Ode to the Bay: My Life as a Vietnamese Immigrant in California
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.
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 there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area. 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 cling-clanging 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 to 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.
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 the 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 38, 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 three of Safeway? Or that salsa would replace ketchup as the most-consumed sauce?
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. Being Asian I can't help but notice, of course, the region's undeniable Asian flare. It's, therefore, 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.
But here, too, 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 one another, 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.
This 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, Lonny Shavelson and Fred Setterberg, authors of the upcoming book of photos and essays Under Dragon, remind us, nearly a quarter of students polled in 2004 identified themselves as "multi-racial or multi-ethnic."
But 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? Shavelson and Setterberg 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 or essay is therefore enough to capture the enormous complexity of the Bay Area.
After all, here is where, for the first time in human history, all of the world's traditions and ideas are available at close proximity, and with the information of the world compressed and compiled and available at the click of a mouse. Here an individual's life can be expansiveness in its richness as never seen before, if he is open to change.
To live in the Bay area fully is to learn to see the world with its many dimensions simultaneously, and where others hear a cacophony, the new resident of cosmopolitan reality discerns a new symphony. It entails the ability to overcome paralysis of the many conflicting ideas by finding and inventing new connections between them. It entails fundamental respect others' histories. Above all, one needs the spirit of adventure and curiosity, and the willingness to hear and embrace others' stories, and to recognize in them that of his own.
One more California moment: Sitting next to me on a jumbo jet plane coming back from the Tokyo, an old woman in her '90s gives in to nostalgia: the orchards she knew as a little girl come flooding back as she peers down the silicon valley below. She remembers the scent of peach blossoms, a verdant valley, a slow rhythm of life. But oh, how everything changes so quickly.
She is otherwise a kindred soul, an avid traveler. "Have you been away long?" she asks.
"A month," I say, "not too long, but long enough. I can't wait to come home."
We are almost on the ground. On the speakers, the stewardess tells us in English, Mandarin then Japanese to fasten our seat-belts and adjust our seats for the landing. Out the window, beneath our wings, I see the rolling hills of San Francisco, the spanning bridges, glassy high-rises. Nostalgia rises in me. But then I feel the gentle touch of her wizened hand alighting my own. "Well," she says, providing a longstanding local wisdom, "tell you what -- it's a new world every time."
Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media. He is also the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," which just won the Pen American 'Beyond the Margins' Award in 2006. His book of essays, where the above essay is excerpted, "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," was nominated as one of the top 10 indies by Shelf Unbound Magazine in 2010. His book of short stories, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in March 2013.