Open City: Blogging Urban Change
A Few Incidentals
By Deanna Fei


One recent morning, I went to Kissena Park with my dad and my little sister to explore the tai chi scene. We met up with Teacher Du and two of his students, both middle-aged women with sweet, open demeanors. (They treat him with deep respect and perform tai chi under his guidance, but there’s no payment for instruction.) Several routines were practiced, one that Teacher Du himself had choreographed. But, in retrospect, it’s the incidental moments, the little things that happened off to the side, that  seem central to the intimate serenity of that morning.

Gathering pu gong ying

When we arrived, the trio were crouched in the grass, gathering leaves from the ground, their manner lightly absorbed, unhurried. They were gathering, I was told, pu gong ying—which, if Google serves, translates as dandelion leaves—into plastic bags. They were careful to snap them off by the stems, rather than pulling them up by the roots, so that the leaves would soon grow back. According to Teacher Du, the leaves aren’t meant to be eaten; one of the women, Auntie Huang, would brew them briefly and drink the liquid. Auntie Huang has short, slightly graying hair and a beautifully smooth, gentle face. In traditional Chinese medicine, pu gong ying is said to treat such various conditions as cancer, diabetes, and heartburn.

It was only later, when Teacher Du made a reference to Auntie Huang’s hair having grown back nicely, that I learned she has just undergone extensive treatment for breast cancer.

A Depressed Turtle Named Turtle

When the pu gong ying had been gathered, Auntie Huang reached into her bag and plucked out a turtle. She’d brought him out to get some sun. When Teacher Du asked if the turtle had a name, she said, “You can call him Turtle.” (In Chinese, the pronoun is gender-neutral; I’m assigning the maleness.) Every now and then, between routines, Auntie Huang would check on Turtle. He never seemed to have moved, but the sunlight did, through the willow trees, so she’d pick him up from his newly shady spot and set him down again in a patch of sun. I mentioned that he must be happy. Actually, she said, she thinks he’s depressed; he hasn’t been eating, drinking, or moving. Indeed, even when a big, unleashed dog bounded nearby, Turtle stayed still.

Feeding Swans

The reason the group was practicing in Kissena Park that week, rather than in the Queens Botanical Gardens, where they’d first met one another nearly ten years ago, was that “the swans are back.” When practice was over and my father, my sister, and I took our leave, Teacher Du insisted on giving us a bag of bread crusts. As soon as we stepped to the edge of the pond, two large swans swam up, snorting, along with a few deferential ducks. It occurred to me that you’re not supposed to feed wildlife, but the moment was hard to resist.

Teacher  Du had told us the swans would feed right out of our hands, but I thought they had mean faces. (The animals that have bitten me include a horse, a dog, and a duck.) I tossed a few scraps of bread (once, accidentally hitting a swan in the neck) and let my dad hand out the rest. The birds gulped the pieces of bread that were tossed close to their beaks, though they didn’t expend much energy in swimming after the scraps. They seemed well-fed—probably by Teacher Du.

The three of us, on the other hand, were starving. We emptied the bag, then headed off to Fay Da Bakery to pick up curry pastries and pineapple buns for our own breakfast.

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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