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Everyday Ethnography


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Everyday Ethnography

  1. 1. Sunny Mui<br />Albiniak<br />Spch 150<br />May 7, 2007<br />Everyday Ethnography: The Chinatown Trip<br />We were going to Chinatown. Perfect weather too, the kind that’s rare in San Francisco. Girls break out their short skirts, spaghetti straps, their yellow flower print summer dresses and guys can grab their canvas board shorts from the back of their closet, hanging on that one plastic hanger that hasn’t moved since last summer. And for once, no jackets, no sweatshirts, no coats, umbrellas, boots, or anything more than a single T-Shirt was needed. Really, it was the perfect day to go out.<br />I borrowed my roommate Stan’s notepad to take notes. We picked up our friend Mike while driving up Holloway. I had just met him—he was a short Filipino guy who always carried around a turtle in his back pocket. People have their affectations. Stan was driving, which was rare because usually he has to leave his car at home during the week. Don’t need a car when you live right next to campus. Mike was navigating in the back seat, and I sat shotgun with the notepad. <br />It was just us three in Stan’s blue Rav-4, a small car in the big city. We had to navigate our way over to Chinatown, where I was going to observe. Mike gave the directions to Stan, but San Francisco streets are like a labyrinth. It’s easy to mess up and get on the wrong street. Stan had to ask Mike to look back on the map, and fulfilling his role as a navigator for the group, get us to where we needed to be. More than once we were lost, and more than once we found our way back. Of course we knew where we were going. Of course.<br />We were going down Market, with the window down, hot air from outside breezing past and carrying away the thick stagnant air out of our car. I watched strangers and friends--workers, homeless, shoppers, tourists, old and young--walking on the burnt cement and asphalt. My vision bent and broke like watching a riverbed, as I looked far ahead. We heard siren sounds looming bigger and bigger until they were only a few cars in front of us. It was a red fire truck, but I couldn’t see what was happening where it was parked. Traffic was stopped, all brake lights and no greens. Another siren came from behind and pulled up next to us, this one attached to a black and white car. <br />The young cop took one last sip of his Jamba Juice, thrusted it into his cup holder, and rushed out the door to cross the street. He ran behind a stopped Muni bus. After the bus pulled away, we saw a large crowd of people standing around on the sidewalk while the young cop was handcuffing a young girl. Two other officers stood behind him. The crowd watched as the girl was cuffed, kneeling, with a blue head scarf covering her hair and eyes on the ground. Another man, who seemed to have a relationship with the girl, was standing in the street. He blocked a Muni bus from passing as he yelled over at the girl. He yelled words I could not understand, but with a tone I could easily interpret. He was angry; he seemed to be mad at the girl. He paid no attention to the bus waiting to pass; he was focused on his drama, his tragedy. The crowd still watched, silent. Others on the sidewalk kept their pace; they were used to scenes like this. Or, perhaps, they too were focused on their own dramas. However the scene played out, I don’t know. We drove on.<br />Inside the red boxy fire truck was a middle aged man, losing his hair, with a leg propped off to the side of his stretcher and the other leg resting on it. He didn’t seem to be in any serious condition, he was sitting up in his stretcher while talking calmly to the two paramedics outside the truck. Another moment and we were past the chokepoint. We drove on.<br />At Montgomery and Broadway, I looked over and saw sitting in his small economy car, a guy with a forest sprouting from his arms. I pointed it out to Stan and Mike. <br />“Oh shit! Damn that is hairy!”<br />We started laughing, stupidly, simply from the sight the hairy armed man. No jokes told; it was just the sight of that exposed arm which was hilarious, for some odd reason. Sometimes, it’s what is seen, rather than said, that can trigger action. And sometimes, it’s when you pull up to a stop light and the guy in the car next to you has the arms of a monkey, that’s when you have to stop and laugh. It’s just ridiculous, one of those small little ridiculous moments sprinkled in life. And then I reflected that the next time at the stop light, it could be me who is getting laughed at by a car full of random strangers.<br />After a long stretch of ‘no left turn’ streets, we finally reached the outskirts of Chinatown. It’s easy to tell when you pass into Chinatown, one thing is that the percentage of Asians on the street climbs to nearly 100%. Wrinkled and arthritic bent-over Chinese ladies walked past open storefronts that had their oranges, apples, Korean pears, and other produce displayed to the public, handwritten signs in black marker on the backs of discarded cardboard boxes with marked prices and 2 for 1 specials. White haired men strolled about, alone or with their wives, some with walking canes and some telling the notable stories of the day. Every store was brightly colored with yellows, greens, reds, and blue vinyl signs. Everywhere you could see Chinese characters, side by side with English names. <br />We had to find some parking so we continued our drive. We passed Columbus and Pacific where there was a corner café. People were sitting in twos and threes around circular wood tables. They were chatting in the afternoon sun and sipping coffee; just out for some leisurely relaxation, conversation, and people watching. There was one couple who were very distinctly different from the others. It was obvious from their body language. Instead of sitting leaned back against the stone wall and watching the street, they were leaned forward across the table looking directly at each other. They faced each other and murmured contentedly; it wasn’t hard to see them smiling into each other’s face. They probably would have never noticed me watching them, but it was easy for me to notice them. It’s just a matter of what you’re trying to look for.<br />We finally found some parking near Kearny, on the edge of Chinatown. We watched as a girl got into her blue Mini-Cooper so we stopped to wait for her to leave. We pulled up behind her and put on our right turn signal to tell the cars behind us we were going to park there. We waited. And waited. That girl sure was taking her time. We moved up next to her car to see what was taking so long. She was bent over the seat next to her, apparently rummaging through her purse. She looked up, saw us, and gave us a hand signal. She put up a lone index finger on her left hand and mouthed to us ‘one minute’ so we moved back behind her car. It’s almost always visual communication when you drive. She pulled out and we parked in the spot.