Story and Photos by Leina Xu
I’m out of food again, meaning it’s time to make a trip to the grocery store. Despite there being a supermarket five minutes away from my apartment, I make the 20 minute bike ride downtown to get my fruits and vegetables from a slightly dingy, off-the-beaten-track grocery store located under a humble Chinatown parking garage. As I start my shopping, a flood of people come in. Among them is none other than my own dad, a scientific researcher who works in Cambridge and lives in a Boston suburb. Today, he and others just like him missed their trains home because the Red Line got delayed. What makes this collection of people, me included, migrate here so regularly?
This place is C-Mart. Sometimes people choose their supermarket because of its convenience, good prices, or unique selection. C-mart is chosen because of its contribution to culture and community.
This grocery store is anything but glamorous, with its low-lit cubbies of green vegetables, scratched-up glass displays of random meats or bizarre animal parts, and tanks of gray fish waiting to go on the chopping block. It has jars of strange looking roots, and a whole aisle of various dried fungi and tea. Packaging rarely offers comprehensive English, and vegetable cubby labels are typically in Chinese first, then English, if the vegetable has an English name at all. Butchers and cashiers typically only speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Its presentation very much resembles a food shopping experience you would have had walking along a street in Shanghai in the 90’s, where you can find stalls for fruit, meats, and grains. Shops like these are humble in presentation, perhaps even a bit grimy, yet bustling with activity. These are places that you might run into your neighbor, or in my case with C-mart, my dad.
Culture is expressed in a variety of ways, a primary one being food. When Chinatown first began to establish itself, a Chinese grocery store was an essential commodity for Chinese immigrant families. C-Mart offers people a way to access Chinese food culture, providing a diverse stock of imported snacks like pickled radish and lychee jelly, staples like noodles and rice, and vegetables like bok choy and watercress — all foods that are common in China but rarely encountered in America.
It is hard to imagine that a place like this could even sustain itself in an English-speaking society. In many ways, shopping at C-mart feels more like being in China than downtown Boston. However, the constant business that C-Mart receives is a testament to its importance to the Chinese community.
For first generation immigrants such as my parents, five other pairs of Chinese immigrant parents in my hometown, and even the Chinese scientists who flooded off the Red Line with my dad, English is no longer a challenge. Economic success is no longer a challenge. Learning how to make and consume American food is no longer a challenge. These people have adjusted to an American lifestyle. However, the Chinese parents in my hometown still get together and make pork buns, eat sunflower seeds, and gossip in Chinese. Institutions like C-mart offer a continuation of Chinese culture for those who left home and became American.
For those who have only recently moved from China to America, C-mart is a piece of home. It is a place where people can feel comfortable speaking their primary language, where they are familiar with the type of food they are consuming, where they can learn to adjust their lifestyle to America and still maintain their culture. In these ways, C-mart is the heart of Chinese-American culture, as it consistently continues to help Chinese-Americans connect with each other based on their heritage.
I was born and raised in America. I am American, but my family has been buying groceries from C-Mart since we moved to Boston when I was around the age of 4 or 5. Chinese dishes like fresh steamed fish, homemade pork dumplings, and steamed Chinese eggplant ended up being the food of my childhood. The only foods I understand how to cook instinctively in college are those Chinese dishes that I became familiar with growing up.
My parents passed on the secret of C-Mart to their kids, and in doing so, taught us how to appreciate and know our own culture. Although I am an American, I continue to shop at C-Mart because it continues to connect me to my Chinese roots.