Street Smart Chicago

Chicago, Earth

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Cover by Talya Modlin

Cover by Talya Modlin

As we prepare to launch our experiment in the future of cultural globalism, Newcity Brazil (read more about it at, we’ve developed a much deeper understanding of the challenges as well as the rewards of being “a stranger in a strange land.” And while travel is a transformative way to reshape our understanding of the world in which we live, the very city around us is full of such experiences as well, with resources ranging from institutions like Instituto Cervantes, the Goethe Institut and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, to our friends and neighbors, many of whom enter our lives from an entirely different point of origin and enrich us so much more for the experience. And so, on these pages, some of the city’s finest—the world’s finest—novelists, poets and journalists share a slice of their experience. Enrich yourself. (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »

Half and Half and Wholly Human: Searching for Meaning in “What Are You?”

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Nina Coomes and sister in Japan

Nina Coomes and sister in Japan

By Nina Coomes

“What are you?”

The first time Chicago asked me this question, it was out of the mouth of an inquisitive twelve-year-old boy. It was the first day of school at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary. I was the New Girl, wearing blue jeans, white ankle socks and a teal sweatshirt that says “SOCCER CHICK” down the arm because I figured nerds don’t wear sweatshirts with sports words on them. The school yard was riotous–a far cry from the orderly lines of yellow-capped students filing into a Japanese first-grade classroom, even further still from the soft siphon of school bus to hallway introduced to me when my parents first moved us from Japan to rural Illinois.

Boys flung backpacks over the black iron fence, their too-big t-shirts flapping like seagull wings as they hurled themselves onto trampled grass. A flock of girls with gold earrings swarm by the double doors licking Hot Cheetos dust off manicured fingers. Parents crowded nervously around the asphalt where we were supposedly lining up by grade, shouting warnings, farewells, admissions of love in languages I had never heard before.

“No, really, what are you?”

I recalled the question being posed, and examined my options.  Read the rest of this entry »

Devon Avenue Sampler: Quilting the Urban Diaspora

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DevonAvenueSampler/Laura Kina

“Devon Avenue Sampler” Acrylic paint on hand sewn quilt 53 x 77 in. 2009

“Devon Avenue Sampler” features vintage and contemporary street signs and imagery from my West Rogers Park Chicago immigrant neighborhood where Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all live. This all-American urban South Asian/Jewish corridor is lined with jewelers, ethnic grocery stores, bakeries, spice shops, restaurants, colorful sari shops, travel & tour services, cell phone/electronics/luggage shops, beauty shops advertising eyebrow threading and mehndi, and a baseball field. I have sewn patchwork canvases of dark blue fabrics and denim reminiscent in form to Japanese indigo boro quilts to reflect my own mixed ethnic heritage in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Be Baltic Be

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By Lina ramona Vitkauskas

I, Lithuanian-American, a flexed flax,
Sanskrit buttress of bridles, buttermilk,
& mead. I, Soviet weaponry, Finn
fingers, brass Russina sex, German march,
bedded in miles of jaws & arthropods;
sterlings, stork, & calendula; I, nova
& novena of all my fathers, conjured from vapors of cigars.

Do not believe or include me,
allow me existence below larch forests
& seas. I, your town fool, burlesque
body, egg strands of impossibility
against Lituane lips. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tea Souls: The Russian Drink of Choice Is Not (Always) Vodka

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Illustration: Elena Rodina

Illustration: Elena Rodina

By Elena Rodina

When people hear that I am from Russia, they often jokingly (or very possibly not) ask me whether I drink vodka for breakfast. Or, more seriously, they ask whether everyone in Russia drinks vodka all the time. Vodka has become a national symbol of my country, along with bears and cold winters. This, however, is a gross misconception.  I do not drink vodka for breakfast. In fact, the truth is that vodka is not always the alcoholic beverage of choice; many of my acquaintances prefer whiskey or wine. But there is another drink that truly does deserve to be placed on the Russian flag and carried with pride in its universal acclaim. That drink is tea.

