Welcome to San Francisco, the Asian City by the Bay
"No kidding," mumbled the burly man in a Hawaiian shirt as he continued filming the city with his camcorder.
The Texan couple's sense of displacement stems, at least in part, from San Francisco's unmistakable Oriental twang. For the tourist's camcorder is sure to capture, amid the city's Victorians and scenic hills, images that confirm San Francisco's central place in the Pacific Century: Young Asian students spilling out of grammar schools, video stores displaying the latest Hong Kong and Korean dramas, karaoke bars and sidewalk stalls filled with string beans, bokchoy, ginger and bitter melons.
San Francisco is now part of a statewide trend that has resulted in majority becoming minority, with minority continuing to surge and multiply. The latest census showed that whites have slowly shrunk to 48 percent of the population in San Francisco, becoming another minority in a city that has no majority. The city's Asian population, on the other hand, has risen above the 33 percent mark. That is, one in three San Francisco residents has an Asian face. For the population under 18, the number for Asian closer to 40 percent.
Politically and culturally, the result is something of a rumbling mid-Richter scale earthquake.
So much so that the current San Francisco Magazine has an unflattering picture of Rose Pak, a political activist with strong advocacy for Chinatown, on its cover, smoking a cigar. The headline: Who Runs San Francisco?
Within a couple decades, according to demographers, Asians will become San Francisco's largest ethnic group, surpassing whites and joining Honolulu as a major city with an Asian majority.
But what does it mean when the city's compass is pointing increasingly toward the Pacific? For one thing, the new mayor, Ed Lee, is Chinese American mayor and speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. His parents came to the United States in the '30s from Toishan, Guangdong Province in the 1930s. Of the 11 supervisors, four are Asians.
Along with Ed Lee's rising political fortunes, there is an enormous shift in the cultural landscape. What were once considered private and esoteric passions and practices have, like the bok choy and string beans, spilled irrevocably into the public domain.
The number one overbooked restaurant on Opentable Slanted Door, for instance, is owned by Charles Phan, a Vietnamese Chinese chef whose latest book, Vietnamese Home Cooking, allows Vietnamese food to be part of any American home.
Of course, the Bay Area has always had a touch of Asia. When Gold made San Francisco famous around the world in the mid-1800s, it enters East Asians' imagination as Old Gold Mountain, a gateway to fabulous riches and fortunes.
Take Feng Shui. An architect friend went to Hong Kong recently to take Fengshui lessons. Why? Since many of his clients believe in this art of geomancy, he has to seriously study the Chi, the flow of energy as perceived by Taoist priests, in order to build suburban houses that suit many of his buyers.
Or take yoga. Yoga seem to be more popular than ever, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will gladly admit that I am an enthusiast. Every few days or so, I go to sweat and stretch with a diverse group of young practitioners. While the instructor tells us to "find your inner peace" and "breathe, breathe, breathe," a picture of a smiling yogi from India smiles benevolently at us from above.
And I breathe in, breathe out. But I am also thinking: How things have changed. Arriving as a Vietnamese refugee to San Francisco a quarter of a century ago, I grew up thinking that incense smoke, gongs and Confucian dramas were the private preoccupations of an Asian immigrant. For a while, I resigned myself to the idea that public and private cultures in America would never meet. But that old assumption has eroded, giving way to the forces of globalization, which, as far as the San Francisco Bay Area is concerned, involves, in large part, the rising influence of the Far East.
After all, three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi, raw tuna, salmon, ginger and wasabi would become an indelible part of American taste? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found down aisle three at Safeway? Or that HMOs would accept acupuncture as legitimate therapy? Or that Fengshui would become a household word?
But perhaps the biggest result in the changes in San Francisco is this: Asian children growing up in the Bay Area these days do not see themselves as a minority. If anything, they see themselves playing a central role. After all, it is quite normal to see Asian homecoming queens and football stars. They are growing up at a time when being ethnic is chic and movement and communication back and forth across the Pacific Ocean are the norm. Asian students know, in fact, that the West is increasingly relying on the Far East for its sources of inspiration and entertainment, be it Thai food, Tibetan Buddhism or Japanese anime.
Writer Richard Rodriguez once observed that each new wave of immigrants brings changes as radical as Christopher Columbus did to the Indians. This seems quite true if you take into account what I saw one Sunday in Golden Gate Park: a group of middle-aged, white and black Americans doing Tai Chi on the grass, led by an old Chinese woman. Watching them, it occurred to me that the Far East has come very near to the Wild West, and is beginning to subvert the age old black-white dialogue about identity and race, infusing it with even more complex model -- one informed by a trans-Pacific sensibility.
New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of Eat Eats West (Heyday Books, 2011), and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora which won a Pen American award in 2006. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in March 2013.