February 22, 2015 [Sunday]
The sky is small and colorful, wedged in between little old buildings and decorated by the sporadic bursts of confetti released every few minutes by an eager individual. I am in Chinatown, and because it is Sunday, there is a parade to mark the annual celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Chinatown is a part of the Manhattan borough, albeit a rather more crowded and claustrophobic part. It is dirtier, too, the pavement muddy and the sidewalks cracked and covered in the slush that thousands of people have trampled over in their path through here. The fact that there is a parade today only serves to underscore these characteristics further, and I can barely breathe inside the moving mass that is a crowd attempting to reach positions of relative safety. When I move away from the crowd to a place where I can breathe, I see that the main road has been lined with barriers, giving space for the parade to pass down the middle.
By the time I find my friends, the sun has moved further down the horizon, leaving only broken shards of light that illuminate the screaming, jumping children on the other side of the road, as well as part of the red-orange dragons dancing down the road, held up by several people.
The dragons have teeth, and even fangs, and are beautiful in an eerie way. They are loud against the backdrop of large Chinese characters on the storefronts opposite me. I wonder at the evolution of cultural symbols over time – at the meaning of the dragon, as a mythological creature, in Chinese culture; at the meanings of words in our various languages; at the meaning of prayer, or the hijab, or rosary beads. What did the dragon once mean, hundreds of years ago, to a little kid in mainland China who worked the rice fields all day long with his mother and father, and who waited eagerly for yearly celebrations? What did the dragon once mean to an emperor in the Qing dynasty, or to a stonemason carving carefully the eternally dead eyes of gray stone dragons, day after day after day?
It is amazing, that the words we repeat in our prayers have been repeated countless times in countless places; that these muttered prayers have meant different things to different people; that the hijab that is now a distinct symbol was once a common part of life, though it is the same idea; that even values such as honor and freedom have evolved over the centuries into mosaics of various understandings, despite their common basis. Symbols, unlike their physical manifestations, are not set in stone.
We jump over the barriers after the parade is over, defying the police who insist we find another way due to the sweeping trucks that will come down this way soon. Ignoring them, we make our way to a little Chinese restaurant that sells dumplings and bread and various things, because we’re in Chinatown and because we probably won’t be here again anytime soon. The line is long, but we find a place to sit.
The dumplings are steamed and thick and piping hot, stuffed with pork or meat or vegetables and made to be dipped in sauces. The taste is strange to me, thick and bland but also filling, and we struggle to pick up the white dumplings in precarious chopstick grips. How many people have enjoyed dumplings before, in how many different places, over how many different centuries?
Most things in life have a power we know not, a power found in their recurrence in various places and at various times. They build up meaning the way a tree has ring inside ring inside ring delineating its survival through the centuries. Foods, ideas, words, and symbols have all been assigned various meanings at different points in time.
We make our way across town somehow, a difficulty considering most trains run uptown and downtown rather than crosstown, and find ourselves at the World Trade Center, where the 9/11 memorial is erected. There are two massive structures where the towers once stood, black squares that go down for miles and that have water streaming down from the top to the bottom on all four sides and names engraved all around the edges. Has it already been fourteen years? I am growing old, for it feels like yesterday. The water cascades down the insides of the black cube that has no top, and pools at the bottom, a quiet ode to the dead.
Later in the afternoon, before heading home, we watch the sun set over the water from Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty gray in the distance. The water shimmers in the rippling light, and ice floats over the surface, a tribute to the simple miracles of water density and to the billions upon billions of times ice has floated upon water before.