Archive for the 'California' Category

“You Don’t Have To Like It But…”: A West Oakland Story About Vietnamese Culture

Still waiting for someone to explain this one

When I moved to Hanoi, there was this refrain I kept hearing the long-term expats say: “You don’t have to like Vietnamese culture, but you have to respect it.”

Which makes sense, you know; you don’t have to be a historian to know that these are the folks who beat the Chinese, beat the French, beat the Americans. It’s not a touchy-feely, graceful, charming culture; it may be abrasive and loud and pushy, but as they say, you’ve gotta respect it.

Well, I do like Vietnamese culture, at least so far, so it’s a two-for for me. But the longer I stay here, the more I realize that there’s some stuff I already knew about Vietnamese culture, if only in brief glimpses. Now I just have a larger context to put it in.

For example: there’s this story my mom used to tell that keeps rising up out of the fog of childhood memories as I’m walking around Hanoi. It’s one of the many my mom has from her years teaching kindergarten in West Oakland during the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, West Oakland is a kind of urban no-man’s-land, a place where “the rules of normal society don’t apply,” my mom always said. It was the kind of place where you’d see things you normally don’t see in the developed world—packs of stray dogs, unsupervised three-year-olds walking around, shootings in broad daylight, junkies lined up for their morning fix.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about West Oakland too, been working on this monster piece (that currently falls apart right at the climax) about the neighborhood, which I never lived in but had a consistent relationship with my whole 28 years living in Oakland. My dad worked in a fire station there; my brother worked at a swimming pool there; an old boyfriend lived in a notorious punk house there.

So there’s no shortage of stories, and seeing as though I don’t want to spoil what may eventually turn into a workable piece, I’ll keep them to myself for now. Except the one I keep thinking of, the one of a little Vietnamese girl in my mom’s kindergarten class.

In the 1980s Oakland’s working class neighborhoods were flooded with Southeast Asian refugees, from Laos and Cambodia (“We had a bring a translator in to tell the Cambodian boys they couldn’t piss on the playground”), but mostly from Vietnam. Oakland had always had tons of Chinese people, but these new Asians were a different breed; we didn’t really know much about them.

It’s a funny thing to grow up around immigrant communities, because you get these whiffs of a culture. It’s different, a culture in diaspora; everything is cut through the prism of the American immigrant experience, which skews things, makes them not-quite-actually-how-they-are. But you get these glimpses, these insights; you get a vague understanding of what people from Vietnam are like—“tough as shit” was the usual way we summed it up—and while these glimpses are incomplete and reductionist, they aren’t entirely inaccurate.

So. My mom’s in West Oakland, teaching to a population that’s the dictionary definition of At-Risk Youth: majority African-American, low-income, single-parents, high prevalence of drug use and criminal activity in the household. Now sprinkled with fresh-off-the-boat war refugees. #nottheshittheytrainyoufor

In those days the Oakland Public School curriculum had a heavy focus on African-American history and culture. Maybe it still does. I went to a different school in a different neighborhood, but it was still the same jam—teaching subject matter that related to the students’ lives. It wasn’t a bad idea and could have worked, if it’d been supplemented with other curriculum, like say science.

So my mom is teaching away—Follow the Drinking Gourd; Go Tell It On the Mountain; Honey I Love,; “The people walked walked walked / Till their feet were sore inside / Till their shoes split open wide / But still they would not ride”; “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / Wasn’t scared of nothing neither / Didn’t come into this world to be no slave / And wasn’t gonna stay one neither.” Every month was Black History Month, an attempt to counter the Euro-centric narrative that dominated most public school education. Except it wasn’t exactly inclusive; except it left out all the other kids in the classroom who were also of color.

So one day, towards the middle of the school year, when all those immigrant kids were starting to get conversant in English, a scrappy little Vietnamese girl looks up from her Montgomery bus coloring sheet or some shit and announces, “I’m tired of learning about black people.”

There was a dead silence in the room.

