I’ve lived in Asian neighborhoods for most of my adult life.
Shortly after college, I moved to mainland China for a variety of reasons – one big reason being that my privileged childhood took me to many countries, but comparatively little in Asia. I ended up in a “small” town in Hunan Province, three hours by train outside of Guilin, and my first six months had its challenges. I taught English to hundreds of noisy high school students, and my apartment was no more than 30 paces from my students’ classrooms.
The city where I lived, Yongzhou, almost never saw foreigners – eager students would often drop by unannounced with photographers to take pictures with us. I learned to wear a hoodie when I went to the grocery store. And without speaking Mandarin, I relied more and more on a community around me to protect me and take me to where I needed to go. Often times it meant getting on the backs of motorcycles without ever knowing if I was understood.
For the next six months in Shanghai, I lived a much more cosmopolitan life and thought about how to get back into journalism. I had submitted my first freelance stories for a newspaper I met in Hunan, the Guangzhou Morning Post, and then met the deadline for taking the GRE for American journalism programs. I was looking for more permanent writing jobs in China and came across a career portal on the University of Hong Kong website. So I applied, took an entrance exam and did an interview. The then founder of the Journalism Center and dean, Ying Chan, came to Shanghai to speak to the program’s finalists. It felt more like a sales pitch – a good one, mind you – but I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My mom called not long after I got in to say that she and my dad supported me and encouraged me to go, so I did.
I think Hong Kong is an extremely diverse city and I could have picked a place surrounded by Europeans and Americans to live. But even then, some classmates and I found a neighborhood that was relatively cheap and close to the school. Sai Ying Pun was very Chinese populated and also on a steep hill – I often got to and from public transport by riding up and down escalators at local fish markets. I liked the neighborhood so much that after graduation I stayed, found a one bedroom apartment near the top of the hill, and commuted downtown to work.
I love Hong Kong and called it a home away from home for a long time until I realized I couldn’t afford to go back. I miss it and I also miss train travel to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Harbin and Beijing. This life offered such extreme differences in experience and culture that I often took for granted and found it difficult to get used to. In the end, however, a part of me missed my home too much and I returned abroad after three years.
A family friend offered me a room in San Francisco. She lived on the 18th and Noriega, and immediately felt at home in a Chinese dessert shop one block away. I moved a couple of times over the next year, first down the street to 35th Avenue, then over to the “middle” sunset near 18th and to Lincoln, where I’ve lived in the same apartment for the past 10 years. I get my hair cut at Salon de Hong Kong (2100 Irving St.), and my favorite sandwiches in The City come from an Asian-owned Uncle Benny’s Donut and Bagel. (2049 Irving St.)
I mentioned my trip to my hairdresser the other day and after living in sunset for 28 years she said to me, “I don’t feel like I’m living in America.” I feel the same way for many days, I told her, but also that in view of the pandemic I had thought about moving elsewhere and because rents were finally beginning to fall. Even so, it was hard to consider going anywhere I would be so comfortable, I said. “Maybe you are at home here,” she told me. And it is.
Westerners are often intrigued and surprised by my trip to San Francisco – it’s not every day that a Northern California suburban bumpkin moves halfway around the world just because. Most of the time, however, the comment is rather incredulous: “Wow, China, how was that?” followed by a stream of racially unpleasant comments about the alleged lack of manners or hygiene of the Chinese. These are broad comments that many people have wholehearted belief in a country that they have often never visited and that may not have close Asian friends.
China in particular is almost weird to me because people routinely just beat it up – let’s not crush the words. Some friends mimic Chinese accents while others talk about how cheap they are, and for at least a few years, if not more, there has been this strange attack on Chinese and overseas made products for not being made locally or by are high quality. I say “weird” because a lot of people around me know what Foxconn is and that their phones and other devices come from a factory in Shenzhen. Likewise, almost everyone I know has an Amazon Prime account. I realize that the other word is “hypocritical”.
I could go on, and it’s hard to avoid at least mentioning the gay community and their persistent so-called “likes” that exclude some minorities – and Asian men in particular – when they date and meet. I could write 10,000 words on so many subjects that have just been said, but suffice it to say on the subject: I think preferences are real. I also think that if you express them, you can skip the race and think about what made you want to have these preferences in the first place.
Stop Asian Hate is a movement we’re talking about because six Asian women were shot dead in an Atlanta spa. Circumstances are grim, discouraging and unfortunately not surprising in a country where our last president started the fire by referring to COVID as the “China virus,” which encouraged me to blame Wuhan for the entire global pandemic .
The women killed came from different areas, not just China. I am writing about this country specifically because it was my personal experience. In “Stop Asian Hate”, however, I focused on the word “hate” rather than “violence”. The movement sparked in me those long-lasting bitter feelings that I have felt towards so many people around me who are supposedly progressive but who carry these racial prejudices as if it were common and okay. Is not it.
If you are reading this column for the first time today, I am supposed to be writing about local cocktails and nightlife. I’m sorry – but only a little – that I took such a sharp turn into troubled territory. Hope you have reached out to Asian friends with kindness recently, and if you don’t have one, do one today. Support your Asian companies. Remember how you treat others.
I’m ending today with a Chinese Mai Tai that I first experienced many years ago at the Li Po Cocktail Lounge (916 Grant Ave.). They are now closed, so I found this recipe in an archived story from 2012 that the San Francisco Examiner made for their famous cocktail. You better think I’ll write a new profile of them as soon as they’re open again.
The Li Po Cocktail Lounge serves a Chinese Mai Tai. (Beth LaBerge / SF Examiner File Photo)
Bar info: Li Po Cocktail Lounge, 916 Grant Ave., SF, (415) 982-0072
Chinese Mai Tai
Prepared by Daniel Choi
Note: I’ve seen variations of this particular recipe on Reddit, and it could have been updated since we released it almost 10 years ago.
1 scoop of crushed ice
1 ounce Castillo light rum
1 ounce Whalers dark rum
1 ounce Bacardi 151
1 ounce Baijiu (Chinese liqueur distilled from sorghum)
2 ounces pineapple juice
Instructions: Pulse all ingredients in a blender for five seconds. Serve in a tall cocktail glass. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer, and apparel designer. Visit him at saulsugarman.com. He is a guest columnist and his opinion is not necessarily that of the reviewer.
Food and wine
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