When I was in college, a friend of mine told me a story. She spent her summer in the United States, working as a member of the kitchen staff at an expensive East Coast resort. Upon her arrival she met two other Russian college girls working in the resort’s kitchen and the girls quickly became friends. A couple weeks later their boss gathered all the kitchen staff together and announced that he suspected a serious theft occurring on the premises. He had discovered that tea, served in bags and displayed at the dining room, was disappearing with a frightening speed, and believed that one of the workers was stealing boxes of tea in order to resell them later, or do god knows what with them. No one confessed to stealing the tea, so the boss declared that from that day on everyone would be searched upon exiting the kitchen. Once the measure was taken, the boss felt assured that he dealt with the problem in the most efficient manner. But the tea kept disappearing. He started paying attention to the tea section in the dining room, circling it like an eagle, watching everyone who was approaching it, and he finally figured out what was going on. During the breaks, when kitchen staff sat down to snack and have drinks, Russian girls were heading directly to the tea section, making themselves cups of hot tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks. Besides, they would use two bags instead of one per cup, unsatisfied with the strength of the bagged Earl Grey. They would often have several cups of tea per break. It was the first time in the history of the resort when a limitation on the amount of teabags consumed by kitchen staff was issued: no more than two per day. Read the rest of this entry »

Where Soul Meets Body: My Half India in Chicago

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I was standing on Devon, between the intersections of Washtenaw and Talman, when I saw my favorite aunt from India. I was staring at the valiant K from the Kamdar Plaza sign, the Indian grocery store that stood like the sun behind her. The K was wittily designed to look like it was made out of a woman, the arms of the K representing her sari. As my aunt pulled me into one of her beanbag hugs, I noticed the massive crowd that had amassed behind her as if it was Diwali; bright hues of orange and lilac garments filled the streets, the clean white of the men’s traditional frock peeked through like marshmallows atop a sea of M&Ms, and street vendors passed around fresh sugarcane juice. I looked at my aunt, the kajal on her waterline as black as wet coal, and asked her how it could be that she was here in Chicago. “Haven’t you heard, my dear?” she said. “Chicago is half India now!”

That was the dream I had two weeks following my return from India, after having lived there for two years.

I spent the moonlit nights in India tracing the “I love America” I had scribbled onto the wall beside my bed my first week there out of a child’s pencil I had sharpened with a razor. My bitterness toward being there at the time was as sharp as that razor. But like most tantrums at seven, it dissolved as quickly as sugar in hot chai.    Read the rest of this entry »

Chekagou’s First Culture: The Native American City, Then and Now

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Defense by Henry Hering/Photo: Jeremy Atherton

“The Defense” by Henry Hering/Photo: Jeremy Atherton

By Bill Savage

Even when Chicago was “Chekagou,” this locale at the southwest edge of the Great Lakes was part of a system of globalization.

The first non-indigenous people to pass through this area—so far as we know—were Frenchmen Joliet and Marquette, the entrepreneur looking to make money and the priest hoping to save souls, who wintered at the Chekagou portage in 1672-73. They sought a water route to China, to expand French trade worldwide, and to evangelize for Catholicism.

As these two Frenchmen travelled with Native Americans, they saw that Chicago was an ideal spot for a canal to connect the North Atlantic/Great Lakes trading system with the Mississippi River, which they thought emptied into the Pacific. That this vast expanse of land and waters included scores of tribes and different indigenous cultures was not of much concern to them.

A century or so later, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable established his trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River. But du Sable and his successor, John Kinzie, were not just colonizers in a crude sense. As Ann Durkin Keating shows masterfully in her book “Rising Up From Indian Country,” they were part of a sophisticated network of global trade between European-Americans, Native Americans and Europeans. A multilingual and mixed-race métis economic culture thrived in the Great Lakes region before and after the War of 1812, based on elaborate systems of personal relationships, credit, bookkeeping and the delivery and exchange of goods. Manufactured items from Europe and the East Coast flowed into the Middle Border, and raw materials supplied by Native Americans, like beaver pelts, adorned the fashionable in European capitals. Read the rest of this entry »

At First Sight: A Paulistana’s Cold Choice

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The author camping with some friends in Ubatuba, in the North Shore of São Paulo.

