I quickly scan the pavement in a zigzag pattern so I don’t miss anything. The chilly air combined with my intense concentration make a steady stream of tears drip down my face. I must look like I’m having a meltdown. People brush past me, and I imagine they see a tired, hungover girl wandering the streets. It is a Sunday morning in Berkeley, though, so that’s probably typical.
Craning my neck towards the ground gives me a really spectacular view of my cold ashy feet in Birkenstocks. Whoever advertised California as a warm place did a shoddy job because it’s absolutely frigid. Back home in Maryland, it’s already verging on sweltering. Just fresh from Ecuador, I spent five hot days there, and somehow got the DMV to give me a horizontal license that lets everyone know I was truly 21.
I retrace my steps from last night’s misadventures one last time, then give up looking for my license. Somehow, for five months, I had managed to keep my passport from getting lost or stolen. But the first time I go out in the States, I lose my ID. Ay Díos Laura.
Berkeley students flank me on both sides as I make my way towards the BART stop downtown. Snatches of conversations float around me, “… cool show in the Mission…” and, “Thai Noodle 2 for dinner?” Clusters of Cal-Bear wearing kids in Rainbows mix amicably with casual olive utility jacket hipsters and red-lipped, blunt-banged women standing self-assuredly on the platform.
I make my way towards the middle of the platform next to some other Asian American women. After five months where at 5 feet 7 inches I towered over most of the population, I am relieved to blend in. Taking the trolebús in Quito was like preparing for war: I had to be constantly vigilant of my surroundings. I’m not too worried about BART: I’m armed with 3G and Google maps now.
The doors open for the train, and I hop on and plunk down into a seat. The plan is to get off at Powell St. I scroll through my phone. After skipping through 20 songs, I come across “La Pregunta” by J Alvarez. Patricio, my Ecuadorean host brother, hates reggaeton, but I don’t mind the thumping bass and explicit language. But because I don’t want to be the asshole glued to her phone, I look up, accidentally making eye contact with a man sitting across from me. One second, two seconds, too long.
I quickly look down and I can feel my pulse quicken. Being in South America for so long trained me to not make eye contact with anyone, especially men. Shit. I flash my eyes up and he’s engrossed in his phone. Tranquilate. Making eye contact won’t kill you. Burying my head into my scarf, I slide down lower into my seat until only my eyes and the gold hoop in my nose are visible.
Fruit Ninja or Word Scramble? Definitely Fruit Ninja. My fingers are a blur on the screen, slicing through fat green sandías and lemons and maybe my own internal panic? No maracuyás or guanabanas in this game. Damn, I accidentally hit a bomb. The annoying message pops up on the screen asking if I want to play again. Using Fruit Ninja as a therapy tool seems like a new low; I resist. Instead, I ask: “Siri, how far is it to Chinatown?”
“Calculating. It is 0.8 miles. 17 minutes.”
Nine blocks. I can walk nine blocks.
At first, back on the street, it’s warm walking through the Financial District, but as I make my way north I regret wearing my Birks and ripped jeans. The cold air swirls around the rips, and goose bumps cover my knees. The overcast sky and coolness are too familiar, like the Andes I left a few days ago. But the air here is damper, probably because I’m on the coast and not in the mountains.
Cars speed by me, a little too close, but there’s a safety rail to guard me against getting side swiped. My body is taut and tense. Families pass by me, dads in soft sneakers and kids clutching new toys. As a young woman walking down the street alone, I’m reminded of my host’s mother’s warnings about the streets of Quito—speak to no one and walk with purpose. But do I need to be so wary here? Who’s heard of tourists in San Francisco getting mugged? I rack my brain, but I can’t think of anyone.
As I get nearer to the heart of Chinatown, I begin to panic that aside from the few days spent at home I haven’t thought or spoken in Chinese for almost half a year. “Yut, yi, sam, se, mm, lok. . .” Counting the steps through the tunnel helps a little.
When I emerge I face a monstrous hill. As I struggle up and curse chuta to myself, I laugh. What the hell, I can do this. I was winded every day in Quito from refusing to take taxis anywhere and that was 10,000 feet above sea level.
After I clear the hill, the streets of Chinatown gently slope up and down in front of me, at least for a few blocks. The storefronts here look a little empty, a bit desolate through the glass windows, but as I walk into the heart of the community, I see flashes of red, green, and gold. As I go further, the streets are fairly packed, probably with people doing afternoon grocery shopping. Peppering the sea of black hair are a few mops of blonde and light brown bobbing like buoys, slightly higher than the rest of the crowd. They seem a little out of place but not completely unexpected. .
