New California Moments
New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Photos by Lonny Shavelson Posted: Sep 23, 2007
My first California moment: I am twelve years old. I do not yet speak English, only Vietnamese and French. Fresh from the Pendleton refugee camp, I am quickly enrolled in an ESL class in summer school in Colma, south of San Francisco. On our second day we all learn to parrot this phrase: I am from…Thus, shyly, in various accents, the world introduces itself…
For the summer I am wedged between Mexico and Taiwan. Taiwan is timid and bookish, but boisterous Mexico, whose name is Juan, and I immediately bond. Communicating with our hands, facial gestures, and a few shared words, we manage to joke and banter. “I am from Mexico,” Juan keeps whispering in various cadences, as if trying out a new song, until I fall into a fit of giggles. Mrs. H., our teacher, who is beautiful and blond, and married to a black man from Africa (she shows us pictures of her wedding the first day), makes us sit outside of the classroom for disrupting the class.
And here’s the moment: a redhead stops by as Juan continues his antics outside. “I’m from here,” she says, and then she shakes our hands as if we had just landed on the tarmac. “Welcome to America,” she says. She then gives us each a stick of cinnamon gum. Juan and I look at each other, and shrug. I pop the gum in my mouth and chew. Spicy. Sweet.
Three decades later I can finally say what I intuited at that piquant instant: to live in the Bay Area, where I am now from, is to live at the crossroads of a global society. It’s many a tourist’s mistake to define the place materially, and it is true that the things it is known for—arching bridges and grand ports and famed high-tech companies—evoke, in many ways, what often transpires here: the ability to span distances and transgress borders.
A magnificent terrain, certainly, and full of golden promises, but so much more: a place where human restlessness and fabulous alchemical commingling are becoming increasingly the norm. The entire world comes to the Bay Area, and the Bay Area, in return, assimilates the world. The Central Pacific Railroad ended here, but more than a century and half later, the majority of the construction of that far-reaching new undertaking, the information highway—Yahoo, Google, IBM, eBay, Sun Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Craigslist, Apple, Pixar, Netscape, Intel, Oracle, and a myriad of others—while centered here, is everywhere, virtually.
Gertrude Stein once observed about Oakland, where she spent her childhood, that “there’s no there there.” But having grown up here and traveled the world, I’d like to add this corollary: nowhere is as both here and there as the Bay Area.
Go to the San Francisco Airport on any given day and you’ll see what I mean. A world in motion, in flux: the number of people who pass through those gates at SFO each year exceeds the entire population of the Golden State. At last count, Census 2000, there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area, and 80 in the thirty-square-mile city of Richmond, population one hundred thousand. On warm summer afternoons, Nob Hill, where I live, turns into the modern Tower of Babel. The languages of the world—Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Vietnamese, and many more I do not recognize—waft in through my open windows, accompanied by the cable cars’ merry clingclanging bells.
These days Shanghai, Bombay, Cairo, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the likes are much closer to the Bay Area than we ever thought possible. There’s a transnational revolution taking place, one right beneath our noses. The teenage girl in Marin County is flirting in the chat room with the teenage boy in Islamabad.
The Chinese businessman in Silicon Valley is talking to his grandmother in Guangdong on his cell, while answering e-mails from his business partners in London and Rio de Janeiro. And when a woman at a cocktail party told me casually that she was bicoastal, she did not mean the tired New York–San Francisco trajectory. She summers in San Francisco but winters in Shanghai.
Tomorrow’s classics are today’s bold experiments: tofu burrito, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa dipping sauce, lamb in tamarind sauce, lychee martini, wasabi bloody mary.
Or try on this scene, another California moment: in their high-ceilinged SoMa flat, two friends of mine are conversing with the world. An Austrian H1B Silicon Valley computer wiz chats with his parents in Vienna on his webcam; his Singaporean boyfriend, who is holding his hand, is gossiping in mixed Mandarin and English on his cell phone with his sister in Melbourne. On TV, which neither one is watching at the moment, characters from their favorite Japanese anime are fighting a bloody battle in some futuristic metropolis.