“You know,” my mom would say when she’d tell the story, laughing and shaking her head. “You kinda had to hand it to her. There wasn’t a scrap of grace or tact in there, and you knew her life wasn’t gonna be easy in Oakland—but you know, you had to respect the guts it took to say it.”

The longer I stay in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, the more this story seems to encapsulate a fuck of a lot about Vietnamese culture. It’s not soft. It’s not gentle. It’s not palms-pressed-and-bowing subservience. #fuckthatanyway

But you’ve gotta respect it.

Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

In Which I Listen to Modest Mouse and Get Nostalgic in a Hanoi Hotel Room

Sitting in my underpants, white sheets and AC, bag of lychee beside me and lychee fingers, sticky on the keyboard.

Pitchfork tweets something about Silver Jews. I click, I scan, I click on something else and I scan on something else.

See the ad in the sidebar. Ignore it, actually, flashing words and image of a sky outside a car window, like I’m in a car on an American highway, looking out of the window, riding. Finally succumb to the ADD-inspiring ad and read the words: “Pitchfork Classic: Lonesome Crowded West.”

“Lonesome Crowded West?! A ‘classic’?!” I scoff through through my mouthful of sweet goo, spit a seed into a plastic bag. “That was… oh shit, that was hella long ago.”

Click, load, let the video start to play. Montage of young boys on tour, wrestling, grinning, sweating under the lights on stage. Familiar sounds come blaring out of the speakers of my laptop; I turn it down, though fuck knows why since everyone else is this hotel is so damn loud. Hear the jangles and screams and distorted echoes of another place, another time, another era.

It hadn’t felt like that long ago.

*

North Oakland, 58th Street, the end of the last millennium. The first house friends of mine got together: ashtrays, 40 bottles, Goodwill couches. It wasn’t a proper punk house since there were only four people living it. Every punk house needs at least 1.5 residents per bedroom and it also needs a name. This house never had one; it was just “The 58th Street House.”

Sav, Jon, Sophie and Ben. Sav was a punk and so was Jon, though it was fading into a general Carhartt-wearing blue-collar tough. Sophie wasn’t a punk. Ben definitely wasn’t a punk.

So it was probably Ben that first brought the album to the house. It was that Northern, woodsy indie shit we generally didn’t like—too soft, too weepy, grow-a-pair-and-start-screaming. But he did scream was the thing, and I guess that’s what got us. Got me.

It was my first year at State and I was staying out there, over the bridge and through the BART tunnel, in that foggy patch of clapboard houses that disappear into the ocean, at the end of the continent. My first year in college, my first year sober, crazy as a motherfuck.

I’d take the train out on the weekends, those kinds of houseparties kids have when they first move out on their own: all-night, wrecked, music and smoke, backporch and basement and bodies on the floor. I didn’t drink—what the fuck did I do? Kick it and pretend. Feel less awkward than at the college parties, cause at least these were my breed. My people. My tribe.

And that album playing, over and over. Polar opposites don’t push away.

Sav and Jon singing along, late into the night.

*

They’re playing clips and flashing pictures, someone’s home movies of the band on tour. “A time when strip malls were coming, the paving of the West.” Do I remember that? Not really. I was in the city, we didn’t feel it as much, didn’t see the land changing under us.

“I guess you could say it was a prophetic album.”

They’re talking about the grunge era, old bands: Candlebox, Karp, Heavens to Betsy. I laugh; I hadn’t heard those names in a long time.

“It was a different time. Pre-internet, pre-youtube. You actually had to go to a store and buy a record.”

Is that not how we do it anymore? I wonder.

Holy shit, that’s not how we do it anymore.

*

There was this weird thing about the 58th St house—it attracted stray animals.

Like a lot. So much it got to be a joke. First it was a couple cats lurking around. Then someone knew someone who needed to offload an iguana. So an iguana cage showed up in the kitchen. Iggy the Iguana would come out and party with us, crawl around people’s backs.

Then there was a rabbit. It just showed up. Hopping down 58th St like it wasn’t a thing, like it was the goddamn Green Gables out there instead of North Oakland. Sophie was on the porch smoking and swooped the rabbit up. It chilled with them for a few weeks, then the owner showed up, some little kid asking.