Little mom & pop stores line the streets on both sides. Every few shops are familiar little bakeries that if I walked into would tempt me with fragrant egg tarts with caramelized tops, yellow shelled pineapple custard buns, and soft cake rolls barely containing the sweet cream wrapped up in them. In the windows of some of the restaurants are trays of steaming Chinese food. The familiar smells of barbecued pork and roast duck hanging in the windows waft enticingly into the air outside, reeling in willing customers. I can imagine the heaping bowls of jook my mom spoons out, with char siu and green onions to flavor the white rice porridge.
One of the convenience stores I step into is stuffed to the brim with cold drinks, teas, and sodas imported from China and Japan, all childhood staples for me. A row of refrigerators in the back showcases the brightly colored packaging. Shelves of snacks threaten to spill onto the floor: shiny plastic encasing milky rabbit candies, sweet and salty rice cakes, and sanrio themed gummies. At the counter a middle-aged woman asks a regular about his daughter’s kindergarten class. She hands him the newspaper casually. “Ting yut geen,” she calls out knowing that they’ll repeat the ritual again tomorrow.
Walking out of the shop, I can hear Cantonese punctuating the air; it’s spilling out onto the street from these small shops clustered on the sides. It’s crisscrossing and reverberating back and forth—it’s not a language easily hushed. Plastered on the top of each storefront are large Chinese characters, some of which I can identify and remember from my three years of study at school, but most are lost to me.
My body falls into a familiar rhythm, mindlessly walking along seeing an Auntie (Yi-Yi) here or an Uncle (Sook-Sook) there.
Old ladies and men in green aprons are unpacking fruit and vegetables outside a grocery shop. They have white and silver hair though some of it is still black. They have wrinkly walnut faces and strong tan arms from a lifetime of working service jobs. I can’t even skirt one storefront without stepping into the street. Dodging some young tweens on scooters, I pass through the throng of moms with strollers and old folks milling around the bok choy.
My stomach gurgles. I had left my friend’s apartment in a hurry after scarfing down a bowl of granola. The idea of char siu baos entices me, and I cross the street into a bakery. A bell rings, as the door swings open announcing my arrival.
It’s tiny and lit with florescent lights. A glass counter walls me off from the two Chinese ladies behind it. Across from me are mountains of buns sitting on metal trays, just waiting for a hungry customer to whisk them away. One of the ladies turns to me and asks what I would like to order, in English.
My face scrunches up quizzically. Do I look like I don’t speak Cantonese? I look down at what I’m wearing. Birkenstock sandals. Ripped jeans. Denim shirt. Wool cardigan from Perú. Scarf. Leather backpack I bought in Ecuador.
Glancing next to me, are some White folks with Ray-Bans perched jauntily on their heads. They are scrolling through their iPhones, maybe for translations of the foods they are going to order or maybe to just look busy as they wait. I imagine they are San Franciscans, or maybe they’re tourists looking for an authentic experience. Have you ever eaten this food before? Does the taste of Chinese barbecued pork and onions bring you back to dinner tables during childhood?
That burning choking sensation begins building in my throat. I don’t want to make any mistakes in Cantonese. All my languages are piled on top of each other in my brain, but English is the only one that never fails me. I search for Cantonese, but it’s not home and Spanish is answering in its stead. Lo que hay dentro de ellos? I push further and slowly the words come back. My eyes are looking searchingly into hers, and it feels like 10 minutes, but it’s only been one.
I ask: “Yi di bao yao mut yeh yut been?” She perks up a little and gives me a detailed answer about what’s inside those buns by the window and these buns in front of us. One’s chicken; the other pork. I ask for one of each. $2.40.
I carefully take them from her and on my way out I turn my head slightly and say “M’goy.” She responds, “Joy geen.” The door swings behind me. In English “bye” is too final, too abrupt, but in Cantonese we say “joy geen” because we know we will see each other again. Crossing the street with bun in hand, I carefully take a bite and savor the flavors inside.
Laura Li is currently living in Curitiba, Brazil and working as a Fulbright Scholar teaching English at Universidade Federal do Paraná. When not describing phrasal verbs to her students, she spends her time banging on drums with her Taiko group and exploring as much of Brazil as she can!
Photo by Kim Broomhall