On a cable car over Nob Hill the other day, I overheard a blonde, middle-aged tourist whisper this confidence to her companion: "It sure ain't Texas, I can tell you that much."
"No kidding," mumbled the burly man in a Hawaiian shirt as he continued filming the city with his camcorder.
The Texan couple's sense of displacement stems, at least in part, from San Francisco's unmistakable Oriental twang. For the tourist's camcorder is sure to capture, amid the city's Victorians and scenic hills, images that confirm San Francisco's central place in the Pacific Century: Young Asian students spilling out of grammar schools, video stores displaying the latest Hong Kong thrillers, karaoke bars and sidewalk stalls filled with long beans, bok choys, ginger and bitter melons.
San Francisco is now part of a statewide trend that has resulted in majority becoming minority, with minority continuing to surge and multiply. The latest Census showed that whites have slowly shrunk to 41% of the population in San Francisco, becoming another minority in a city that has no majority. The city's Asian population, on the other hand, has risen above the 30% mark.
That is, one in three San Francisco residents has an Asian face.
And within a few years, according to demographers, Asians will become San Francisco's largest ethnic group, surpassing whites and joining Honolulu as the only major U.S. cities with an Asian majority.
But what does it mean when the city's compass is pointing increasingly toward the Pacific?
For one thing, there is an enormous shift in the cultural landscape. What were once considered private and esoteric passions and practices have, like the bok choys and string beans, spilled irrevocably into the public domain.
Take feng shui. A friend of mine, an architect, went to Hong Kong recently to take feng shui lessons. Why? Since many of his clients believe in this art of geomancy, he has to seriously study the chi, the flow of cosmic energy as perceived by Taoist priests, in order to build suburban houses that suit many of his buyers.
Or take yoga. Yoga studios are enjoying the highest attendance ever, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will gladly admit that I am an enthusiast. Every few days or so, I go to sweat and stretch with a diverse group of young practitioners. While the instructor tells us to "find your inner peace" and "breathe, breathe, breathe," a picture of a smiling yogi from India smiles benevolently at us from above.
And I breathe in, breathe out.
But I am also thinking: How things have changed.
A Vietnamese refugee to San Francisco a quarter of a century ago, I grew up thinking that incense smoke and gongs and Confucian dramas were the private preoccupations of an Asian immigrant. For a while, I resigned myself to the idea that public and private cultures in America would never meet. But that old assumption has eroded, giving way to the forces of globalization, which, as far as the San Francisco Bay Area is concerned, involves, in large part, the rising influence of the Far East.
After all, three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi--raw tuna and salmon and ginger and wasabi--would become an indelible part of American taste? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found down Aisle 3 at Safeway? Or that HMOs would accept acupuncture as legitimate therapy? Or that feng shui would become a household word?
But perhaps the biggest result in the changing demography is this: An Asian teenager growing up in San Francisco these days does not see himself as a minority in any sense of the word. If anything, he sees himself playing a central role. Since Asians already outnumber whites among the school-age population, the football star and homecoming queen of his high school are likely to be Asians. He knows, in fact, that the West is increasingly relying on the Far East for its sources of inspiration and entertainment, be it Thai food, Tibetan Buddhism or Hong Kong movies.
Besides, one of the biggest museums here is the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park. It's among the largest such museums in the Western world, with more than 11,000 artifacts from more than a dozen Asian countries. Two daily newspapers here are in Chinese. And the Examiner, a newspaper once owned by William Randolph Hearst Jr., is now owned by an Asian family named Fang.
A closer look at the Asian population in America will reveal that almost three out of four are immigrants. And while previous generations of Asian immigrants may have felt pressure to assimilate, shaving the accent from their tongues, hiding their grandparents' joss sticks, the reverse seems true with the latest newcomers. For the new Asian immigrants are not just bringing their ambitions to America, they are also carrying their civilizations as well.
And they come at a time when being ethnic is chic, and movement and communications back and forth across the Pacific Ocean are the norm. That and Asia itself has in the last three decades begun to shrug off the weight of colonialism, and its inferiority complex to the West, and assert its cultural identity on a global stage.
An Asian immigrant to the Bay Area does not feel pressure to give up his cultural heritage but takes pride in keeping it. By sheer dint of living, he challenges the status quo and changes the Californian landscape.
The writer Richard Rodriguez once observed that each new wave of immigrants brings changes as radical as Christopher Columbus did to the Indians. This seems quite true if you take into account what I saw one Sunday in Golden Gate Park: a group of middle-aged white and black Americans doing Tai Chi on the grass, led by an old Chinese woman. Watching them, it occurred to me that the Far East has come very near San Francisco and is beginning to subvert the age-old black-white dialogue about identity and race, infusing it with an even more complex model, one informed by a transpacific sensibility.