The other day I was in downtown Oakland for a job interview. Afterwards I spent a good amount of time walking around, re-tracing old memories, seeing what has changed, and exploring it’s relatively moribund yet easygoing Chinatown, overshadowed by the much more famous one across the bay.

Oakland really is the quintessential American city, all wrapped up in one, bizarre piece.  You have your ultra-wealthy, and your dirt-poor.  Extreme nobility, extreme violence, extreme mixing of every possible group.  What’s more American than a disheveled black guy ordering Cantonese-American food in front of a sign in all capital letters that probably hasn’t been cleaned in a decade?  What’s more American than punks, hippies, heavily armored police officers, professorial types, young students, all colors, wandering about on sprawling streets occasionally bicycle and public-transit friendly?  What’s more American than tension, explosion, and release?

While San Francisco is the utopian American-Asian-European fusion city, a sweet and potent muse whom I love and crave (in the proper doses), Oakland both frightens me and intrigues me, and there’s something to it’s rough, take-it-as-you-will character that is a fuller composite of the strengths and weaknesses facing this country.  The pure capitalist efficiency and freedom that brings Northern Chinese arguing in front of Southeast Asian shops, Jamaicans haggling over mangos in Chinatown, a sad-faced Eritrean cleaning the floor of a diner, faux-edgy z-gen Viet kids just wandering, a strange medley of shades, vagrants, and shop-keepers from every land, and too many tacos to count.  It’s easy to fall in love with San Francisco.  Oakland’s charms are more…subtle.  Though they might just be more gangster.

Chinatown is a different place to me now than that I can speak and read Chinese decently.  Sure, everyone’s still from Guangdong, but a lot of them (not all) would still rather communicate in Mandarin than English.  It opens doors.  While rummaging for cheap but still drinkable teas in random shops, confirming to one of the shopkeepers that a certain pu-er was relatively cooked, information only accessible by reading the characters (and now that I think about it, I’m not sure there were any English labels to begin with, yet my mind has reached the point where it stops noticing that and simply reads), upgraded me from “be careful, don’t break that,” to smiles, conversation (mainly about poking fun of how Taiwanese people talk), and an egg tart that had just come out of the oven.

In Zen Baggage, Bill Porter writes fondly of his days in Taiwan as a refuge which allowed him to lounge around in hot springs all day on Yangmingshan while translating ancient Chinese poetry.  He cites an anonymous ancient yogi: “The easiest way to achieve enlightenment is to leave your country.”

I remembered that quote the entire time I was in Taiwan, and it was probably part of why it was one of the few books I took with me.  For a long time, I thought it meant: the point of entering a different world with fresh eyes is the enlightenment, as I had previously experienced while traveling.  But I didn’t find this to be the case in Taiwan; at least not often enough.  Unlike Bill, I found Taiwan more often to be a point of frustration, and self-limiting, benign boredom.  It’s only after returning home that I have understood that it isn’t the going that was the enlightenment for me; it was the going and coming back that has opened those doors for me, and allowed me to see the familiar with fresh eyes, but with the added benefit of successive accumulation and re-analysis–pruning.

And herein lies my homage to Oakland: Even places with plenty of crappiness seem great after spending 8 months living somewhere way crappier.  That is my enlightenment.



(This picture was taken in San Francisco)