Butter in Chinatown

By Brooke McDonald

After 15 weeks in Philadelphia — with only one week to go — I’ve learned an important fact.

They don’t sell butter in Chinatown.
You’d think by now I’d know the Chinatown supermarkets near my house don’t sell typical American conveniences. However, I’ve learned in my quick, and frantic, forays in and out that these small stores carry every variety of tea, frozen bun, and green, leafy vegetable. But they don’t carry butter. 

 Or dish soap, or bread, or milk (trust me, I’ve looked). 

I say this not to complain that Asian supermarkets don’t cater to my American needs (there’s plenty of stores for that), but because I had to laugh that in my urgent rush to find butter (I wanted to do some holiday baking!), I found myself in a store that has NEVER carried what I’m looking for. Yet it’s close to my apartment on 9th and Race, and I thought, “Wow, it’d be super convenient to not walk a mile to SuperFresh tonight.”

Convenient. Living independently in a big city is convenient, and not, in many ways. 

SEPTA is convenient. A Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks on every corner is convenient, if you’re coffee crazy. If you work in New Jersey, the Ben Franklin Bridge is convenient. 

But lugging my Thanksgiving turkey a mile home from SuperFresh is not convenient. No dumpster for our trash, and having to keep it inside until trash day — that’s not convenient. When it’s my turn to clean the floors or the bathroom — that’s never convenient. Walking 20 minutes to class is not convenient. 

When I came to Philadelphia, I knew I was sacrificing some convenience in order to enjoy some independence. In other words, I knew the tradeoffs — trading a car for public transportation,  a whole closet-full of cute clothes for two suitcases of carefully selected outfits, old friends for new friends — would be worth the inconvenience. 

And honestly, learning is often inconvenient. How often do you learn through circumstances that exactly fit your needs, circumstances, and plans? How often does life go easily, without hiccups, without mistakes? 

I think at semester at The Philadelphia Center turns kids into adults and prods college students out of naiveté into knowledge. After three months here, I feel skilled to navigate the world alone. Now I can maintain a city apartment, pay bills, interview for jobs, work, grocery shop, budget, cook, and sightsee. 

I haven’t done it perfectly every step of the way. My housemates and I joke after every “learning experience” gone awry, every grand idea that ended in failure — we say, “experiential learning!” We say it in jest, but really, we all mean it seriously, too. 

Maybe it’s not convenient that I can’t buy butter within a five-minute walk from my apartment — but the inconvenience is part of becoming an adult. You make mistakes, waste time, learn, grow, and move on a better person. 

That sums up my experience in Philadelphia – full of inconvenient learning. Learning the hard way when I maybe wanted to learn the easy way. Learning in unexpected moments. 

But enjoying, even in the inconvenience, the adventure of it all. 

Life is richer when we take the experiences we’re served and let them teach us, inconvenient or not. 

Living in Philadelphia has taught me that.
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About The Philadelphia Center

The Philadelphia Center offers undergraduate students the opportunity to thrive through experiential education with PHL:EXP, the Philly Off-Campus Experience. Each term we help students secure professional, accredited internships and independent housing throughout the vibrant and diverse city of Philadelphia. Students explore career paths through real-world applications and rigorous, seminar-style courses. We provide our students with the opportunity to gain independence while learning in a safe and supportive environment. Our students leave Philadelphia with a strong sense of their abilities, social and professional aspirations, and a plan for their future.

One thought on “Butter in Chinatown

  1. oh brooke! that was lovely.

    I agree: convenience is nice (I miss driving and singing along to the radio), but learning is better. and wow have we been doing some hardcore learning.

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