My friends in Indonesia always say to me, usually with a combination of ridicule and wonder, “Why do you live in Philly? Why not in New York, D.C. or Los Angeles?” For them — for people around the world probably — living in America means living in those centers of the universe like New York, or centers of power like D.C., or centers of fun and sun like Los Angeles. And my answer is always: Why not?
I lived in Manhattan for three months before moving to Philly more than 12 year ago. I have to say, I enjoyed what New York City has to offer, but there’s a sense of place here in Philly that you don’t always find in a bigger city. (New York City is fun for a day or two, but not a place to call home.)
The streets are filled with such history here; it feels so magical. Philadelphia is the birthplace of independence, the place where the United States of America was established, where important and famous people lived or are buried. No one can talk about Philly without mentioning the Declaration of Independence or the Liberty Bell. The feeling of magic is everywhere you go: The First Bank of the United States, the first municipal waterworks in the United States, the first rural cemeteries, the oldest property insurance, the oldest continuously operating theater in the English-speaking world. Even the first private psychiatric hospital in the U.S., founded in 1813 by the Quakers, is here.
Not only that, from its founding in 1682 Philadelphia has been a city of immigrants. William Penn, an immigrant himself, established Philadelphia as a “Holy Experiment” and welcomed immigrants from all over Europe. Between 1910 and 1914, at the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Philadelphia was the third-largest immigrant port in the country. Many Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans settled in the South Philadelphia neighborhoods. Part of this area, The Italian Market, is the only remaining open-air market in the city. At least 800 refugees from many countries come to live in Philly every year. And thousands of other immigrants come to the city.
Another thing that I love in Philly is its Chinatown. Even though it is smaller than New York’s or D.C.’s, it has hosted generations of Chinese and other Asian immigrants. With around 3,000 people living there, it is more than just a tourist destination, it is also a thriving urban village, a living neighborhood. Beneath the ornate Friendship Gate lies a miniature city where people mostly speak Chinese, and you will feel like you are in the middle of Hong Kong.
The gate, dedicated in 1984, was the first authentic Chinese Gate in America built by highly skilled Chinese artists. After 23 years, it was substantially refurbished and repainted, and rededicated on Nov. 19, 2008. The materials for the Friendship Gate were donated by the citizens of Tianjin, Philadelphia’s sister city in China.
Because Philadelphia’s Chinatown is smaller, it’s easier to find everything that you need there. And for good Asian food, the possibilities are endless — dim sum, sushi, nasi goreng, pad Thai, pho noodles, Korean BBQ — all is affordable, delicious and different.
Far different, but still home
Philadelphia is a vastly different from the city I am from. With about 1.5 million residents, this city feels quiet and “empty” compared to hectic Jakarta, home of more than 10 million people. But quickly I felt at home here. Maybe it’s because there were about 6,000 Indonesian immigrants living in South Philly by the time I moved here. Or because I can find foods from my home country at dozens of Indonesian groceries and restaurants here.
Perhaps Philly is just that kind of place, so congenial and comfortable? Because Center City is so colorful but not overwhelming? Because everything is within walking distance and I don’t drive? I’m not quite sure. But what I know for sure is this: Never in my life have I worn a shirt for a sports team, but here I have several Phillies t-shirts that I wear with pride. Hey, that’s a big step for a woman like me. I didn’t think I would stay here for a long time, but I guess I fell in love with this city. My heart is here.