The author camping with some friends in Ubatuba, in the North Shore of São Paulo.

I didn’t really choose Chicago; Chicago chose me, and since my life was a bore back in Brazil, I just mumbled “whatever” to whoever warned me about the low temps. I got picked by a WASP-y family who didn’t mind housing the oldest au pair in America, and ended up spending some time as a nanny in the North Shore. Little did I know how insanely low those temps could go; and little did I know “some time” would turn into “probably forever.”

I remember the first time I took the El into the city, overlooking the backs of the houses with their barbeque grills, patio furniture, and Cubs flags. Such a friendly landscape, so horizontal, so open; so different from the impenetrable high gates and guarded homes of my native São Paulo. Right then I envisioned my life as it should be, in one of those terraces, grilling some cut of meat with an unfamiliar name, impressing gringo friends with my Brazilian records and getting interrupted by the occasional rumble of the El. It was summer—I had no idea that terrace would eventually be covered in snow. Read the rest of this entry »

Straight Out of Saigon: The Vietnamese Experience in Chicago

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Anh Bien and family

I used to live in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the biggest city in Vietnam, where I had the chance to interact with all kinds of culture, including cuisine and art from all over the world. So when I was choosing a place to study abroad, aside from purely academic aspects, culture was a big part of my decision. I chose the United States, and Chicago specifically, because it had the school (DePaul University) that offered the program I wanted to continue my studies (Business IT) and it is also a place where I can experience a multicultural environment. Have I mentioned food yet? I love to eat, and where is a better place than Chicago for eating the most around-the-world cuisine?

The way to find the best Vietnamese food in the city is to go to a place where you can’t pronounce the restaurant’s name. That’s where you’ll find authentic foods. The place I normally go for Vietnamese food is Hai Yen at 1055 West Argyle. But, of course, the food I cook is always better than any restaurant you’ll ever find. The problem is that Vietnamese food is kind of delicate; you need to either cook it for at least six hours (pho) or you have to find rare ingredients which you can only find at the Vietnamese markets. Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting Spirit: Running in Winter with the Judoka

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Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 3.18.02 PM

Photo: Fred Sasaki

By Fred Sasaki

On the first Sunday of every new year, Tohkon Judo Academy (4427 North Clark) meets at Montrose Beach for Kangeiko Training. At 6:45am. Kangeiko is a winter training practice that traditionally occurs early mornings, in dead winter, to foster mental toughness. Tohkon’s includes a run along the lakefront, races up and down Cricket Hill, and calisthenics in an open field and on playground equipment. Cold, ice, snow, or not. Judoka (practitioners) and their families relay race, piggyback, and otherwise grapple with each other in a community event as if from a movie. These play exercises demonstrate that we can carry each other further than you might imagine, and that the force we put on each other, and ourselves, is enough to make you better, faster, stronger.

This winter I joined Tohkon for their famed run, with my middle-school-aged son who has been practicing judo now for years. Yes it was early, yes it was cold, and yes, it was challenging. But it was also the most invigorating, familial group activity I had engaged in since egg tosses and sack races some thirty years ago at the Yamanashi Prefecture picnics which my father took me to. Mid-sweat that frigid morning I realized how much I missed those warm times and fraternity, but more so how much I need it now.

The Lakeview Japanese American (JA) community I grew up amid dwindled over the seventies, eighties and nineties. Some 20,000 Japanese Americans resettled in Chicago after WWII and established many successful small businesses including restaurants, dry cleaners and curio shops. Gone now are the JA Boy Scouts at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago in Uptown, JA bowling leagues at Marigold Bowl, Star Market (sushi fish, seaweed, varieties of rice vinegar, and Japanese candies of course!), Toguri Mercantile Exchange (Japanese books in translation, clothing, cooking supplies, serveware, and toys), and JA people in general. Read the rest of this entry »