<br />The concrete steps were a dark gray, weathered, with splotches of lighter grays. Dark spots signified places where chewing gum had been ground to become part of the concrete itself; reds and pinks were still fresh. I walked up the short steps with Stan and Mike leading. This was the park in Chinatown Stan had told me about. His grandpa always came here to gamble and he had brought Stan once. There were groups of old Chinese folks throughout that looked like grandmothers and grandfathers. The park itself was mostly concrete. There were elevated regions of dirt planted with trees and red Chinese styled arches rose at the top of the park, forming a sort of roof that gave shade. Cement stairs leading up were sprinkled throughout. A brightly colored painted metal playground was in the corner with children running all over, chasing, chattering, and squealing. Pigeons walked about, residents of the park themselves, plainly unafraid of people and prowling for food. A black gate blocked access to a bridge that led to the Chinese Cultural Center. Faded yellow Chinese symbols, nearly white from sunlight and the years, hung in the wall above metal doors. <br />There were several circles of old Chinese men talking in excited tones, a flush of Chinese dialects: Mandarin and Cantonese. I couldn’t really understand them; my Cantonese is really poor and Mandarin is impossible to understand to me. Even though it’s Chinese, it’s like a different language. You just have to imagine China as being like Europe with different provinces instead of countries. China is huge and it’s not like everyone is the same. Each region has their own way of speaking, with some similarities, just like European countries having similarities between their languages. Anyway, in the center of the circles was where all the gambling action was taking place. I walked by and saw one group playing Chinese chess. They had a paper marked as a board with wood pieces engraved with Chinese characters. The loudest and the biggest group were near the back of the park. They were giving yells of excitement, throwing down playing cards, laughing, and posing in triumph. Money was exchanged, put down, taken, but always moving. It was a group of middle aged men, but at the moment they were like a bunch of kids. I wasn’t able to tell what card game they were playing, though I saw many card hands in 4’s and 5’s lying on the floor. They looked to be grouped by color. It seemed to be what they had come to that park for. They had come for fun, for competition, for relaxation, for excitement in dull adult lives. It was back to their boyhood to those same Summer days of the neighborhood boys hitting cats-eyes or trading sports cards. <br />Not to say the girls were left out. Looking about 20 feet away, there was a group of old ladies gathered on one side of the concrete islands planted with a tree. They, too, were in a circle. However, some of them had brought folding chairs which they had set up and sat upon. Others just sat on the raised concrete side of the square. The rest squatted near the action of the Thirteen card game. It was unusual to see a bunch of old ladies so animated, sweating and laughing. One of them seemed to be winning and was slamming down her cards cockily, with an air of victory in her smile. They spoke in Chinese, not like the usual old person’s Chinese, but like a group of Chinese school girls, babbling, gossiping, and laughing. The winning one reminded me of a card player decades younger than she was. Maybe they were waiting for their husbands. Maybe they had just gone there to spin their stories to each other and bond, like sisters. <br />Other people were scattered about on the benches and walking about. An old tanned man with taut wrinkled skin, shining golden, was sitting on a bench with his eyes closed. A black book with gilded edges lay next to him. He wore a red jacket and sat, resting, solitary. Another man with long hair and balding skull was sitting on a bench reading a Chinese newspaper. A redwood cane was leaned against the seat of a bench, next to a guy sitting and watching the sun pass in the sky. There was a Chinese family resting on the side of a concrete block with the shade of a tree keeping them cool from the afternoon star high above. It was only two ladies with their child and a stroller. They watched the passerbys walking. Old and young, but mostly old, walked pleasantly through the warm park while carrying their plastic shopping bags. We sat to rest as well, in that concrete oasis.<br />After a relaxing for a while, we left.<br />At one of the stores, The Empress of China, a lady was sitting at a jewelry counter. She was staring into a mirror with a brush in one hand, putting on her mask, her face for the day. <br />On the corner of an intersection near the park, Grant and Washington Ave., there was a group of tourists. They stuck out obviously, their clothing yelling out their identity, khaki shorts, tank tops and the brightly colored designs of Hawaiian shirts. Yes, I am aware how stereotypical and clichéd that is. But it actually happens in real life, otherwise there would be no basis for the cliché, now would there? <br />One of them, with a fishing hat on, had his camcorder out and was panning across the scene of bustling Chinatown. The rest were looking about, amazed, at the culture surrounding them. They stared and pointed at the red paper lanterns, the cheap Asian goods on display in front of every shop, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants, and of course the 99 to 1 ratio of Asian to Caucasian around them. They were all Caucasians. The strangest thing was that a single black haired Chinese woman wearing a red and green lined bell shaped straw hat was standing in the middle of the group. She was waiting to cross the street in their midst, but her appearance spoke a completely different identity. The caricature of a white walking man appeared in the signal box across the intersection. They followed suit and crossed.<br />After walking back to the car and driving along the edge of Chinatown for about 3 minutes, we encountered something interesting. A furious African-American woman with a hat who looked to be in her 30’s was yelling loudly up the street, “Ching Chang Chong Yo Mama!” She stomped off angrily, with red-veined bleary eyes. I didn’t understand. ‘Ching Chang Chong’ didn’t even sound like Chinese. Or did it? I am Chinese, after all.<br />But it didn’t matter to me. We drove on.<br />