California’s diversity is, of course, nothing new. Multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual—even if differences were not historically celebrated, all these delineations were part of the Golden State from the get-go. Latin and Anglo America came to an epic collision, and California was the result.
Long before Webster acknowledged the word, globalization had already swept over the Bay Area. Gold made the state famous around the world, and the world rushed in and greeted itself, perhaps for the first time. Since then layers upon layers of complexity—tastes, architecture, religions, animals, plants, stories, music, languages—have been piled onto the place, making it in many ways postmodern even before the rest of the world struggled to enter the modern era.Before I came to San Francisco I too knew it, as most East Asians knew it, as Old Gold Mountain, with the Golden Gate as entrance to a wondrous America. Living on that mountain now, I too have seen my share of the gold rush made new by microchips and startup companies. “Try to imagine,” a Vietnamese American entrepreneur friend of mine, once a refugee, tells me, “a new wave of Indians and Chinese and Vietnamese software programmers building the information highway, and you have the repeat of when poor Chinese laborers were building the railroad.” Except for this: he retired at thirty-eight, having sold his startup company, and now manages his portfolio and collects art.
Diversity may not be new, but it has certainly been intensified by the degree of interactions, and by the rate of change we are all experiencing due to the forces of globalization. And new too is the way our society has gone from being overtly xenophobic—many Chinese railroad workers were murdered when they finished building the railroad—to celebratory about our differences. While racism will always lurk in many a resenting heart, and fear of the other will always be part of the human condition, cultures that were once considered proprietary have spilled irrevocably into the mainstream, mixing with one another, transforming the landscape. Think about it: three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi—raw fish—would become an indelible part of California cuisine? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found down Aisle 3 of Safeway? Or that salsa would be replacing ketchup as the most-consumed sauce?
The San Francisco Chronicle the other day had this article on its front page: “America’s mean cuisine: more like it hot—from junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” We slowly give up blandness to savor the pungent lemongrass in our soup, feel that tangy burn of red curry on the tongue.
Tomorrow’s classics are today’s bold experiments: tofu burrito, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa dipping sauce, lamb in tamarind sauce, lychee martini, wasabi bloody mary. In my lifetime here I have watched the pressure to move toward some generic, standardized melting-potted center deflate—transpose, in fact—to something quite its opposite, as the demography shifts toward a society in which there’s no discernible majority, no clear single center. I notice, of course, the region’s undeniable Asian flare. So it’s not surprising that Kevin, otherwise of Germanic ancestry, is so impressed by the Orient. Or rather, the Orient has for a while now impressed itself upon him. In a Thai restaurant the other day, he scowled at the French tourist’s struggle with her chopsticks over a bowl of shrimp noodle at the next table—a single chopstick in each well-manicured hand as if she were about to knit. “I have to say, that f**king offends me! It’s just so un–San Franciscan.”
Which made me laugh. Something about Kevin’s unabashed insistence that chopstick etiquette should be essential to Bay Area living makes it at once honest and somehow radical. Which is to also say, if I once felt ashamed of my parents’ singsong accents or my mother’s strong-scented cooking, or my own Vietnamese memories, I see them now as a norm, as regional colors, if not assets. Ethnic is chic in a metropolis that grows increasingly horizontal, where ethnic festivals and parades are celebrated publicly with everyone else participating and cheering, and in my mind’s eye, they crisscross and stretch into one another, amalgamating toward a hopeful future shimmering at the horizon.
Or put it this way: the Bay area is a place where, as Under the Dragon authors Lonny Shavelson and Fred Setterberg note, “People come together, often inadvertently, to confound narrow expectations about race and culture.”
