When my daughter was in 3rd grade, she asked to “hear people talk other languages.” I knew we couldn’t leave Philadelphia for an international vacation. But we could fake it for an hour by visiting the Philadelphia Chinatown, to eavesdrop on conversations in Chinese, and likely in Vietnamese and Thai.
To quench your thirst for foreign cultures when international travel isn’t in the budget, try my daughter’s solution – visit a place in Philadelphia where the dominant language is not English. Spending an hour as foreigner in another culture is easily done in the immigrant-rich neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Philadelphia has “one of the most diverse immigrant populations” of any U.S. metropolitan area, with 39% of recent newcomers arriving from Asia, 28% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 23% from Europe, and 8% from Africa (Brookings Institute 2008).
Restaurants as a plunge into another culture
Korea – Seorabol, a Korean barbecue patronized mostly by Koreans, feels almost like a visit to Seoul. Waitresses rarely speak English but are gracious if you order by pointing at the menu. Barbecue means you’ll cook strips of marinated raw meat yourself, at the grill embedded in your table, and eat them accompanied by a dizzying array of small vegetable side dishes.
Russia – On a warm evening, sit in the garden at Uzbekistan to feel like a guest at a boisterous Russian party where well-dressed partygoers zip out to the parking lot to smoke. It is a BYO where every table is set with shot glasses on the assumption that customers bring vodka, not wine. In winter, expect to hear Russian variety shows blaring from the TV. I’m insufficiently adventurous to try entrees labeled “meat,” but the borscht and Moscow fish are good and the crusty bread served piping hot is worth the trip; my niece and I gobbled the whole loaf.
Pakistan – Most customers at Kabobeesh watch Pakistani TV news while they enjoy kabobs, other halal meat dishes, curries, and fresh nan. Service is slow, but the wait is a chance to sip a mango lassi.
Puerto Rico – At the Puerto Rican diner Freddy and Tony’s, you’ll be welcomed by Puerto Rican music, friendly waitresses, and a surprisingly affordable menu. The cheerful Spanish slogan on the sign, copies of the Spanish-language newspaper Al Dia at the door, Puerto Rican flags and wall decorations, and the Spanish-speaking customers right away make you feel like you’ve left Philadelphia for Puerto Rico. For less than $7, I sampled sweet fried plantains, pasteles stuffed with pork (like tamales made with green bananas instead of corn meal); a deep-fried version of the same thing – both crispy and chewy on the outside and wonderful mush on the inside – and good coffee.
Mexico – On the same block, Taqueria la Raza has a Spanish-speaking staff and customers, murals of the Mexican flag, the Virgin Mary, and a Mayan statue. For less than $3 each, you’ll get warm soft tortillas wrapped around fresh cilantro, raw onions, and your choice of chicken, beef or pork; the adventurous can try tacos made with goat, tongue, or tripe. Wash them down with cold frothy mango or papaya milk shakes (batidos) while Spanish-language telenovas on the overhead TV unfold their melodramas.
Spa treatments in Russian and Chinese in Philadelphia
Most patrons speak Russian at the Southampton Spa, a day spa where $35 buys unlimited time to alternate between wet saunas, dry heat, hot tubs, and cold plunges. Between spa treatments, patrons in bathing suits and robes relax poolside with snacks from the juice bar, while TVs play Russian programs. The spa is not sex segregated. Couples, friends, and whole families spend hours alternating spa treatments with eating and chatting by the pool. Signs in Russian, wet leafy branches to slap on your back in the sauna, the smoking room – all contribute to the feeling you’ve temporarily landed in Russia.
At the V & V Foot Spa in the Wing Phat strip mall in South Philadelphia, a wallchart explains the Chinese understanding of how parts of the foot correspond to other parts of the body. A 30-minute foot massage starts with a soak in a bucket of hot-as-you-can-stand water, followed by deep tissue massage of each foot, ankle, and calf in turn. The attendant uses Chinese foot cream, hot towels, and warm stones, but mostly fingers and elbows to apply pressure so strong I did deep breathing – but emerged feeling refreshed.
Shopping areas that feel like Vietnam and Mexico
The Wing Phat strip mall, located in the South Philly neighborhood known as Little Saigon, feels like a trip to Vietnam. Signs make it clear that the Vietnamese immigrants have created a thriving economy. There is a Vietnamese dentist, jeweler, travel agent, music shop (which plays a cacophony of Chinese and Vietnamese movies and video games), real estate agency, gift shops, and wholesale nail salon suppliers.
For a steaming bowl of flavorful broth poured over noodles, fresh basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and your choice of just about every part of a cow, chicken, or pig – comfort food to warm your insides – take a seat at the barebones formica tables of the pho specialists at Pho 75. The restaurant may look and feel like a high school cafeteria, but the entire room is infused with the heady fragrance of pho. Your own bowl will arrive within minutes of ordering. If you want pho in a more upscale setting, plus a full Vietnamese menu, cross the parking lot to Nam Phuong.
Ninth Street below Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia feels like a strip of Mexico. Mexican flags crisscross the street overhead and salsa wafts into the street from taquerias open til late at night. Mexican groceries offer Coca Cola bottled in Mexico and made with real sugar; piñatas, corn husks for making tamales, and fresh tres leches cake.
The takeaway – feeling foreign in Philadelphia
When paying at the corner bodega at 2d and Allegheny, where I ogled bins of different dried chiles, the cashier asked for “veinte dos dolares.” I smile at her assumption that I understand Spanish and remind myself, yes, this is still Philadelphia, but a lot more cosmopolitan and interesting since the recent arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants.
Have you explored neighborhoods in an American city that felt like a foreign country? Tell us about it in the comments.