I’d always thought that Chinatown was in San Francisco and Koreatown was in Los Angeles. Somehow when you get to be my age it’s easy to get stuck in a time-warp, thinking that things are the way they always used to be. And then you go shopping at an expensive furniture store and hear the well-to-do customers speaking Spanish, and then….

It was some years ago. I had joined some international students at a volunteer activity in City Heights, and the one who had invited me was asking a lot of questions. She was new in the U.S. and, having momentarily broken free of the other Chinese students who monopolized her social life, she was curious about how Americans lived.

She told me about her interests in art (the other Chinese were mostly majoring in accounting or marketing or business administration) and she asked me to tell her about my first love, and then she asked me if I used Facebook.

“What’s that?” I replied.

She laughed. “You don’t know what Facebooks is?!” she asked incredulously.

“It has come up on Google searches, but I never paid any attention to it.”

“You can add me!” she said with a smile, and she became my first Facebook friend. Ironically, Facebook was soon blocked in mainland China.

Later, I promised to drive her to a supermarket that she’d told me about. I’d been to a Japanese market near Convoy Street, but, living quite a distance from central San Diego, had never heard of any big Chinese market.

Since she didn’t have a car yet, she was unfamiliar with the streets and so naturally we got lost, cruising north and south on Convoy looking for the place to turn. I thought it must have been Balboa, but she disagreed. Finally I overcame my male pride and went into a liquor store to ask for directions: apparently it was on Clairemont Mesa Blvd.

Finally, we found it: the Ranch 99 Market, the place with the most un-Chinese-sounding name, the place where cilantro is better-known as Chinese parsley, and monosodium glutamate is Chinese salt, and cabbage is bok choy. And the student cooked a delicious dinner in my kitchen because her homestay family had forbidden her from cooking due to the smell of her Chinese food.

A couple years later I was starting to get to know the area better. Still unaware of the existence of the big Korean supermarket (the Zion Market), I accompanied some new Korean friends to the smaller First Korean Market on Convoy after being introduced to a dish called bibimbap at Korea House across the street.

At the market, at the urging of a Korean, I bought kimbap (rice and other ingredients wrapped in a seaweed roll) and Peperos (stick-shaped cookies like the Japanese Pocky), which are so popular that they have their own holiday in South Korea. Eventually, Convoy Street and Asian culture became part of my everyday life in San Diego.

I come from a world where the immigrant families spoke Italian, Polish and Yiddish. Now I find myself in a world of Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Chinese (among others) and yes, they look, talk and act completely differently from each other. At the university where I was teaching, I had my students conduct field studies investigating the linguistic and cultural behaviors of immigrant groups.

We discovered that many Mexican-Americans want their children to be thoroughly bilingual and bicultural, that many Vietnamese parents forbid the use of English in the home, and that many Philippine families prefer to use English, which is now widely used in their home country (when my mother was in their country, many decades ago, the common language was Spanish).

In higher education, especially at the UC campuses and Ivy League universities, everyone knows that the relentless work ethic of the Chinese and Korean parents and students has created an air of discrimination against both the non-perfect white students and the Asian students themselves (because too many of them get perfect test scores and grades).

In one English grammar class I taught to international students, I got a distressed phone call from the office, where, on the other line, they had an irate Chinese father inquiring about the A-minus that his overachieving 17-year-old daughter had received -- from me, naturally—on a midterm progress report in a non-credit university prep class.

Apparently, his daughter had never in her life received a non-perfect grade, and this was jeopardizing her entire future life. I explained to the office that part of my grade was based on participation, and that this student was rather quiet in class; I don’t know how they broke that to the irate Chinese father (by the way, he had made it clear that he was irate at ME, not at his perfect daughter).

Wikipedia’s article on “Demographics of Asian-Americans” goes into details about the ethnic imbalance at the best institutions. It seems that it is the dream of every Chinese parent for their only child to attend Harvard – it doesn’t matter that Harvard isn’t the highest-ranking American university, it’s the name and international reputation that counts – and I have been told by Korean students that it’s rude to ask them what university they went to in Korea.

In fact, if I ask, they invariably say “You’ve never heard of it,” for it is somewhat of a disgrace and blight on their future careers not to have attended the number one university in the country, Seoul National. Many Korean and Chinese students have told me that they hated their major, and yet they persevere – the Chinese because their parents told them they had to major in it, the Koreans because it’s their best chance of getting a decent job at Samsung, as if it were an embarrassment to accept a job at LG or SK or Hyundai (many young Korean men say that their dream is to become the CEO of Samsung).

So here is a stereotype that probably no one will deny: many East Asians (including, I think, a fair number of Asian-Americans) see life as an economic endeavor. They study and work, and somewhere along the line, hope to have a little time left over for travel and enjoyment and getting married and having kids to carry on the tradition.

In their middle and high school years, they do nothing but study day and night, including the time spent at specialized cram schools and after-school academies where they spend their “spare” time. Chinese high school students are absolutely forbidden from having boyfriends and girlfriends – not that they would have much time for it.