If I have the pleasure and fortune to write the foreword for this illuminating book, it’s because it polymorphously tells of my own American (or should I say Bay Arean?) biography. Part historical, part anthropological, Under the Dragon is over all a kind of tour guide to what the authors call “an unfamiliar country.” The photos and accompanying stories capture much of the dynamic of the new millennium in the Bay Area, where the experiment of pluralism is at full tilt.
From the book, one sees that something of the Old World has reconstituted itself in the new, and some traditions are seemingly preserved. Yet at closer look one also glimpses the enormous options and paradoxes at play. While Old World vehemence is still present in some New World settings—for instance, Vietnamese vets still wear South Vietnamese army uniforms thirty years after the war ended and mourn the loss of their homeland, and pro-Palestine and pro-Israel demonstrators are in a never-ending row—diversity has gone into hyperspace in a region where multiculturalism is already considered passé.This, after all, is the age of “hybridity,” as coined by G. Pascal Zachary, in which individuals claim multiple memberships. Children born from so much intermixing have coined new words to describe themselves—Blaxicans, Hindjews, Chirish, Afropinos, Caureans, Japoricans, Cambofricans, Chungarians, Zebras, and Rainbows—coinages that confound the standard categories offered by the U.S. Census. What to do indeed when the category of “Other” threatens to be as large as anything like “Black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian”? At UC Berkeley, the authors remind us, nearly a quarter of students polled in 2004 identified themselves as “multi-racial or multi-ethnic.”
But here is where extreme individualism cohabits with estranged communalism, often within the same block. Tightly knit tribes—Little Saigons, Chinatowns, Little Kabul—with their own in-language media and temples and churches, exist alongside Latino Muslims, black Buddhists, Mien teenagers speaking Ebonics. Cities meld into one another here, where neighborhoods overlap, and where every system—community, company, individual—is opened by various degrees and communicating with every other, constantly readjusting itself in many marvelous and surprising ways.
Under the Dragon therefore refutes easy framing. Take the sign that was on Oakland’s Sun Hop Fat #1 Supermarket, a few blocks south of Lake Merritt on East 12th Street, until it burned down in 2006.It said, “American-Mexican-Chinese-Vietnamese-Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Filipino-Oriental Food.” Is this a symbol of a multicultural mess? Or could we all enter the place proudly, pretending the sign was hanging high over the global village gate?
Many of the photos and stories in this book are of what I call California moments, events in which something astonishing and marvelous in the experiment of cohabitation in California is revealed.
Examples abound: an African devotee of Krishna praying to the sky; a Filipina playing the role of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi; Jesse Graham, the white preacher at the African American Mount Zion Baptist Church in West Berkeley, whose preaching moves spirits; and my favorite story, the Iranian psychotherapist who finds roots in America by attending to Cambodian refugees—a novel in the making.
Yet if the center does not hold, or rather, if we now live in a multi-centered reality, where not just society but individuals themselves have become diverse, with multiple affiliations and memberships, then what possible metaphor can capture it all?
The authors came up with one: under the flap of the dancing Chinese dragon at the Chinese New Year parade, Latinos and Russian immigrants and Samoans are found dancing along with the Chinese.
It is both an apt and poetic image of this new undiscovered country.
But be warned: the horizontal metropolis is not seeking equilibrium. And, like the undulating dragon, it seeks to create new patterns and points of connection in a world that is constantly changing.
No one book is therefore enough to capture the enormous complexity of our time.One should admire these photos and stories, and see them as snapshots of an unabridged epic still waiting to be told. One should also applaud the authors’ unwavering curiosity as they navigate the neighborhoods and streets and various communities of the Bay Area. See them, if you will, as postmodern Lewis and Clark, whose topography may yet lead us to the cosmopolitan frontier.
Andrew Lam's essay appears as a foreword to the book Under the Dragon written and photographed by Lonny Shavelson and Fred Setterberg and published by Heyday Books. Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora"
Listen to Lonny Shavelson and Fred Setterberg on UpFront discussing Under the Dragon
Andrew Lam's articles
Page 1 of 1