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Don’t let coronavirus kill Chinatown’s vibe

The lunch crowd at China King in Chinatown.
The lunch crowd at China King in Chinatown.Wendy Maeda/GLOBE STAFF FILE

I walk through Chinatown almost every day.

It’s where I vote. It’s where I go to get my boba coffee, hold the boba. Depending on the day, it’s my T stop.

When people ask where I live, the defining Bostonian question, I often answer, “South of Chinatown.”

I know, SoChi is not a thing no matter how hard I try to make it one. But paying homage to a community at risk of erasure is important. I’m well aware that realtors sell my neighborhood as South End and SoWa. But I don’t have to be native to this city to know what gentrification looks like. The same way the South End eats into Roxbury, it’s easy to see how the newly formed edges of my posh block have fed off the beauty of Chinatown, too.

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And now, fears of the coronavirus could devour the community already battling big development and a housing crisis.

Over the last month, many Chinatown restaurants have seen drops in business ranging from 30 percent to 80 percent as people allow misinformation and paranoia to prevent them from patronizing the neighborhood. Numbers like those can shut down a mom-and-pop.

So a few Saturdays ago, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, Quincy City Council President Nina Liang, and other elected officials hosted a brunch at China Pearl. The mission: To help combat stereotypes and stigma surrounding the coronavirus that is driving business out of Chinatown and Quincy.

“Get some dim sum” was the motto. Over steamed buns and green tea, people from all over Boston came together that morning to boost business.

Massachusetts reported its second case of coronavirus, a Norfolk County woman, Monday. The first case was a UMass Boston student who had traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated.

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Neither case is tied to Hei La Moon, where I often meet my friends for dim sum. They know how to accommodate a big party and do so without judgment, offering big servings of buns and fried noodles. I’m not concerned that the big, bad sickness is hiding in my meal.

My mornings are better with a fresh-baked bun from Bao Bao Bakery and a Vietnamese iced coffee from Tea-Do. The nights come alive at Shojo over Wu-Tang Tiger Style Ribs, charred greens, and just the right volume of hip-hop. On days when I’m down, a bowl of ramen at Ruckus gets me right.

So, no. Coronavirus is not seeping out the sidewalks of Tyler Street where my Chinatown faves stand.

You want to be safe? I do, too. Boycotting Chinatown won’t save you. Instead, wash your hands. Try not to touch your face. Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands. Stay home when you’re sick. You know, basic human sanitary practices go a long way in preventative care.

Until the CDC suggests we all self-isolate and live in quarantine, I’ll eat in Chinatown the same way I still dine at my other favorite eateries. I’ll walk to New Saigon Sandwich and stand outside at the ATM to get cash with my bestie so we can pay for banh mi with jalapeños and argue about the value of mayonnaise on our lunch break.

That’s the thing about Chinatown. Even in Boston, a city known for being unwelcoming, I never feel out of place there. It’s where you meet up with friends and family. It’s where you go on good days to celebrate. It’s where you go on bad days to feel better.

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Before I ever moved to Boston, Chinatown is where I celebrated my big Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard interview. When I first moved here, it’s where I met the only friend I had here for sushi and a walk to the Common to see “Crazy Rich Asians” ahead of her move to D.C. (Shan Wang, if you’re reading this, bok-bok).

I’ve always felt at home in restaurants that serve fried rice and noodles and buns and salmon rolls. Part of that is about the memories food incites. Back in high school, a family of Filipinos saved my life when they kept me from homelessness. I learned to roll lumpia and love pancit and never let the rice cooker go empty. Man, I wish there were Filipino restaurants in Chinatown. Still, egg rolls and fried rice taste a lot like love and family to me.

And then there’s my mama, a white woman who loved tea and cigarettes, a scent that is for better or for worse signature to these Chinatown streets.

For me, Chinatown will always feel familiar, even if the community is not my own.

Boston is a city built of neighborhoods. We pride ourselves on where we live, but more than that, we’re only Boston when we all come together. We cannot let this virus ruin the livelihood of one of the pieces to our wicked little puzzle. There is no Boston without Chinatown.

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If this is your city, Chinatown is part of what makes it home.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.