I never really saw home until I left it. Home for me is the Bay Area. I was born in Oakland and grew up in San Leandro, a suburban city of about 90,000 people in between Oakland and Hayward on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. When people ask me where I’m from, however, I tend to just say the Bay Area/East Bay because, when you’re from the Bay, you can’t really claim that only one city raised you. (Unless you’re from San Francisco. San Franciscans love to brag about being San Franciscans.) My family was always moving around. We may have lived in San Leandro, but I was practically raised in Children’s Fairyland on the shores of Lake Merritt and in Knowland Park at the Oakland Zoo. My mom dragged my brother and me to her church in downtown Berkeley on Sundays and most special occasions were celebrated in San Francisco. There’s not much to do in San Leandro, so my weekends in high school were spent roaming Shattuck and Telegraph Ave, trying on overpriced second-hand clothes in vintage boutiques, wandering around College Ave and Rockridge, spending the babysitting money I’d earned on hot chocolates and books, and dressing up and taking BART to San Francisco to stage photo shoots and take MySpace selfies, long before the word “selfie” existed. I honestly don’t know how I would have survived high school without BART.
In the eyes of teenage me, the Bay Area was just…the Bay Area. San Leandro was certainly nothing special or worth bragging about. Like so many of my peers, I didn’t yet understand the privilege of growing up in such a culturally diverse and physically beautiful area and I took it for granted because I didn’t know any better.
When I was in high school, I was desperate to leave San Leandro. I rebelled against the loud rap music that pervaded the halls of my high school and opted instead for the for the softer sounds of Belle & Sebastian, Architecture in Helsinki, Mates of State, Arcade Fire, and Camera Obscura, among many other indie bands. With the exception of one friend at school, nobody around me listened to the same kind of music I did and it made me feel unique. I was never the type that blended in with everyone else, but I also didn’t try to mark my “difference” outwardly by, say, dying my hair purple. I’m not an attention seeker, so the ways in which I marked my individuality were more subtle.
I used to make my best friend have “dress days” with me at school. I would call her up the night before to ask her to wear a dress the next day so that I wouldn’t be the only one wearing one. I’m being completely serious. There was a time when literally NO ONE wore dresses to school. I was still young and naive enough to think that my classmates not only payed attention to what I wore but judged me for it. I actually kept track of my outfits each day of the week, God forbid I wear the same thing too soon thereafter. I eventually realized that all the time I spent worrying about what others were thinking about me was completely wasted because everyone was too busy worrying about themselves to be paying any attention to me.
When I was 17, I dreamt of moving to Boston and going to college on the East Coast. I dreamt of mature college boyfriends (LOL) who read the same books and listened to the same music as I. I ended up settling on Scripps College, one of the five Claremont Colleges east of Los Angeles, after my dad died the spring of my senior year. Moving across the country would have been too big of an upset to my already tempestuous emotional state. Going to school in Southern California was at least far away enough from home to make me feel like I was experiencing something new and it was close enough to fly or drive home for holidays. Scripps was a familiar name in my household–I received my first Scripps sweatshirt when I was 12–my mom’s partner, and now, wife went to Scripps (c/o ’66) and was an active member of the Board of Trustees and the Alumnae Association. Lori is the perfect example of a Scrippsie: strong, smart, independent, fearless, and bold. She is not someone afraid to speak her mind. I admired that. I was excited to attend a college where empowering women to be leaders is the founding mission.
The funny thing, is as soon as I got to college, my desire in “discovering” cool new indie bands reached a standstill. What had set me apart at San Leandro High made me just like everybody else at the Claremont Colleges. The majority of rich white kids that populated the consortium of five colleges were terribly pretentious when it came to music. I met people who liked the same alternative/indie music I did, but I learned pretty quickly never to reveal my favorite bands lest they begin fact-bombing or quizzing me about the history of the band or, better yet, “humbly” bragging about the times they had seen so-and-so perform live at Sasquatch, Bumbershoot AND Coachella in the same year. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating but I think you get my point.) I had no interest in partaking in competitive back-and-forth exchanges to validate my coolness. I know I’m cool. Whether or not you realize that is on you; I don’t seek your approval nor will I ever try to convince you to be my friend *flips hair.* Can’t I just like a song without caring about the artist’s life story?
