They shouldn't have surprised me, but they did.
Less than five feet away was an elderly gentleman, probably about 65 or so, dressed in a brown cardigan and donning a black beret, driving a convertible. And he was Asian.
Then less than thirty minutes later, I saw another peculiar thing. As I was strolling through Golden Gate Park, I saw an elderly Asian couple, also in their 60s, leisurely riding their bicycles. And they were not delivering Chinese food.
I had come out to San Francisco for a week to look for my new apartment. I was moving here to flee the neurotic monkeys that I saw in the faces of overworked New Yorkers, to escape my parents' ridiculous expectation that I live with them until I married into a new household, to find myself in my own space, outside of the strictures that had been imposed on me. Two weeks earlier, I had announced to my parents that I was moving to San Francisco. Somehow, their confused brains heard San Francisco as Newark.
"What, you're moving to Newark?"
"No, Dad, I said San Francisco."
"Why would you move to Newark?"
"No, Dad, not NEW ARK. San Francisco.... SAN FRAN CIS CO."
Then it dawned on them that I was escaping to the other end of this country. Had I been a lesbian, the conversation may have been easier. Well, maybe... At least, they could have latched onto a more coherent reason for the move. I had none to offer, at least none that I could tell them, besides the simple truth that I wanted to, which probably sounded incredibly indulgent and needless to them. But why not indulge myself? Wasn't it about time?
I had never been to San Francisco before. After my announcement to my parents, I scheduled my trip to San Francisco. A week later, here I was, taking my first good look at what would become my new city, my new home.
I had expected to find the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, the tie-dyed hippies left over from the 70s, and the fancy restaurants glorifying California produce. What I had not expected to find were Asians like these. You know, ones who seemed so unlike the Asians I saw in New York, Houston, Chicago, Washington DC, all the cities I lived in before I found myself in San Francisco.
Before this day, I had never seen an elderly Asian man behind the wheel of a convertible. I had seen them behind the wheels of taxis as they asked me if I needed any change back after I gave them a $20 for a $12 ride. I had seen them next to their fruit carts filled with bananas, apples, pears, strawberries as they goaded me to get one more apple for just one more dollar. I had seen them maneuvering those huge steering wheels on Queens buses as they sneered and ignored requests for transfers. I had seen them behind church pulpits, arms raised, invoking the power of Jesus.
As incredible as it sounds, for the first 28 years of my life, I had never seen elderly Asian Americans bicycling for recreation. I had seen them ringing up cash registers behind deli counters, waiting in line at the Korean grocery in Flushing, working behind stoves in Chinese restaurants, or picking up empty soda cans from trash cans in the streets.
Now, after nine years of San Francisco living, it seems unbelievable that those sights should have been so unusual. These sights now seem as banal as Asian police officers walking the beat, Asian gay couples walking hand in hand, Asian judges and Asian politicians campaigning for office, elderly Asians speaking flawless English.
Until I moved here, I wasn’t even aware that I had bought into those images. You know, those images that sneak in somehow and lock your brain into imagining US presidents and CEOs as tall white men and school teachers as perky little ladies with brown bobs. And I had somehow relegated Asians to ghettos, small businesses, and churches.
And it makes me wonder how many people can imagine an African American president. No matter that he’s half African and half white. No matter that he is a Harvard law grad and a former editor of The Harvard Law Review. No matter that we’ve had the likes of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice fill our tv screens in the past decade, not to mention 24.
If the election were decided by people like the person I was nine years ago, would we have voted on the issues or our failure of imagination?