“Possibly my first time surrounded by 95% Asian people and not filled with anxiety or disdain”
...said the enlightened Bar Director from Daikaya in DC. Monica said this right after Night Market Underground in the Spring but after the second annual Charm City Night Market these words still keep coming back to me.
I remember the letter I wrote about last year’s night market and the warm feelings of joy and happiness related to having successfully introduced something to Baltimore for the first time. The inaugural Night Market gave us a feeling of boundless energy and a renewed commitment to build upon the goodwill it received. We worked to find more AAPI vendors across the DMV, we promised to get Ruby Ibarra in 2019 because she says the things we couldn’t properly articulate, we worked to make sure there were more unique activities and we promised to keep trying to build community.
In the months leading up to the 2019 Night Market, we put on some smaller iterations of the festival. The first was at Center Stage for a Chinese-American play called King of the Yees. The play centered on the relationship between a daughter & her father and the struggles of Asian American families searching for success in this land while not giving up your old world traditions. You can find the riddle below near the end of the play and it’s something that has just stuck with us:
“i am rich but poor, bitter but sweet.
i am hard to know, but easy to meet.
i’ve been a jailor, a protector, a stranger, a friend.
a lie, an illusion, a means to an end.
i shrink and i die in all but few cases,
yet, seem to grow in the most unusual places.
and if you are lucky, if you scale that wall,
then one day your children will not know me at all.”
The answer to the riddle is Chinatown. We were fascinated by the connotations this had with our Asian American upbringing. We discussed the idea that as Asian Americans, if we were to succeed in the new world, it almost meant you had to leave behind your old world and traditions. We also realized that it was no longer a compromise we could accept..
We participated in the Asia North Festival held in the Motor House which is adjacent to Baltimore’s Historic Koreatown. We held our first ever Night Market Underground, a smaller, perhaps grittier version of Night Market. The raw energy and celebration of NMU reminded us why we love all the corners of Baltimore and why we will only choose to build our community and our foundations here in Charm City. Above all, it reminded us that this had to be fun.
We also watched the news during the past year. We watched the spiraling of our political climate especially for immigrants and communities of color. We began to realize our voice. We spoke up against the appropriation of our traditions and culture through food, fashion and other elements of the everyday world. We stood with like-minded folx against legislation that limited women's rights and made certain that we stood with our communities in Baltimore as racial tensions continue to ebb and flow in our city.
We were delighted to see more and more Asian food spring up in Baltimore. We saw an explosion of Filipino, Chinese, Taiwanese, Sri Lankan, and Lao food appear where it seemed like there would be a permanent dearth of food. We began to see restaurant owners poise themselves to take advantage of this “Asian” trend and we hope that they all find a way to honor our cultures and traditions in the right way.
We rediscovered that some parts of Baltimore still have a long way to go in terms of understanding race relations. We will tell you that we are not “the china collection” or “the model minority” or “the wedge”. We are part of the fabric of this city, looking for our place in this city that includes everyone and doesn’t try to exclude anyone. As Ruby Ibarra tells us:
“They tellin' us compromise, they always feeding us lies
Made to believe I don’t exist unless I wear a disguise
‘Cause I been constantly lied to, broken down til I cry
Til I no longer recognize the person that was inside
Until we fade like the sun, and we forget where we from
Then we self hate til it’s done, and never question it once
So mama tell me won, the person that I become
I have a sword for a tongue and a skin that shines in the sun
And because the place that I’m from it still lingers deep on my tongue
And so every word that’s from my lungs can hold the weight of a ton”
We realized both how long and short a year could be as we planned this year’s Night Market. We welcomed new additions to the family, we expanded a footprint that needed to accommodate more people, we showcased more performers and we added more vendors all in response to the feedback we received from the first year. We also discovered that expanding something 2 ½ times doesn’t necessarily mean 2 ½ times more work, the relationship is much more exponential.
We found the bureaucracy of Baltimore much more challenging and discovered that in order for us to really succeed, we need a modicum of independence next year. We rethought our idea of community and that it doesn’t necessarily revolve around a place but rather it’s foundation is built on people. This led to the discovery of the idea of intangible heritage. The idea that we don’t pass along heritage based on objects or symbols or building or places but it’s carried in us. It evolves over time and passed along through our food, our music, our culture, our heritage.
In the end, Night Market came and went. We could not have asked for a better day and we could not be more humbled as we watched Batlimore come out again to eat, dance, sing, laugh, cry, and enjoy themselves. From 6:00 am that morning until 2:00 am the next morning, time felt timeless and too quick at the same time. It was overwhelming to see family, friends and familiar faces walk through Night Market enjoying themselves with activities, performances and food. There are stories and accounts on social media that describe it better than I ever could.
It was about half way through Night Market that I remembered Monica’s quote again. In Asian communities (and I’m sure this applies to any communities that are built around family and shared experience), there are expectations about family, career, life and loyalty. We’ve all felt the standard we’ve been required to uphold and carry with us in how we grow up and how we live. I remember growing up and going to my tita’s and tito’s houses where their kids seemed so much more successful in life than me (this was mainly based on the fact they were classical pianists and I was not) which always caused me great anxiety. I’m guessing many Asian American kids felt this kind of anxiety in gatherings, if it was perceived we didn’t pick the right profession, school or even the right partner. Later on in life, this turns into disdain for being judged by our community because we may not be the right kind of successful. At least this is how I interpreted the quote.
More importantly, to me, Night Market removes that stigma. It celebrates the creatives and the chefs that some Asian communities consider lesser callings even though every Asian community considers those endeavors as vital to passing on our traditions and our heritage. It celebrates the idea that we can both be Asian and American and we don’t have to choose a mask when we leave our houses or we don’t have to scale that wall and leave our heritage behind. It finds spaces for all our identities and welcomes the inclusion of many more communities. Even to the most casual observer, this was evident at Night Market.
If my letter last year spoke about a new relationship that is full of promise, newness, excitement and hope then this year’s version has become a long term committed, loving relationship. It has a greater depth of love but has lost that shine you get from something that is just beginning and new. It requires more work, effort and complexity. It requires that in order to keep going and to keep succeeding then everyone who participates in Night Market benefits from the work and success. That is the contract. That is the relationship and it’s non-negotiable. In order for us to keep building, we must all go forward.
On the surface, Night Market looked amazing. The crowd. The energy. The buzz. We have had countless attendees praise us for our efforts. We have heard numerous times how great Night Market is for Baltimore. We are so humbled by the love that the city of Baltimore gave to a fledgling enterprise. Behind the scenes, though, several of our vendors did not enjoy a successful night and many took a loss that small businesses can hardly afford. That’s on us. That’s on me. I don’t have any answers for them and I won’t have any excuses. The only thing I can say is that I’m heartbroken and I cannot apologize enough for this failure. Night Market is meant to be a celebration for all involved and if that doesn’t happen then it’s hard to say it was successful. I am so sorry that the experience wasn’t everything that you hoped for. I am so sorry that you felt misguided. I can only ask that you don’t lose faith in us and that I promise it will be better next year. I don’t know how we can regain your trust, I only know that we will work hard to do so.
Finally, our Night Market family has truly become a family. Thank you to Stephanie, Marisa, Jamie, Julie, Rey, Dan, Fancy Dan, Rachel, Robbin, Ephrem, Evan, Lisa, Shao, Shawn, Eliza, Danny, Kim, Louie, Stephen, and countless others that have helped with Charm City Night Market. I can’t even describe how much all of you mean to me. There is something unique that you have helped create and I am forever grateful to be part of it. Thank you.