They fall asleep in class from sheer exhaustion (and this is by necessity tolerated by their teachers). Everything they do is geared toward that one decisive moment in their lives: the university placement exam. It makes or breaks their lives.

Because study takes the place of other life experiences, there is often a childlike quality to many of the East Asian students, especially the overprotected only-child Chinese. In China, men are not permitted to marry before the age of 22 (20 for women), and even at that age, for many of them “relationships” are the stuff of fantasy and pop songs.

Surprisingly, then, Chinese girls/women say they should be married by the age of 25. It seems like a short window of opportunity, but in fact many of them say that a “boyfriend” is a “fiancé” – a future husband. There is little time wasted courting multiple candidates, let alone trying them out in the bedroom western-style, which is unheard-of except, possibly, among some members of the newest generations in the big cities, and even then it is probably rare by western standards.

The influx of Asians into American cities is changing our lives. It is making our educational system much more competitive, and is probably making our society a bit more conservative in some ways. A teenage girl I know – ok, it’s my daughter, but don’t tell her I wrote this about her– has Japanese girl role models.

Now I happen to teach a group of 57 Japanese “girls” from a university in Japan. They are all 20 years old, and are forbidden, while in the U.S., from having boyfriends or even leaving their homes without a homestay-parent chaperone.

Many of them feel like prisoners in the homes they’re staying at, but I am told that, at the insistence of the parents back in Japan, their university must have such strict rules to protect the girls from the outside world.

They are to be protected like children. In their generation – and I hear this from all sorts of people, not just imprisoned Japanese maidens in distress – they are to be referred to as “girls” and not as “women” or “ladies.” “Woman,” to many people nowadays, means “married” or “somewhat older” (i.e. considerably older than 20 or maybe even 25). This seems like quite a reversal for those of us who grew up with feminism.

Another change I’ve seen is the willingness on the part of white “Americans” (the kind you see on tv if not the real city streets) to try out those foreign cultures in certain circumscribed ways. Sure you can get Korean BBQ on Convoy Street, but who would have guessed… descending from the San Bernardino Mountains into the desolate high desert country, on a road with no other businesses for 20 miles except for a general store, a big sign greets you: Korean BBQ.

Yes, a restaurant, like so many hundreds of others in our big cities and small towns, owned by Koreans, serving Korean and Japanese cuisine, and not at bargain prices. In Southern California, you can find Koreans and Chinese just about everywhere. Since so many Koreans fled Koreatown in Los Angeles after the riots of 1992, our suburbs are becoming a little bit Asian, too.

And the Chinese already live primarily in the suburbs east of East LA, where the Chicanos used to be the “minority.” Of course Mexican-Americans aren’t much of a minority any more. In Koreatown, many of the business signs are in Spanish, and between there and downtown, almost everything is in Spanish.

It’s ironic that San Diego, being so close to the border, doesn’t have much to compare with it except for Logan Barrio southward into gentrified Chula Vista. There really aren’t many places in San Diego where you can buy a genuine paleta like the ones they sell in Tijuana that are made from just frozen fruit (fruit is still a treat for Mexican kids, which I think is a pretty good thing; here even our “healthy” food has sugar added).

Hola…. annyeonghaseyo… ni hao…. chao (Spanish? Vietnamese?)… America is changing once again. Our news and other tv programming hasn’t caught up with reality yet, just as I hadn’t caught on until that Chinese student showed me the Asian neighborhood.

Once a sensitive student came to my office to tell me how furious he was that a tv show had filmed an unrealistic scene in MacArthur Park full of white, English-speaking extras. And I was told of a Chinese student who, the first time he got pulled over by the highway patrol, jumped out spread-eagled against the car waiting to be frisked, a criminal in a land where people routinely go around carrying guns and shooting at one another. Or so he thought, based on what he’d seen on the television.

Our politicians speak to white Americans, only occasionally saying a few words in Spanish to ensure us that they are inclusive (G.W. Bush somewhat successfully courted the “Latino/Hispanic” vote, then once in office declared that the singing of the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish should be banned – I put the words “Latino/Hispanic” in quotation marks because they deny the fact that most “Mexicans” are mostly Native American, and not Spanish or Latin or European).

Just as the cowboy movie heroes of days gone by, with their Spanish-influenced vocabulary (“hombre, rodeo, lasso, buckaroo”) and thoroughly Spanish-Mexican way of life (ranching), have become a mythological part of our past, just as Father Knows Best seems kinda quaint to us now, so will our self-image change even as it lags far behind the reality.

If you drive down El Cajon Boulevard or Convoy Street, you will see that even San Diego, land of the Beach Boys and Pete Wilson, is not what it used to be, and never will be again.


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Ruth Newell Feb. 21, 2012 @ 8:37 p.m.

Very interesting, Vito. So where was it that you grew up?


vito Feb. 21, 2012 @ 9:58 p.m.

I grew up in New York, but I've been in the SD area for many years. Thanks for your comment! :)


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