A couple weeks later, they saw the same rabbit hoping down the street. They ignored it this time.

Then there was Mama cat. She wasn’t Mama cat when she first showed up, a skinny teenager howling at the top of her lungs. “God, go out and get laid already!” Jon yelled. She did. She got knocked up and plopped out four kittens. Sophie videotapped the birth. They’d watch it over and over, having it on during those houseparties, tiny kittens crawling around the floor and people trying not to step on them. “The Lonesome Crowded West” playing over and over. Smoke billowing, bottles clinking.

Soon a chain reaction.

Stray animals to stray souls, I said. Or maybe I just thought it.

*

They start going through each song on the album—the history behind it, explaining the lyrics, who wrote write part first. It’d be tedious if I wasn’t already invested, strung along by a whiff of nostalgia like the aftershave of an old boyfriend.

“They did it the old-fashioned way: you get in a van and you tour. You play shows. There was no Myspace, no Facebook, no youtube.”

I feel a little pang when they say that: “the old-fashioned way.” Is that an era that’s really gone? I still think of Pandora and youtube and iTunes as an accessory to going to shows, accessories to hearing some awesome touring band you’d never heard before, to the hat that would pass for gas money. Sure I’m away from it all now; sure I’m dependent entirely upon music blogs and PirateBay, but that’s just because I’m on the other side of the planet, right? That’s not really how it’s done now?

The laptop screen glows in the dim hotel room. I think of the hearing Le Tigre for the first time at a Santa Cruz co-op; I think of seeing Lost Sounds open at an East Oakland warehouse. I think taking the train out to see Modest Mouse at the Great American, Murder City Devils at Slim’s. I think of the last band I saw before I left the Bay; I’d found out about them on Pandora.

Did it really all change that much, when I wasn’t looking? Or worse, when I was looking but just couldn’t see it?

They keep flashing pictures of the band when the album came out. Their skin burns with youth, that flush of youth. They snap back to the recent interviews and their faces have dulled. Wrinkles and grey hairs in their beards. It feels like the first time I noticed wrinkles in my friends’ faces, the first time I noticed them in my own.

I’m enraptured by the younger shots, by the burning. Did we really ever have it? Did we really lose it?

I’ve said what I’ve said / and you know what I mean

I want to look. I want to check and see. But I can’t—the pictures from then aren’t in my iPhoto. They’re in crackling old albums in some box in a closet of my parents’ house, halfway around the world.

*

Iggy was the first to die. Sophie went out of town and someone didn’t feed him. Or someone left his heat lamp on or didn’t turn it on, I can’t remember. They buried his limp green body in the backyard.

One of the kittens died too. Someone sat on it; it was trapped beneath a couch cushion and they didn’t hear it crying. Another kitten got hit by a car but it survived. It had a wonky tail and it ran crooked, like its equilibrium were permanently off. “Brains,” they called it.

There was a fight in the kitchen one night, at one of the parties. That jack-ass Kevin tried to stab his girlfriend—threw her up against Iggy’s old cage and they had to pry the knife outta his hand.

Well, do you need a lot of what you’ve got to survive?

Whatever happened to Mama cat? She got old, I think, disaffected and uninterested. She wandered off one day. Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. I can’t be sure anymore.

*

I remember being shocked that Modest Mouse made it big.

It was eight years later. I was back living in Oakland—had I ever really left?—waiting tables and had just started dating this new guy. God knows why, we didn’t have much in common. It was a beautiful June day and he wanted to draw the shades and play Guitar Hero. Um, okay.

A song came on; it sounded oddly familiar, the sensibility to the screams. “Who is this?”

“Modest Mouse.”

“What the fuck happened to them?” I remember thinking. It was poppy, slick, overly produced. I hadn’t been listening to the radio, didn’t pay attention to much outside my little DIY bubble. I’d forgotten all about Modest Mouse. My friends had moved out of the 58th St house; North Oakland had gentrified. Ben had broken a heart and left town. Sav had gone up north, lost in doom metal and an abusive relationship. Jon had disappeared. I’d imported “The Lonesome Crowded West” into my iTunes, sold the CD and promptly forgotten about it.

