Thursday, March 07, 2013

Happy Year of the Snake!

I was born and raised in California, and I've always been happy about that. It's different here. I didn't realize this growing up, but culturally we're a lot more influenced by Mexico and Latin America and Asia than most other parts of the US (though this may be changing -- I take it you actually can get decent Mexican food in the Deep South these days!).

Chinese culture has been a part of California culture since the Gold Rush, and that influence has only gotten stronger in the last few decades with the huge influx of Mainlanders up and down the coast. Forget Chinatown--in Los Angeles we have an entire China Valley, a suburban sprawl of Chinese restaurants and businesses that includes Monterey Park, the US city with the highest percentage of Chinese Americans and just about any kind of Chinese cuisine you'd like, as good and authentic as anything on the mainland.

But I doubt if there's anywhere in the US where the Chinese influence is more bound up in a city's culture than San Francisco.

I love it. I've been staying in Outer Sunset, an area where many more recent Chinese immigrants have settled. There's a restaurant not far from here called "Mandarin Islamic," or in Chinese, “老 北京,” which actually translates to "Old Beijing," specializing in Northern Chinese cuisine, including my favorites, 羊肉串儿 and 孜然羊肉。Delicious! It's like Beijing, without the air pollution.

Tonight was a big night in San Francisco, the official Chinatown parade and festival to celebrate the Year of the Snake. And watching the parade, I really got a sense for how deeply rooted Chinese culture is in the civic culture here.

The Chinatown festival was a little disappointing. Lots of booths selling phone accessories and stamps and advertising cars, banks and other businesses, and not nearly enough snacks! Where were the dumplings? I was so craving dumplings. I retreated to the Comstock Saloon and had an Anchor Steam and a Po' Boy.

But I decided to stick around for the parade, and I'm glad that I did.

There were marching bands, and cable cars and vintage autos carrying local politicos. There were dragon dancers, and lion dancers. Lots of them.

Sponsored by elementary schools, high schools, martial arts organizations, businesses, government agencies. 

What I found particularly charming were the numbers of non-ethnically Chinese people who participated. Little blonde kids with Peking Opera makeup, Latino and black teens underneath the lions and dragons, big tall Anglo dads and moms walking behind the groups as chaperones, everyone setting off firecrackers and waving fuzzy toy snakes on a stick. 

It's a Chinese tradition, to be sure. But it felt like everyone in San Francisco's celebration.

I think it's what I love best about California. That we have this amazing wealth of tradition and culture here, and it's a bounty that we all can share. 

Maybe it's what I love about America, too. 

I think my favorite marchers may have been the Southwest Airlines ground crew following their float: 

After the parade, I caught the Muni back to Outer Sunset. My iPhone ran out of juice, or I would have gotten more and better photos. But waiting on the platform were a bunch of marchers from the parade.

Parents who'd been stilt-walkers, dressed in embroidered Chinese jackets and character costumes, civic workers carrying banners and 3-D cardboard signs of Muni trains, kids with their opera makeup and animal costumes. It was pretty damn cool.

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