Carrying My Own “Tower of Babel”

By Qin Sun Stubis

(originally published in The Santa Monica Star)

ching bioGrowing up in the old French Quarter in Shanghai in the ‘60s, I lived amongst people from all over China. They proudly called themselves “Shanghainese,” though most were not born and brought up there. I had neighbors speaking various dialects, some so different that they might as well have been foreign languages, and classmates carrying exotic foods in their lunch boxes.

In spite of our differences, we lived happily and harmoniously. And, because of our differences, we learned about diversity, tolerance, and understanding.

My neighbor next door came from Central China in the late 1940s and never learned to speak our local dialect after some 20 years. So we conversed in our common language: Mandarin Chinese. As a child, I dashed in and out of her apartment as if it were my own, and played hide-and-seek in her closets. I loved her Northern-style dumplings and double-sautéed pork so much that I begged my mother to learn to make them.

Soon after I started to read and write, I learned that my ancestors, too, had originally come from some other parts of China. As a matter of fact, there were very few people who were native to Shanghai, for Her history extended not much beyond 600 years, in comparison to 5000 years of Chinese history. Shanghai, meaning “above the sea,” started out as a tiny fishing village and grew to be one of the biggest cities in the world, thanks to all those brave hearts coming in search of a promised land.

To me, Shanghai was, is and always will be, the best of China. She attracts talent and offers opportunities to the ambitious and adventurous. She embraces all newcomers, wherever they come from and whomever they may be. Shanghai was the whole world to me. I never thought I could ever love another place as much as I’ve loved Her.

In 1989, I left home for America. While I was eager to fly away and have an adventure in other parts of the world, I was also afraid that I’d never find another place like Shanghai. Little did I know that I was in for a treat, for America is even more diverse. It is a country made of people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, with a Babel of exotic tongues. And, She made me feel right at home.

I eventually picked New York City in which to settle down, residing in a neighborhood where most had roots from someplace else: India, China, Armenia, Italy, Greece, and Israel. Many were bilingual and carried heavy accents when speaking in English. In their homes, I found reminders of different cultures. In their kitchens, I enjoyed international culinary experiences; and in their conversations, I learned “ciao,” “auf wiedersehen,” and “Mazel Tov!”

Then, it was time for me to pack up and move on, this time to Washington D.C., the capital of a country I now call my own. Before I left New York, I made sure that I not only packed up my physical belongings, but also carried my own “Tower of Babel” with me.

I knew that I’d always have Shanghai and New York. They are in my heart to keep. And I was ready for another new adventure.

You can always reach me at

A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.

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