“Are they, like, big?” I asked the dude.

He gave me a look. “You haven’t heard of them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not like this, I haven’t.”

*

“Here / There” signs in North Oakland

It’s not all bad—Ben and Sav moved back. Ben got married, had a baby. Sav got clean, still plays in bands. Sophie became a preschool teacher; she moved to Costa Rica a few months before I moved to Cambodia. I think one of the kittens survived; Meiko adopted it and it might still be alive.

The malls are soon to be ghost towns / Well, so long, farewell, goodbye

Jon never showed back up.

*

I end watching the whole damn thing, all 45 minutes. The heat of the laptop has made me sweat and the lychee stick on my fingers has dried. Miniscule ants scurry around the keyboard, disappear behind the glowing keys.

I click on my iTunes, bring up Modest Mouse. Yup, still there. I go to click on the album, then stop.

All the people you knew were the actors

I’m alone. I’m alone in a cheap hotel room, a long time away, on the other side of the planet. What’s the use?

I get up and brush my teeth instead.

SF in 55, From PP: 10 Thoughts

Workin hard

Yesterday I was sitting on the electric white cushions at Blue Pumpkin, eating a sundae and streaming full episodes of the Colbert Report (hey, gotta stay informed). While it was buffering and stalling and generally annoying me, I checked my FB feed and saw a link to this video: “1955 San Francisco Footage Shows City As It Once Was.”

I clicked on it. It was, for a Bay Area native, immediately captivating—an old-timey travel video, the narrator’s voice like something off a grainy old variety show. The camera’s strapped to the hood of a car, as it rolls through streets I knew, but suddenly didn’t know—that seem too wide, too clean, gleaming in a way that seemed too stereotypically California.

I watched all 20 minutes, headphones on, the riverside stretched out behind the glass windows—from the corner of my eye, even that looked too clean, too sunny, too picturesque, from two stories up and behind a wall of glass. Was San Francisco ever really as quaint as the 1955 video made it out to be? Was it a rouse, or is it something the city lost somewhere? Is it a little of both?

I wondered that, and other things. Such as:

1. How’d they get rid of all the fog? How’d they manage to film this on that one clear day? They must have been waiting weeks.

2. Where are all the homeless people at Civic Center? What ever happened to those flowers?—they look so cute.

3. Is it still that green? Is the sky really that blue? That’s changed, right? Or have I just forgotten already?

4. The buildings are shorter and whiter, lay on top of the land like powdery snow.

5. Fisherman’s Wharf when there were still fishermen there, boats docked behind the grottoes. That must have been really cool. Do tourists still expect to find it that way? Is that why so many people still go? Are they disappointed? Do they feel like something’s been lost? Like they’ve been cheated, and they’re not sure by who? Cause I do.

6. Playland by the Sea—like Santa Cruz, but in San Francisco. How cool would that have been? Why did they tear it down, again? Did it burn down, like the Sutro Baths? God, the Cliffhouse sucks now.

7. People in dresses and suit jackets and head scarves and hats—everyone so well-dressed. Was it really like that, or did they just pick the money shots? Was the city really that white, or did they just edit out everyone else?

8. Old cars: like a clean Cuba. The narrator keeps saying one of the best things to do in the city is “drive its many thoroughfares.” Was that really a highlight, or could they just not think of anything better? God, SF traffic sucks now.

9. A ride down Market Street, the Ferry Building at the end of the road. It stands out, doesn’t get dwarfed behind the skyscrapers and trash and clutter. Old marquees and shop signs and street cars—at least they’ve kept one thing.

10. Why have I still never ridden a cable car?

But at the end of it, I was sold: I wanted to leave Blue Pumpkin, leave Phnom Penh, hop in my time machine, strap myself to the hop of an old car like some kind of fucked-up, wind-tossed hood ornament, and cruise through a city I know, in time when I didn’t know it.

So I guess the ad worked.

The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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