Strolling through San Francisco Chinatown was like walking down memory lane. Since graduating from Berkeley, I’ve always left a bit of my heart (dimsum) in San Francisco Chinatown where I had numerous meals with my uncles, aunts and cousins and late night snacks with dates and lovers.
Growing up as a new immigrant from Hong Kong, my parents had taught us to distinguish ourselves from the Chinatown Chinese who were unfashionable and unhip. But that has never deterred me from falling in love with every Chinatown that I have visited.
Somehow it feels like time has stood still in Chinatown. I’ve often found that because Chinatowns were cut off from Hong Kong or China, the Chinese in Chinatowns have preserved certain slices of Chinese culture and food even more authentically than the modern Chinese in the mainland. Essentially it’s the phenomenon of colonial lag.
After having a delicious brunch of Shanghai dumplings and noodles with my ex-boyfriend and his husband, I sauntered toward Portsmouth Square, the heart of San Francisco Chinatown, filled with locals playing chess and singing Chinese opera, to wait for Uncle Joe who was making his way out from a halfway home in Richmond.
I was dreading to see Uncle Joe because the last time I saw him in Chinatown several years ago I got so depressed afterward. That was before he went into treatment for being bipolar.
Uncle Joe is my mom’s youngest sibling, and my cousin Tien, an MD, and I both believe that our family’s trait of personality disorder has passed from my grandmother to him and then to my youngest sister in our generation. While Uncle Joe was diagnosed as bipolar or manic-depressive, my youngest sister was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Both Tien and I know that we have all inherited a certain trait of personality disorder. We get mood swings and depressed every now and then, but we’re mostly functional. Ironically, this very trait also helps us to think out of the box and to be creative.
I remember Uncle Joe and I were sitting in a Chinatown café several years ago and he was telling me how he saw spirits and he thought that everyone was plotting against him. He needed help, and he was very depressed. But ironically, many things he said felt true. I just remember taking the bus back to my hotel that day and I was totally depressed. For a day, I was drawn into his dark world. Eventually, Uncle Joe started hearing voices that kept telling him to kill himself and he checked himself into a mental institution.
The night before, my cousin Crystal was urging me to see Uncle Joe as he told Crystal that he wanted to see me. As I waited for Uncle Joe in the park, I stood next to the Farlun Gong practitioners and tried to learn a few moves. The practitioners looked at me and wondered what I was doing. And then Uncle Joe showed up with a smile on his face.
In his late 50s, Uncle Joe had gained a little fullness on his cheeks, but he was still in a good shape. There was a brightness on his face that I missed since I had known him as a kid. All my dread melted away as he started talking. He was energetic. He was intelligent. And he was on meds.
We walked to a Chinatown café and sat down to chat. We did exactly what we did several years ago… talked about family and our recent endeavors. He spoke truthfully about his life and he seemed content and positive. Even when he spoke about his distant and difficult relationship with another uncle, he spoke with dignity, honesty and was blame free.
When we walked out of the café, he reminded me of the best of Uncle Joe that I remembered as a kid. We parted and I drove back to Mike and Daniel’s place for a nap.
Just as I was about to leave San Francisco again, I got a message from Uncle Joe telling me that I had left my sunglasses at the Chinatown café that we just ate at. How did he know? Apparently he ate there almost every day and the waitress told him. I drove back to the café and retrieved my sunglasses right before I drove off onto the highway back to Los Angeles.
See you again, San Francisco!