A mission that a group of Chinatown seniors carry out each month: Find traditional groceries

Find traditional groceries: that’s the mission this group of Chinatown seniors

All throughout May, WTOP is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with stories about the people and places shaping the D.C. region.

It’s hard to get traditional Asian groceries in D.C.’s Chinatown because there is no large-scale Asian grocery store there. But every month dozens of seniors who live at the Wah Luck House apartment building on 6th Street gather together and leave the city to find fresh ingredients for their traditional dishes.

To prepare for one recent trip, residents of the Wah Luck House’s Adult Day Care Center ate a light breakfast followed by a bit of chair exercises and singing.

Then a few dozen hopped on a charter bus headed to The Great Wall grocery store in Falls Church, Virginia.

“I am very happy to do the grocery shopping together with everybody, just really happy,” Qin Xiao Hu told WTOP through an interpreter.

The seniors, some as old as 90, sang Chinese folk songs on their journey and finalized their shopping lists.

Qin Xiao Hu said she was going to pick out fresh fish to steam later that night.

Many who went on the trip said they wished a grocery store was a little closer calling the trip inconvenient because it could only be done once a month. Many depend on their adult children to take them at other times to Asian grocery stores.

Still, the smiles and chatter showed those minor inconveniences did not dampen their spirits during their shopping day.

The few dozen seniors wearing matching fleece vests with the “Wah Luck Adult Day Care Center” stitched on the left chest scoured the produce section for fresh ginger, Chinese cabbage and a spiky fruit native to Thailand called a durian.

Lang Anh Kha explained how to pick a fresh one. “First you need to smell it. Pick ones and smell it, and if it smells very strongly, that’s good.”

She also explained, through an interpreter, that the sharper and bigger the spikes the better.

More stories about AAPI heritage in the DC area

Many were shopping for ingredients for a popular dish at this time of year called zongzi.

It is a rice dumpling often filled with pork, Chinese sausage, peanuts, eggs and dried shrimp and wrapped with bamboo leaves.

Rita Lee, director of the Wah Luck Adult Day Care Center, said this dish often corresponds with Dragon Boat Festivals, which occur on June 10.

Rui Yan Li, whose grocery cart was packed with ingredients, told WTOP that she was planning to make 35 zongzi.

“I’m going to share with my friends and also with some seniors who live in the Wah Luck House, who live on their own,” Li said through an interpreter.

“Our Chinese culture is conservative. We are very traditional, but the beautiful part is our sharing,” Lee said.

Lee has been organizing monthly trips for these seniors to get out of the neighborhood but also grocery shop.

“They go to the nearest supermarket to buy fresh produce that the Asian community likes — such as radish and Chinese cabbage — and there’s not a lot of options,” Lee said.

Lee has been the director at the adult day care center since its inception in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. At that time, most of the 90 seniors the center sees on a daily basis were locked in their apartments in the Wah Luck House with very little human interaction.

Now they regularly eat breakfast and lunch together, exercise, practice tai chi, play bingo, paint, practice calligraphy, sing Chinese folk songs and welcome performers, such as the Chinese opera.

“They have some social life,” Lee said. “Even before the pandemic, those seniors just go to church once a month, or once a week and they didn’t have many activities, but we do now.”

Now Lee said the biggest complaint they get from the seniors is that the day care center is closed Saturday and Sunday.

After everyone went through the checkout line at the Great Wall and packed their groceries onto the bus, the group then headed to the Blue Pearl Chinese buffet in Springfield, Virginia.

When asked what the buffet’s best dish is, SIU Mon Tam told WTOP to make sure to get the fried fish and rice noodles.


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Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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