Apart from the beach-y weather in the South Bay, I spent at least a good third of my childhood in the San Gabriel Valley. Commonly known as the “626” (its area code), this area is located in east Los Angeles which is known for its predominant Chinese-Vietnamese community. Although it’s not quite Chinatown, I would say that the 626 has felt more “authentically” Chinese when it came to the community.
Reason why I made frequent trips to San Gabriel was because my grandparents, along with my dad’s sister and family, lived in that area. I remember making the 45-minute drive with my family every two weeks to see them, spending the day at my grandparents simple, but modest home near Rosemead, having lunch together and catching up on life. We’ve also done Christmas gatherings and birthday celebrations, along with New Year’s (both western and Chinese versions) together, so growing up, I saw my dad’s family quite often.
Upon exiting the freeway, you immediately see the bilingual Chinese-English signs on the shops and restaurants. You also see your usual Chinese and Vietnamese grandmothers slowly walking the streets, sometimes under a “sun-brella” to block out the sun’s rays– since San Gabriel is located near the mountains and basins, it traps heat and gets really hot in the summer, with temperatures easily above 32°C (90°F). In the newer, recently-renovated malls, you see crowds of teenagers and young adults hanging out, eating KBBQ and drinking boba together. Despite the numerous small neighborhoods within San Gabriel Valley (El Monte, Temple City, Monterrey Park…), there still remains a strong community feel to it.
At least when I was younger, we went out to lunch in the 626– especially if you’re a fan of Chinese/Vietnamese food, then you would be in absolute heaven in San Gabriel. From the spicy Sichuan cuisine to Hong Kong dim sum, each restaurant was so specialized in different regional cuisines that you could pretty much taste all areas of China, without having to step foot in the country! I was also a huge fan of Taiwanese breakfast, since my family is originally from Taiwan: there was this small mom-and-pop joint that served amazing daikon pastries (蘿蔔絲餅) which, along with homemade soy milk (豆漿), was the best way to start off the day– seriously, my mouth is watering just typing this!
Since the 626 is so heavily-concentrated with both immigrants and first-generation Asian-Americans, I felt right at home in the community. Not to say that I didn’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood where I lived, but being surrounded by people who were the same ethnicity gave me a sense of familiarity, even if I consider myself rather detached from my hard-core Taiwanese roots (due to growing up in the United States). It was the little things, such as walking into any family-run restaurant or tasting my grandmother’s home-grown apples, that the familial intimacy was there.
Food is a huge part of Chinese culture (or any Asian culture, really). Meals were almost always taken with the family, often at a big round table with a rotating plate in the center upon which various dishes (e.g. sauteed green beans, mapo tofu, walnut shrimp) were spun around for everyone to have a taste. There was no such thing as individual plates: everything was shared. We also had to serve the eldest first, so it was a matter of giving my grandparents food before serving ourselves. Over the years, we’ve been to various restaurants, where we regularly frequented at least for a few years before trying a new place and making it our “habitual” joint to eat and spend time together.
San Gabriel Valley is especially known for its “626 Night Market,” which is often held in Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. Modeled after the traditional night markets in Taiwan, it’s a huge event that draws people locally and all over Los Angeles. Dozens of stalls sell gourmet and homemade food, and you’re able to try all sorts of cuisines, Asian and non-Asian alike. Personally, I have yet to attend it, since it’s a relatively-far drive from the South Bay where I live, but I hope to go some day!
While it appears that there’s a lot of eating involved when in San Gabriel, there’s just as many (non-food) activities to do, too. As previously mentioned, the area is surrounded by the eponymous mountains, as well as near the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Basin. Really, you get views of the towering mountains wherever you are in San Gabriel, and such places serve as great weekend hikes with friends. Again, I haven’t tried them out yet, but it’d be nice to explore a bit more of what my home town has to offer in terms of nature.
For those more inclined to stay in the city, there are plenty of shopping malls to spend the afternoon in. There are your older, more-traditional plazas in Temple City which cater to the older generation, as they offer shops which sell more-traditional, embroidered clothes and various herbal and medicinal plants (ginseng, anyone?). On the other hand, there are also “modern” malls which cater to teenagers and young adults, selling the hip, trendy clothes in H&M and UNIQLO, along with move theaters and arcades to entertain. There’s always something to do for everyone, especially for a weekend out-and-about.
As I got older (in my university years), I made less and less visits to the 626 to see my grandparents. This was partly due to being busy with my studies, along with the fact that my grandparents were getting older and, well, difficult to deal with. San Gabriel started to become less and less familiar for me, especially after the community decided to do a massive renovation project to modernize everything Every time I go back, I see less of the older, traditional shops from my childhood and more of the “hip,” commercial stores in place. I have mixed feelings about this change– on one hand nostalgic and the other ready to embrace it– but I’ve come to accept it as normal, perhaps even a projection of my own maturity from childhood into adulthood.
In the end, the 626 has notably influenced my growing up in Los Angeles. It’s a semi-familiar territory where I can get in touch with my Chinese/Taiwanese roots through my family and the community. Plus, I miss the diversity of food, and I plan on returning there as soon as I return to Los Angeles!
Despite everything, the 626 will always remain my (second) home.