese. As Japanese, I can read Chinese characters, although I don't understand the language. There are many signs saying "Beautiful Country," written in Chinese, meaning "USA." I see a lot of billboards with the world "Central Country" which means, of course, "China." Examining these characters, I go into a coffee shop.

Inside, a middle-aged man, still wearing the costume of monster, is busy pulling out money out of red envelopes, and making stacks of green U.S. dollar bills in front of him.

An old Chinese man wearing a dark-gray overcoat comes into the coffee shop. Our eyes happen to meet. The old man says to me, "Nee-how."

"Nee-how," I reply.

Then he begins talking in Chinese. I have to interrupt him mumbling, "Sorry, I don't understand." The old man looks at my eyes, says something sharply, and then spits on the floor. I go out of the coffee shop, leaving the old man.

Outside, a couple of young men are chasing girls throwing firecrackers at them. Some rays of firecrackers hung from the fourth floor of a building start to explode. An Irish-American policeman seems disturbed making his face red.

I have to get out of here. It's enough. I walk out of this mess and rush to the Boston Common. Around the Frog Pond, I take my earplugs out. The music of Dave Mathew's Band. The laughter of family ice-skaters. The sound of traffic. The sense of the reality comes back to me.

I thought about my trip to Hong Kong a long time ago. There, I thought that the city was just like Manhattan filled with Chinese. When I visit New York City, I never think vice versa. It shows how much my way of seeing is Euro-America oriented. The old man in the coffee shop could see it in me. That's why he spit, I suppose.

The music has changed to Shania Twain. Behind her voice, I hear the dim sound of firecrackers. A few blocks away from here, the cultural war between a beautiful country and a central country is going on.

Chikako Atsuta is a Japanese freelance writer living in Gloucester.

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