Attending Scripps College was the first time in my life I was at a school where not only white people but RICH white people were the overwhelming majority of the student body. It was weird for me. I felt for the few minority students, including my two roommates from India and Japan, even if, at first glance, many of these WOC put me in the same box as these rich white girls from privileged white suburbs. I might be white, but San Leandro is definitely NOT a rich white suburb and I was never given entry to these cool white girl cliques. First of all, I wasn’t skinny or pretty enough to fit in, which is pretty much the first requirement of being a cool white girl. Some friend groups looked so similar I swear watching them was like seeing slightly different versions of the same person going about. It makes me think of Taylor Swift and her #SquadGoals. On social media, these cool girls constantly praised each other’s beauty with comments like, “You are a radiant sunshine goddess;” “PERFECT HUMAN BEING;” “omg i love uuu;” or, my favorite, “OBSESSED.” I guess I shouldn’t be so critical of women attempting to build each other up with bouts of external praise and validation, but weren’t we supposed to be learning at a women’s college that true validation can only be sought within? Why wasn’t anyone teaching us that our physical appearance and even intelligence are absolutely insignificant in comparison to how kind we are? I guess I was most annoyed by the fact that the only physical appearance being actively “built up” was that the cool white girls. It might not have bothered me so much if this kind of praise was being showered equally on us big girls and WOC at Scripps, who not only didn’t fit the “skinny white girl” mold, but didn’t want to. I digress…
In this new and unfamiliar environment, I returned to rap and hip hop because it was comforting. It was home. I didn’t realize how much I loved rap until I was surrounded by people who openly despised it for being demeaning to women. I won’t deny the objectification and misogyny that is pretty rampant in the genre, but to generalize an entire body of music is just ignorant.
I remember being called “hood” by friends I’d made at Scripps and my study abroad programs, all of whom were wowed by my effortless ability to memorize rap verses. I would just laugh and think to myself “DO YOU SEE ME IN THIS SUNDRESS?” I thought of how my high school classmates would roar in laughter if they heard someone calling me “hood” because at home you couldn’t get much whiter than me. I see now that there are people so cut off from contact with POC that a white person like me seems ethnic in comparison. This scares me.
You might be reading this and wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the above pictures. You’re not wrong for wondering. Bear with me, I’m getting there. I guess what my exceedingly long tangent is trying to get at is that, for me, the best part about having left home for 6 years–during which I spent three years in Southern California and three in Europe–was that I returned home in July 2015 with new eyes and a new appreciation of where I’m from. This transformation mostly occurred when I was living abroad, but it started in college, when I realized, like Dorothy, that I wasn’t in my urban version of Kansas anymore.
I don’t think it’s possible for people to truly “see” their culture until they immerse themselves in a foreign one. If you’re American, you don’t even necessarily have to leave the United States to do this. Immersion for me begins with learning a new language. Having a Mexican friend isn’t enough to claim you’re “immersed” in Mexican-American culture, but learning to speak Spanish and actually talking to Mexican-Americans in their native language brings you one step closer. I don’t speak Spanish (yet), but I did learn to speak fluent German.
My German professor in college told us that when you learn a new language, it’s like a person hands you a key to a door you were never able to open before. He was completely right. It’s exhilarating. Once you get over the initial shyness and embarrassment of making mistakes when speaking a foreign language, you discover the gratifying joy of speaking to people you couldn’t communicate with before.
In October, I was riding home from work on BART when two German girls sat in front of me. This wasn’t the first time I had heard German since returning home from Austria, but this time I decided I’d actually strike up a conversation with them. I didn’t have anything to lose. It turned out one of the girls was married to an American and lived in San Leandro. I couldn’t believe it. MY San Leandro??? This coincidence was too big to ignore and I gave her my number even though I knew this whole interaction would raise a thousand warning flags if one were to do the same thing in Germany. I’m happy I did–that German girl and her husband are now good friends of ours–the kind of friends where you feel like you’ve known them for much longer than you actually have.
The best way I’ve found of coping with living in my hometown again–an obvious downgrade from Vienna–has been by exploring it and the greater Bay Area as if I were an outsider. A lot has changed in the Bay Area in the last six years, thanks (and no thanks) to the tech boom, but don’t get me started on that. This blog is my motivation to get out of the house and never stop exploring. Playing “local tourist” is almost as much fun as being an actual tourist.
Now, the pictures. Miri and I decided to start off the first of our restaurant series with Desco, an Italian restaurant on 9th Street in Downtown Oakland. Miri and I couldn’t believe it when we came across this restaurant–“Desco” is my mother-in-law’s nickname, which Miri and his twin deemed her when they were children. Little did any of us know, the word translates to “dinner table” in Latin, which makes perfect sense for a restaurant (and, actually, for Desco the person, seeing as she’s an excellent cook). The building dates back to 1876 and part of the original tile flooring still remains. The restaurant’s ambience is warm and almost European. We made our reservation online and were seated in the back corner of the restaurant, tucked away from the wind on this rainy Thursday in March.
Miri and I both ordered the Tagliata NY Steak–his prepared rare and mine prepared medium–served with baby potatoes, rucola salad, and volcanic salt. I’m not much of a food critic, but I thought it was delicious. For dessert, we ordered the panna cotta and warm chocolate cake with coffee sauce.
We are eager to come here again with Miri’s parents when they visit in September. Maybe sharing the same name as the restaurant is worthy of a free dessert 😉