What everyone’s been saying for a while about the Bay Area, the 2010 Census has confirmed. The East is acquiring greater weight in the life of the region because the Asian American population is surging. Politically and culturally, the result is something of a rumbling mid-Richter scale earthquake.
The Asian population in many Bay Area cities has more than doubled since 2000, from 15 to 36 percent in San Ramon and 10 to 27 percent in Dublin, for example. Elsewhere Asians have become the majority. Cupertino, where whites dominated 10 years ago, has a new majority: 63 percent of the city is now Asian.
The same story is unfolding in Fremont where Asians finally reached 51 percent of all residents. In San Francisco, Asians are the fastest growing population by far, already making up 33 percent and only nine points behind whites.
Asians are increasingly organizing into formidable voting blocs. Asian mayors are even becoming the norm. Daly city has a Filipino American mayor. San Francisco, Oakland and two smaller cities, Campbell and Cupertino, all have Chinese American mayors. In San Jose, a Vietnamese American woman, once a boat person, is now vice mayor.
Enormous Cultural Shift
Besides transforming Bay Area politics, the enormous cultural shift in recent decades has made the region a cosmopolitan metropolis with a notable Asian flair.
“You know your cultural heritage is a major success when someone else is selling it back to you,” a friend of mine quipped after I noted the irony that Steven Spielberg produced Kung Fu Panda, which became one of the all-time box-office hits in China.
People here seem to be turning more Asian. All my yoga instructors are non-Asians, and the majority are whites, but as I practice, I listen to their instructions on cultivating will power and inner peace. I observe Sanskrit and Chinese tattoos etched on their alabaster skins and wonder how far we’ve come. On the Food Network, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes are commonly prepared and taught by white chefs.
At Whole Foods supermarket the other day I stood behind a young white man who was toting a bottle of fish sauce. I asked, “What are you making with that?” I couldn’t stop grinning at his answer: “Catfish in claypot.” My paternal grandmother made that dish three decades ago after we emigrated as refugees from Vietnam. Our Irish neighbors complained about a “toxic smell” and called the police. Mortified, we apologized and kept our windows closed whenever Grandma had an urge to prepare some of her favorite Vietnamese recipes.
But if I once felt ashamed of my parents’ singsong accents, my grandmother’s strong-scented cooking, or my own Vietnamese memories, I see them now as regional colors, if not assets.
In my lifetime here, I have witnessed the pressure to move toward some generic, standardized melting-pot center deflate and become something quite the opposite. The demographic shift is toward a society in which there’s no discernible majority, no dominant cultural power.
Children of the Non-Minority
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.
Evidence of Asianization is piling up. Take feng shui. An architect friend of mine spent a few years in Hong Kong to take feng shui lessons. So many of his clients believe in this art of geomancy that he had to seriously study the chi, or the flow of energy as perceived in Taoism, in order to build suburban houses for them.
I once attended a lecture in Berkeley by one of the world’s most prominent monks, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The venerable Vietnamese monk has become a major influence in the development of western Buddhism. His teachings and practice appeal to people of various religious and spiritual backgrounds. He attracts adherents around the globe, having written nearly 100 books on mindfulness and meditation and “engaged Buddhism” or social activism. A multi-ethnic crowd tiptoed at the entrance of a jam-packed community center, straining to listen.
In the media, six newspapers now vie for the Bay Area’s Chinese readership alone. Ming Pao, World Journal, Sing Tao, Epoch Times, China Press and China Times all have offices here, and their combined readership in the Bay Area surpasses that of the largest major English language paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.
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 became known in Asia as Old Gold Mountain, a gateway to fabulous riches and fortunes.
My Mother’s Garden of Change
The world has rushed in here since then, bringing in layers upon layers of complexity. Tastes, architectures, religions, animals, plants, stories, music and languages piled in making the Bay Area postmodern in many ways, even when the rest of the globe was still struggling to enter the modern era.
When I think of how immigrants always transform their new home even as they themselves change, I’m reminded of my mother’s little garden in Milpitas, north of San Francisco.
For our first few years in America, my family and I were terribly homesick. At dinnertime, my mother would say, “Guavas back home are ripe this time of year, back at our farm.” Or someone would say, “I miss mangosteen so much,” and we would shake our heads and sigh.
But then a friend, newly arrived in America, gave my mother some seeds and plants. Soon, Mother’s small backyard garden was redolent of lemongrass, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander and small red chilies. Our hunger for home was satiated; home was growing, slowly but surely, on American soil.
Now, imagine my mother’s garden spreading over a large swath of California’s farmland. Southeast Asian farmers are growing large varieties of vegetables in the Central Valley, in the furrows of last century’s Japanese and South Asian farmers, and trucking them to markets all over the state.
Hmong, Filipino, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, Laotian and South Asian farmers sell everything from live chickens and seafood to Thai eggplants and edible amaranth. In these farmers’ markets you’ll find hyacinth beans and hairy gourds, oriental squash and winter melons, Buddha fingers, even sugarcane.
I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of immigrant nostalgia. On visit to a local farmers’ market one sunny-day, I found fragrances and sounds so oddly familiar that, closing my eyes, I could feel myself back in my hometown, on the verdant, fog-filled plateau of Dalat, Vietnam. Our deep longing for the old home recreates it in the new landscape.
As the Asian population surges and rises, it subverts the age-old, black-white parameters of identity and race, infusing it with am even more complex model, one flavored by a trans-Pacific sensibility.
The other day on the bus, I eavesdropped on three teenagers, one white, one black and one Asian. They were talking about their favorite animes, comparing the merits of Naruto versus Bleach. Somehow the subject of reincarnation came up. There ensued a lively debate, two believers against one: The one who didn’t believe was Asian.
New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of Eat Eats West (Heyday Books, 2011), his new collection of 21 essays.