A Much Needed Trip to Chicago Reminded Me of the Beauty in Our Differences
Chicago was the first American city I set foot in when I came to the U.S. almost twenty-five years ago. I still have vivid memories of those first impressions: the smell of coffee and pretzels, the bright lights at the terminal, the warm air that made me sweat in my bulky coat, and the sound of various languages.
Though I quickly boarded a connecting flight to Des Moines from O’Hare instead of going out into the city, I soon found that, for us international students in Iowa, Chicago was the city that reminded us of our respective homes. The first time I visited, I immediately fell in love with Chinatown. It was the only time since leaving China that I had authentic Sichuanese food, I went to grocery stores, and I heard Mandarin, Cantonese, and Sichuanese.
Later, I began to appreciate Chicago for many other things: cuisines from many other cultures as well as my own, Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, the Sears Tower — which always makes me think about my favorite superhero, Batman — and the Bean, which I have always found charming.
The city has become a place I need to visit to be reminded that the world is vast, that there are many different kinds of people, languages, foods, and ideas — and that all these differences can co-exist beautifully and peacefully. After the 2016 election, visiting Chicago became essential for my spirit and necessary for my soul.
But the pandemic stopped our visits. It stopped us from going anywhere.
When it became apparent that we needed to get out of the house for everyone’s sanity, we drove to the closest small town in Michigan. We packed snacks so we only needed to visit rest stops wearing masks. We had no-contact check-in and ordered take-out. While there, we went to the beach. It was a good respite, but it still felt too much like Iowa. I missed being in a bustling city.
When my son had a long weekend off from school last fall, our vacation destination was obvious: “Let’s go to Chicago!”
Illinois retained its indoor mask mandate, which was another important reason for us to choose Chicago. I’ve dreaded going to public places here in Iowa. As a small Chinese woman, I’ve become a target when I wear a mask because the majority of my neighbors do not wear theirs. But in Chicago, we would all blend in without a second glance.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late October, we got on I-88 heading toward Chicago. After checking in to our downtown hotel, we went out hunting for dinner. Without walking too far, we located a hole-in-the-wall ramen place. With our bellies full and hearts happy, we did a little exploration.
It was cold Saturday night, but nothing compared with the chilly drizzles and gusty winds on Sunday. Still, we were not deterred. We marched to Millennium Park and paid a visit to the Bean. We stopped by Maggie Daley Park. We walked past the Chicago River, its grayish-green color tranquil in the mist.
My friend Susan, a native Chicagoan, gave us some suggestions about more places to visit. We checked out the Tribune Tower where we examined and marveled at the rocks, all mounted on the building’s exterior wall, including pieces from Hans Christian Andersen’s home, Washington’s landing place after crossing the Delaware River, the Golden Castle in Osaka, Japan, and Great Wall of China. I took a selfie in front of the building, commemorating my secret wish that the Tribune would review my book one day.
When our stomachs reminded us it was time for lunch, we stopped at my favorite Sichuanese restaurant. I had my fill of the hot-and-sour sweet potato noodle soup and sweet sticky rice balls in fermented rice wine — my favorite dishes from my hometown, which I have not been able to visit because of Covid. For a moment, my life felt complete.
The rain and cold eventually got to us, so we headed back to the hotel. My husband took our son to the hotel pool, and I made myself a cup of jasmine tea so I could settle in to do some research for my third novel. Everything couldn’t have been more perfect.
I don’t know when we might return to Chicago but for now, I’m content. I saw, I heard, I smelled, I tasted, and I felt all the delightful differences that made me fall in love with the city all over again.
X.H. Collins was born in Hechuan, Sichuan Province, China, and grew up in Kangding, on the East Tibet Plateau. She is the author of the novel Flowing Water, Falling Flowers (MWC Press, Rock Island, IL, 2020). She has a Ph.D in nutrition and is a retired biology professor. She lives in Iowa with her husband, son, and dog. To learn more about the author and her work, visit her website at https://xhcollins.com/, and follow her on Twitter @xixuan_c, Facebook @xhcollins, and Instagram @xixuan_c.